As of the last week of October 2003, Al Jazeera has a new manager. And the choice, former Baghdad bureau chief and correspondent Waddah Khanfar, is significant.
During the Iraqi war, he reported from Kurdish-controlled territory in the north; with the collapse of the Baath regime, Khanfar took over the Baghdad bureau. At that time relations between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi former opposition political formations that would soon assume ministerial responsibilities as the Interim Governing Council (IGC), were difficult. Although an Al Jazeera correspondent had been embedded with coalition forces and the channel was represented at the Coalition's Central Command headquarters, nevertheless the Channel was widely perceived as playing to popular pro-Baathist and anti-Coalition Arab sentiment in its coverage of the war.
Al Jazeera editor-in-chief Ibrahim Helal told TBS that Khanfar not only brings exceptional journalistic skills to his new assignment but also was very successful in re-establishing the Al Jazeera bureau in Baghdad following the fall of the Baathist regime.
Khanfar's assignment, according to Helal, included improving a working relationship with the American authorities and with the pre-war Iraqi opposition. In the latter case, the strains in the relationship predate the war and were reflected in denunciations of Al Jazeera by Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, who circulated documents which he claimed incriminated individuals within Al Jazeera for allegedly having clandestine relations with Iraqi intelligence and the Iraqi Ministry of Information (see the Interview with Adnan Sharif in this issue).
"Waddah and I have worked closely together through these crises and despite problems, we now have many avenues of access to both the Coalition and the former Iraqi opposition participating in or supporting the IGC," said Helal.
During the War in Afghanistan and its aftermath, Khanfar played a similar role. He reported on Afghanistan from New Delhi, where there was a strong Northern Alliance diplomatic presence since India was a major supporter of the Northern Alliance long before the American intervention. This was an important posting since Al Jazeera was unable to get its own correspondent back into the northern territories controlled by the Northern Alliance on the eve of the war and had to rely on its alliance with CNN for reports along with satellite interviews originating in Doha with then Northern Alliance foreign minister Abdallah Abdallah at his headquarters.
When the Taliban regime began to collapse and the Northern Alliance forces swept into Kabul, Al Jazeera's presence in the Afghan capital in 2001 was bedeviled by problems remarkably similar to those that prevailed in Baghdad in April 2003. The Kabul bureau had been hit by US fire and Al Jazeera's correspondent and Kabul bureau chief Taysir Allouni had been compromised in the eyes of many journalists and diplomats, not to mention the Northern Alliance, as a partisan of the Taliban cause. Khanfar took over the Kabul bureau and restored working relations with the new authorities.