Earlier today, I started a quest to see if the New York Times was really causing problems in Iraq. First of all the story is real. I have made contact with Ghayda Al Ali, the woman who wrote the original letter, and obtained more information from her. After her first letter to the New York Times, she was contacted by Susan Sachs, the New York Times’ Baghdad Bureau Chief. Glenn Reynolds was also able to verify the story through one of his sources who stated the NYT Baghdad bureau chief was working with 'em to fix this.
This story is fascinating and not just because of the Times story. It provides great insight into how some Iraqi citizens view the world. In a day or so I expect some newspapers to provide a brief mention of this story. Since I do not have to please an editor nor deal with physical space limitations, I will post a record of all correspondence between Miss Ghayda Al Ali and the New York Times.
The first letter to the New York Times.
Chairman and Publisher
The New York Times
November 15, 2003
I am writing you on an issue of immediate concern.
My name is Ghayda Al Ali. While I am from Iraq, I am currently visiting the United States. As you can understand I am very interested in events back home. There is a most disturbing situation there which you should be aware of as your paper is an involved party.
My family has a property in the green zone in down town Baghdad on Abi-Nuas street. The New York Times rents the adjacent property. For several weeks now my brother Ali Al Ali has been denied automobile access to our property by security guards. Until two days ago we thought this was a coalition security measure. Now we known these guards are not coalition personal but are instead the private security force employed by your news paper.
The family property has two store fronts. Yesterday (Saturday November 15, 2003) my brother and two hired men were in one of the stores installing shelves. My brother lost his livelihood in the war and needs to open this store to make a living. His efforts were interrupted by several of the security guards employed by your paper. He was knocked roughly to the floor and threatened. Your guards pointed there AK-47 rifles and my brother and his work men and told them they would be shot if they did not leave immediately.
I feel sure if[you] learned the United States Army was responsible an incident such as this you would feel obligated to publish the story and condemn the act. In this his case I respectfully suggest you have an obligation to do somewhat more. [Boldness added]
My family needs full use of its lawful property. This means no interference of any type to access to the building. Your guards also block access of potential customers to this business location. While mindful of the security requirements of your Baghdad employees I believe they do not completely supercede our legal right to use our property.
I hope this is a simple misunderstanding that you can correct quickly. My family hopes yet to have The New York Times as a good neighbor. I urge you to contact me or my brother quickly as an indication of your good faith. I can be reached at the email address DELETED. Ask for Ghayda (pronounced Ride-dah). I will provide an email address for my brother upon hearing from you.
I will follow up this email with a letter to your office sent by United States Postal Service.
Please look into this matter quickly.
Ghayda Al Ali
The New York Times did respond to Ms. Al Ali.
Dear Ms. Al Ali:
I am the Bureau Chief in Baghdad for The New York Times, and it's our house/office on Abu Nawwas Street that your letter to the newspaper addressed.
We do indeed employ guards for our house. As you may or may not know, UNICEF has completely blocked access to the street at the north end and the Sheraton Hotel and U.S. military have completely blocked access at the south end. The French Embassy, as well as BBC and Reuters, have blocked access from the one other side street, where your brother's house is located.
Because of these roadblocks, and new security measures at UNICEF put in place after the terrible suicide car bombing at the International Committee for the Red Cross, we were left two weeks ago with no one checking cars that bypassed the U.N. and drove over the curb onto our street.
Anyone could pass with missiles or car bombs meant for the Sheraton or Palestine Hotels, and it is possible they could as well target The New York Times, the French Embassy, Reuters and BBC. Such an event would doubtless destroy your brother's house as well.
To have acces[sic] to our house, therefore, we have cleared a dirt path from the main street, cutting behind the trees and up to the street near our house. We have cleared a parking area in the field next to the street for visitors. We have posted a guard at the point where the dirt path meets Abu Nawwas.
We now have that guard check all cars -- and that includes New York Times cars with New York Times staff inside -- to protect ourselves against car bombs, kidnappings and other criminal acts.
Current intelligence indicates that suicide car bombs, like those that killed and maimed so many Iraqis over the past weeks, remain the principal threat to "soft targets" such as ourselves and our neighbors. Looting also remains a problem and, I might point out, our guards now provide the only security for your brother's house.
In addition, beginning at about 5 p.m., we are the only inhabited building on the street, requiring us to put on extra guards at night.
I should also tell you -- and perhaps you could inform your brother -- that only three weeks ago, a car was parked just in front of his house that was suspected of carrying explosives. Two teams of bomb-sniffing dogs reacted to that car; Army explosives experts had to be called to investigate.
I write all this to give you a picture of what the neighborhood is like these days, through no fault of your brother's, of course, but also through no fault of our own. As you know, your brother's house is uninhabited day and night. When he drove in the other day to check on it, he was stopped on the dirt road entrance to the street by our guard. When he explained that he was the owner of the house, the guard called my office manager and our on-site British security advisor.
They explained to him the security concerns. But, in an effort to accommodate a neighbor, they said he could park his car in the lot next to the guard post and not have it checked. The distance from the parking lot to his house is perhaps 100 feet at most.
Your brother agreed, and then gunned his car and charged past the guard onto the street, driving straight toward our house. This behavior naturally alarmed our guards and staff. My office manager ran toward your brother's car and told him to move it away from the house immediately. T hey argued and got into a shoving match. Our professional security contractor and other witnesses say that NO gun was ever pointed at your brother's head or any other part of his body. What happened was an argument and shoving, in reaction to our alarm over your brother's behavior.
Nevertheless, I have gone to your brother's house several times since the incident to speak to him and explain why we are doing what we are doing. I wanted to see if we could work out an arrangement that would be acceptable to him for parking and access. I have never found him at home.
Please tell him that I am sorry the situation turned out as it did. I have cordial and cooperative relations with our other neighbors on the street, who actually occupy their building during the day and with whom we have worked out practical solutions to the security and access issues.
Once again, the street is blocked by UNICEF, the French Embassy and the Sheraton Hotel, not by The New York Times. Indeed, we are providing the only security and access for ourselves and our neighbors. We would welcome the opportunity to work with your brother.
Very truly yours,
Here is a copy of Ghayda’s reply to Susan:
Dear Madam Susan,
Thank you very much indeed for your response.
As you can imagine I am have been very concerned about my family for several months. Consequently I am in nearly daily email contact with friends and family in Baghdad. I am not unaware of the security issues involved with living and doing business in the green zone.
Yes the house in uninhabited. Saddam took it from use when I was just a small girl. After the war we were blessed with having the title of the house returned to us. As my brother has lost his business in the war it is important that we regain some source of income form this property. We hope to rent the house or to re-open one of the stores. Both possibilities are restrained by the current security issues.
On this topic there are some differences in your story and what I have heard from my family. Ali, my brother does not have troubles with Reuters, BBC, or UNICEF, only the Guards identifying themselves as employed by the New York Times. The Reuters guards have actually been sympathic[sic] to my brother. The one clear area of difference is apparently the events last Friday or Saturday. I admit with the eight hour time difference there is some question here. In any event in an email I received here in Pennsylvania at noon EST he wrote that while working at the property with two workman a security guard pointed a rifle at him and said "If you move I will shoot you" My brother protested this threat was unlawful. The guard replied "Let the law protect you" and knocked my bother to the ground. The workmen stand as witnesses to this so it should be possible to verify this incident. [boldness added]
I believe it is quite possible you are not fully aware of the events in question. Surely any worker would be reluctant to admit the whole story.
We respect your right to suitable protection while working but I respectfully suggest your present security arrangements impose an undue hardship to those who live work and own property on Ad-Abu Nuas street. There are others on this street with problems similar to those of my brother. Many Iraqi families depend upon business in this formally vibrant business street to feed their families. you indeed have valid security concerns but others on Abu Nuas have other concerns beyond security.
You may say you have not heard of these concerns. This is quite possible also. Please remember until the united States arrived any claim of injustice, no matter how mild, carried with it the real possibility of a death sentence. When my brother reported this incident at the Al karda police station the place and the judge told him there was nothing they could do against a powerful American newspaper. You see old ideas instilled under the threat of death die hard. That is why I attempt to correct this injustice from America. Until your response my brother had no apparent recourse. I emailed him your email address and telephone number and asked him to contact you. He speaks only a bit of English so a translator will be needed. I will of course be happy to translate but with the added time delay.[boldness added]
My family has suffered in the war. I lost an older brother and a dearly loved sister-in-law in the aftermath of the fighting. My brother Ali has his leg severely injured and it is not healed. it is very important to me that this last injustice to my brother and my family be resolved.
I thank you again for your response and ask you continue to talk to myself and my brother. I feel sure we can solve our problems and move on to the restoration of our lives.
I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.
Ghayda Al Ali
Wow! Her letter brings home the fear in which most Iraqi lived under the terrible regime of Saddam. Imagine leaving under such oppression that even after the dictator has fled, your judges are so afraid of organizations with power that these officials say they can do nothing to enforce their citizens rights against the New York Times.
Here is a copy of Ms. Sachs’s reply to Mis Al Ali:
I am going out of Iraq for about a week so I won't be around if your brother comes by or calls.
I have again spoken to our guards and office manager, and they say they never entered the building. They stick by the story of the altercation at the car.
In any case, I remain concerned about the incident, whatever it was, and would like the chance to meet and assure your brother that we are good neighbors. If he comes by while I'm gone, the office manager is Basim, but I'll be back around Dec. 2.
Thanks and all the best,
Note the name of the office manager, Basim. This is very important. You will see why when you read Ms. Al Ali’s next email:
November 22, 2003
Thank you for your last email.
This afternoon I had a long voice over internet (VOIP) conversation with Ali. This has been the first time I spoke to my brother since the incident that initiated our correspondence and I now have a better idea of what happen and who was involved.
This is the story of the incident as I now know it.
Friday November 14th, about 1:30PM - Ali went to our property adjacent to your Baghdad office with two workmen. Per a previous understanding with your security guards he parked where they told him to park about 30m distance. He then walked to our property and entered the house with his two workmen. Up to this point Ali’s actions were with the knowledge and permission of your guards.
A few minutes later Basim arrived in front of the house and dressed down the guards for allowing Ali access. At this time Ali was inside our house and the guards and Basim were outside the house. The conversation was audible through the windows. Ali then came out to investigate the disturbance.
Basim began shouting at my brother. He used foul language. At some point Basim grabbed a rifle from a guard, pointed it at my brother’s head and said “I shoot you and shoot your car if I see you here again” Ali replied “There is no law that prevents my access to my property” While still holding the rife to my brothers head, Basim replied “Let the law protect you” and knocked my brother to the ground.
Basim concluded by stating “You Iraqis, there is no way to talk to you except by using force”[boldness added]
Ali turned to face your guards and said: “This is an insult to all Iraqis. Do you accept that?”
The guards responded negatively and told Ali to talk to you, Susan.
I give you a rather lengthy reproduction of the dialog of the incident in order to aid your investigation. Of course I was disturbed this afternoon to hear these details form my brother.
The good news if your guards did not participate in this incident as I first believed. I am also reassured the guards are ready to support my brother as witnesses to this incident. I am also pleased to hear your guards think highly enough of you to tell my brother to seek your help.
In response to your question, Bruce is indeed my friend. He is here in the other room as I write this. I did not know he wrote you but am not displeased he tried to help.
Ali returned with a lawyer on Monday November 17th to seek an appointment with you and learned you were out of town in Mousal. We now know you will be out of town until December 2nd. You understand, I am sure, it is not possible to ask Ali to come work out his differences with the New York Times with the man who promised to kill him if he returned.[boldness added]
From what I now understand, the guards who told you they did not threaten Ali, did not enter his property, and did not point a rifle at him are speaking the truth. But clearly there is still a problem to resolve and I respectfully suggest to you this problem cannot be delegated to Basim.
I feel this incident is sufficiently serious to prevent my willful acceptance of a two week delay in its resolution. Please make arrangements to deal with this problem, arrangements that do not involve Basim.
I remain available by email or by telephone call to the United States[phone number deleted]. Best time to call noon to 11 pm Eastern Standard time, Baghdad time would be 8:00 pm to 7:00 am. If you wish to call me I will not insist you get up in the middle of your night to do so. Please email me with the time you wish to place the call and I will make myself available to you.
As before thank you for your time.
Miss Ghayda Al Ali
So the New York Times Baghdad Bureau Chief recommends Miss Al Ali’s brother work out his differences with the very man who threatened his life. Reminds me of the New York Times’ editorials opposing the American liberation of Iraqi – after all, it is up to the Iraqis to resolve their leadership problems.
Ms. Sach replied when she returned, twelve days after Miss Al Ali’s email:
Didn't quite understand your message. As I had told you, I left Iraq for about a week and, as scheduled, I have just returned today. I would welcome a visit from your brother to discuss the parking situation. I am not always at the office, of course, so he might want to call in advance. But I look forward to meeting him.
I think this is a careless response to an email that claims one of your managers threatened the life of someone who is trying to meet you. Nevertheless, Miss Al Ali’s brother bravely met Ms. Sach in person today. Afterwards, he communicated the results with Miss Al Ali and my information is from her.
Ali, Miss Al Ali’s brother, stated that Susan (Ms. Sach) is now fully aware of his version of the events, but does not wish to pursue this any further. His impression is that she completely depends upon Basim and refused to consider any evidence against him. I tried to obtain more information about Basim. According to Miss Al Ali, Basim is Iraq, but she wonders if he also holds American Citizenship. He speaks English and Iraqi dialect very well. He works closely with the New York Times, although the exact relationship is unclear. Ali asked the NYT’s guards about Basim and was told he even hired them. Interestingly enough, a number of the guards have asked Ali to continue his efforts; it sounds like Basim rules by fear and will not be missed by his guards if he should be arrested.
Ali also met with Chief Paul Holton last week and was promised that the case will be heard in the Ministry of Justice soon. He also gave Ali papers which allows him to go to Abu Nuas Street. If you are wondering why the name Paul Holton sounds familiar, you may know of him by his blogger name.
To summarize, an Iraqi citizen claims to have been assaulted and threatened with death by an employee or agent of the New York Times. He appears to have witnesses. He brought this to the attention of the NYT Baghdad Bureau chief, who does not appear inclined to do anything about it. Chief Holton may be involved in ensuring this will go before the Ministry of Justice. Stay tuned for further developments.
Closing notes: In addition to emailing the New York branch of the New York Times, I emailed Ms. Sach and asked for her perspective. If she responds, I will post her perspective as well. I would like to thank Miss Al Ali for her time in putting this together and Glenn Reynolds for providing confirmation that there was indeed a story.