Front row to history (SMH, AU)

(Note: The PBS episode of The Insurgency is airing this week in Australia.
Much of this article is compiled of quotes from elsewhere but there is a bit that is new.)

An Australian reporter in Iraq reveals a complex battleground, writes Jacqui Taffel.

During the three years he has lived in Iraq, Australian journalist Michael Ware has become familiar with death. Friends and colleagues have been killed - most recently two members of a CBS news crew.

US soldiers whom he has followed on the front line have died and his own life has been threatened. "There have been three occasions that I know of through my translators where I've been sitting in a room and my execution has been discussed around me," he says.

As Time magazine's Baghdad bureau chief, Ware took this kind of risk to cover all sides of the war. He accompanied US forces into the battles of Tal Afar and Fallujah and met former Iraqi army commanders who formed the initial resistance to the US-led invasion. And he has tracked the influence of external anti-American forces, in particular al-Qaeda and Iran.

In The Insurgency, a timely documentary made by US public network PBS, Ware helps explain who is doing what to whom. The Americans and their allies are fighting three wars, he says. "One is against al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups among the Iraqis; then there's the war against the self-identifying nationalists, Saddam's old military apparatus; then there's this covert engagement with Iran and its proxies and allies in Iraq."

It's a war that, as one American commander puts it, "I can't lose militarily, but I can't win." Even more disturbing is the Iraqi army commander who predicts carnage if coalition forces leave and insurgency groups turn on each other. Horrific civil war seems unavoidable. All parties in Iraq recognise this, Ware says. "America has crossed a threshold from which it now cannot return. Whether people were for or against the war, it's now too late for America to withdraw."

Ware's closest brush with death illustrates the tension between the two main insurgency groups: the nationalists, who want their country back, and the Islamic militants, until recently led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who are using Iraq as their base in a global holy war. Investigating reports that Zarqawi's men had taken over one of Baghdad's main streets, Ware was pulled from his car and prepared for execution. Death seemed certain but the nationalists with him argued with his captors, who released him.

Since the documentary was made, the situation has remained fluid between these two groups, Ware says. "The pendulum that swings between al-Qaeda domination of the insurgency and local domination, that's constantly moving backwards and forwards."

The killing of Zarqawi last week means it may swing back towards the nationalist insurgents. Ware believes the al-Qaeda leader was betrayed partly because of his extreme combat methods, including using suicide bombers to kill Iraqi civilians. His legacy, Ware says, will be demonstrated by the pattern of future suicide bombings - "whether they continue at the same rate and what kind of targets they hit''.

Whether al-Qaeda's attacks turn from civilian to military targets, the war in Iraq will continue, and the militant group will continue to hold one great advantage. In The Insurgency, Iraqi photo-journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad describes a Yemeni fighter who missed his wife and children but rejected his own tears as the work of the devil, tempting him away from jihad. "One of the most powerful weapons on a battlefield is a man prepared to die," Ware says. "For them, death is not a means. Death is an end. It's what they want."

Ware is taking time out in his hometown, Brisbane, but will soon be back in Iraq in a new role as CNN's Baghdad correspondent. What compels him to return? "I've had good Iraqi friends, members of my staff, journalists, kidnapped, one of whom was tortured - for me. We've been bombed. We've been shot at. It's very hard to walk away from brothers like that. What do you say: 'Well, thank you. Good luck. I'm off now and if any of you survive this drop me a line'? That's very hard."

And the story needs to be told, Ware says, because the Iraq war represents a historic turning point. He likens it to the beginnings of a new cold war. "It's as though we have a front-row ticket to history," he says. "The implications of this war are going to reverberate for years and years to come."