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Insurgents step up attacks on Iraqi journalists

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Raeda Wazzan was headed home from work after picking up her 10-year-old daughter. That's the last her colleagues at Iraqiya, the state-run television station, know about her.

Suspected insurgents released Wazzan's little girl three days after last Sunday's kidnapping, but no one has heard from Wazzan, the latest journalist to find herself in the insurgents' crosshairs. Her friends suspect she may have been killed and say her daughter was lucky.

While the insurgents have grabbed headlines by taking foreign correspondents hostage, Iraqi journalists and their families, have been in just as much danger. And in recent weeks, the insurgents seemed to have stepped up attacks against the country's public television station and against an Arabic-language station funded by the United States.

Local journalists typically get the worst of it in war.

"Statistically, it is always the local correspondents that have the higher incidence of death than the foreign correspondents," said Tala Dowlatshahi, of Reporters Without Borders.

Of the 32 journalists and 15 media assistants killed since the war began, 26 of them were Iraqi, according to Reporters Without Borders. The organization is concerned about a rise in attacks against foreign and local reporters this month.

Abdel Hussein Khazaal, a reporter for Al Hurra, the U.S.-funded television station, was killed Feb. 8 in a spray of gunfire in front of his home in the southern city of Basra. His 3-year-old son was also slain.

Iraqiya, the state-funded station that was started by the U.S. occupation authority, has also suffered several mortar attacks this month on its station in the northern city of Mosul, where Wazzan was kidnapped. Insurgents recently tried to kidnap an Iraqiya producer in Mosul.

Last week, insurgents released an Indonesian reporter and a cameraman who were taken hostage earlier this month. An Italian reporter snatched while doing an interview on a Baghdad street on Feb. 4 is still missing, and a French reporter and her translator have been missing since mid-January.

The insurgents have used foreign journalists to pressure countries to withdraw their forces from Iraq—without success. The attacks on local media appear to be motivated by the belief that the reporters are collaborating with the Iraqi government or with the United States.

Iraqiya's general director in Baghdad blamed Wazzan's kidnapping and the other attacks on insurgents who want to pressure the station to stop airing interviews with captured bombers. The station began broadcasting the interviews, done in the Ministry of Interior, a couple weeks ago.

"We revealed the most dangerous terrorists," Ahmed al-Yassiry said. "When I started to show these interviews and reveal the truth about them, most Iraqis, even those who used to secretly support the terrorists, saw that these people don't deserve to be called resistance fighters because they kill innocent people.

"So Iraqiya now becomes one of (the insurgents') enemies and they start kidnapping our employees, killing us," he said. "They consider us an agent for the government or for the Americans."

Like so many local journalists, al-Yassiry has told his children and his wife to never tell their friends he works for Iraqiya.

"All the employees here in Iraqiya hide their identities so they won't jeopardize their families," he said. But the anchors and journalists who appear on the news can't hide from the insurgents.

"I consider all the presenters who show themselves on television heroes," he said.

The recent attacks aren't the first against Iraqiya and its staff. A few months ago, a reporter was attacked in her car and lost a leg. She's recovering in Lebanon, al-Yassiry said. Iraqiya has lost a total of six staffers since the war began, including anchor Liqa'a Abdul Razzak, who was killed a week after she left the station last year, according to Ahmed al-Hamadani, a reporter for Iraqiya in Anbar province.

While foreign journalists face their worst dangers when they're out reporting, they go home at night to fortified compounds, either in the Green Zone or in heavily secured hotels nearby. And their families generally are far away from Iraq. Local reporters don't have that luxury.

Al-Hamadani said he was forced to move his family several times late last year after he received word that an insurgent group was planning to kidnap one of his six children.

"I moved from place to place, city to city, and then kept them in different places in Baghdad," he said. "We kept up that way for a month."

The threats came after he covered the Americans' assault on Fallujah. Since then, he hasn't appeared on television.

He worries that the station has gone too far in taking on the insurgency in its reports.

"The administration of our station insists on keeping us like soldiers, to fight like the soldiers fight the terrorism, to continue our work," he said. "I would be better off if I worked for someone else."

Al-Hamadani said his brother has stopped speaking to him because he fears journalism has put the entire family in grave danger.

"He's upset because he's worried about me because I'm stubborn," he said. "He's worried about me and my family. He won't talk to me while I keep working."


(Nesmith reports for The Miami Herald. Special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed from Baghdad.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.