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Iraq: Deaths Of CNN Staff Raise Fresh Questions About Security For Journalists, NGOs

  • Charles Recknagel

The killings yesterday in Iraq of two employees of a U.S. news organization are raising anew the question of whether journalists and employees of NGOs operating in the country need armed guards. The incident comes as violence yesterday left at least 10 other people dead across Iraq, where U.S. officials have said attacks on coalition and associated targets are decreasing.

Prague, 28 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The attack yesterday on a convoy of two cars carrying staff of the U.S. satellite network CNN is the kind that foreigners traveling on the country's highways dread the most.

As the CNN cars neared Baghdad on their return from an assignment in southern Iraq, a sedan car suddenly appeared beside them. A gunman popped up through the car's sunroof and -- without any preliminaries -- opened fire with an assault rifle. The man riddled one car with bullets, causing it to veer off the road and crash. The two men inside -- Iraqi translator and producer Duraid Isa Muhammad and driver Yasser Khatab -- were fatally hit multiple times.

The gunman also fired at the second car, which was in the lead, grazing the head of cameraman Scott McWhinnie but not injuring the other four people inside. The attack was cut short only by the fact that an armed security adviser among the journalists returned fire.

CNN correspondent Michael Holmes, who was in the lead car, later said the attack was "not an attempted robbery" but a deliberate, murderous assault. An official of CNN International in London called the ambush a "premeditated terrorist attack."

"[But] there is the other type of attacks [carried out by] people who are unemployed, have nothing to do, and have some military experience. These Al-Qaeda and the Ba'athists approach them, and they give them like a hundred dollars for firing an RPG at an American convoy."
Still, many questions remain unanswered, including whether the gunman knew his targets were members of the press. The CNN staff was traveling in unmarked cars, as do most other journalists, foreign contractors, and representatives of international NGOs in the country today.

For many private organizations working in Iraq, the attack raises once again a perennial question -- that is, should they employ armed guards to protect staff so long as U.S. and Iraqi forces have yet to fully secure the streets? The extent of the country's continuing security problems was highlighted yesterday not only by the attack on CNN but by the deaths of at least 10 other people -- including six U.S. soldiers -- in separate incidents.

Today, a car bomb blew off the front of a hotel in the center of Baghdad, claiming another three lives.

Severine Cazes of Reporters Without Borders, a media rights group based in Paris, says journalists have wrestled with how best to ensure their security in Iraq ever since Washington's military campaign to topple Saddam Hussein's regime early last year. She noted that in mid-April, at the height of the war, one CNN team in a car clearly marked as a press vehicle came under attack by Iraqi forces at a checkpoint in Tikrit. The journalists' security advisers responded by returning fire with a machine gun, and the team escaped injury.

At the time, CNN was widely criticized by other press organizations as acting in a way that jeopardized the public image of journalists as unarmed observers. "At the time, [Reporters Without Borders] said that this was endangering the whole profession, because clearly identified journalists circulating in a press car, identified as such, and having inside this journalists' car an armed bodyguard, this was putting in danger the rest of the journalists because it would put in the mind of people that there is an armed bodyguard in each journalist's car," Cazes said.

But Cazes says that any journalists' use of armed guards in Iraq is not so easy to judge now. She notes that today journalists are experimenting with a number of security arrangements, such as using unmarked cars, and that these may enable them to have guards without sending damaging messages to the public. "In what happened yesterday, it is different because the vehicle was not marked as a press vehicle," she said. "We encourage media to ensure the security of their staff and, of course, they are free to do it the way they wish." Cazes says her group is still considering its position on the subject and has yet to issue a formal statement on yesterday's incident.

Other international groups in Iraq are confronting the same questions, including those few NGOs with foreign staff still in the country. Hiwa Osman of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting told our correspondent by telephone from Baghdad that his staff does not travel with armed guards. The London-based institute trains Iraqis as journalists according to Western standards and does extensive reporting within the country.

Osman says his reporters travel in older unmarked cars that are unlikely to attract attention. He says this is in contrast to members of some larger media groups and many foreign contractors, who favor late-model, four-wheel-drive vehicles that are highly noticeable. "They travel around in flashy cars, cars that look really posh, and these cars basically scream of money," he said. "A lot of these attacks are banditry and are not politically motivated. [But] some of them might be [politically based]. There are all these Islamic [militants] who are saying these foreigners are tainting our pure land."

Osman says that despite the continuing attacks on foreigners, overall security in Baghdad has improved in the past few months as the reformed Iraqi police force has grown larger and put more men on the streets. But he says that Hussein loyalists and foreign militant groups still find it easy to hire unemployed, former soldiers to target U.S. forces and those associating with them. "Criminal attacks -- i.e., robbery, carjacking, kidnapping and all that -- have subsided drastically, simply because the Iraqi police force is in operation, and they are doing a good job. [But] there is the other type of attacks [carried out by] people who are unemployed, have nothing to do, and have some military experience," he said. "These Al-Qaeda and the Ba'athists approach them, and they give them like a hundred dollars for firing an RPG at an American convoy."

U.S. officials have said the number of such incidents is dropping and now averages less than half of November's high of some 40 attacks on coalition troops each day. U.S. Army Major General Raymond Odierno said last week that loyalists of the former regime have "been brought to their knees" by the capture of Hussein last month. He said the insurgents are "still a threat, but a fractured, sporadic threat, with the leadership destabilized, finances interdicted and no hope of the Ba'athists returning to power." Odierno also said, "I believe within six months, I think you're going to see some normalcy."