In three articles for this newspaper over the past month, Steven Vincent deftly captured the criminal-induced confusion of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the jockeying for power between rival militias within government departments, and the growing use of political assassination that foreshadowed his own murder Tuesday.
The body of the 49-year-old American reporter and author was recovered shortly after midnight in the southern city of Basra, where he'd based himself for the past three months writing about the Shiite militias, and rampant corruption among local politicians and cops.
He's the first American journalist killed in Iraq since the US-led occupation - others have died of illness or in accidents. A resident of New York City, Mr. Vincent witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and in his horror he felt inspired at a later age to become a war correspondent, says his wife, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent. Last year, he wrote "In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq."
"He watched the World Trade Center burn and collapse, he saw people jumping to their death from the north tower, and he wanted to do something to help the war on terror," says Ms. Ramaci-Vincent, his wife of 13 years. "He was too old to enlist. He thought he could go to the war zone and try to open people's eyes to what was happening."
At around 6:30 p.m. he and his Iraqi translator Nouraya Itais Wadi (also known as Nour al-Khal) left a money-changer's shop on bustling Istiqlal Street. Then, police say, four gunmen jumped out of a white car (Lt. Col. Karim al-Zaidi told Associated Press that it was a police car, something confirmed by eyewitnesses) and hustled the pair inside, shouting to bystanders, "Don't interfere, we're the police," according to witnesses interviewed by an Iraqi journalist, who has worked for American news media and feared retribution if he was identified in this story.
Mr. Vincent had told his wife in recent weeks that he was growing increasingly concerned for his and Ms. Wadi's safety. He was getting strange phone calls with no one there, and Nouraya had been approached on the street and berated for working with an American.
"He was digging deeper and deeper into this weird tangle of criminal gangs, and Iranians coming over, and the corruption, and he told me he was starting to get worried,'' says Ramaci-Vincent, said her husband was planning to leave the city soon. "In his time there he had developed a real affinity for the Iraqi people, as trite as that may sound. He really loved them."
Vincent and Wadi were then taken to a house somewhere on the city's outskirts and were held and questioned for roughly five hours, according to a Basra police officer, who requested anonymity. Then, blindfolded and with their hands bound behind them, they were taken to Al Rebaat neighborhood in Basra and shot repeatedly. Ms. Wadi survived the attack and is now in serious condition at the Basra Teacher's Hospital.
She has been interviewed by the local police, and the police official said the murderers had beaten them, and shouted at her for working with a foreigner, something they said was un-Islamic. Lubna Abdul Hamid, an Iraqi woman working for the National Democratic Institute, a US-based nongovernmental organization, was murdered on Monday. Iraqi journalists interviewed by phone in Basra say they believe the murder was motivated by her American ties.
In an opinion piece published in The New York Times on Aug. 1, Vincent wrote about Shiite political parties that maintain their own militias in the city, and he reported allegations that off-duty police are used to assassinate former members of Saddam Hussein's regime and other political opponents.
"An Iraqi police lieutenant confirmed to me the widespread rumors that a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations - mostly of former Baath Party members - that take place in Basra each month," Vincent wrote. "He told me that there is even a sort of 'death car': a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment."
In a city like Basra - where members of the city's most notorious kidnap-for-ransom gang are now major political players, and Shiite gangs have taken to ad hoc beatings and harassment of women to enforce their views of Islamic law - there is a long list of possible suspects in the Vincent murder: The police, or a faction within the police; a Shiite militia either angry at his reporting or for his association with an Iraqi woman; or common criminals, who run kidnap-for-ransom rackets.
"We know that common street criminals often masquerade as police, we also know that insurgents have used military uniforms to conduct their acts of terror,'' says a US Embassy official in Baghdad, who requested that his name not be used. "So rather than draw a conclusion that the police force is infiltrated, we're going to wait and see what the investigation turns up. We have complete confidence in the professionalism of the Basra police force."
In a scathing review of police training efforts at the end of last month, the US General Accounting Office found that "too many" Iraqi police recruits are "marginally literate, show up for training with physical or mental handicaps, [and] some recruits allegedly are infiltrating insurgents."
In Iraq's overwhelmingly Shiite south, Basra has been one of the safest regions in the country for foreign troops; roadside bombings and suicide attacks are rare. Iraq's Shiites, who were second-class citizens under the Sunni-dominated Hussein regime, were enthusiastic about his ouster. Shiite religious parties - outlawed under Hussein because many had ties into the Shiite theocracy in Iran - have since taken the reigns of power in the city.
Iraqi journalists say, and Vincent also reported, that criminal gangs prowl the city's outskirts - some now paid by the government to "protect" electricity infrastructure and other government installations - and the gun has played a blossoming role in the city's developing politics.
But today, militants connected to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army fought the US for control of the Shiite shrine city of Najaf last fall, are just one of the religious gangs who roam the streets, forcing women to cover their hair. Liquor shops have been firebombed and most are closed now, as have been stores that sell Western pop music and DVDs.
Basra's Police Chief, Gen. Hassan al-Sade, told The Guardian newspaper in March that about half of his 13,750-member force were moonlighting for Shiite political parties and some were involved in assassinations. He was removed from his post soon after by Basra's governor Mohammed Masabih al-Waali, whose Fadhila Islamic Party is dominant in the province's politics and is loyal to the Shiite cleric Mohammed Yaqubi, a former student of Mr. Sadr's deceased father. Though Sadr and Mr. Yaqubi are sometime rivals for power, Fadhila shares his puritanical religious convictions and has gunmen of its own.
At this time, Iraqi police say they're starting to gather evidence about the case, and don't know who might have killed Vincent. But in his last story for this paper, Vincent chronicled the travails of the Basra Police Criminal Identification Division, which processes criminal evidence. It has one computer for 101 men, and frequent shortages of materials for collecting fingerprints or analyzing bloodstains, and only processes 40 percent of the evidence it receives each month.
Iraq has been one of the most dangerous war zones for journalists in recent history. At least 12 have died in 2005 alone.
IRAQ: At least 66 journalists and media support workers killed, 29 journalists kidnapped.
VIETNAM: 63 journalists killed between 1955 and 1975, a period of 20 years.
ALGERIA: 57 journalists killed between 1993 and 1996 during the civil war.
THE BALKANS: 49 journalists killed between 1991 and 1995 during the war in the former Yugoslavia.
Sources: Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, International Press Institute