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Iraqi Journalists Confront Powell on Shooting Deaths

At a news conference in Baghdad, protesters say U.S. troops killed two staffers of a TV station.

March 20, 2004|T. Christian Miller and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq — On a day when he tried to remind the world how much the United States had accomplished in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was reminded Friday of how much work remains to be done.

At a Powell news conference during his unannounced visit to Baghdad, more than 30 Iraqi journalists walked out to protest the shooting deaths in Baghdad this week -- allegedly by U.S. troops -- of two staffers for an Arabic-language television station.

A stern Powell listened as a representative of the Iraqi journalists recited a verse of the Koran in memory of the dead newsmen before complaining that the U.S. occupation had failed to provide sufficient security for a free press to flourish. With Powell on the podium was a stone-faced L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator for Iraq.

"The security situation in Iraq has become tragic," the speaker declared. "It is impossible to live with and there are too many innocent victims from among the Iraqi people."

The journalist called for an "open investigation" into the "murder" of the two journalists, whom he referred to as martyrs.

The nation's top diplomat did his best to cast a positive spin on the dramatic condemnation of the killings of Ali Khatib, 34, a reporter, and Ali Abdul Aziz, 35, a cameraman. Both were Iraqi nationals working for Al Arabiya, the Dubai-based satellite station. Both leave behind pregnant wives, colleagues said.

After the journalists trooped out en masse, Powell declared that independent journalism of the type practiced by the pair was nonexistent in Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein, who barred all dissent.

"It's something that would never have happened at an earlier time in Iraq, especially the last 30 years," Powell said. "Yes, there will be difficult days ahead; yes, we will have challenges with the security situation."

It was hardly the image of progress that the Bush administration had been seeking for the first anniversary of the war as news media from around the world took stock of the still-volatile state of affairs in Iraq.

The act of protest was in many ways emblematic of the difficult situation faced by the U.S. in Iraq. A pervasive lack of security and services in the post-Hussein era has left many Iraqis with mixed feelings -- grateful for the ouster of the dictator, but irate about the chaos and violence of daily life.

"The American troops have to stop shooting randomly at people," Diyar Saib Al Omary, a reporter with Al Arabiya, demanded at the station's grief-stricken bureau in Baghdad after the news conference, as a funeral cortege carrying the coffins of the two staffers passed by. "There must be some kind of accountability for this outrage."

Powell promised a full investigation, but blamed "terrorists" for the killings.

"At a scene where there's been a battle or an explosion or something of that nature, there tends to be confusion," Powell said. "Mistakes happen. Tragedies can occur."

Army spokesmen have released few details about the shooting late Thursday and said they knew of no journalists being struck.

An Al Arabiya driver who had been with the two men said in an interview Friday that the station's vehicle was hit by gunfire as it drove away from a U.S. checkpoint. The journalists had decided to move on to another assignment after arriving at the checkpoint near a Baghdad hotel that was hit by rocket fire, colleagues said.

The U.S. fire came as a second vehicle, a Volvo, approached the checkpoint and apparently refused to stop, said the Al Arabiya driver, Ahmed Abdul Amir, who survived the shooting with slight injuries to his head and arm. At that point, the driver said, the Al Arabiya vehicle had turned around and was leaving the area of the checkpoint.

The Army confirmed that troops opened fire on a vehicle that tried to run the checkpoint outside the hotel, crashing into a Humvee. The driver was killed, the Army said.

"I heard our window explode from the gunfire and then my friend slumped over on my shoulder with blood coming from his head," said the driver, referring to reporter Khatib, who had been sitting next to him. "Until I heard the windshield exploding from the bullets I never thought they would shoot at us."

The driver then turned off the main street and went to a hospital.

Even if U.S. troops fired the fatal shots, it remains unclear whether they were shooting directly at the journalists' vehicle as it drove away or whether stray bullets they had fired hit the journalists. The driver estimated that his vehicle was about 110 yards from the checkpoint when it was struck. At least one other car on the street also was hit, although no one was wounded, another witness said.

Khatib died early Friday in a Baghdad hospital. Abdul Aziz died instantly from head wounds, friends said.

Both were examples of the new breed of young journalist that has emerged in post-Hussein Iraq, reporting aggressively on the nation's unsteady path toward reconstruction and sovereignty.

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