An Iraqi journalist working for The New York Times was shot and killed in Baghdad yesterday, 24 hours after an Iraqi photographer and driver, working for the London-based news agency Reuters, were killed by fire from a US helicopter.
Iraq has become an extraordinarily dangerous place for journalists, with 110 killed since the US-led invasion in 2003 along with 40 media support workers, more than 80 per cent of them Iraqi. The death toll of 110 in four years compares with 63 in the 20 years of the Vietnam War.
The casualties among Iraqis working for the media are so high because Iraqi insurgents suspect journalists of working against them. US forces have never, in practice, accepted that Iraqis taking film or video footage of combat are simply carrying out their job.
The New York Times journalist killed yesterday was Khalid W Hassan, 23, who was shot by gunmen on his way to work. He called his office to say that he had been stopped by a checkpoint in the Sadiyah district of Baghdad. Half an hour later, he called his mother and said “I’ve been shot.”
A statement from The New York Times said: “The circumstances of his death remain unclear at this time.” He may not have been shot as a journalist but because the gunmen at the checkpoint deemed him to belong to an opposing community.
The Reuters photographer who was killed on Thursday was Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his driver Saeed Chmagh, 40. They died in eastern Baghdad during a US raid on a Shia district, bringing to six the number of Reuters staff killed in Iraq since 2003.
The killings also illustrate how many Iraqi civilians are killed by US troops spraying fire in all directions in thickly populated areas.
Unlike many incidents in which Iraqis are killed by US soldiers, the manner of the Reuters staffers’ deaths is known fairly precisely.
The US military says US and Iraqi forces engaged “a hostile force” and, after coming under fire, called for air support that killed nine insurgents and two civilians.
The police and witnesses tell a different story. A preliminary police report from al-Rashad police station said Mr Noor-Eldeen and Mr Chmagh were killed along with nine others by a “random American bombardment.”
One witness, Karim Shindakh, said: “The aircraft began striking randomly and people were wounded. A Kia [mini-van] arrived to take them away. They hit the Kia and killed … the two journalists.”
US soldiers then took away Mr Noor-Eldeen’s camera equipment. TV footage shows a hole in the roof of the van.
Reuters has long complained of hostile action against its staff by US troops. A letter from the agency’s editor-in-chief, David Schlesinger, to Senator John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, dated 26 September, 2005, complains of “a long parade of disturbing incidents whereby professional journalists have been killed, wrongfully detained, and/or illegally abused by US forces in Iraq”.
Journalists arrested by US troops frequently suffered physical and sexual abuse. The letter says: ‘On January 2-5, 2004, three Reuters personnel were beaten, taunted, and degraded by US forces while being arbitrarily detained at FOB [Forward Operating Base] Volturno and St Mere near Fallujah.
“Soldiers laughed, taunted, abused, photographed and degraded them by forcing them to insert their fingers up their anuses and then lick them.”
The four Reuters journalists killed earlier in Iraq by US troops were Taryas Protsyuk, a cameraman killed when a tank fired into the Palestine Hotel on 8 April 2003; Mazen Dana, a cameraman shot dead outside Abu Ghraib prison later that year; Dhia Najim, another cameraman, shot by a sniper in 2004; and Whaleed Khaled, a soundman, killed in 2005.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.