By Joshua Partlow and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 15, 2007; A01
BAGHDAD, Oct. 14 -- On Sunday afternoon, Salih Saif Aldin set out for one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods. He knew exactly where to go. He nodded, smiled, grabbed his camera. There was nothing he needed to say.
Saif Aldin always came back -- from death threats, from beatings, from kidnappings, from detentions by American soldiers, from the country's most notorious and deadly terrain -- but on Sunday he didn't. The 32-year-old Iraqi reporter in The Washington Post's Baghdad bureau was shot once in the forehead in the southwestern neighborhood of Sadiyah. He was the latest in a long line of reporters, most of them Iraqis, to be killed while covering the Iraq war. He was the first for The Washington Post.
"The death of Salih Saif Aldin in the service of our readers is a tragedy for everyone at The Washington Post. He was a brave and valuable reporter who contributed much to our coverage of Iraq," said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Post. "We are in his debt. We grieve with his family, friends, fellow journalists and everyone in our Baghdad bureau."
At 2 p.m., Saif Aldin took a taxi from The Post's office to Sadiyah to interview residents about the sectarian violence there between Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents. It was his third trip to the embattled neighborhood within a week. For him, there were no red zones, no green zones, no neighborhoods out of bounds.
Two hours later, a man picked up Saif Aldin's cellphone and called a colleague at The Post to say he had been shot.
Residents of the neighborhood and Iraqi military officers at the scene said Saif Aldin was killed while taking photographs on a street where several houses had been burned. His wounds appeared to indicate he was shot at close range. His body was later observed lying on the street, covered with newspapers.
The area Saif Aldin was visiting is dominated by the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Some residents at the scene said they feared that soldiers from the Iraqi army, believed to be infiltrated by the militia, were responsible for his death.
"They killed him," one man whispered, pointing at members of the Iraqi army brigade on the street.
Iraqi police officers said they believed Saif Aldin was killed by Sunni men belonging to the nascent organization known as the Awakening Council, a tribal organization aligned with the U.S. military that started in the western province of Anbar and has spread to parts of Baghdad. Iraqi government officials have accused these Sunni tribesmen of abusing their partnership with the Americans to kill and kidnap residents.
Saif Aldin's death adds to a list of at least 118 journalists who have been killed in Iraq while on duty, nearly 100 of whom were Iraqis, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Michael Kelly, a columnist for The Post, was killed in April 2003 in Iraq when a Humvee he was traveling in drove into a canal.
Saif Aldin was killed in the same neighborhood where a journalist for the New York Times, Khalid Hassan, was shot and killed in July. Western news organizations rely heavily on their Iraqi staff members to navigate the hazards of reporting here: to witness scenes of car bombs, the carnage in hospitals, the grief inside the homes of Iraqis who have died in this war.
For The Post, no one did this more regularly, confidently and fearlessly than Saif Aldin, the divorced father of a 6-year-old daughter, Fatima. He had a striking presence: bald and barrel-chested, with a jagged scar on his bulging neck from a fight in his youth. He was a Sunni from Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein and the epicenter of the insurgency early in the war.
He had studied at the Baghdad University College of Languages and shortly after graduating was hired as a correspondent in Tikrit for al-Iraq al-Yawm, or Iraq Today. Saif Aldin joined The Post in January 2004 as a stringer working from Tikrit. He quickly gained a reputation for tenacity and a seeming imperviousness to danger, taking on assignments that frequently put him in harm's way.
In 2005, he received a note threatening his life if he did not quit journalism and leave Tikrit. He refused. "This is my city, and I'm a journalist," he told colleagues.
In July of that year, he was attacked by two men, who beat him with a metal pipe and the butt of a pistol. He had bruises all over his body and a gash on his head that required eight stitches.
In January 2006, Saif Aldin reported a story accusing Tikriti officials of looting a former palace of Saddam Hussein's. Word circulated of a $50,000 bounty on Saif Aldin's head.
The Post asked him to come to Baghdad. When he refused, Omar Fekeiki, then the newspaper's office manager and a special correspondent, informed him he would be fired if he did not leave, believing it was necessary to keep him alive.
"One day I told him, 'You're gonna get yourself killed,' " Fekeiki recalled. "You know what he answered? This was his exact quote: 'What's life, really, if we don't leave something good behind us?' It was so stupid and so heroic at the same time."
Saif Aldin later moved to Baghdad, where he repeatedly braved the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, often traveling alone. For security reasons, he sometimes wrote under a tribal name, Salih Dehema. But otherwise, he was always off to the next challenge: He met with commanders of the Mahdi Army and leaders of Sunni insurgent groups. He drove south of Baghdad, to what is known as the Triangle of Death, to interview neighbors of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped and killed by American soldiers. Perhaps more than anyone at the newspaper, his work provided a window into the motivations and methods of those responsible for Iraq's violence, in its many complicated guises.
Five days ago, he went to Dora, a southern Baghdad neighborhood that has emerged as one of the fiercest battlegrounds between U.S. soldiers and the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. He walked up to American soldiers with a video camera and started asking questions. He was detained and interrogated by the soldiers, was released later that day and walked back into the office with a beleaguered smile and his plastic handcuffs as a souvenir.
"The American forces arrested me on my way to Dora to report on the military campaign there," he wrote in an e-mail to a friend two days ago. "They took my phone and everything I had in my pockets and they released me around sunset."
In the office, Saif Aldin was proud and polite -- a pensive, sometimes brooding man. But just as often, he was laughing and smiling, his green eyes twinkling. On Sunday afternoon, he was in a rush to leave, eager to complete his assignment and head to Tikrit to visit his daughter. From a closet downstairs, he picked up a notebook and a pen and slung his computer bag over his shoulder.
"There is no god but God," a driver for The Post told him as he was leaving.
"And Muhammad is the prophet of God," Saif Aldin responded in the customary Muslim exchange.
"Be careful," the driver told him. "Be careful."
"God willing," he replied, and walked out of the house.
Correspondents Sudarsan Raghavan and Steve Fainaru and special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.