Hotel Baghdad

There are no safe havens for journalists in Iraq, say two 'Independent' correspondents who have been there since the start of the conflict
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The Independent Online

Iraq is so lethal for journalists because the threats are multiple. Travel without guards and you are less likely to be targeted, but vulnerable to kidnappers. Travel with guards or be embedded with US or Iraqi troops and you may be safe from kidnappers, but you are more likely to be hit by a roadside bomb.

In the past week British journalists Paul Douglas and James Brolan have been killed in a car bomb attack that left the CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier critically injured. Nothing is more absurd than to imagine - as diplomats deep in the Green Zone slyly pretend and my old friend, Rageh Omaar, has unwisely suggested - that journalists lurk in their hotel rooms or in the zone itself. If this were true then they would not have been kidnapped or killed in such numbers. And even lurking in one's hotel room is not necessarily a safe option - a fact brought home to me forcefully last November when The Independent's room in the Hamra hotel in Baghdad was torn apart by a suicide bomb.

Iraq is so dangerous for journalists because they have become the victims of the same lethal anarchy affecting anybody living there. Normal safeguards do not work. A wealthy banker from Basra living in Baghdad saw six of his bodyguards executed by men dressed as policemen before they kidnapped him.

It is worse for local journalists. They make up most of the casualty figures. It used to be that they were primarily in danger from US troops, but now they are being hunted down because the TV stations or newspapers they represent are the enemy of one or other faction in Iraq. Few of their deaths are reported abroad. The latest to die was Ali Jaafar, a sports reporter and anchor for the state television al-Iraqiya, who was assassinated in the street in west Baghdad on Wednesday.

Iraq is far more dangerous than anywhere else I have worked. In Belfast and Beirut in the 1970s it was possible to get killed by accident but armed groups, however murderous, generally cultivated the media. It was only in 1984 that the political kidnappings of journalists started in Lebanon. In Chechnya, kidnap capital of the former Soviet Union, the Chechen resistance was conscious that holding journalists hostage was not going to help their cause and threatened to kill anybody who did so. But in Iraq the insurgents see all the foreign and Iraqi press as enemies to be seized or murdered. The armed resistance relies on the internet to broadcast its aims and publicise its victories, not on the Iraqi or foreign media.

I had a taste of how dangerous the war was going to be in the days before the fall of Saddam Hussein. I had driven into Mosul, the northern capital, on the day it had fallen. The city was full of looters. At first local people tolerated them as they took over government buildings and stole everything of value. But after a few hours, toleration had ended: the mosques were calling for people to bring their guns and seal off their neighbourhoods. A menacing crowd, suspecting that my car was being used by looters, threatened to set it on fire and lynch the driver.

The first year after invasion was easier than anything that was to come. American troops were a danger because they were notoriously trigger-happy and saw everything around them as a threat. They had been told that anybody with a satellite phone or a mobile might be about to detonate a bomb. Once in early 2004 I was making a call to the London office of The Independent on a satellite phone while standing beside my car in the market. I vaguely noticed as I spoke that an American patrol was passing. Then as I looked up I saw six soldiers charging towards us with guns levelled, screaming for us to get down on our knees, put our hands on the bonnet of the car and other contradictory commands. Had we been Iraqis who did not speak English there was a high chance that we would have been shot.

At first the usual precautions taken by foreign journalists seemed to work. I was careful to have very good drivers who knew the roads well. I always kept an eye on oncoming traffic (no cars coming towards you means trouble ahead). But in April 2004 it became clear this would not be enough. In the space of 10 days I was caught in an ambush of an American convoy of fuel tankers on the road to Fallujah and detained by a checkpoint of the Mehdi Army at Kufa outside Najaf. The Mehdi Army militiamen were at first divided on whether they should shoot us or take us to their leaders. After this it became clear I would have to be very careful where I went anywhere in Iraq. I tried to make myself as invisible as possible. This meant sitting in back of the car pretending to read an Arabic newspaper so nobody could see my face.

I used an old car and did not wash it too often so it would not stand out in the Baghdad traffic. I started having a second car tailing mine to make sure we were not being followed and to have an extra pair of eyes. I did not have an armed guard, partly because of expense, but also because attacks by kidnappers were usually carried out by at least seven or eight armed men. A single guard with a gun would not be enough.

I no longer made appointments with people I did not know well. If I visited refugees from cities assaulted by US troops I did not stay long, perhaps only 20 minutes, or a time so short that I thought it would be difficult for anybody to organise a kidnap. I stopped taking the roads out of Baghdad. The most notorious of these was the airport road but in fact all the roads out of the capital were very dangerous. I also limited my visits to the Green Zone partly because its inhabitants were ill-informed about events in Iraq but also because its entrances were so frequently targeted by suicide bombers.

A secondary danger was that soldiers guarding the entrances were extremely nervous and likely to open fire at the least hint of danger. This was and is a general risk. Before the referendum on the constitution last October there was a tight curfew and a ban on all vehicles. An official gave me a pass to drive around but told me not to use it "because any soldier or policeman who suspects you of being a suicide bomber will open fire long before you can show him your pass".

The best routine for reporters in Iraq is to have no routine that anybody else can predict. This is easy enough to do because of the almost permanent traffic jam in Baghdad. The most dangerous moments always seemed to me to be on entering or leaving the hotel. I used to drive through police checkpoints where we knew the police to make it more difficult for anybody who did not know them to follow us.

The heavily fortified Hamra is a peculiar hotel. The staff are very good, the rooms clean and better than many other hotels, the food appalling but in three years it never gave me food poisoning. I got used to eating in my room. Social life originally revolved around the swimming pool but as the years passed people spent more time in their rooms.

This was a pity because all the correspondents were good value. Those still in Iraq three years into the war were those who had an intense interest in the story and felt that what was happening should be reported regardless of the risk to themselves. Com-petitiveness was drowned out by the general sense of threat and the needs of personal survival.

Is it still possible for a journalist to operate in Baghdad? Obviously it is more restricted than before. I go to see friends who have their own guards. I keep out of areas that I think are controlled by militias. When I interview people I go to queues of cars at gasoline stations where I can talk to bored drivers without getting out of mine so nobody, aside from the person I am talking to, knows that I am a foreigner. It is easier to see members of the government but their knowledge of what is happening is restricted.

There are parts of Iraq where it is safer to operate, notably those controlled by the Kurds. This means going to the northern three Kurdish provinces and then going with Kurdish troops - sometimes part of the Iraqi army - to towns and cities where they are based. This enabled me to travel with some degree of safety across a large swath of northern Iraq.

Not all the news is bad. The lack of information or misinformation coming out of Iraq in the early years of the war, particularly in the US, was often the result of editorial decisions reached in New York, not the inability of the correspondents on the spot to find out what was happening.

I remember distraught American correspondents buckling on their body armour as, on orders from head office, they sallied out to report on "the good news from Iraq". It was only after Hurricane Katrina and criticism of the White House's Iraq policy by the US military and its political allies in the second half of 2005 that this control of the news became less flagrant. Right-wing websites claiming that news of American achievements in Iraq was being suppressed by the media fell silent.

Reporters under fire

The term "hotel journalism" is a pejorative one meant to describe reporters who "cover" a hazardous assignment from their hotel room by sending out fixers to gather information or by depending on agency copy. It is said to happen a lot in Iraq, but there is a paradox at work.

Iraq remains a place where shutting the room door will not necessarily shut out the ferocious violence. Two hotels used by Western journalists have been targeted in the past two years, killing around 15 people - none of them from the media.

After the attacks on the Palestine hotel, Sunni insurgents quite quickly issued a statement saying that contractors, not reporters, were the targets. There can be no such ambiguity about the Hamra, where I was staying at the time of the attack. This hotel was used almost exclusively by journalists and the aim was to inflict maximum damage.

The plan was to drive a truck full of explosives into a blast wall behind the building to shatter it, enabling a second suicide truck to come into the complex.

Fortunately for us, the first vehicle had been packed with too much explosive, so it shattered the wall but also gouged out a deep crater in the ground. The second bomber, unable to get through, detonated his load, blowing down a series of Iraqi homes and killing the people within, but failing to kill any of us.

No one knows who bombed the Hamra. Some American and Iraqi officials think it was ordered by a senior member of the Iraqi Interior Ministry fed up with our coverage of torture and murders carried out by government-sponsored paramilitaries.

Kim Sengupta


Games top people play

Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, was one of the luminaries invited to a dinner honouring the former US vice-president Al Gore at the Hay Festival last weekend. Carter, who now bears a striking resemblance to the Joker in Batman, decided he did not like the company among whom he was meant to be seated. His solution? To move his name card over to Gore's table. Carter then found the name card of his contributing editor Christopher Hitchens and moved that to Gore's table too. Hitchens, however, had no intention of sitting next to his boss, and moved his card back to the table of his old friend, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, where he had originally been seated. That's class.

Paper cuts

Bert Hardy's unplugged interview in the Press Gazette two weeks ago continues to haunt staff at the Evening Standard. The managing director had said that the London paper was living beyond its means. The first sign of action came last week as seven members of the production staff were handed their P45s. The previous week the Standard's editor, Veronica Wadley, had tried to allay her staff's fears by asking them not to take the Hardy interview to heart. Given Hardy's recent successes in rejigging the paper's finances, clearly he's not to be trifled with.

Isn't 'The Times' grand?

As noted last week, Fleet Street's finest boulevardier may be about to take a stroll in a different direction. Peter McKay, who has edited the Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle column for nearly a decade, is angling for a move. "The column he's really after is the Times diary," a source says. "Hugo Rifkind should watch his back."

Moore is a model writer

Over to the Royal Court theatre, where Tom Stoppard's new play Rock'n'Roll has just begun previewing before its first night this week. One of the characters is an acidic columnist. After reading an interview in The Guardian with The Sun's Jane Moore a fortnight ago, Stoppard brought in a copy of The Guardian and presented her as a suitably bilious role model for the part. She would be thrilled.

Freedom vs restraint

Comment is Free, the name of The Guardian's open comment blog, has been struggling with its utopian ideals. In recent weeks the site has been consumed by an argument concerning the personal abuse directed at commentators by some of the anonymous posters. The website's editor, Georgina Henry, admitted at the Hay Festival that The Guardian was considering imposing restrictions and creating rankings that would punish the foul-mouthed contributors. The name "Comment is free" was taken from an essay by the paper's former editor C P Scott. Had Henry read beyond that well-quoted section, she would find another useful lesson in journalism: "Comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint."

Exit stage right

*** The parting shot of the former defence minister Michael Portillo at the New Statesman is intriguing. One of the casualties of the magazine's relaunch next week, Portillo has just penned his last column as its theatre critic and has characteristically chosen a Wagner opera to close on.

"This being my last column, it remains only for me to bid all you lefties farewell," says Polly. "For over two years this column has been under male control, and therefore obsessed with power and violence. All that will change. Women are the future," concludes the former darling of Lady Thatcher.

Carry on filing, Deedes

Hats off to Lord Deedes, who has just celebrated his 93rd birthday by filing copy as usual to The Daily Telegraph. His family organised a little party for him in Kent and among the presents was a pair of pyjamas from his daughter Lucy. The Telegraph is planning a proper party next month to mark the 75 years the former editor, war correspondent and cabinet minister has spent at the paper.