BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since the official end of major combat operations in Iraq, close to 80 American soldiers have been killed in hostile incidents. Almost daily news seems to come of another fatality. This week the New York Times reported that 4400 people are being held as, quote, "security detainees" in connection with the continuing skirmishes in Iraq. But in the same day's paper, unnamed Defense Department officials were quoted as saying "The most formidable foes in Iraq aren't the diehard seekers of martyrdom but rather ordinary Iraqis who are increasingly resentful of the U.S. occupation." So who exactly is the enemy? Hannah Allam is a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In late August and early September she went behind the lines of Iraqis determined to defeat the Americans. Hannah, welcome to the show.
HANNAH ALLAM: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there something about this conflict in particular and the media coverage of it that motivated you to do this story?
HANNAH ALLAM: Well I think in, in other conflicts in the Middle East we've seen, you know, reports from inside Hezbollah, from inside Hamas, from inside other opposition groups -- this is so recent and it's really sort of a faceless opposition. So that fascinated me -- who are these people - why are they doing this and, and how do they think they can win against a superpower?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me about how you finally managed to get access to these people.
HANNAH ALLAM:Well it was really difficult. As soon as I arrived in Iraq, I asked some fixers I was working with to make some inroads, and they laughed at me. [LAUGHS] Maybe because they -I guess they just didn't think it was possible or that it was too dangerous. But they went to work on it, and-- weeks later we heard back from this particular group. There were several more days of negotiations on conditions for the meeting, and we made conditions of our own up front -- we are not paying for any interview -- we don't want to know about any attacks in advance -- we don't want to accompany you on any attacks -- we just want to hear about why you do what you do. And then one day we received a date and time, and-- we just went!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Once your contacts had arranged the meeting, it sounds as if they were completely willing to tell you their stories, and, and they didn't try to hide much from you at all!
HANNAH ALLAM: I was really, really surprised and pleased that we got the access we did, because seeing them, especially at the camp, hanging laundry on pomegranate trees and picking dates together, swimming in the canal -- it was just-- fascinating. I, I would never have pictured that. And certainly they were very candid in their words, describing the attacks, describing their ideology and their plans for the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that the fact that you are an Arab-American may have offered a measure of protection?
HANNAH ALLAM:I think so. They even said that, actually. And-- I think it made it easier both in getting the interview and, and it made for a more comfortable atmosphere during the interview. The photographer and I went of course in hijab in the scarf and in abaya, the long black robe, so we were covered up. We were respectful. We just really sort of wanted to be the, the gray people -- not causing any trouble -- not-- doing anything that would alarm them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How would you define the group that you finally got in contact with?
HANNAH ALLAM:This group was a mixture of foreign fighters. I personally met a Jordanian. But there were also Afghans, Palestinians, Egyptians and I think Lebanese as well. And then remnants of the Arab unit of the Fedayeen Saddam. And there were also just young Iraqis who were angry about raids on their relatives' homes or civilian deaths or at friends' detentions --things like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now there are a lot of American journalists out there who as Americans would have a hard time reporting objectively on people whose mission is to kill U.S. soldiers! But you had an even more personal involvement with this story.
HANNAH ALLAM: Yes. My brother's a sergeant in the Marine Corps; an Arabic linguist. And we were in Iraq for some of the same time. Certainly he was on my mind every step of the way, and I guess the most chilling moment for me was leaving and being led back onto the main road when the cell leader had broken off the interview to go on an attack, as he said, and-- and we heard the explosion and the two men in the front seat looked at each other and smiled. And I was just really sad at that moment, and, and thinking you know how, how that could have been my brother. And I have another brother who's also in the Marine Corps and was in Afghanistan in the war on terror, so I've, I've actually got two brothers who look like these guys, whose names are like these guys, and yet they're enemies, you know, and it was just-- it was hard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you talked to your brothers about this story?
HANNAH ALLAM:Not yet. I've-- I've gotten an e-mail from one of them and, and he said "good job. You're crazy, but I'm glad you're back okay." [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Speaking of crazy -- to what extent did the spectre of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl hang over your head? I mean he went off in the company of people who he had ample reason to doubt -- and he was killed!
HANNAH ALLAM: You know-- he was on our mind the entire time. From the first phone call till the sigh of relief when we left. And I'm sure he was on the minds of my editors as well. And-- and the third time we went to meet with them, my editor said "It's just too risky -- we're tempting fate -- you can't go." We talked a long time, and in the end they said "Go ahead. Do a third interview." The middle man who, who we'd been working disappeared without a trace; his wife was frantic. We still haven't heard whatever happened to him. So a third meeting -- it was planned but aborted, and-- I can only say thank goodness now. Because who knows what happened to that guy?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What kind of a response have you gotten from readers?
HANNAH ALLAM:Overwhelmingly positive, although there have been a few e-mails that were very critical. One man wrote that these men were misguided, brainwashed, and that "I only hope that you don't feel some journalistic responsibility to not reveal the location of the camp. If that means in the future no journalist will be safe interviewing members of the terrorist opposition, then so be it. Maybe it's best they aren't interviewed anyway." That e-mail was the one that bothered me the most I guess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you ever for a moment doubt what you were doing?
HANNAH ALLAM:I really don't have any ethical misgivings at all about this story, and I know my editors support me in that, which was really a relief. Because I do know that this angered some people; they've called me a traitor. But then again I've gotten an e-mail from a Lutheran chaplain in Minnesota who said thank you -"thank you for putting a face on this problem that U.S. soldiers face every day in Iraq -actually 12 to 14 times a day they're attacked - and I think that we'd all be better off by knowing who's doing this and why."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hannah, thank you very much.
HANNAH ALLAM: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Hannah Allam is a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. This week she returned from 8 weeks in Iraq as a correspondent for the Knight-Ridder Foreign Press. [MUSIC]