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Assistance to reporter imperiled key contact

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2003


Khalid's nightmare started the morning of Jan. 6, 1999, when he was taken from a bus stop 500 yards from his home as he headed to work.

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Hustling him into a black Buick, the two men told Khalid they were his "brothers" - a euphemism for agents of the Mukhabarat, Iraq's internal security police.

Many stories of persecution in the old Iraq begin this way. But in this case, I knew the detainee personally. Khalid is not his real name. He was a key government contact when I was reporting on the issue of depleted uranium (DU) in Iraq.

Khalid's harrowing experience offers a glimpse of the Big Brother methods of fear and intimidation practiced daily under Saddam Hussein. It also reveals the pitfalls that Western correspondents and editors can stumble upon while reporting from a closed and paranoid country.

In 1998, I began working on articles about the effects on Iraq of DU ammunition, used by the US during the 1991 Gulf War. Iraqi authorities granted me access unprecedented for any other Western journalist - including a visit to former Gulf War battlefields with radiation detectors. As head of an official research center that dealt with DU issues, Khalid was crucial in organizing interviews with Iraqi officials, military officers, soldiers, and doctors.

A high-level committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz had calculated that press coverage of DU - which they blamed for a surge of serious health problems in southern Iraq - was in Iraq's interest.

But, due to the project's size and a grueling editing and fact-checking process, the stories did not run until 14 months after reporting began. The time gap raised suspicion in Baghdad, where authorities began to believe that I was not a journalist but a spy, with Khalid in cahoots with me.

"You spend 50 years serving your country, and this is the result," the graying Khalid recalls, after seeking me out in Baghdad four years after his ordeal to tell his story. "[Mr. Hussein's loyalists] will never change their way of thinking. They suspect their mothers and fathers," said Khalid.

On that January day, the two agents drove Khalid to the infamous Mukhabarat investigation center at Kadamiya and forced him to change into a dirty set of prisoner's clothes.

"Then they came: three champions of torture. Huge," Khalid says. "They started asking: Do you know American journalist Scott Peterson?"

Khalid says that his interrogators then proceeded to describe a tangled web of details that raised their suspicions, and though completely innocent in reality, were difficult to explain. Khalid was told that I was an expert on ballistic missiles, and that I had paid Khalid for information. "I insisted you had nothing to do with espionage," Khalid told me.

The first pieces of "evidence" came from a videotape shot as I attended a two-day DU conference held in Baghdad in July 1998. It included footage of me dashing to catch up to Khalid and quickly slipping a folded note into his hand.

Khalid explained that I was returning a fake $100 bill a French journalist had given him to aid Iraqi children with health problems. Khalid loaned me the counterfeit to use for a story on fake bills being printed in Lebanon.