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Iraqis working on reality TV show abducted, slain

Four are seized in a Mosul neighborhood where they were to tape a Ramadan series that benefits the poor.

September 14, 2008|Tina Susman and Saif Rasheed | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The TV show is one of the country's most popular, a form of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" in which a TV crew surprises needy Iraqis with food and gifts during the holy month of Ramadan.

On Saturday, as the Sharqiya TV personnel homed in on a family reeling from losses suffered in a massive bombing, kidnappers zeroed in on them. Hours later, three journalists and their driver were found dead, shot in the head and chest and dumped on the outskirts of Mosul, a northern city that has become one of the most violent in Iraq.

By Saturday night, police said they had arrested five suspects. The security chief of Mosul, which has long been plagued by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups, said had he known the crew's plans, he would have provided guards for them.

The abduction, which occurred in the teeming Zanjili neighborhood of west Mosul, was striking for its brazenness and brutality. It happened as Farida Adil, one of the hosts of "Breaking Your Fast Is on Us," waited in an apartment with the family that was to be featured in the show's next episode: a woman with six children, whose husband had died in a massive bombing in January. Adil, speaking later on Sharqiya, said upon arriving in the area she heard an explosion and some gunshots and became nervous. But one of her colleagues had assured her Mosul was safe and that the television station was much-loved among residents.

As Adil waited in the family's modest home to film the introduction, the other crew members were making their way from the car, bringing in the equipment and causing excitement among residents crammed into the trash-strewn walkways.

"They went through narrow alleyways. The people crowded around them. The criminals were among that crowd," said Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, commander of Iraqi security forces in Mosul. "The operation of kidnapping was done in a very quick way."

Adil didn't know anything was wrong until a decision was made to go first to the scene of the January bombing and return to the apartment later. She was about to go outside when someone told her the crew had been abducted.

Adil remained inside. Eventually, she covered her auburn hair with a scarf, put on a long black abaya, and slipped out. Adil normally does not wear a scarf and she dresses in Western clothing.

The bodies of her colleagues were found a short time later.

"They were like my brothers," Adil said, weeping. "I just was with them this morning. I can't believe that I lost four of them now."

Sharqiya, an independent station that has been on the air since 2004, identified the dead as Mosul bureau chief Musaab Azzawi, cameramen Ahmed Wail and Ehab Maad, and driver Qairdar Mohammed Alban.

Regular programming was canceled and replaced by the most recent episode of "Breaking Your Fast Is on Us," with a black stripe in the upper left corner of the TV screen in memory of the slain employees.

The show airs only during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn until sundown. Each night, it features a different family in need of money, food and household goods.

The episode that aired Saturday night featured Adil, clad in a pink blazer with her hair in a ponytail, traveling down the Tigris River in a small boat with a family. A chef, clad in a white apron and chef's hat, then prepares a meal enjoyed by the group in an idyllic setting along the banks.

Afterward, the crew gathers in the family's home and presents the father with a pair of box-cutters to tear into huge containers concealing a stove, a washing machine and other appliances. One of the women exclaims that she had always hoped to be visited by the show.

Ali Wajeeh, the newsroom director of Sharqiya, said 12 station employees had been killed since 2004 in what he called a campaign to silence journalists, especially Sharqiya's.

"The show will go on and it will not stop," he said angrily. "We will continue and we will not change our course."

The television channel, which broadcasts via satellite from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is popular among Iraqis for its mix of satire poking fun at Iraq's government, along with news, sit-coms, soap operas and reality shows. It has aired ads heralding cooperation between Iraqis and U.S. forces and condemning terrorism, which might make it a target of Sunni Muslim insurgents.

But it also has been accused by Iraq's Shiite-led government of exhibiting sympathy for Saddam Hussein and was ordered off the air briefly when a news anchor wore black after Hussein's execution.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the slayings, but they appeared to be the work of Sunni insurgents who have set up base in northern Iraq, turning it into the deadliest part of the country as Iraqi and U.S. forces press on with an offensive aimed at members of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

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