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Iraq's public TV network a dangerous place to work

BAGHDAD, Iraq—When two employees of government-owned al Iraqia television were killed on assignment a year ago, station managers decided they had to be memorialized. They soon realized, however, that the photo cabinet they'd selected wouldn't be big enough.

Now, with 35 dead in the last year and 55 wounded, they're planning to devote a newsroom wall to remembering departed colleagues.

Al Iraqia, Iraq's public broadcasting network, must surely be among the most dangerous places to work in the world.

The 3,000-employee network includes a large daily newspaper, two radio stations—one devoted to readings of the Quran—and three television stations, broadcasting everything from news to soap operas and children's programming.

How dangerous is it to work for the network? Even on hot days, soldiers who guard the station cover their faces with ski masks, out of fear that they'll be identified by enemies of the station and hunted down after work.

Sahar al Ibrahimi, a TV reporter, has moved her family to escape what she describes as "terrorists' attacks and threats."

"When we go to restless areas, I try to hide the Iraqia logo, in order not to jeopardize the life of the crew accompanying me," she said. "I do not know why they target our station. All we do is talk about real life in Iraq."

No one can say for sure who's killing al Iraqia's staff. Many of the deaths clearly were the work of insurgents who see the station as an extension of the government and American forces. But others can't be laid to any group, and al Iraqia's staff presents itself as besieged from all sides.

Death isn't limited to reporters. In recent weeks, two children's radio programmers were murdered after revealing where they worked at a fake checkpoint. A station manager and his driver were shot to death as they approached the station in March.

Muhammed Jassim Khudhair, who's second in charge at the pro-government network, notes that they've asked the prime minister's officer to consider murdered network employees as national martyrs, similar to soldiers, which would make their families eligible for special pensions. Currently, the station pays out about $1,400 per death.

Al Iraqia employees are hardly the only people being killed in Iraq these days. In March, in Baghdad alone, police were reporting 25 murders a day, most in violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. But even by Baghdad standards, al Iraqia is a dangerous place to work.

Station manager Sayed Habeeb Muhammed Hadi al Sadr thinks that part of the reason for the hostility may be the station's beginnings as an American-funded radio station that expanded into a network under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled.

But he says the station now is more like the British government-funded British Broadcasting Corp. than it is a propaganda arm for the government or the U.S.-led military coalition.

"Some people call us the Jewish station, some the American station, some the Lebanese station," he said. "The Shiite called us the Sunni station. The Sunni called us the Shiite station."

The offices in central Baghdad were rebuilt on the looted and burnt-out wreckage of the old national TV network, which offered a variety of programming, all of it praising Saddam. The offices boast Islamic arches, water fountains, flower gardens and blue-and-green-tiled floors and walls.

The setting is hardly plush—there's only one studio—but it's safer inside the complex than outside. Hadi al Sadr isn't sure how to keep his employees safe when they're working outside the building. He thinks field journalists should be armed.

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Haider al Obudy, 33, a news reporter, said the mounting death toll only encouraged him to work harder.

"Targeting al Iraqia is targeting the truth," he said. "I believe I have my country's cause to convey. The ambush only made me more persistent."

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(Ahmed is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-TV

Iraq

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