Hannah Allam is Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder newspapers. Her news organization was in attendance for the handover amid confusion, misdirection and some conspicuous absences, notably the pan-Arab satellite channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
HANNAH ALLAM: Yes. What struck me was - I didn't notice a large presence of Arab reporters at, either at the government center or later that day. In fact, I had been at the government center all day long. Finally got off; went to a restaurant here in Baghdad and, at that time, there was the swearing in ceremony for the new government, and I was watching with a restaurant full of Iraqis who were just hearing the news that the occupation was over for the first time at 3:00 p.m. when the actual ceremony occurred at around 10 in the morning.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you a what if question. Much of the imagery from the war and the occupation has genuinely been indelible -- the statue of Saddam being toppled, Saddam getting his teeth checked after he was captured, and Lynndie England clowning in front of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison. Do you think that had the ceremony taken place as had been planned that the images coming from it would have had that kind of enduring resonance or do you think that it would have just been dismissed by Iraqis as just another stage-managed moment by the Americans as they hand over the reins to a puppet regime?
HANNAH ALLAM: Well, many Iraqis have described this as not being the historic moment that many in the U.S. administration have described this, I mean this is a country with a very, very long history of takeovers and regime changes and--to them, this is sort of a blip in a timeline that extends thousands of years. I mean obviously the images of Ambassador Bremer as he got on a military plane and started to leave the country, you know, were welcomed by Iraqis. At the same time they were very quickly replaced by images of continued U.S. air strikes in Fallujah, and the hospital scenes of children and women in bloodied clothes, and those were really the images that are played ad nauseum on Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera and other pan-Arab satellite stations.
BOB GARFIELD: So what I'm asking is: as a lost media opportunity, probably not that big a one after all?
HANNAH ALLAM: Probably not.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to talk to you about the events on Thursday -- Saddam Hussein appearing before an Iraqi court to face charges of war crimes among others. It's been getting wall to wall coverage on the 24 hour news cable stations in the United States. What's happening in the Arab world?
HANNAH ALLAM: It was a huge story. People here were glued to their TVs, when there was electricity. There have been a lot of talking heads on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, and they have focused on sort of attacking the foundation of the tribunal itself -- you know, whether these people were appointed by Americans and how equipped they were to offer a fair trial for Saddam Hussein. At the same time if we're talking about missed media opportunities -- the U.S.-funded Iraqi satellite channel Al Iraqiya, I turned it on thinking that this channel of all channels would certainly have major Saddam coverage, and the time of the evening newscast, they actually were broadcasting a woman in a glittering evening gown introducing a band. [LAUGHTER] It was some sort of variety show. One thing I found interesting was that, unlike CNN and the BBC who focus solely on Saddam, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera in particular gave equal coverage to the other former regime members whose names are much more known here in the Arab world. People were just as interested to see what Tariq Aziz had to say, for example, and one of these other 11 former regime members. I remember, Al Jazeera, you know, they focused on him cracking his knuckles in court. That kind of detail you didn't see on CNN or BBC.
BOB GARFIELD: Like Captain Queeg with the steel balls in his hands as he falls apart on the witness stand. [LAUGHTER] Very cinematic.
HANNAH ALLAM: Absolutely. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: These men in Saddam's regime and Saddam himself were feared and loathed for a couple of decades, and now they are in the dock, as a result of this vastly unpopular war and occupation. And I'm curious if you're detecting in the media any ambivalence now about the occupation of war that is so universally despised as well.
HANNAH ALLAM: You know, that seems to be a fact that escapes [LAUGHS] a lot of the commentators that I've seen on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Both networks have done a good job documenting the abuses suffered under Saddam Hussein by the Iraqi people, and now they're playing the trial big, but the sort of event in between is this unpopular war, and there's no question as to how that was received in the Arab world. People say, you know, we're happy that Saddam Hussein is gone, but that's no excuse for a prolonged occupation and for what many view as what will be the carving up of the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: Hannah, as always, thank you very much.
HANNAH ALLAM: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Hannah Allam is Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder newspapers. [MUSIC]