No one safe in a world of violence

By Kim Sengupta

BAGHDAD - There are some basic safety rules to reporting in Baghdad but, as the latest figures show, none of them guarantees safety.

Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists said that 22 journalists died in Iraq last year. The total since the invasion three years ago is 61 - making Iraq the deadliest country for journalists in the last 25 years.

This is the most dangerous place in the world to report from; 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 the Hamra Hotel - 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 a previous attack on the Palestine Hotel, where foreign media were corralled during the war. But by the time the suicide bombers paid their visit, the Palestine was being used mainly by contractors involved in security.

The plan of attack on the Hamra was for one vehicle to punch a hole through a wall, and for a second to come through and detonate itself beside the hotel complex. But the first van had been packed with too much ordnance and gouged out a crater so deep it prevented the second one from getting through. So the driver blew himself up 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. About a dozen people were killed, two of them children, and another 60 injured.

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

When a colleague and I asked a senior American officer why the Sunni insurgents were trying to blow up the foreign media, he replied: "What makes you think it was the Sunnis?" His view, and that of many others, 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.

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 Shiite Badr militia, which controls part of the Interior Ministry. Bayan Jabr, the Minister of the Interior, is 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?

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. 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.

STAYING ALIVE

* 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.

- INDEPENDENT

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