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BBC bureau chief talks about Iraq and American politics

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By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Even in Baghdad, Adi Raval couldn’t escape talk of the U.S. democratic primary. Back in August, when the BBC Baghdad bureau chief was working in Iraq, he found himself all too often answering Iraqis’ questions about the nominees’ campaign rhetoric about pulling out the troops.

“These people watch television, they read newspapers, American blogs,” Raval said in a talk at Middlebury College on Thursday. “They’re probably, in a lot of ways, more tuned in to what’s going on with American politics than most of us are. Because in a lot of ways, the election here matters more to them than it does to ordinary Americans.”

Although he currently is a producer for the BBC at the White House, Raval has been stationed in Baghdad three times since 2004. From his post in the Green Zone, the 1998 Middlebury College graduate and San Francisco native has watched the best and the worst of America play out side by side, he told a standing-room-only audience last week.

During the spring of 2004, when he was deputy bureau chief for ABC News, Raval was one of only a handful of journalists who watched the American Coalition Provisional Authority hand back sovereignty to the Iraqi people.

“The ceremony itself was in some ways emblematic of how the major of military operations were carried out,” Raval said. “It was rushed, it wasn’t very well thought out.”

On that 120-degree day in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, the pro-council of the U.S. government at the time, stood in his L.L. Bean hiking boots and handed a legal contract to the Iraqi vice president and interim chief justice of the Iraqi High Court.

Raval clutched his satellite phone, ready to break the news to the world that Americans had returned sovereignty to the Iraqi government. 

“It seemed to me at the time that Iraq was going to turn a page,” he said. Saddam Hussein had just been captured and he would make his first court appearance later that day.

Raval watched as the Iraqi flag was raised and the American flag was taken down, and he believed the Americans had done the right thing.

Still, there was something wrong with the way it was carried out, he said. The ceremony wasn’t carried live by any television stations and no Iraqi media outlets made it there. Raval found himself informing Iraqis later that day about what had just happened in their own country.

“The Iraqis could not experience that moment for themselves,” he said. “I saw their inevitable turn in history before they did.”

What initially brought Raval to Iraq was the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. Shortly after the news broke that American soldiers had allegedly been torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners, Raval traveled in an armored bus from Baghdad to the Abu Ghraib prison.

When he arrived, the Americans had wiped the prison clean, he said.

“There were no bloodstains, there were no hoods, there were no ropes or handcuffs,” he said. “They were trying to create a different image than what was already in the press.”

Later, when Raval attended the court marshal hearings for the soldiers alleged to have participated in the torture, he listened to them give testimony that they believed what they had done was just part of military operations as usual.

“I was ashamed as an American to hear this kind of vitriol,” he said.

Raval recalled noticing that the Baghdad convention center, where the trials took place, was only 500 meters away from the building where the handover of sovereignty had just occurred and he saw the handwork of Americans in both places.

“When you are an American in Iraq you see the best in (what) our country (has done), but you also see some of our country’s darkest moments,” he said.

The Iraqi people are all too aware of this paradox.

“Above all else, what I’ve heard from Iraqis is … how can a country responsible for Abu Ghraib also provide the soldiers who are defending my neighborhood against al-Qaeda or just ordinary criminals?” he said.

What the Iraqis told Raval they want from the Americans more than anything else is a clearer sense of U.S. resolve. “They want to know how patient we are in reference to continuing this war in Iraq,” he said.

And they want Americans not to forget Iraq when they cast their votes in the presidential election this November.

“They didn’t have a chance to witness first-hand the beginning of their new future back in 2004, they didn’t have a chance to confront or even see the Abu Ghraib soldiers, and I think they will have little or no say in a lot of ways with how their future revolves,” Raval said. “That is for American democracy, not for Iraqi democracy to decide.”

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