Caveats for journalists in combat zones

Why are US soldiers being prosecuted for reacting to the questionable conduct of noncombatants on the battlefield?

A Spanish court last month dismissed charges against three US soldiers accused of killing a Spanish TV cameraman during the 2003 siege of Baghdad. It's a case that should never have been brought to trial.

Jose Couso was killed when a US Army tank shell slammed into the Palestine Hotel, where some Western journalists were based. Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian cameraman for Reuters, also died.

Army intelligence had told the US tank crew that an Iraqi forward artillery observer was spotted in a tall building. Sgt. Thomas Gibson, who had been under fire for eight hours, spotted someone with binoculars on the balcony of a tall building in Baghdad talking on a cellphone. Concluding that the man was an Iraqi artillery observer, he asked for, and received, permission to fire.

Any time journalists insert themselves into combat, there is a good chance they will come under fire – from either side. More journalists have been killed during the Iraq war than in the Vietnam war. People die trying to get the best video, taking a wrong turn, or putting their heads up at the wrong time.

We rightfully honor journalists who report important stories from danger zones, but sometimes the prospect of promotion – or the adrenaline rush of combat – can lead to bad judgment.

It's not clear if Mr. Couso was the man on the balcony on that tragic day. But his family should know that when a journalist stands in a hotel room, window, or doorway with a television camera on his shoulder, he is easily mistaken for an enemy combatant about to fire an antitank missile.

I was in Iraq as an embedded reporter on April 8, 2003, when Couso was killed. I listened to the internal Army radio briefing on the incident. It was reported as an unfortunate consequence of someone being mistaken for an enemy combatant when rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and small arms were pouring down on US troops.

Couso's family's desire for justice is more understandable than the actions of investigating magistrate, Santiago Pedraz, who seems to have twice waged an anti-American vendetta. After the Spanish National Court dismissed the case a second time, it cited Mr. Pedraz for presenting prejudicial evidence while ignoring soldiers' testimony that they fired only after they thought they were about to be fired upon. An independent US military investigation said the soldiers acted properly.

The Spanish case seems to be a venting of Europe's still-simmering rage over President Bush's unnecessary war in Iraq. It is also a classic example of allowing the architects of war to go unpunished while attempting to string up the soldiers.

Europe's prosecutorial critics of Iraq became as unjust as the war itself. Two years ago, the Italians tried in absentia Mario Lozano, a US soldier who shot and killed an Italian intelligence agent at a checkpoint in Iraq. This case inflamed Europe's anti-Americanism and strained Italian-American relations.

There are few places more dangerous than military checkpoints, often the target of car bombings. Any hint of bravado at an Iraqi checkpoint could get you killed.

During the siege of Baghdad in 2003, and under sporadic gunfire, I had to cross a checkpoint. With a Bradley fighting vehicle's machine gun trained on me, I walked 100 yards with both hands held in the air in a gesture of surrender. My press pass was blowing in the breeze in my left hand. It was a tense moment.

It is tragic that the Italian intelligence officer did not exercise similar caution. Sadly, enraged European media seemed less interested in the circumstances of the Italian incident than in a public lynching. Ultimately, an Italian court dismissed the case, rightfully concluding it had no jurisdiction.

There are clear rules for trying soldiers for misconduct in combat. They don't include prosecuting men under fire for reacting to the questionable conduct of noncombatants on the battlefield.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.

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