How to stay alive in a war zone

Since the invasion, 61 journalists have died in Iraq, officially the world's most dangerous place for reporters
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There are some basic rules to reporting Baghdad. Do not make an appointment to see anyone you do not trust absolutely. Do not go out before checking whether any suspicious vehicles are loitering outside. Do not assume a road that was safe yesterday will be safe today. If you are a white man, sit with the blinds drawn or lie on the back seat. If you are a white woman, wear a burka.

As the latest figures show, none of this guarantees safety. Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists announced that 22 journalists had been killed in Iraq in 2005. The total since the invasion three years ago is now 61 - which makes Iraq the deadliest country for journalists in the last quarter of a century. This is the most dangerous place in the world to report, the frontline where you are most likely to get killed or end up in an orange jumpsuit in a video.

One could just stay indoors, and some journalists, mainly working in TV, do precisely that. One may wonder what is the point of being there at all. And even then, as the bombing last year of a hotel, the Hamra, almost exclusively used by the foreign media showed, you cannot always shut out the violence.

The bombing of the Hamra was the first time that journalists appeared to have been specifically targeted. There had been an attack previously on the Palestine, the hotel where the foreign media were corralled during the war. But by the time the suicide bombers paid their visit, the Palestine was used only by a handful of reporters, the largest group of occupants being contractors involved in security. For what it is worth, Sunni insurgents then issued a statement saying it was indeed the contractors and not the media who were the intended victims.

The plan of attack on the Hamra was for one vehicle to punch a hole through a wall, and for a second vehicle to come through and detonate itself beside the hotel complex. However, the first van had been packed with too much ordnance and gouged out a crater on the ground so deep that it prevented the second one from getting through. So the driver blew himself up together with his van.

None of us was seriously injured. Outside the hotel, the Iraqis without the protection of the blast wall had no such luck. When the wild gunfire that seems to follow all bombings had ended, we ventured out to discover that a row of houses had collapsed. About a dozen people were killed, two of them children, and another 60 injured.

On the same day, two suicide bombers had killed 77 people gathered at two Shia mosques. The cuts and bruises suffered by a few reporters should really be viewed in that context.

There was, however, one worrying aspect to what happened.

Standing in a puddle created when water pipes were shattered by the explosions, a colleague and I wondered to a senior American officer why the Sunni insurgents were trying to blow up the foreign media.

"What makes you think it was the Sunnis?" he asked. His view and that of many others, American and Iraqi, was that the bombing had been organised by figures in the Interior Ministry after Western journalists had filed a string of reports about the ministry running death squads that had tortured and killed suspects. The arrangements would have been made through a middle man, and the suicide bombers would have believed they were dying for the glory of a Sunni jihad.

Just a few days earlier there had been uproar after we wrote stories telling how 169 beaten and starving captives, looking like victims from the Holocaust, had been found in an underground prison run by the Shia Badr militia, which controls part of the Interior Ministry. Bayan Jabr, the Minister of the Interior, is himself a former Badr commander.

Was this really feasible? Would anyone try to bring down buildings and kill several hundred people simply because they did not like some stories journalists were writing? Even Alastair Campbell would have balked at that, surely. But in a place like Iraq, where normal tenets of humanity have long disappeared in endless killings, such conspiracy theories multiply. The American commander who accused the Interior Ministry of carrying out the Hamra bombing, as well as other attacks, has now completed his tour of duty and returned to the US. Mr Jabr remains the Interior Minister, and the commanders of the various paramilitary units accused of being death squads also remain in place. Three days ago, after repeated accusations by US authorities of gunmen in police uniforms carrying out extra-judicial killings, the Iraqi government ordered an inquiry.

IRAQ CORRESPONDENTS DESCRIBE LIFE ON THE FRONT LINE

JOHN SIMPSON, BBC News world affairs editor

I was in Iraq when Jill Carroll of The Christian Science Monitor was taken. I spent four months there last year but I haven't suffered anything. That's not just good fortune - the BBC is quite punctilious about security. An awful lot of money is spent on our operation there. We have first-class security and we've gone in with other organisations and a foreign embassy where we share the same little street and pool our security, which has worked extremely well so far. The danger always seems to come when journalists make an appointment with a politician or to visit somewhere at a particular time, all arranged by phone. Sometimes it's a corrupt relationship or someone gets to hear about it. That's what happened to Rory Carroll of The Guardian. A lot of us have noted what happens and who's got dodgy links.

CAROLINE HAWLEY, former BBC News correspondent in Baghdad, now based in Jerusalem

Living in Iraq for two and a half years, I was close to several bombs and we had shrapnel from mortars landing in our street. I felt on edge most of the time. My worst experience was in Amman, where I was in a hotel when a bomb went off. Once in Iraq I was in a car, and a bomb exploded about 20 seconds behind us. The Iraqi police were shooting wildly in the air and we were all cowering on the floor of our armoured car. The other big risk is being kidnapped. We had strict rules that we weren't to spend any more than 20 minutes in one place. Our security guys would keep a watch and if they didn't like an area, we left. We were filming in one area of town once and the same car was spotted driving past us three times so we had to cut things short and leave.

TIM McGIRK, 'Time' magazine

The magazine has a house that I stay in. It's in a fortified compound, and you know whenever you leave it that the chances are you're being watched by someone. Your pulse quickens every time you're caught in a traffic jam or a convoy of Humvees goes past. There'll be me and the driver, with two-man security in another car. It's frustrating because you'll say you want to go to such and such a neighbourhood and they'll say you can't, you'll be kidnapped. It ends up with people you want to interview having to come to the house - and you looking at the area via Google Earth. You hear bombs going off every other day. You never leave the compound after dark - so if you've gone to visit, say, another journalist for the evening in another house, you have to crash there overnight and come back the next morning.

PATRICK COCKBURN, 'The Independent'

In April 2004, I got picked up by the Mehdi Army, the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr. I was disguised, wearing a red and white Arab head-dress, in the back of a car, and when they realised I was there, some of them wanted to take us away and shoot us; I was with a driver and an assistant. They were very undisciplined, a rabble, really. But we were able eventually to get back in the car. That was very frightening. I'd been caught in an ambush the week before on the road to Fallujah. We lay on the ground, in a dip below the road, so fire was going just over our heads. Then someone else started firing from a different direction and we were able to jump back in the car and get away. Those sorts of experiences just mean you have to do things in a different way and be ultra-cautious.

Interviews by Lucy Rouse

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