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STYLE & CULTURE | LETTER FROM BAGHDAD

Fear and reporting

Threats abound for journalists living at the Al Hamra. But camaraderie and comforts keep them put.

September 19, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — It's midnight and closing time at the Al Hamra hotel's poolside restaurant, a fact signaled to the last four stragglers by waiters who have turned off the lights.

But the argument isn't over, so no one leaves the white plastic table piled with empty beer cans, the dregs of a chicken dinner and an overflowing ashtray.

"It would take a four-wheel drive to do it," insists Kirk Troy, who's freelancing for Newsday.

Beth Potter, another freelancer, thinks a tank, or at least a high-clearance SUV, would be needed.

"Nonsense," counters Scott Bobb, the Voice of America guy covering Baghdad at the moment. "You could clear that thing with a Chevy Chevette with a little determination."

The debate conducted with the boozy cynicism that tends to pervade journalists' late-night discussions is about how little it would take a car-bomb driver to get over the foot-high concrete barrier the hotel management has laid down 30 feet from the front steps as the centerpiece of its anti-terrorism defenses.

Private security experts employed by American media have warned editors that the Hamra is a vulnerable target for the kinds of attacks carried out in recent weeks against the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a mosque in the holy city of Najaf.

A few journalists have since left the Hamra, some even moving to the Palestine Hotel -- a more visible venue but one that has the advantage of being well-barricaded with a U.S. armored guard. At the Hamra, most have waved off their editors' pleas to relocate to some lesser-known place that terrorists are unlikely to think of as an American hangout.

The decision to stay put is born of neither disregard for personal safety nor the knee-jerk tendency of journalists to reject unsolicited advice from faraway bosses. In the gritty, risky world of war reporting, journalists -- or "hacks," as we affectionately refer to one another -- tend to adopt a survival strategy that gives priority to creature comforts and the company of colleagues over pointless efforts to anticipate the next threat.

Baghdad is a dangerous place, no matter how you approach it. Thinking about all the ways you can get hurt, kidnapped or killed is less likely to make you vigilant than scared out of your wits.

"I don't want to scare you, but ..." was the opening line of every admonition imparted at a recent American Town Hall meeting organized by the U.S. consul's office here for nonmilitary citizens. Noting that there are 70-odd carjackings a day in Baghdad and that the road to Jordan is beset by AK-47-wielding thieves, two Army security officers urged unarmed Americans to be ever alert for car bombs, to avoid getting stuck in traffic, to stay out of sight, to sleep in rooms away from the street, to carry a means of communication at all times and to pack survival equipment in the trunks of their cars.

We were told to let our Iraqi drivers start the cars before we get into them, to travel with doors locked and windows up, to change lanes while driving below an overpass so no one could drop a grenade on us and to refrain from doing any sightseeing or unessential travel. We were also encouraged to let our cars get really dirty so anyone who places a bomb underneath would leave a handprint.

For most journalists, that's too much information.

Those who have covered conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Somalia, Afghanistan or the West Bank are familiar with a laundry list of potential perils, which, if strictly avoided, would prevent us from doing our jobs.

When Los Angeles Times editors encouraged the three reporters ensconced at the Hamra to relocate, we had identical reactions: Why?

"The only thing that works around here is the Hamra," Patrick McDonnell said as he finished his chicken fingers. "I don't want to go hide out in some little hotel no one knows about."

Sure, the 10-story Hamra, rising from a warren of shops and two-story houses, is an easy target for shoulder-launched rockets from any of the hundreds of rooftop terraces within range. Even with the concrete beams barring vehicle entrance to two sides of the twin-building complex, a car or truck bomb could pull up to within arm's length of the pool area or the still-exposed northern tower.

"We told the hotel management they had to get their security act together or we were moving out," Josh Hammer, from Newsweek, says of the ultimatum some journalists gave Hamra's managers after the Aug. 19 U.N. bombing.

The managers responded by calling in U.S. troops for a security review and laying the two concrete beams at the entrance. In an apparently unrelated move, they repainted the beige exterior red and white, making it all the more eye-catching on the monochromatic horizon.

"Are you staying?" Larry Kaplow from Cox Newspapers asks me each morning when we cross paths on the seventh floor. We have the same conversation daily, acknowledging the feebleness of the security improvements as well as the unpredictability of where terrorists will strike next.

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