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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Tightening Of Kuwaiti Border Complicates Reporting From Southern Iraq

  • Charles Recknagel

Near the Iraqi border, Northern Kuwait; 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Journalists in the Persian Gulf not attached to allied military units are being frustrated by ever-tighter controls on the Kuwait border that are making it extremely difficult to get access to southern Iraq.

In recent days, the border has been completely sealed off to independent journalists as Kuwaiti intelligence officers and police have supplemented the usual force of border guards. At the same time, Kuwaiti Army units with tanks have moved up from rear positions to set up firing posts close behind the border amid reports of attempted infiltrations into Kuwait by Iraqi guerrillas.

The tightening of the border -- which has been officially closed since the 1991 Gulf War -- has been coupled with warnings that journalists trying to make round trips into southern Iraq will not be permitted to cross back into Kuwait.

The developments come as reporters have had repeated success in slipping through checkpoints and into southern Iraq since the war began 13 days ago. That success has irritated both Kuwaiti and allied military authorities, who encourage journalists to limit their entries to Iraq to tightly controlled bus trips periodically organized by officials.

Many journalists feel the group tours do not give them sufficient freedom to report on conditions in southern Iraq -- something that reporters embedded with military units advancing on Baghdad also are unable to do.

The conflicting desires of the authorities and the media have created a highly imaginative cat-and-mouse game over the past two weeks in which journalists will go to almost any length to cross the forbidden border.

The game has seen scores of reporters routinely disguise their four-wheel-drive cars as army vehicles and try to join military convoys carrying supplies into Iraq.

The journalists' simplest method has been to use brightly colored tape to duplicate the arrow markings commonly used by jeeps that lead or follow convoys to warn other cars to pass on the left. The journalists hope the border guards will fail to notice their own arrow-marked cars falling in behind the convoys even when -- at times -- the number of journalists' cars is almost as many as the trucks in the convoy itself.

Duplicating convoy markings is just the beginning of what truly intrepid reporters will try. One group of correspondents has so thoroughly caked its car with clumps of tan-colored clay that, from a distance, it looks exactly like a military jeep that has taken a mud bath. The driver keeps just a few centimeters of his windshield clear to see the road as he and the rest of his team -- with helmets screwed tightly on their heads -- do their best to look like soldiers.

Still another team has acquired its own Humvee, the U.S. Army's standard-issue vehicle. The only sign that distinguishes their Humvee from thousands of others in the region is a satellite-dish case on the roof. The long, thin case makes the vehicle look a lot like it is carrying a surfboard into the desert, but so far has not hurt its success.

But while the journalists play tricks at the frontier that at times genuinely entertain even humorless border guards, officials in Washington and Kuwait City grow less amused each day.

Spokesmen at Pentagon briefings have called the independent journalists operating in southern Iraq "a headache" and said they create a security risk for allied troops. That is because journalists who stay overnight in Iraq often camp near U.S. and British posts as the only way to ensure their safety in a region that is far from under the full control of allied forces.

Until recently, U.S. and British units have been extremely helpful to the journalists, allowing them to set up camps beside their own positions and even evacuating them to safer places when there are threats of attacks.

But the soldiers now are being ordered to curtail their helpfulness, and journalists are finding themselves increasingly unwelcome.

Reporters who had set up an informal press camp inside the fully secured Iraqi port of Umm Qasr were told to leave on 28 March, a decision that forced most of them to voluntarily return to Kuwait rather then risk subsequent nights on their own.

Similarly, a group that recently camped near a British checkpoint just outside of Umm Qasr was politely told to pack its bags the next morning and was escorted by British soldiers back across the border to Kuwait.

Officers in the field have told reporters they fear press camps draw hostile attention to their positions and complicate the task of defending them. The soldiers are particularly concerned about the possibility of guerrilla attacks by elite units such as Saddam Fedayeen. Fedayeen members are sworn to fight to the death for the Iraqi regime and have been detected infiltrating rear areas dressed as civilians.

While correspondents sympathize with the military's need to protect its own men first, many reporters also say privately that the cutoff of cooperation may be intended to rein in the press even as it protects the soldiers.

Journalists traveling in southern Iraq have widely reported on the mixed emotions many residents feel over the presence of foreign troops. Those emotions range from hopefulness that the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will be toppled to fear that allied soldiers will suddenly leave as they did in 1991, resulting in a new crackdown by Hussein. They also range from anger that the war endangers the lives of civilians to genuine nationalist hatred for foreign invaders.

By contrast, allied commanders have sought to highlight the welcome some Iraqis have extended to their troops. Washington and London have argued that widespread dislike of Hussein among ordinary Iraqis will enable allied forces to topple his regime quickly and install a temporary occupation government. The U.S. has vowed to reconstruct Iraq as a more democratic state.