Slain Iraqi reporter brought courage and realism to war coverage

McClatchy NewspapersJune 30, 2005 

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Yasser Salihee was killed on his day off.

The irony is breathtaking, if you knew Yasser and the risks he took to gather scraps of truth in a place filled with deceit and danger. Yasser worked as an Iraqi correspondent for Knight Ridder, relentlessly pursuing stories that put him in harm's way because he wanted to show American readers the realities of life in a war zone.

His curiosity took him across Iraq. He interviewed an insurgent leader at a clandestine meeting in Baghdad. He braved the road through the "Triangle of Death" to cover the aftermath of a battle in Najaf. He kept his cool in Fallujah as he convinced rebels with grenade launchers that we were "just journalists."

But Yasser, 30, wasn't just a journalist. He was also a husband and father, and on June 24 he was shot and killed on the way to get gas to drive his family to the swimming pool. The U.S. Army is investigating Yasser's death; it appears that an American sniper fired the shot that flew through his windshield, pierced his skull and ended a life that was bursting with promise. There's no reason to think that the shooting had anything to do with his reporting work.

We know that at least 1,700 American troops have died so far in this war. However, for two years and counting, the U.S. military has refused to release statistics on civilians killed in the Iraq war. They die anonymously, every day, at checkpoints and in raids and in suicide attacks. They are crushed when bombs fall on their homes; they are caught in crossfire between insurgents and American troops. Like Yasser, they die on lovely summer days, while looking forward to splashing in the pool, enjoying some rare time off.

Little is known about the innocent Iraqis who pay the ultimate price for a war conducted in the name of their liberation. But because Yasser happened to be a journalist, a dogged chronicler of every milestone in his country for the past year, his story survives.

Our Baghdad bureau was looking for an office manager—not a reporter—when Yasser breezed into my hotel room in early 2004 and announced that he'd like to work for Knight Ridder. He was a physician struggling to make ends meet on the dismal salary that the Iraqi Health Ministry paid. After Saddam Hussein's regime fell, Yasser had worked with Japanese reporters and with National Public Radio, but he was looking for a permanent job to help support his wife and young daughter.

I just found the notes I took from that job interview, precious lines from a first meeting with a man who would become a dear friend and colleague. I had scribbled down stories he'd covered: "arrival of troops," "Saddam's capture," "spider hole," "Sistani." And biographical information: "has travel documents," "doctor."

Yasser impressed us as charming, intelligent and eager, so we hired him on the spot. He turned out to be a favorite for the stream of Knight Ridder journalists who came from far and wide for eight-week reporting stints in Baghdad. Besides helping us make sense of Iraqi politics and violence, Yasser showed his new American friends slivers of Iraq that never seemed to make it into the headlines.

Yasser taught a reporter from Philadelphia how to wear an Arab headdress. He introduced another to the best ice-cream cones in Baghdad. He took a photographer from San Jose, Calif., to the mountains of northern Kurdistan. Another reporter from California chugged across the Tigris River with him on a rickety motorboat. For a goodbye gift, Yasser gave the Berlin correspondent "perhaps the largest rug known to mankind."

Yasser happily accepted grueling, perilous assignments, and he rejoiced when his work appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. He asked our home bureau in Washington for copies of his stories and ignored his colleagues' teasing when he proudly taped them to the wall in front of his desk. He was an integral part of Knight Ridder's courageous Iraqi staff, the men and women who make it possible for us to keep covering the news in the face of grave threats to Western correspondents.

There was never a more bitter test of our bureau's strength than the day Yasser died. Tom Lasseter, a Knight Ridder reporter who works in Iraq year-round, hid his devastation behind stoicism as he immediately began fielding calls from other media representatives and requesting a full investigation from the U.S. military. Working alongside him was Omar Jassim, our office manager, who decided which drivers and correspondents were calm enough to rush to the scene and retrieve the bloody body. Those same Iraqi staff members later carried Yasser's coffin at the funeral.

The bureau was awash in tears and memories. As the news spread, condolences poured into the Baghdad office from around the world.

"We have all worked as a team, where each player has grown. Yasser has been an outstanding part of that team, and his loss hurts deeply," wrote Steve Butler, Knight Ridder's foreign editor in Washington. "The work he did was excellent. We will never know what he might have become. But I do know that what he did was important, for America and for Iraq."

Yasser came to journalism by circumstance, but grew to embody the old-fashioned, shoe-leather tradition of digging up great stories and finding compelling ways to tell them. He sucked up reporters' lingo, rushing back from a bombing scene to tell us he'd gotten "great color" to make readers care about what's unfortunately become a routine story. Shortly before his death, I joked to him that I was worried about my job; he was becoming too good at this business.

Yasser loved journalism so much that he confided that he wasn't sure he'd ever work again as a doctor. But his medical expertise was never far away. In the office, we ran to him with our stomachaches, bruises, eye infections and dehydration. I was once so ill that Yasser decided I needed an injection. I stuck out my arm for the needle and he laughed: "Uh, no. It has to be in the, um, backside." He couldn't help chuckling at my embarrassment.

His medical work extended beyond the office. Yasser broke off an interview with a famous Iraqi politician to take the man's blood pressure. After one particularly bloody bombing, Yasser returned to the bureau late and exhausted. We found out he'd not only covered the story, he'd also helped the overwhelmed doctors at the scene treat the wounded. As he put it to me later, "I was doing sutures, taking notes, doing sutures, taking notes."

Yasser's demanding job as a reporter inevitably meant less time with his wife, a doctor named Raghad, and their adorable, blue-eyed daughter, 2-year-old Danya. He raved about his family, brought them to staff dinners and posted photos of them in the office. I went to offer my condolences to Raghad this week, but instead of my pretty friend I found a shell of a woman with sunken eyes and layers of black mourning clothes.

Yasser's widow showed me photos of their wedding day, a huge celebration with white lace and a tall cake. Raghad managed a small laugh as she recounted how this fearless doctor had fainted in the hospital when she gave birth to their daughter.

For that daughter, Raghad is saving Yasser's newspaper articles, his notebooks, even the blood-soaked press card retrieved from the scene of his death. She made us promise to continue covering Iraq and said she wished her English were better so that she could take his place in the bureau.

Yasser had hoped to travel to London soon on a journalism fellowship. He showed me a copy of the essay he'd written for the application. He described the dangers that journalists in Iraq face, writing that the obstacles were enough to make anyone want to quit. Then he added:

"But for me, I decided to carry on as a doctor and a foreign reporter at the same time because I found it very important to tell the people outside about what's really going on."

———

(Hannah Allam is the Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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