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Peter Arnett: A look back at Operation Desert Storm

January 16, 2001
11 a.m. EST
Peter Arnett, 1991  

Peter Arnett is a former CNN correspondent. He was one of three CNN reporters who broadcast continuous coverage of the first night of the Allied Forces' bombing of Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm.

CNN Moderator: You have spent your life covering war zones. What, if anything, was different about covering the Gulf War?

Peter Arnett: The Gulf War was the first to be live from both sides -- a unique moment in communications history. We not only had the American coalition side from press briefings and on-the-scene reports in the Gulf itself, that were themselves dramatic from all the CNN correspondents located there, but we also had it from the enemy side -- the enemy capital in Baghdad. For the two-month duration of the war we were able to make regular reports to an international audience, and it made it all very exciting for everyone.

Question from chat room: How censored did the media feel during the Gulf War?

Peter Arnett: The media with the coalition forces felt censored because they were not given easy access to the troops on the ground and were not able to go with the jet bombers bombing Baghdad. In Baghdad itself, the main form of censorship by the Iraqis was denying us visits to military areas and interviews with military personnel. So there was much frustration on the part of the American journalists.

On the other hand, we had open access to report freely on what we saw of the bombing destruction. And we could travel around the countryside. They did not allow us to talk about military equipment we saw, but we were able to discuss civilian problems and comment on the general atmosphere. Overall, I felt that the reporting experience on the Iraqi side was satisfying and informative.

Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre looks back at the air war and the lessons it holds for military leaders a decade later

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CNN Moderator: Ten years later, can you share with us a few of your most vivid memories of covering the Gulf War?

Peter Arnett: The most vivid were the first hours of the air war in which Baghdad was subjected to the most severe bombing in military history. We had a bird's-eye view of the whole event from the ninth floor of the Al-Rashid Hotel in the middle of Baghdad, which was where the media was staying. The bombing began at 2:30 a.m. Baghdad time on an absolute clear starry night. So we could see all the bombs exploding across the city. And it was incredibly dramatic. We had a big advantage in that our communications link to the CNN headquarters in Atlanta held up throughout this early phase of the bombing. So the three of us, Bernard Shaw, John Holliman and I, soon to be known as the Boys of Baghdad, were able to continuously report on what we were seeing.

Another factor in these opening hours of the war was that we were not subject to any censorship since the Iraqi government had clearly not prepared for the bombing as far as the media was concerned. So we openly reported on buildings destroyed, the morale of the capital, the whole atmosphere of a city under severe bombing attack without interference, and we did that for the first 17 hours of the air attacks. They were the most significant attacks of the whole war.

Question from chat room: What was the most frightening moment of your time spent in the hotel in Baghdad?

Peter Arnett: The most frightening moment was during the first hour of the bombing when the very high-powered American explosives destroyed office towers just a few blocks away from our hotel. The impact of the explosion and the heat swept through the open windows of our hotel room. Incidents like this prompted Bernard Shaw to comment on the air: "It feels like the center of hell." It was nerve-wracking to remain in the room but what motivated us to continue was the opportunity to talk to a worldwide audience about what we could see.

Question from chat room: Did you ever feel at risk for being taken captive by the Iraqis?

Peter Arnett: The Iraqis assured us when we received visas to enter the country that we would be under the protection of the government. They also pointed out that we were expected to, as they said, "behave ourselves" while we were visiting Iraq. By that we understood that this was a suspicious government, hostile to the U.S., and that because of the war situation they would be super-sensitive to any indication that we were being, say, more than journalists, but somehow spying on what they were doing. So we were all conscious that it was important to be entirely journalistic about all we did in that country and avoid suspicion. So, consequently, very few journalists during the whole war period were endangered by the Iraqi government, and that has been maintained in the years since the war.

CNN Moderator: You were the last Western reporter to interview Saddam Hussein. What were your impressions of Hussein as a man, as a leader?

Peter Arnett: Impressions are not easy in just a 90-minute visit. But clearly when I met him, two weeks into the war when Baghdad's infrastructure was basically destroyed, he had retained his confidence and presented an essentialy amiable persona. For example, when I met him for the interview at a private home on the outskirts of Baghdad, he chatted to me first about living conditions in the city for me, and told me there would be no restrictions on any questions. I could ask him anything I wanted. He was dressed impeccably as a Chief of State in a dark blue suit and floral tie. And at the end of the interview, he insisted on posing for pictures with me and actually had those pictures delivered to me in an official folder several hours later. And let's face it, this was a city at war, so he was very polite to do that!

Peter Arnett, 2001  

One other memory is that while Saddam Hussein was very genial and I thought gave interesting responses to my many questions, senior aides in the room clearly were not happy at my questions. I challenged Saddam about his human rights record. I asked him if the whole confrontation hadn't been a mistake -- all this kind of thing. At the end of the interview when he had left, the cabinet officials attempted to take the video away from me. The interview had been photographed by three cameras from Iraqi television, so I had three versions from all angles, so this was an armful of videos and these officials said they wanted to review it first. And I could see they wanted to remove from the interview some of the responses that Saddam Hussein had made -- responses they clearly were not happy with. But I argued the point with them and ended up taking all the cassettes back to the hotel which we then fed via satellite to CNN headquarters in Atlanta over our own video uplink which we had brought into Baghdad. So I won the battle of the tapes!

Question from chat room: What was the feeling of the people of Baghdad concerning America? Do they realize we were only trying to help them?

Peter Arnett: The view of the U.S. from Baghdad is one that is entirely manipulated by the Iraqi government. Certainly during the war and since that time 10 years ago, America has been presented in the most negative light by the Iraqi government. The American government is blamed for continued sanctions against Iraq by the United Nations. Of course, the Clinton Administration has bombed Baghdad over the years. There is regular bombing of the northern and southern parts of Iraq under current policy. So the Iraqi government has a ready-made reason to continue presenting the American government in a very negative light.

On the other hand, the Iraqi officials present the American people as distinct from the government and frequently suggest through newspaper and TV media that the American people are supportive of the Iraqi cause. To this end, they welcome American peace groups that visit Baghdad, including one currently in Iraq headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who was an anti-war activist and long-time critic of American policy in Iraq. But overall, the government blames America for all of Iraq's problems and certainly to interview any Iraqis openly today, they will repeat what the government says. Whether they believe it or not, who knows? But they are reluctant to criticize Saddam Hussein to any media.

Question from chat room: What did you think when the war ended?

Peter Arnett: I was surprised that the war ended when it did. We were prepared in Baghdad as journalists to cover the final phase of the war, which we presumed would be a tank attack on the capital from coalition forces assembled a hundred or so miles south of Baghdad. Our reading of Saddam Hussein's position at that time was that he was most vulnerable to overthrow because his military had been pushed out of Kuwait with great casualties and the capital was basically defenseless. That the war ended so quickly was a big surprise to the hundred or so journalists who were waiting in Baghdad for the final attack.

There have been arguments since then that such an attack would have been unwise, could have resulted in heavy coalition casualties, and also could have dismembered Iraq because of competing tribal and ethnic rivalries. But, in fact, look what we have today, 10 years later. You have an American presence still in the Gulf mainly because of Saddam's potential. You have rising terrorism against American forces because they are still in the Gulf and you have a new administration coming into power in Washington which says it wants to turn up the pressure on Saddam Hussein and drive him from office. Let me tell you, it would have been much easier to destroy Saddam Hussein 10 years ago when the coalition had more than 500,000 troops inside Iraq at the end of the war than it has today, when the coalition has collapsed and Saddam seems as strong as ever.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Peter Arnett: The final thoughts concern CNN's and the media role in the Gulf War. The bombing of Baghdad and the ground war that followed were the first time in media history, not only when both sides of a war were covered fully, but a time when much of the coverage was live. The incredible spectacle of the Gulf War persuaded CNN and other television organizations to cover successive events in the same way. So we had the O.J. Simpson trial. We had Princess Diana's death. We had wall-to-wall coverage of the recent presidential recount in Florida. What we see is what some prominent observers say is a cultural phenomenon of a "mediathon" approach to news and information. This is what the Gulf War brought to the U.S. and to the world. Personally, I still haven't figured out if it was a good thing or a bad thing.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us and sharing your memories today, Peter Arnett.

Peter Arnett joined the chat room via telephone from McLean, Virginia. CNN provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Tuesday, January 16, 2001.

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