Spoofer of Iraq's Chaos Becomes Another Victim

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 20 -- For the last three years, Walid Hassan had an impossible task. He had to make war-weary Iraqis laugh. Week after week, the comedian and broadcaster found inspiration in the turmoil and bloodletting. On his weekend television show, "Caricature," he poked fun at the poor security, the long gas lines, the electricity blackouts and the ineffective politicians.

In Hassan's world, nothing was sacred. And many Iraqis adored him. In a nation bottled up with frustration, he was their release. They would recognize him on the streets and uncork their plights. He would listen, and turn them into satire.

On Monday, Hassan, 47, a father of five children, became a victim of the war and chaos from which he drew his inspiration. A Shiite Muslim, he was found in the majority-Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk in west Baghdad with multiple bullet wounds to his back and head, according to police. He was last seen by witnesses in a black car with a driver and two other passengers.

"He was a star in the galaxy of Iraqi arts," said Ali Hanoon, the show's director. "Now, he's another sacrifice on the altar of this slaughtered country."

Hassan, who also produced a political show, was the latest casualty in the Iraqi media world, which has suffered heavily since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 unleashed a wave of press freedom. So far, 133 reporters, cameramen and other media workers have been killed in Iraq, the vast majority of them Iraqi, according to Reporters Without Borders, a journalists advocacy group.

Hassan, described by friends as tall with gray-flecked hair and a warm smile, was the second employee of al-Sharkiya television, an independent channel owned by a London-based Iraqi businessman, to be killed this month. In January, a Sharkiya anchor escaped a kidnapping attempt by jumping out of the second-floor window of her apartment after masked men broke into her home.

On Monday, Hassan's family and closest friend struggled to comprehend his death. In today's Baghdad, filled with death squads and criminal gangs, there could be many reasons. Was he the victim of sectarian strife? Or was it a kidnap-for-ransom plot gone awry? Or did his broadcast cross one too many red lines?

What is clear is that Hassan was concerned about his life, said his friends. As he viewed the mounting death tolls, he often thought about when his turn would come, mirroring the views of many Iraqis, said Hanoon.

So, like most Iraqis, he made preparations for death. Last year he sold his car for $5,000 and used it to buy a piece of land for his family.

"I asked him, why you sold your car?" recalled Ali Jabbir, one of Hassan's co-actors on "Caricature."

"He said, 'If tomorrow comes and I die, at least I'll give a house to my kids.' And this was the concern of every Iraqi."

On Monday, Hanoon said he had spoken with Hassan's wife. She said her husband often reassured her that his fame would shield him from the violence unfolding outside.

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