Missteps by Press Color Iraqi Perceptions

By: Craig Nelson

With tanks and armored personnel carriers, U.S. Marines had surrounded the Palestine Hotel, home to the foreign press corps in Baghdad, Iraq. Now, at a checkpoint located at the foot of the hotel’s driveway, they were requesting identification from me and other reporters who had been living in the hotel for weeks.

At first, the two Marine guards wouldn’t accept my word about who I was, what I was, and how long I’d been in the hotel. Fair enough: Baghdad remains a dangerous place, with suicide bombers in civilian clothes and remnants of the deposed dictator’s security apparatus still active. Better safe than sorry.

I pulled my U.S. passport from my shirt pocket. “Nope, I need to see the Iraqi press credentials,” one of the Marines said. I was dumfounded: The guards wouldn’t accept a valid American passport, but they would accept as identification the press credentials issued by the propaganda arm of a government they had overthrown and a regime the Bush administration had likened to Hitler’s.

I was eventually allowed to pass through the checkpoint, not by showing my Information Ministry press credentials, which I’d flung in the wastebasket to celebrate my personal liberation from Iraqi spies, but by pulling my hotel-room key from the pocket of my jeans.

Yet, as the episode at the checkpoint demonstrates, caution still shrouds all U.S. military activities in Iraq. As American forces try to bring order to the streets of Baghdad and the task of establishing a new Iraqi government enters a key stage, success is tinged with fears of suicide bombers and shrouded by difficulties in assessing who or what is a threat.

“We splashed that bastard,” a Western eyewitness quoted one Marine as saying to another after they’d shot an Iraqi dead. The man was gunned down after he walked out of his door onto a balcony to see why three women were crying from the street below. It turned out their car had been shot up by Marines two minutes earlier.

Troops of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, had been targeted by sporadic rifle and rocket-propelled grenade fire at their command post at the gate to Saddam Hussein’s palace in Baghdad’s Adhamiya district. But the eyewitness, producer Tim Lambon of Britain’s Channel Four, said the man atop the balcony did not have a gun.

Any similar episodes risk American hopes to win over the hearts and minds of Iraqis.

And U.S. soldiers weren’t alone in conveying troubling messages. Journalist Peter Wilson watched as a Los Angeles Times reporter walked to the driver’s window of a destroyed minibus on central Baghdad’s Sinak Bridge. Inside the broken window was the carbonized corpse of the vehicle’s driver, its charred arm resting on the window’s ledge.

Bidding a photographer standing nearby to take his photo, the reporter, Geoffrey Mohan, stood about a foot from the corpse and, with his pen poised over his notebook, asked: “Well, sir, do you have any comment on what has happened to you here?”

Thirty feet away, behind a cordon of barbed wire, stood about 20 Iraqis watching the American conduct a mock interview with the corpse of a man who probably had a family — all for a photo opportunity. They may have not understood what Mohan said, but they saw what he was doing, Wilson and two other Western eyewitnesses said.

Wilson, Europe correspondent for The Australian newspaper, was still shaken by the incident when I spoke to him a day later. “What stuck in my mind,” he said, “was the question: Who is he going to show this souvenir photo to? His wife? His kids? His buddies?”

Mohan, who was embedded with an Army unit, later acknowledged that the incident was an “ill-conceived, clumsy, and ill-considered attempt at gallows humor.” During a telephone interview, he insisted there had been no Iraqis within 50 feet of the bus.

He also described the account by Wilson and the two other eyewitnesses as part of an “agenda against embedded reporters,” implying that the episode has been distorted by Baghdad-based foreign reporters who believed that journalists traveling with American military units during the war had empathized too uncritically with their hosts.

Episodes such as these — along with last week’s stories about at least six U.S. reporters smuggling objects or money out of Iraq — tarnish the image of Americans in Baghdad. But these perceptions are not tainted beyond repair. If such incidents accumulate, however, they could deepen Iraqi suspicions about Washington’s motives.

See E&P‘s complete coverage of Iraq and the Press.

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