By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 4, 2005
BAGHDAD, Aug. 3 -- In the fall of 2003, freelance writer Steven Vincent traveled to Iraq to "experience the daily realities of life and death in the crossfire of the war on terror," according to a statement on his publisher's Web site. The violence he chronicled -- and often condemned -- online and in print caught up with him Tuesday night.
Vincent, 49, an American whose recent articles described the growing influence of Shiite Muslim militias in the southern city of Basra, was found dead there Wednesday morning from multiple gunshot wounds.
He had been abducted the night before along with his Iraqi interpreter, Nour Weidi, who was seriously wounded and taken to a local hospital. Gunmen traveling in a police vehicle seized the two outside a currency exchange, a policeman told the Associated Press.
On Sunday, the New York Times op-ed page published an article by Vincent in which he described the pervasive influence of Shiite religious groups in Basra's police force and politics. After Vincent's death was reported Wednesday, his wife "wondered whether the New York Times piece, or any of his writing, was related to what happened, and I don't think anybody knows," according to David Clark Scott, world editor of the Christian Science Monitor, a newspaper to which Vincent contributed frequently.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, at least 52 journalists have been killed, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Of 19 whose deaths were classified by the group as murder, Vincent was the first American.
"The U.S. Embassy is working closely with local Basra police and the British forces in the south to determine the cause and hopefully bring to justice those who were responsible for this," said Pete Mitchell, an embassy spokesman.
Vincent was working as a freelance art critic in 2001, and it was from the roof of his New York apartment that he watched the World Trade Center fall on Sept. 11. "I wanted to do my part in the conflict. I'm too old to enlist in the armed services, so I decided to put my writing talents to use," he told the online magazine FrontPage in an interview published last December.
In addition to dispatches from Iraq that appeared in the Times, the Monitor and the National Review, among other U.S. publications, much of Vincent's most evocative work was posted on his Web log, or blog, "In the Red Zone." Vincent also published a book, "In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq," recounting his travels and experiences after the U.S.-led invasion. At the time of his death, he was working on a history of Basra.
Many of Vincent's writings lauded the U.S. mission in Iraq. But he could also be critical of his countrymen, as in a recent jab on his blog at a U.S. Army captain in Basra for "having as most Westerners -- especially the troops stationed here -- little idea of what goes on in the city."
Living and working largely outside the protected enclaves favored by many foreign journalists, Vincent had recently settled in Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq and the hub of the Shiite-dominated south. There, he often wrote of Shiite militias allegedly infiltrating security forces and serving as hit squads.
"A police lieutenant confirmed for me the widespread rumors that a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations -- mostly of former Baath Party members -- that take place in Basra each month," he wrote. "He told me that there is even a sort of 'death car': a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment."
A frequent target of his writings was Moqtada Sadr, the fiery Shiite cleric whose widespread clout Vincent described in the Times last week. He also described Sadr on his blog, though not by name, as "a young, under-educated but extremely canny tire-head with chipmunk cheeks and a perpetual scowl who nevertheless possesses the adoration of millions, particularly among the poor."
A spokesman for Sadr, whose Mahdi Army last year clashed with U.S. troops in Baghdad and the southern city of Najaf, said others were responsible for Vincent's death.
"I think the Salafis and the criminal Baathists did that crime," said Sayyid Jaleel Mousawi, referring to adherents to a fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam and to former members of Saddam Hussein's political party.
Vincent was aware of the dangers he faced. On his blog, next to a link to an article of his that appeared July 13 in the Christian Science Monitor, he cautioned: "Keep in mind that for various reasons -- not the least of which were safety concerns -- the piece only scratches the surface of what is happening here."
He stayed safe in Iraq, he told FrontPage magazine, "by slipping below the radar screen, so to speak, blending in with the Iraqi people, sometimes disguising myself, keeping as low-profile a presence as possible."
In a June 28 article, Scott, the Monitor's world editor, wrote that Vincent eschewed a large entourage of guards and assistants and instead relied heavily on his interpreter, Nour, whom he often identified in print as Layla for her protection.
"Young, intelligent, vivacious, Nour is the embodiment of what liberated Iraq could become," Vincent told FrontPage. "One thousand Nours set loose in Iraq would transform the country overnight; I just pray the one I met survives."
Each entry on Vincent's blog was structured like a letter to his wife, beginning with the words, "Dear Lisa."
Reached by telephone in New York Wednesday night, Lisa said she and her husband had agreed that if anything happened to him, she would not talk about him with the news media. "He had a disgust for anyone who had suffered a bereavement and went immediately to the cameras," she said.