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'Learn From Everyone You Speak to and Everything You See'

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 15, 2007

BAGHDAD, Oct. 14 -- A few hours after Salih Saif Aldin's death Sunday, his colleagues and friends -- his second family, really -- gathered at The Washington Post's Baghdad bureau and collected his possessions to send to his relatives in Tikrit.

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There was an orange T-shirt that read "I Love DC" and a lime-green Washington Post T-shirt. There was a small new blue dress with sequins. It was for his 6-year-old daughter, Fatima, who had started primary school. He was going to visit her and his ex-wife in Tikrit on Sunday. He had bought the dress three days ago.

There were also nine blue reporter's notebooks, filled cover to cover.

He loved his daughter as much as he loved journalism, and on Sunday, as so often in his career, he sacrificed time with his family to report on the upheavals in his country. This time, he paid the highest price.

For all of us in the bureau, Salih was the Teflon correspondent. He could wade through the roughest neighborhoods in Baghdad, Sunni or Shiite. With his flashy smile and twinkling green eyes, he could persuade both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen to talk frankly.

He was ambitious, energetic, relentless, honest, serious and curious. Yet he could also be wild, emotional, stubborn, mercurial and fiery. He was a reporter's reporter. And we all admired his courage.

How do you measure what a man has accomplished? Is it by the outpouring of grief when he dies? On Sunday, we shed thousands of tears.

Or is it according to the way he touched our lives?

Salih sometimes felt he never got the respect he deserved. If only he could read the appreciations sent in from Post reporters around the world whom he had worked with and guided through the currents of Iraq's war. Respect: That's what we all felt for Salih.

-- Sudarsan Raghavan

The Whole World His University

Salih was the first person I got to know in Baghdad; we bonded while waiting for a group of soldiers to return from lunch and issue our press identification cards. We talked first about his daughter, the beautiful 6-year-old with ringlets and wide eyes. He gazed at a faded picture of her with a mixture of pride and pain that he was so far away from her.

We talked about his work as a captain in Saddam Hussein's army. We talked about his ongoing education, how he already had one university degree but wanted another. In halting English, he gave me a piece of advice that continues to guide my work as a reporter: "For you, Megan, Baghdad is your university. You should learn from everyone you speak to and everything you see."

Salih treated the whole world as his university. He quizzed me about the differences between America's East and West coasts and what the White House looks like up close. He saw story ideas everywhere and would rush home from class or the market, visibly excited to share.

-- Megan Greenwell

Even in the Wee Hours, Insatiably Curious

Like a lot of us in Baghdad who had trouble sleeping, Salih stayed up late. We kept each other company in our downstairs office in those rare moments of quiet that were closer to dawn than midnight. For me, sleepless nights were the loneliest part of covering Iraq, and his presence was often the only thing that spared me from homesickness and solitude.

Even in the wee hours, he was insatiably curious. He would excitedly call me over to his computer screen, explaining in broken English and hand gestures a story he'd just read on an Iraqi blog, or a video he'd downloaded, or a conversation he'd had in a chat room with a friend he'd made in some far-flung corner of the world.

In a year of working with Salih, I can't remember him ever telling me that an assignment he'd been given was too dangerous, even when it probably was. True to form, he died working alone in a part of Baghdad most Western reporters would never visit. Most of the time, I believe, as I think Salih did, that covering Iraq is worth the incredible risk, because the story is so important. Otherwise I could never have gone in the first place. But on a dark day like this, I wonder if that can possibly be true.

-- Jonathan Finer

Fiercely Proud of His Work

He was eager to go anywhere. When I wrote about Iraq's government denying diplomas to medical students, Salih lined up crucial interviews for me with students and took photos at Baghdad University, which was too dangerous for me to visit. He was also fiercely proud of his work. Once, he and another reporter went to the site of a big market bombing, and Salih came back with pages of notes. It was great work, but in the end I only used a bit of it. The next day he confronted me: Why, he wanted to know, didn't I use his material?

-- Karin Brulliard

'Salih, You're Joking'

I've never seen him actually sad. I would say to him, "Salih, you're joking, and it's like hell out there." He'd say, "What can I do? It's like an outlet. We laugh because we can't be sad all the time." He was a really hard worker, so committed to his job. I feel so bad for the people in our office, to lose such a good reporter. I don't know if the Post will ever be able to get someone as courageous to go out in the middle of street fighting and just report.

-- Bassam Sebti

Nailing a Scoop in Tikrit

Salih loved a scoop, and he reeled in a whopper in the spring of 2005. Like many Iraqis, Salih was deeply committed to justice and democratic reforms. One afternoon, he collared me in the living room of the bureau and, through an interpreter, told an amazing tale of a 37-year-old man in Tikrit who had been arrested by Iraqi police, was brutally tortured and died in police custody.

I was skeptical and told him so. Most important, we needed evidence. He would have to go to Tikrit, hunt down the relatives, confront the police, find the U.S. military officials and get some documentation. There had to be a paper trail, I said. Find it.

Most reporters would hang their shoulders at such instructions. Not Salih. He smiled, and his eyes sparkled. He left for Tikrit the next day.

A week later, he arrived back in Baghdad. The Iraqi police officer in charge of the case insisted that the detainee had died of low blood pressure from a preexisting medical condition, Salih explained. Then he laid out the pictures of the corpse showing a deep gash above the victim's right eye, a badly bruised right cheek bone, swollen nose, legs darkly discolored with deep purple bruises, and back and legs scarred by what appeared to be burn marks. An Iraqi army official who had reviewed the death report said the cause of death was "torture -- the signs are completely obvious."

U.S. military officials familiar with the case refused to discuss it, telling me that it was a matter for the Iraqi police, the very authorities who were accused of the killing. The story ran on April 9, 2005. The police chief involved in the case was investigated and sacked.

-- John Ward Anderson

Always in the Middle of Things

Salih was a reporter in the truest sense of the word, a kind of unsung hero who was tough, relentless and always in the middle of things. I remember him coming all bruised to the office one day. In a weird way, all I could think about was what happened to the other guy.

-- Anthony Shadid

Two Sides of a Man

The first time I saw Salih in the office, it was startling, because I only knew him as this guy who was coming up with amazing stuff in Tikrit or getting detained by the Americans because he got too close, or getting beaten up. He was such a hard-core reporter, but in person he was friendly, warm and understated. He wasn't the intense guy I expected.

-- Steve Fainaru

A $50,000 Bounty on His Head

He was a good Muslim. I never saw him drinking, and he wouldn't smoke water pipes or cigarettes because it was bad for one's health, he said -- ironically, obviously, considering the risks he took. When we had an Iraqi band in for someone's going away, he led all the Iraqi men in traditional Tikriti dances, twirling a handkerchief over his head and grinning as he led a line of our staffers through our back yard.

He was a stringer in the Tikrit area when I came along. I did a story with his help, and on his tip, saying Hussein's palace in Tikrit had been looted down to the baseboards as soon as the U.S. military turned it over to Iraqi authority. The day after the story ran, a bomb wounded the local governor there, who had been a prime source for the story, and word circulated very widely that there was a $50,000 reward for Salih's head -- literally, his head. He moved to Baghdad for us because of that threat.

Salih was always coming back to the office with new wounds -- he had bad scars on the back of his head from a beating at the time of the Tikrit incident, for instance. One time, he was covering something out on the street when a car bomb exploded near him. The bomb blew part of his eyebrow off. I drew one back in for him with a felt pen, which he thought was funny.

He could be very sweet, deferential, polite and kindly . . . he always called me "Miss," in English. On a trip out of Baghdad last year, he got me past a lot of checkpoints by telling the insurgents I was his mother.

"You couldn't say sister?" I asked him.

"Sorry, Miss, sorry," he said.

-- Ellen Knickmeyer


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