Why Zhara's story has passed too many journalists by

In
a eulogy for a four-year-old girl brutally murdered in Baghdad, Lee
Gordon laments the absence of Iraq in the election coverage

My wife telephoned me the other day as I was standing outside the
National Portrait Gallery off London’s Trafalgar Square. She was 3,000
miles away in Baghdad and as I listened I swallowed hard on what were
trying to be tears.

She told me the story of Zhara, a doeeyed girl with a cherubic smile named after a flower noted for its pretty blossom.

It’s
a story that speaks volumes about how the Iraq war has so brutalised an
ancient civilisation that it has literally taken leave of its senses.

Four-year-old
Zhara had followed her cousin to a deserted subway in central Baghdad.
There, a former army sergeant raped her several times, murdered her and
left her in a cardboard box.

A week or so later, a traffic
policeman first stumbled across Zhara’s bloodspattered teddy bear, then
found her body, being eaten by dogs.

Divorced father of seven Ali
Shakhir Haddi had spent more than 30 years in the army, but had been
jobless and living rough since the Iraqi military was de-mobbed 18
months ago. After a dispute with her father over $100 (£52), he killed
little Zhara.

He was sentenced to life behind bars (Former US
pro-consul Paul Bremer scrapped the death penalty – an unpopular
decision with Iraqis.) But the story didn’t end there. Zhara’s parents,
wracked by guilt, separated. Then came a note from the killer thanking
them for putting him behind bars where “I can eat and have somewhere to
sleep”.

Zhara’s father is pressing for the reintroduction of the
death penalty. Given the US military’s record of releasing prisoners
who agree to spy on the insurgency, his fears that her killer will be
freed in a few years are not unfounded.

He wants to tell his story, which is where my wife, an Iraqi journalist, came into it.

“How can men do these things, what has happened to my country?” she asked me.

How
things have changed in just 18 months. Then, when we first met, she had
been an up-and-coming reporter convinced things could only get better.

She
sat next to me at a press conference for relatives of a family shot by
US troops. Afterwards we discussed how to help Hadeel, the only
survivor. Twelveyear- old Hadeel, whose name derives from a songbird,
had indeed loved to sing, but had fallen silent after witnessing the
massacre. Her tragic story received wide coverage (over here the Daily
Mail gave it a two-page spread).

However, thanks to the self-imposed silence our media has fallen into, few will hear Zhara’s story.

Of
course, there’s the excuse that reporting Iraq is just too dangerous.
But does this really hold water? Consider the story of the orphaned
girls living inside the Green Zone – within spitting distance of
British reporters – who areused for sex by US soldiers. Their story,
corroborated by whistle-blowing troops, has yet to see the light of day.

The
Independent, where Patrick Cockburn has been stellar, has bravely
bucked the trend and The Telegraph continues to keep half an eye on
Iraq.

But when Hala Jabar won the British Press Awards foreign
correspondent of the year for her reporting in The Sunday Times, and
Doctor Ali Fadhil plaudits for his work in The Guardian, it might have
opened doors for other Arabic journalists to be sent where Fleet
Street’s staffers couldn’t go, keeping a spotlight on what should be
the biggest election issue – one that ought to hang like Damocles’
Sword over Tony Blair.

At least George W Bush and John Kerry were
honest about fighting a wartime election. By contrast, Tony Blair and
Michael Howard have been allowed to pretend it’s more important to
count the number of immigrants than bodybags.

When was the last
time you spotted a dateline from Basra, where the Britisharmy is
fighting its biggest engagement in half a century?

We’ve taken our cue from politicians and allowed Iraq to be sidelined.

The
BBC’s John Pienaar rightly complains the war is off the election menu
at morning party press conferences. But those responsible for allowing
them to serve up a diet of immigration junk food and tax cut tripe are
the pin-suited political appointees in Bush House.

Channel Four
chiefs decided their flagship investigations programme Dispatches
should focus on “domestic issues” in the run-up to the election.

Will anybody ask “Where’s the Iraqi?”

when ITV hosts its election boat-party onboard the Silver Sturgeon?

When
writer and editor John Lloyd accused the media of occupying a “parallel
universe”, Guardian investigations editor David Leigh blamed “big
business and big government”. The public wants to hear about Brussels
taking over our lives – not Washington, because, he said, “One plays
into a… fantasy about continentals with funny eating habits, and the
other doesn’t gain much purchase”.

It didn’t seem that way when I
was outside the National Portrait Gallery, yards from where millions
demonstrated because they believe warplanes over Iraq are more
important than EU directives on sausages. Nor did it as my wife
narrated her “Letter from Iraq”.

So let this be a eulogy for
Zhara’s battered blackened body and the land of two great rivers,
golden-domed mosques, that endless wash of azure sky and yellow-brown
desert where my wife watched her dreams die.

Lee Gordon is a freelance journalist

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