Risks rise for Iraqi journalists

Protests backing a anti-US cleric, and his newspaper, lead to 18 deaths on Sunday.

Ahmed Abdul Amir Kassim tenses up when approaching a US checkpoint. "The soldiers are always so terrified. Anything can happen,'' says the driver for Al Arabiya, the Arab satellite news channel based in Dubai.

But shortly after 10 p.m. on March 18, Mr. Kassim was already starting to relax. He had parked about 100 yards shy of a US military checkpoint. Reporter Ali al-Khatib and cameraman Ali Abdel Aziz had approached the soldiers on foot for permission to film the scene of a rocket attack on a hotel. They were denied access.

After they got back to the car, Kassim says he U-turned, gently easing his Kia van over the low median dividing the road. He was putting more distance between himself and the soldiers when he caught a white blur out of the corner of his eye. A white Volvo on the other side of the road was flying towards the US checkpoint. As the Volvo plowed into the first Humvee and two soldiers opened up with their weapons, Kassim stepped on the gas to get as far away from the shooting as possible.

But as bullet holes blossomed on his windshield he realized that his van was also under attack. He turned a corner, thinking they might have made it out unscathed - until Khatib slumped over onto his shoulder, dead from a bullet to the head. Glancing at the back seat, he saw Aziz also stricken with a head wound.

The incident has widened the gap of mistrust between the Arab media and the US-led coalition that has persisted from the day of the invasion. Arab journalists say they face greater dangers than their Western colleagues because they are often in the crosshairs of both the coalition forces and Iraqi insurgents. And they can and will travel to places that Western journalists consider unsafe. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 11 journalists - all Arabs or Iraqis - have died in Iraq this year.

Reporters at Al Arabiya and its major competitor, Al Jazeera, complain of frequent arrests at the site of attacks on US troops, with soldiers accusing them of having foreknowledge of attacks.

Arab journalists say they do get tips from locals about attacks. An Arab media stringer in the Sunni Triangle recalls getting a phone call one day from a man who told him "we've just attacked a US Humvee" and gave him the location. He rushed to the spot, took some footage, and was briefly detained by US soldiers who accused him of getting there "too soon" after the attack.

After he was let go, he dispatched the tape to Baghdad. But the editors decided not to use the film. That evening, the reporter was paid a threatening visit by local insurgents complaining that their attack didn't make the news.

Three reporters for the US-backed Al Diyala TV station in Northern Iraq were killed by unidentified assailants on March 18, and both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya journalists complain of threats and intimidation from insurgents. Kassim says one day in Fallujah last year, insurgents fired a volley over his car and ordered the Al Arabiya crew out of the area.

He also says he's been detained three times by US forces in the past eight months, once for nine hours. Al Arabiya was banned from broadcasting for two months last fall following US anger that the channel had broadcast a statement from deposed dictator Saddam Hussein calling for attacks on the coalition.

"We know the law and journalistic standards very well,'' says Al Arabiya's Baghdad bureau chief Wehad Yacob. "We're doing the best to stay neutral and just show the facts, whether negative or positive. That's all we're here to do." Mr. Yacob says the station is now considering legal action against the US.

A US investigation into the Al Arabiya deaths last week found the US soldiers involved behaved properly. The US account differs in significant details from Kassim's. A brief US press release on the deaths says the Kia may have been on the same side of the road as the attacking Volvo, and that gunfire trained on that car missed and hit the Al Arabiya journalists.

"A gray Kia, carrying the Al Arabiya employees, traveled behind the Volvo and was not seen by the soldiers,'' the US release said. "Due to the location of the Kia, and the range and orientation of the weapons used to stop the Volvo, it is likely that the Kia was unintentionally struck by four to six rounds aimed at the Volvo."

The US release makes no mention of Kassim's version of events. US forces "acted properly within their rules for the use of force and the rules of engagement," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told a press conference last week. He expressed regret at their deaths. "The investigation has determined that no further action need be taken against those soldiers," he said.

How the coalition handles, or mishandles, the local media is also having an impact on its operations. Sunday, the entrances to the Coalition Provisional Authority's Green Zone in Baghdad were shut after mosques close to the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a general strike and for his militia to gather in the capital. Mr. Sadr's supporters have gathered almost daily near the Green Zone since March 28, when the coalition closed his newspaper Al-Hawza, perhaps the most virulently anti-American of some 100 papers in Baghdad.

Sadr, a minor figure on the Iraqi scene until the US invasion, has been trying to build a political power base by positioning himself as a US opponent and a defender of Shiite rights.

Sadr's supporters, some apparently armed and many wearing the black T-shirts favored by his Mehdi Army militia, clashed with the Spanish-led contingent outside Najaf Sunday. Spanish soldiers told the Associated Press that shots were fired at their garrison around noon Sunday and that their forces - which include troops from El Salvador and other Latin American countries - returned fire at the crowd. Four Salvadoran troops and about 14 Iraqis were killed in the shooting, which also left some 130 people wounded.

That followed local rumors that Spanish forces had arrested Sadr aide Mustafa al-Yacoubi on Saturday. While Spanish forces said they had nothing to do with Yacoubi's detention, authorities for the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad confirmed that the cleric had been detained.

To be sure, the coalition's problems with Sadr long predate the closing of his newspaper. But the US decision to close Sadr's paper has helped his supporters paint themselves as victims of the coalition.

Coalition officials said they had no option but to shut Al-Hawza, saying that the paper's stories incited violence against US forces and endangered lives. But the backlash has helped raise Sadr's profile, and he's attacked America's commitment to a free press and democracy in Iraq.

"If the Americans truly believed in freedom they wouldn't close our paper,'' charges Sheikh Raith Kadami al-Saidi, the head of a mosque loyal to Sadr in Baghdad's Khadimiya neighborhood. "This is proof that they're here to deny us our rights."

"We believe in freedom of press," said coalition spokesman Dan Senor . "But if we let this go unchecked, people will die. Certain rhetoric is designed to provoke violence, and we won't tolerate it."

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