Back from the Rajiv Palace  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2005

Back from the Rajiv Palace   

The Washington Post's former Baghdad bureau chief reflects on an action-packed 18 months in Iraq.

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     


In the chaos of post-invasion Iraq--amid the car bombings and the protest marches and the fear of personal harm--there was an escape for Washington Post staffers: their house in Baghdad's Jadriya neighborhood.

For nine months, until security concerns forced the bureau to relocate to a hotel last February, Post reporters and photographers made the villa their home base. After a day of reporting on the hot, dusty streets, they came home to a meal prepared by one of the best cooks in the city, a pantry stocked with Western goodies and colleagues who were eager to swap tales.

"Basically, the Rajiv Palace, as I thought of it, was an oasis in the desert," says Thomas E. Ricks, who covers the military for the Post. "It was an amazing bureau to work with. It was really a pleasure to come into Baghdad."

Rajiv Chandrasekaran spent 18 months as the Post's Baghdad bureau chief, spearheading a group that included 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Shadid. (See "Voice of the People," June/July) He oversaw the comings and goings of dozens of Post staffers, hired an Iraqi staff and found the now legendary Post home-away-from-home in the middle of a war zone.

And he did it all, Post Assistant Managing Editor for Foreign News Philip Bennett points out, while constantly filing his own stories, garnering 138 front-page bylines in 2003. "We joked that the bureau was the most efficient American-run institution in postwar Iraq," says Bennett, who will become the Post's managing editor on January 1.

Vernon Loeb, a former Post reporter who is now the California investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times, says of Chandrasekaran, "One day, we're all going to be working for him."

Now back in the United States, Chandrasekaran, 31, is taking a year off from the Post to work on a book about the U.S. occupation of Iraq (to be published by Knopf) and to serve as journalist-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

Looking back on his time in Iraq, Chandrasekaran says he feels lucky to have been there "to see the arc of the occupation, to experience it, to live it. To see those very optimistic days when it seemed Iraq would indeed move down the path to democracy and we would fulfill all of our grandiose promises to the Iraqi people, then live through the failure to meet those promises and the growth of the insurgency and see what it did to the broader American venture."

It was hard work, and he regularly put in 18-hour days. Karl Vick, who is now the Post's acting Baghdad bureau chief, put it this way in an e-mail: "I used to think Rajiv was a cyborg. I'd just never seen any human being perform the way he did, for as long as he did, at the level he did, anywhere, much less Iraq."

It was also dangerous. Chandrasekaran was inside the Baghdad Hotel last fall when a car bomb exploded outside. "I thought about my driver. I scrambled down the stairs and walked through the lobby," he says. "The floor was covered in blood and there were people there, dead, severely wounded. There was lots of gunfire outside. I ultimately found my driver--he was OK--but I'll never forget walking through that lobby."

Car bombings and other attacks would later become business as usual for reporters in Iraq, but Chandrasekaran remembers the early ones--like the Jordanian embassy, the Red Cross — vividly: "Showing up at the scene, the panorama of destruction, the way the air tasted on my tongue. It's an acrid flavor, a lot like burnt fuel and burnt metal."

But there wasn't time to think about being afraid. Like when Chandrasekaran traveled with a delegation of Iraqi leaders to Najaf, where followers of opposition leader Muqtada al-Sadr were battling U.S. troops for control of the city. The group traveled in a caravan of three civilian vehicles. They hoped the white men's undershirts tied to the cars' antennas would show they meant no harm.

"You could hear RPGs and gunfire and mortars echoing everywhere, and here we were, sort of ambling through the city to get to the shrine," he says. "Things were so intense and so overwhelming I didn't have time to be scared."

It was nothing like "Lou Grant."

That was the television show that first interested Chandrasekaran in journalism. It was a lazy middle school summer, and he was home watching reruns of the Ed Asner sitcom when he thought, "Hey, newspapering's kind of cool." He then tried to start his own newspaper with a few friends, typing it up on his Apple home computer--without using the spell check. It folded after a few issues.

His parents urged him toward a career in math or science. His father, Kumar, is a chemical engineer who heads a biotech company; his mother, Uma, has a master's degree in economics. Both had come to the U.S. from India to study at the University of California at Berkeley. They liked Northern California so much that they settled there. Chandrasekaran and his younger brother spent most of their formative years in Palo Alto.

"I was told all along the way by my parents that I would starve and live in Dubuque if I went into newspapering and that I should put my science and math to use and go into the sciences," he says. "Then, later, if I wanted to go into newspapers, I could. But I should do something useful first."

So Chandrasekaran decided to major in chemistry at Stanford University. But he also started working at the Stanford Daily during his first week of college. By the end of his sophomore year, it was useless to pretend he was interested in a career in anything but journalism. He ditched the sciences and declared himself a political science major. He worked his way up the ladder at the newspaper and was named editor in chief. (Years later, in Baghdad, Chandrasekaran would joke he really hadn't made much progress in the last 10 years, as he had the same size staff and budget there that he had at the Stanford Daily, Ricks recalls.)

In 1993, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius visited Stanford on a recruiting trip during Chandrasekaran's stint as editor and came away impressed. "In the context of a student newspaper, there are a lot of kids who seem like students and some kids who seem like they're running a business. Rajiv was very much the latter," Ignatius says. "He had a sense of himself and what he wanted to do, which is very unusual."

Chandrasekaran came east for a Post summer internship. He never left, going from his internship to a full-time job in the Virginia suburbs, to the business desk to cover the Microsoft trial and eventually overseas to the Post's Jakarta bureau. From there, he covered everything from the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, to the anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

In mid-2002, Chandrasekaran moved from Jakarta to the Post's Cairo bureau. He went to Baghdad that fall.

"For all of 2003 and beyond, he spent more time in Iraq than any other American correspondent," Bennett says. "He took the fewest outs and just sort of sat there on the story, and it gave him tremendous authority on the story." Chandrasekaran spent the three weeks of the war's major combat operations in Kuwait, stitching together stories each night with material fed to him by other Post correspondents. He headed toward Baghdad on April 10, traveling in a two-car caravan of journalists. They had a letter from the head of Kuwaiti intelligence to help them get past local checkpoints; then they managed to "sweet talk" their way past U.S. Marines and into Iraq, Chandrasekaran says. Loaded with jerry cans of fuel and spare tires, they headed toward the Iraqi capital. They parked under an overpass on the city's outskirts to sleep as fighting carried on around them.

"We drove into the city the next morning and there were shot-up vehicles with bodies inside. I thought it was fairly grim, but it turned out to be fairly tame compared to what I would see over the next 18 months," he says.

In Baghdad, he took charge as the Post's embedded reporters converged on the city. "In many ways, we were just like the Bush administration: We didn't have a postwar plan," he says. One of the first things he did was put together an Iraqi staff — made up of some people he'd known before the war, their friends and family members, even a former government minder once assigned to him.

"Their courage is what is so amazing, and I will never forget that. To me, it was one of the greatest things in the world, in all the countries I've traveled to," he says of the staff. "They weren't journalists by training, but they've sort of come to love what they do. They believe in a free press; they believe in digging until one finds the truth; they believe in fairness; they believe in telling the story of Iraq and what happens there today."

Naseer Nouri was Chandrasekaran's fixer for more than a year-and-a-half. An aircraft engineer and pilot, Nouri says that he loved working for Chandrasekaran, which made it difficult for him to leave his job with the Post once Iraqi Airways started operating again. "Rajiv is a kind of person that he is very smart, heavy worker, brave, care about the others a lot and like to see his employee as one family," he writes in an e-mail. Chandrasekaran used to work until 3 or 4 in the morning and then wake up early the next day, says Nouri. "That is why every time he sit in his seat in the car, he fell to sleep."

Warm feelings aside, Chandrasekaran admits to using a "Baathist style" of leadership with his Iraqi staff, so much so that they began calling him "Little Mini-Saddam." One staffer set up his cell phone so that it showed Saddam Hussein's picture whenever Chandrasekaran called.

"When you've got to get things done in Iraq, you have to be firm," he says. "Iraqis will say, and it's turned into a cliché, that people only respect toughness here. I was sort of tough on my drivers and my guards. It's one of those places where to really get results, you really have to not show any signs of weakness, not flinch, constantly crack the whip, which I did."

Most of his colleagues say he was gentler with them. Metro reporter Theola Labbé spent almost four months in Baghdad and found Chandrasekaran, just a byline to her before, "from the first day to the last day a warm and generous colleague." On Labbé's first day in the country, Chandrasekaran took her along when he interviewed a U.S. general, then shared a byline with her. Toward the end of her tour, he heard the excitement in her voice as she described the scene at the emergency room at the main military hospital in the Green Zone. He told her to write the story. She said she couldn't because she was leaving. He encouraged her to stay. She did.

"That remains to me one of the most personal and powerful stories that I've written," Labbé says. "That's just the sort of person Rajiv is. He's so invested in the story, for himself and for everyone around him. Anyone can be invested in their own stories, but to be able to encourage other people to pursue good stories, stories that move them, I think that is just wonderful."

Reporter Jill Carroll worked briefly for the Post in Iraq, then stayed in the country as a freelancer. "During that time, he made sure that I knew the door to their house was open. I could come get a free dinner when I wasn't selling too many stories," she wrote in an e-mail from Cairo, where she is studying Arabic. (Carroll also wrote a story from Iraq for AJR; see "Letter from Baghdad," June/July.)

A large part of Chandrasekaran's job was keeping his team safe. That meant ordering sandbags for the house in Jadriya, securing armored cars, making sure Post employees had whatever they needed from mattresses to computer hook-ups. "When you parachuted into Baghdad back then, you depended on Rajiv for everything," Loeb says. "You always felt like he was keeping tabs on where you were. He'd call and say, 'What are you doing? What have you got?' "

In early February, a bomb exploded in front of the home of a Post translator. Later that day, someone saw a car driving slowly past the Post house, snapping photos. Within hours, the bureau had relocated to a hotel.

They were sad to leave. The house, Chandrasekaran says, was the scene of some of his favorite moments in Baghdad, notably the Eid celebration, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, during which all of the Iraqi staffers brought their families to the house for a party. The group — about 70 in all — posed for a photo with Chandrasekaran in the courtyard.

"It was so moving to see," Ignatius says. "I thought of Rajiv as this unlikely paterfamilias, barely 30, taking care of all these people, getting supplies in, getting cash in. I think the staff really loved him for the stability he brought to the universe of their work which was so different from the insanity of the rest of Baghdad."

When Chandrasekaran left Baghdad, the staff chipped in and gave "Little Mini-Saddam" a gift: an 18-inch-tall bronze horse. It was the same gift Hussein's associates used to give him for his birthdays.

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