The murder of freelance journalist Steven Vincent a year ago today made international headlines. Vincent was in Basra, completing research on his second book. He broke the story about Shia death squads; ironically, this may be what led to his death at their hands.
Vincent was special. Many journalists parachuted into Iraq, talked to a handful of established contacts, and spent more time in the Green Zone than out and about. Their accounts might have been best-sellers, but they were riddled with mistakes and superficiality. Vincent’s first book, In the Red Zone, in contrast, stands the test of time. To understand Iraq, it is the best book yet published.
But Vincent did not work alone. His assistant and translator, Nour al-Khal, was a constant companion who helped him decipher the Iraqi enigma. Many authors relegate their interpreters and guides to the background. In Baghdad, I met a reporter for a major British broadsheet who wrote his stories, and then sent his interpreter out to get quotes to fit. Vincent and Nour did no such thing. Vincent treated Nour as an equal. She was a strong woman. She was kidnapped along with Vincent and watched as the death squad shot him multiple times before turning their guns on her, leaving her for dead. A New York Times article published two days after Vincent’s death talked of the crime scene. Vincent was dead, but Nour miraculously survived her wounds. “Pick me up, what are you waiting for?” a witness said a blood-stained Nour told police as they arrived on the scene.
What unfolded next is both unfortunate and characteristic of U.S. attitudes toward Iraq and Iraqis. After a night under police protection at a hospital in Basra, U.S. personnel transferred her to a hospital in the Green Zone. The FBI held Nour as a witness for three months while they investigated Vincent’s murder. She provided what assistance she could. When asked of her future plans, she spoke of wishing to finish Vincent’s book. She said she hoped to travel to the United States briefly to speak to a publisher. The FBI told her that she could never get a visa. They never even gave her the opportunity to have a visa interview. They dumped her penniless outside the Green Zone gates, far from her city.
Nour escaped Iraq. After I wrote of her plight on International Women’s Day, several junior diplomats sought to help her get a visa. But State Department bureaucracy strangled them. Nour had fled Iraq, and the U.S. embassy near where she took refuge refused to interview Iraqis. They asked she return to Baghdad for her interview. But given her cavalier treatment at the hands of the embassy in Baghdad — and the fact that embassy gates are watched and those who cross checkpoints targets for assassination — she refused. They State Department was unable to coordinate between two U.S. embassies, and the diplomats in Baghdad soon lost interest. Those who know Nour have not.
Nour’s experience is a metaphor for U.S. policy toward Middle Eastern liberals. Bush’s rhetoric may be sincere, but the track record of his White House is to use Arab liberals, but eschew any long-term commitment. Just as George H. W. Bush once called upon Iraqis to rise up and throw off the dictator Saddam — only to abandon those who heeded his call to Iraqi gun ships — so too does his son cast aside those who heeded his calls for a better future through democracy and civil society. That self-described realists and their European fellow travelers celebrate such betrayal reflects poorly on the West. Policy and principle need not be mutually exclusive.