NBC sacks veteran war reporter over Iraqi TV interview

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The Independent US

One of America's most visible, and often controversial war reporters, Peter Arnett, was fired by the NBC network a day after he gave an interview to Iraq's state television suggesting American military strategy had "failed" and the Pentagon was being forced to "rewrite" its invasion plans.

Mr Arnett, 68, propelled his old network, CNN, to the forefront of global news by remaining in Baghdad at the start of the 1990-91 Gulf War. Four years ago CNN in effect sacked him after retracting a documentary segment he had narrated saying the US used nerve gas in Laos in 1970.

In this war, Mr Arnett had seemingly returned to frontline reporting with an assignment in Baghdad for National Geographic Explorer, a documentary television series, and a subsequent deal to report for NBC. However, his comments on Sunday caused uproar in the US. NBC at first defended him but yesterday decided to cut him loose.

"It was wrong for Mr Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV, especially at a time of war," an NBC spokeswoman said. National Geographic Explorer also said it would stop using him. The decisions appeared to reflect an intolerance in America for commentary considered unpatriotic.

"Clearly, the American war plans misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces," Mr Arnett, who won a Pulitzer prize for reporting from Vietnam, told the uniformed Iraqi interviewer. "The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan." Iraq TV played the interview twice on Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps even more unwisely, Mr Arnett said some of his reporting was nurturing anti-war sentiment at home. "Our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments." Conservatives in the US have considered Mr Arnett biased since he reported in 1991 that a weapons factory in Iraq struck by American missiles had been manufacturing baby milk powder. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman, said his comments were "nauseating" and "Kafkaesque".

The journalist left CNN after the airing of a report in 1998, produced with Time magazine, about an attack on a Laotian village in 1970 called Operation Tailwind. It said the US had sprayed sarin gas. It was denounced by the US military and by Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state.

Mr Arnett claimed he had merely narrated the piece and not reported it. But CNN kept him off the air for months before firing him in 1999. He had been with the network for 18 years.

His gratification at returning to Iraq this year became all the sweeter when the highly respected CNN man there this time, Nic Robertson, was expelled by the Iraqis just days after the campaign started. "The Iraqis have thrown the CNN crew out of Baghdad," he observes in an interview in the latest issue of TV Guide in the US. "Any satisfaction in that? Ha, ha, ha, ha." He also suggested that he was viewed as a "yellow warrior" by the Iraqi government.

But yesterday, Mr Arnett was in clearly in serious trouble again, prompting some to speculate that his career was over. "There is a small island in the South Pacific that I've inhabited that I'll try to swim to,'' the New Zealand-born reporter said with dark humour in an apologetic appearance on the NBC breakfast Today Show. He also voiced regret. "I want to apologise to the American people for clearly making a misjudgment," he said.

Some will see it as a tragic end to a distinguished career that reached its high water mark when he was talking live to the camera for CNN in 1991 on the roof of the Al Rashid Hotel. He brought exclusive images of that bombing campaign on Baghdad to millions around the world.

"Peter was the best war reporter of his generation," Reese Schonfeld, a CNN founder, wrote in Me and Ted Against the World. "All of them were in the right place at the right time ... CNN caught lightning in a bottle."