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Slaying of 2 Journalists Adds to Profession's Toll

The TV reporters, both Sunnis, are the latest of 95 from their calling to lose their lives since the war began. Most of the victims are Iraqis.

May 10, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The mournful music played for hours Tuesday on the upstart Iraqi television station, formed with high hopes after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Across the bottom of the screen, a banner in blue framed the faces of two young men, beside the words: "The Two Martyrs of the Nahrain Channel. To Be Immortal in Paradise."

News of the slaying of correspondent Laith Dulaimi, 29, and technician Muazaz Ahmed, 28, whose bodies were found at a sewage plant Monday, brings to 95 the number of journalists and support staffers, the vast majority of them Iraqi, killed since the war began three years ago.

Dulaimi and Ahmed were not particularly confrontational in their reporting. But they were Sunni Muslims. And that has raised suspicions among their friends, because the two men were last seen being stopped by men who appeared to be police, and police here tend to be Shiite Muslims.

"Today in Iraq, all the cards are shuffled," said Maytham Shbani, a 29-year-old political reporter at the Egyptian-based TV channel Baghdadiya. "You don't know who is killing whom. Is it the militias? Is it the insurgents? Is it the Ministry of Interior? You will never know."

Accusations of violence have been made before against Iraqi police and the Shiite-led Interior Ministry that supervises them. But the ministry's officials have said they are being made scapegoats for killings committed by others who wear similar camouflage uniforms.

Shbani said he had recently lost another colleague. Fellow Baghdadiya correspondent Suood Shimmari, unlike the Nahrain victims, had been known for confronting Iraqi police about suspicions that they were committing extrajudicial killings.

He disappeared a month ago. Last week, his body turned up at the Baghdad morgue.

Thousands of Iraqis have met similar fates. But the intertwined animosities behind the daily violence here envelop journalists even more.

Atwar Bahjat, one of Iraq's most respected war correspondents, was gunned down in February shortly after she made an impassioned plea for unity in a broadcast from Samarra, where the Golden Mosque, a Shiite shrine, had been shattered by bombers. Witnesses reported that the killers drove up, shouting, "Where is the announcer?"

Such targeted violence has radio reporter Omar Mashhadani constantly looking over his shoulder. He is thinking of buying a gun, the 24-year-old said in an interview.

Of course, he quipped, he can ill afford the purchase, because he must spend all his money calling home to reassure his fiancee that he is safe.

The killings in recent days have convinced Mashhadani that his fellow journalists are "true patriots."

Like others from the media interviewed Tuesday, he gave no indication that he would change professions.

"Media is the search for truth and the search for wrongdoing," he said. "Iraq has been liberated. It's very important that we continue."

Baghdadiya's Shbani agreed. He said he had faced a number of anonymous threats while reporting on the danger of sectarian militias.

One night not long ago, he said, he found a bullet beside a note on his doorstep: "Beware of your words, or this bullet will be your fate."

Dulaimi frequently took to the streets of Baghdad for Nahrain's nightly newsmagazine, where he tried to convey "the agony of the people," said Raed Azzawi, a senior correspondent at the station. Dulaimi covered such matters as the shortages of water, power and medical service, as well as "women's problems with their husbands," Azzawi said.

The two men had dropped a colleague off and were continuing home Sunday night when they were stopped at a checkpoint. A neighbor who saw them called to alert their families.

The pair were found dead the next morning, with their hands cuffed and their bodies bearing signs of torture, Azzawi said. He did not say where he got this information.

Shimmari died in a similar manner. He had been a correspondent for Baghdadiya until a little more than a month ago, when he left to pursue a better job, perhaps with a satellite channel, said his friend and co-worker Shbani.

The twentysomething journalist was alone when he disappeared. The circumstances of his abduction remain vague, but the manner of his death is clear: two gunshots to the head, Shbani said.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the war in Iraq was the deadliest conflict for journalists and their staffers since the organization began keeping records about 25 years ago. Seventy-five of the 95 killed have been Iraqis. Two Americans are among the victims.

Yet journalists such as Baghdadiya's Shbani, who said he continued to receive menacing cellphone calls, sounded undeterred.

"For us, as journalists, we must challenge what is happening," Shbani said. "If we don't challenge what is happening, then the truth will be lost."

In Baghdad on Tuesday, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said in a news conference that his government was very close to complete, with the major ministries assigned and only some details to be worked out before the weekend.

Formation of the government has been delayed by divisions among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and the ethnic Kurdish minority.

Meanwhile, violence continued Tuesday evening when a suicide truck bomber killed 17 people at a crowded outdoor market in Tall Afar, near the Syrian border. Thirty-five others were wounded.

The northern city, with its largely Turkmen population, was at the center of a large-scale American military offensive against insurgents in September. It was hailed recently by President Bush, who cited it as "a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq."

Since then, the planned transfer of authority in the city to Iraqis has been delayed until later this year.

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