First the Americans killed the correspondent of al-Jazeera
yesterday and wounded his cameraman. Then, within four hours, they
attacked the Reuters television bureau in Baghdad, killing
one of its cameramen and a cameraman for Spains Tele 5
channel and wounding four other members of the Reuters staff.
Was it possible to believe this was an accident? Or was it possible
that the right word for these killings the first with a jet
aircraft, the second with an M1A1 Abrams tank was murder?
These were not, of course, the first journalists to die in the Anglo-American
invasion of Iraq. Terry Lloyd of ITV was shot dead by American
troops in southern Iraq, who apparently mistook his car for an Iraqi
vehicle. His crew are still missing. Michael Kelly of The Washington
Post tragically drowned in a canal. Two journalists have died
in Kurdistan. Two journalists a German and a Spaniard
were killed on Monday night at a US base in Baghdad, with two Americans,
when an Iraqi missile exploded amid them.
And we should not forget the Iraqi civilians who are being killed
and maimed by the hundred and who unlike their journalist
guests cannot leave the war and fly home. So the facts of
yesterday should speak for themselves. Unfortunately for the Americans,
they make it look very like murder.
The US jet turned to rocket al-Jazeeras office on
the banks of the Tigris at 7.45am local time yesterday. The television
stations chief correspondent in Baghdad, Tariq Ayoub, a Jordanian-Palestinian,
was on the roof with his second cameraman, an Iraqi called Zuheir,
reporting a pitched battle near the bureau between American and
Iraqi troops. Mr Ayoubs colleague Maher Abdullah recalled
afterwards that both men saw the plane fire the rocket as it swooped
toward their building, which is close to the Jumhuriya Bridge upon
which two American tanks had just appeared.
On the screen, there was this battle and we could see bullets
flying and then we heard the aircraft, Mr Abdullah said.
The plane was flying so low that those of us downstairs thought
it would land on the roof thats how close it was. We
actually heard the rocket being launched. It was a direct hit
the missile actually exploded against our electrical generator.
Tariq died almost at once. Zuheir was injured.
Now for Americas problems in explaining this little saga.
Back in 2001, the United States fired a cruise missile at al-Jazeeras
office in Kabul from which tapes of Osama bin Laden had been
broadcast around the world. No explanation was ever given for this
extraordinary attack on the night before the citys liberation;
the Kabul correspondent, Taiseer Alouni, was unhurt. By the strange
coincidence of journalism, Mr Alouni was in the Baghdad office yesterday
to endure the USAFs second attack on al-Jazeera.
Far more disturbing, however, is the fact that the al-Jazeera network
the freest Arab television station, which has incurred the
fury of both the Americans and the Iraqi authorities for its live
coverage of the war gave the Pentagon the co-ordinates of
its Baghdad office two months ago and received assurances that the
bureau would not be attacked.
Then on Monday, the US State Departments spokesman in Doha,
an Arab-American called Nabil Khouri, visited al-Jazeeras
offices in the city and, according to a source within the Qatari
satellite channel, repeated the Pentagons assurances. Within
24 hours, the Americans had fired their missile into the Baghdad
The next assault, on Reuters, came just before midday when
an Abrams tank on the Jamhuriya Bridge suddenly pointed its gun
barrel towards the Palestine Hotel where more than 200 foreign journalists
are staying to cover the war from the Iraqi side. Sky Televisions
David Chater noticed the barrel moving. The French television channel
France 3 had a crew in a neighbouring room and videotaped
the tank on the bridge. The tape shows a bubble of fire emerging
from the barrel, the sound of a detonation and then pieces of paintwork
falling past the camera as it vibrates with the impact.
In the Reuters bureau on the 15th floor, the shell exploded
amid the staff. It mortally wounded a Ukrainian cameraman, Taras
Protsyuk, who was also filming the tanks, and seriously wounded
another member of the staff, Paul Pasquale from Britain, and two
other journalists, including Reuters Lebanese-Palestinian
reporter Samia Nakhoul. On the next floor, Tele 5s
cameraman Jose Couso was badly hurt. Mr Protsyuk died shortly afterwards.
His camera and its tripod were left in the office, which was swamped
with the crews blood. Mr. Couso had a leg amputated but he
died half an hour after the operation.
The Americans responded with what all the evidence proves to be
a straightforward lie. General Buford Blount of the US 3rd Infantry
Division whose tanks were on the bridge announced
that his vehicles had come under rocket and rifle fire from snipers
in the Palestine Hotel, that his tank had fired a single round at
the hotel and that the gunfire had then ceased. The generals
statement, however, was untrue.
I was driving on a road between the tanks and the hotel at the
moment the shell was fired and heard no shooting. The French
videotape of the attack runs for more than four minutes and records
absolute silence before the tanks armament is fired. And there
were no snipers in the building. Indeed, the dozens of journalists
and crews living there myself included have watched
like hawks to make sure that no armed men should ever use the hotel
as an assault point.
This is, one should add, the same General Blount who boasted just
over a month ago that his crews would be using depleted uranium
munitions the kind many believe to be responsible for an
explosion of cancers after the 1991 Gulf War in their tanks.
For General Blount to suggest, as he clearly does, that the Reuters
camera crew was in some way involved in shooting at Americans merely
turns a meretricious statement into a libellous one.
Again, we should remember that three dead and five wounded journalists
do not constitute a massacre let alone the equivalence of
the hundreds of civilians being maimed by the invasion force. And
it is a truth that needs to be remembered that the Iraqi regime
has killed a few journalists of its own over the years, with tens
of thousands of its own people. But something very dangerous appeared
to be getting loose yesterday. General Blounts explanation
was the kind employed by the Israelis after they have killed the
Is there therefore some message that we reporters are supposed to
learn from all this? Is there some element in the American military
that has come to hate the press and wants to take out journalists
based in Baghdad, to hurt those whom our Home Secretary, David Blunkett,
has maliciously claimed to be working behind enemy lines.
Could it be that this claim that international correspondents
are in effect collaborating with Mr Blunketts enemy (most
Britons having never supported this war in the first place)
is turning into some kind of a death sentence?
I knew Mr Ayoub. I have broadcast during the war from the rooftop
on which he died. I told him then how easy a target his Baghdad
office would make if the Americans wanted to destroy its coverage
seen across the Arab world of civilian victims of
the bombing. Mr Protsyuk of Reuters often shared the Palestine
Hotels elevator with me. Samia Nakhoul, who is 42, has been
a friend and colleague since the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war. She
is married to the Financial Times correspondent David Gardner.
Yesterday afternoon, she lay covered in blood in a Baghdad hospital.
And General Blount dared to imply that this innocent woman and her
brave colleagues were snipers. What, I wonder, does this tell us
about the war.