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Arab journalists angered by deaths of 2 colleagues

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In another time, or another place, it would've been a diplomatic affront of the highest order: Iraq news reporters staged a boisterous boycott of Secretary of State Colin Powell's surprise visit here on Friday to protest the slayings of two Arab TV colleagues who may have been mistaken for terrorists and killed by U.S. soldiers.

Senior Bush administration leaders said the snub was a sign of Iraq's budding democracy and promised a full investigation of the killings.

Just like their foreign colleagues, about 25 Iraqi reporters showed up early and went through repeated frisks and a dog-sniffing detection for the news conference with Powell, who was visiting to review Iraq's progress a year after the U.S.-led invasion that drove Saddam from power.

But they greeted Bremer and Powell, who came to address reporters after a series of meetings, with a sharp rebuke rather than questions.

"We declare our condemnation of the incident that led to the killing of the two journalists ... at the hands of the American forces," said Najim al Rubaie of Iraq's al Dustour daily before nearly everyone in the front row of the news conference filed past the podium and exited.

Only two Arab female reporters remained. They said they had consulted with their bosses before the walkout and were forbidden from leaving.

"That's what we came here to fight for. More than 500 Americans have died so those guys could organize themselves, stand up and walk out of a press conference," said President Bush's personal envoy in Iraq, chief administrator L. Paul Bremer. " ... The last time a press conference was held in there under Saddam Hussein, they would've had their tongue cut out, if they were lucky."

The source of the tension was the shooting deaths of two Iraqis who worked for the Dubai-based satellite television channel al Arabiya. Al Arabiya said U.S. soldiers fired on a car carrying a cameraman and correspondent at 10 p.m. Thursday, as they rushed to report on insurgent rocket attacks that rattled hotels in Baghdad's Karrada district.

Cameraman Ali Abdelaziz was killed immediately. Reporter Ali al Khatib died in a hospital within hours.

Powell appeared unperturbed by the hostile reception at the news conference, which capped a surprise seven-hour visit to the Green Zone, the concrete and troop-ringed compound where Bremer and other coalition members live and run the U.S.-led occupation.

At first, he blamed the insurgents fighting the American-led occupation for the violence and predicted that there were "difficult days ahead." Then the retired U.S. Army general-turned-statesman said military mistakes happen, especially in the dark.

"In a scene where there's been a battle or explosion or something of that nature, there tends to be confusion," said Powell. "I am confident it wasn't anything deliberate. ... But I will wait for the military authorities to complete their investigation before making a judgment on it."

Powell took note of the walkout by listing some of the postwar progress in Iraq, including "freedoms to Iraqis of the kind they have never enjoyed before, as you just saw exercised a few moments ago."

Saddam's Baath Party regime had controlled Iraq's news media. Since the regime's fall last spring, Iraq has experienced an explosion of independent-controlled journalism and coalition-funded television programming. More than 200 new newspapers have appeared around the country.

At times, reporters, photographers and foreign correspondents' translators have been swept up in the violence between the insurgents and the coalition.

Coalition officials pointedly called on both Iraqi women during the question-and-answer session of Friday's news conference. One of them addressed the secretary of state as "your excellency."

Outside the hall, Iraqi newspaper writer Mudhir Alzahyri, 47, said he believed that U.S. troops were purposefully targeting Arab journalists and said he didn't trust an investigation. A 25-year veteran journalist who wrote for children's magazines during Saddam's era, Alzahyri said it may be worse today for Arab journalists.

Then, he said, "they put them in jail. They didn't kill them."

Meanwhile, a senior coalition official said, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, ordered an "urgent review" of the shooting of the two al Arabiya men. One of the men had served during the war as an interpreter for Information Minister Mohamed al Sahaf.

By late Friday night, U.S. military spokesmen still had no details of the alleged al Arabiya attack. Coalition troops shot and killed an Iraqi man who hit a Humvee at 30 mph, allegedly trying to run a checkpoint in the same area at 10:16 p.m. Thursday, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Serena Wallace, a coalition military spokesman.

But soldiers on the scene said the victim was alone in the car, and the dead man had no journalist's identification, Wallace said.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services