BAGHDAD — Five days ago, sympathy was pouring in from around the world for Iraqi journalist Dhia Kawaz. Now, he may face arrest over what his government says was a false report that 11 members of his family had been slain by Iraqi security forces.
Whether the report of killings was a bid for charity, as some relatives say, or a genuine mistake, as Kawaz maintains, the controversy has touched upon many of the issues facing Iraq: violence, sectarian tensions, the dangers to Iraqi journalists and the difficulty of separating fact from fiction amid the chaos.
Iraqi officials said the independent journalist, who alleged that Interior Ministry forces had killed his relatives, could face charges for leveling a false claim.
"There is a warrant of arrest against the journalist because of the accusations against the ministry and me, that I threatened to liquidate his family," said Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf.
It was unclear specifically what charges might be brought against Kawaz, a one-time loyalist of former President Saddam Hussein.
Speaking by phone Thursday from Jordan, where he said he was on a visit, Kawaz said he had not intentionally provided false information but had believed information relayed by a brother-in-law.
"I just gave the information received from Baghdad," Kawaz said. "I wasn't there myself."
He said he was unfazed by the Iraqi government's threats to arrest him. He insisted that because he is now a German citizen, "they have no right to issue such a warrant to arrest me."
The case underscores the situation in Iraq, where ghastly acts of violence are commonplace and no claim seems too outlandish or dreadful to be accepted as fact.
Iraqi journalists in particular have been targeted. At least 102 have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to statistics kept by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
So when reports circulated that Kawaz's kin had been killed, members of the media community accepted the news as another example of the oppression and danger they face here.
"We as Iraqi journalists condemn this act and our hearts are squeezed with sorrow for his loss," said one Iraqi newspaper journalist interviewed Monday who requested anonymity.
Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said he was shocked by initial reports of the incident. He asked police officials to check the morgue and dispatched officers to the family address that was provided by area residents after Kawaz refused to reveal the location of his relatives' home.
"We were surprised that the family was alive, and they started to talk badly about him . . . and they have no connections to him," Khalaf said. "They disassociate from him and his behavior."
Subhiya Alwan, Kawaz's mother, confirmed in a phone interview with The Times that no attack occurred and that the family was fine. Two of Kawaz's sisters, their husbands and seven children were reported to have been slain.
Alwan said she has six daughters and that Kawaz is her only son. But because of his "bad behavior, and because he is a liar, I don't want him to see me or call me," she said. "He has destroyed us . . . destroyed his family."
Haider Sadiq Kawaz, the brother-in-law who Kawaz said had told him of the slayings, was equally harsh.
"Dhia is a liar and swindler, and he fabricated this news aiming to get some help and charity from some organizations," he charged. Iraqi journalists familiar with Kawaz said he used to work as a photographer for various Iraqi government newspapers under Hussein's regime and was the photographer to a half-brother of the late leader.
Colleagues said Kawaz left with his family for Jordan in the late 1990s and later sought political asylum in Germany.
The news agency he subsequently established is decidedly critical of Iraq's current administration and opposes the U.S. presence in the country, colleagues said.
Shihab Tamimi, chief of a journalists syndicate in Iraq, said he was disappointed by the seeming fabrication of the story on the attack on Kawaz's family.
"Such things hurts us as journalists, as this will strengthen the claims which say that what the journalists publish and say are not accurate," Tamimi said.
Kawaz said he remained unconvinced that all of his relatives were fine despite the television appearance of two of his sisters and his mother's statement confirming the family's well-being. He suggested the family might have been coerced into denying an attack occurred.
Times staff writers Wail Alhafith, Saif Hameed, Saif Rasheed and Raheem Salman and a special correspondent contributed to this report.