Iraq: another journalist killed

From AP, Feb. 23:

“We want the correspondent!” shouted two gunmen who pulled up in a pickup truck, fired into the air and then killed the Al-Arabiya newswoman and two of her colleagues.

Al-Arabiya’s Atwar Bahjat, whose face is widely recognizable in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, was interviewing Iraqis outside Samarra after the bombing Wednesday of a revered Shiite shrine.

The station lost contact that night with Bahjat and her two colleagues from the local Wassan media company, engineer Adnan Khairullah and cameraman Khalid Mahmoud.

All three journalists were Iraqi Sunnis, who have been targets of Shiite violence since the destruction of the mosque.

Their bullet-riddled bodies were found Thursday morning near their vehicle, cameras and satellite dish on the outskirts of the city 60 miles north of Baghdad, police Capt. Laith Muhammad said.

A total of 82 journalists and media assistants have been killed since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, including seven this year, according to a Reporters Without Borders Count.

Bahjat, 30, who left Al-Jazeera television in December to join Al-Arabiya, was the seventh woman journalist killed in Iraq. Al-Arabiya is considered more conservative and pro-American than Al-Jazeera.

President Jalal Talabani’s office called the killing “a criminal and cowardly act” in a statement that praised Bahjat and her colleagues as professional journalists who “never stopped defending the truth.”

When a reporter asked Talabani during a news conference to allow journalists to carry weapons to defend themselves, he said: “Send me an official request and I will approve it and inform concerned agencies to give you the right to carry arms.”

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari ordered security authorities to find the killers of the three journalists and bring them to justice.

The United States condemned the killings. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli called it an “act of aggression against the efforts of a free press to cover the news.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists expressed dismay at the deaths.

“We hope that those responsible for these murders and those of other journalists will eventually be brought to justice,” said Ann Cooper, the group’s executive director.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders demanded that the work of journalists be respected and protected, regardless of their nationality or affiliation.

“We will never stop repeating that journalists are neutral and vital observers,” the group said. “They are neither combatants nor targets to be shot down.”

The three journalists had been reporting live Wednesday from the edge of Samarra, which was sealed off by security forces after the early morning explosion at the Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque. Bahjat’s last broadcast was at 6 p.m., Al-Arabiya said.

The team was conducting interviews when the two gunmen pulled up in the pickup truck, shooting in the air and shouting: “We want the correspondent,” according to a cameraman who evaded capture, Al-Arabiya reported.

The crowd gathered around the journalists scattered. The gunmen then shot the three and fled, the station reported. Their bodies were found at the scene of the shooting, about six miles northeast of Samarra, police said.

The station initially reported the journalists were kidnapped but later said they were killed on the spot.

Al-Arabiya has had three other correspondents killed since the start of the war.

In September 2004, correspondent Mazen al-Tumeizi was killed in Baghdad when a U.S. helicopter opened fire to destroy an American vehicle disabled by a car bomb.

In March that year, correspondent Ali al-Khatib and cameraman Ali Abdel-Aziz were killed near a U.S. military checkpoint while covering the aftermath of a rocket attack on a Baghdad hotel.

Another Al-Arabiya corespondent, Jawad Kadhim was wounded last year when gunmen shot him in a failed kidnapping attempt.

See our last post on Iraq, and our special report on Pentagon attacks on journalists.