What I Risked as an Iraqi Journalist

By Bassam Sebti
Sunday, October 21, 2007

An afternoon in August 2004. I was ready to set off for my home in northern Baghdad when two explosions rocked the building that houses the Washington Post Baghdad bureau, where I worked as a correspondent. I peered out the window -- first right, then left -- to locate the smoke from the bombings. Near a Christian church in the central neighborhood of Karrada, I saw a huge tornado-shaped cloud rising into the air.

I grabbed my notebook and camera and headed out with the bureau's night-shift driver to cover the bombings. As we arrived at the scene, another bomb exploded in a car parked nearby, scattering shrapnel all over the place, including onto our car. Luckily, we were still inside, and the shrapnel fell only on the hood. People covered in blood ran in all directions, screaming in pain and horror.

For the first time, I realized how dangerous my job as a reporter had become.

Journalists in Iraq -- and especially Iraqi journalists -- face grave danger every day, and not just from car bombs. The insurgents and militias who control vast areas in Baghdad consider Iraqi journalists to be spies for the government or the U.S. occupation. Working for an Iraqi news agency is dangerous enough, but working for a U.S. media outlet puts you in double jeopardy. In the killers' eyes, we are collaborators with the infidels.

Between 2003, the year I started working for The Post, and the summer of 2006, when I left Baghdad, about 93 journalists were killed; 85 percent of them were Iraqis, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The total number of journalists killed in this war has now reached 119. They include The Post's Salih Saif Aldin, who was shot in the head a week ago as he covered street fighting in Baghdad's southwestern neighborhood of Saydiya, and Eyad Tariq, an editor of al-Watan, a weekly newspaper in Tikrit, along with his two bodyguards.

I joined The Post not long after finishing college, after first working as an interpreter for Jill Carroll, an American reporter who wrote for the Christian Science Monitor. I'd never thought about being a reporter before that. Under Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, the media were nothing more than a government mouthpiece. But after the war, it was different. I saw the need to tell the world what was happening in my country.

For the 2 1/2 years I worked for The Post, I feared that I, too, might become a victim. As an Iraqi correspondent, I knew that I would be killed, not kidnapped. Insurgents usually kidnap American journalists to bargain with the U.S. military to release detainees. Iraqis who work with Americans and whose lives are not considered worth bartering over are shot on the spot.

In January 2006, a group of Sunni insurgents kidnapped Carroll. Her Iraqi interpreter, Allan Enwiyah, was shot dead in front of her. Fortunately, she was released three months later.

Each day that I worked for The Post involved attempts to prevent my own killing. No one in my neighborhood knew where I worked or what I really did for a living. I told everyone that I ran my own business, an Internet cafe, in a remote area of northern Baghdad. If people had known the truth, word might have reached bloodthirsty insurgents who wait for a chance to add another name to their death lists.

But my lies weren't enough to make me feel safe. I knew that someone out there was waiting to kill me because of my work for The Post. I always expected a threatening note to appear on my family's doorstep, or a bomb to go off as I left my house.

Two young men in my neighborhood were blown up because of their jobs in the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government and parliament are located. The mother of one went mad when she heard the news. A former employee of the United Nations, she had always been friendly before her son's killing. But afterward, she wouldn't speak to anyone. Instead, she walked the streets, talking to herself.

I never let down my guard. Stress became my companion. Even when I slept, my senses stayed alert -- and ready to use the AK-47 I placed next to my bed in case I was attacked at home.

Despite the risks, though, and despite my parents' frequent pleas that I quit my job, I believed in my work as a reporter. We need the world to see and hear about what is happening here, I always told my parents.

But bringing that truth to the world is not an easy task. Whenever I was assigned to cover clashes and fighting in the streets of Baghdad, I would discuss with my bureau chief and other Iraqi reporters how I could do it without getting killed. For me, that meant going to the scene an hour or two after the fighting ended. In the meantime, I would call everyone I knew in the neighborhood to get a clear picture of what was going on.

Some of my colleagues were more willing to cover clashes as they took place. My friend Salih Saif Aldin, one of The Post's most fearless reporters, was one. He first reported for the paper in 2004, covering a string of incidents in his home town of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. I recall talking to him on the phone as he passed me information from a street battle. I could hear the shooting as though it were right in front of me.

I always told Salih to be careful, but he was confident and determined. "We are The Washington Post. We should always be on top of the news," he would retort, repeating a sentence we teach every new reporter in the Baghdad bureau.

Brave and aggressive, Salih chased hidden stories. Once, he exposed a scandal involving Iraqi police in Tikrit, uncovering the death of an Iraqi civilian who had been tortured, on the orders of the police chief, to force him and others to confess to crimes they hadn't committed. After the story appeared in The Post in 2005, the police staff came under investigation. And Salih became an object of revenge. He was attacked and beaten, but he was determined not to quit his job. He was a courageous, committed and loyal reporter. And he paid the price for covering the truth in Iraq.

The murders of Iraqi reporters who work for the Western media have left the rest of us with few options. Many have quit our jobs or left the country. I was lucky enough to be accepted, with help from a Post reporter, into a master's program in writing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, fulfilling my dream to earn a higher degree. But others haven't had my good fortune. They remain in Iraq either because they don't have enough money to leave or because they have no place to go.

And yet some journalists remain because they strongly believe that Iraq needs them at this difficult time. "I will never quit my job," said my aunt, Nidhal al-Mousawi, a reporter for the Iraqi newspaper Azzaman. Insurgents have forced her out of her house. They've left her a threatening letter demanding that she quit her job. Yet she hasn't. "If I quit and my colleagues quit, who is going to tell the world about Iraq?" she told me the night I left Baghdad.

Every day, my aunt drives her car to work, knowing that she might be another victim of the ongoing effort to suppress the truth.


Bassam Sebti was a Washington Post special correspondent from 2003-06.

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