‘Wash Post’ Reporter: At The ‘Center of the Action’ in Iraq

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By: Barbara Bedway

As a reporter working nights for the Associated Press in Oklahoma City, Ellen Knickmeyer — who recently completed a 21-month stint as Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post — recalls being riveted by the broadcasts of the first Gulf War in 1990-91. “Seeing reporters being at the center of the action in a story that involved the world — that seemed to be the most worthwhile and exciting thing a journalist could do,” she says.

It took her another five years to get to the center of the action herself, but once she got there, she stayed.

From the AP’s foreign desk in New York City, she moved on to Rome and later covered the wars in Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia, Congo, and the Ivory Coast, ultimately becoming the AP bureau chief in West Africa. She followed the Northern Alliance as they fought the Taliban, and also reported as a unilateral (not embedded) during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Along the way, the 43-year-old reporter has garnered high praise from her colleagues and occasionally elicited dismay from authorities, including the Iraqi government and the American military.

“With the AP, Ellen did some of the best reporting from some of the worst hot spots on earth,” notes Charles J. Hanley, AP’s special correspondent on the international desk, a former Baghdad reporter himself and a Pulitzer winner in 2000. “I know, because I had to try to follow the Knickmeyer performance in a couple of those places.” That performance — characterized by dogged pursuit of eyewitness accounts, painstakingly collected data, and the appropriate context for it all — took place as Iraq’s increasing violence grew ever more sectarian.

“She’s done an outstanding job in one of the hardest things we’ve attempted to do in journalism in our lifetimes,” David Hoffman, the Post’s assistant managing editor for foreign news, told E&P in an e-mail. “Ellen’s tour saw several turning points toward a more sectarian war, such as the Samarra bombing and its aftermath. Her work on the surge in deaths then was one of many notable accomplishments.”

And it was also a controversial one, illustrative of what it takes to nail down the facts in the midst of Iraq’s chaos. Knickmeyer’s March 9, 2006 story reported that in the days immediately following the destruction of the Shiite Askariya mosque in the northern city of Samarra, more than 1,300 Iraqis had been murdered in sectarian killing. The story provoked denials from both Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari (who insisted that 379 lives were lost) and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq.

But Knickmeyer had documented those figures from a morgue official, a Health Ministry supervisor, an Interior Ministry supervisor, and a United Nations official (who confirmed that Health Ministry officials were pressured to lower the tally). She also had traveled to Sadr City on the evening of the bombing, and saw hundreds of Shiites reporting to Sadr’s offices for any orders for retaliation. She even went to the morgue, and found it clearly “in overflow, with bodies in the hallways, extra refrigerator trucks outside,” and a large number of families outside.

“The U.S. military sometimes likes to say what we’re reporting is second-hand,” she says, with muted indignation. “I think there’s a broad misconception that reporters aren’t going out. Our Iraqi staff does a great job, but there’s also some of us Western reporters who are seeing things for ourselves.” She points out that “when Sadr City was blockaded by the military, I went in there three times, watching anti-American demonstrations. I went to Najaf in the South, three or four times, and to Tikrit and to Balad — you can get out and get around. It goes back to, if you don’t blend in, you’ll have a tough time.”

She finds being a woman a distinct advantage for a reporter in Iraq. “As a woman, you can blend in a lot better when you’re out on the street. There’s no way a lot of male Western correspondents look like anything but big, white, well-fed males,” she says wryly. “I could talk to people inside shops and homes, observe what’s going on, and people normally wouldn’t look twice at me.”

Occupational hazards

Knickmeyer believes that her experiences in Africa were her best preparation for covering Iraq. “In Afghanistan, we just followed the advancing armies,” she says. “But in the war in the Congo, the civil war on the Ivory Coast, you learn how to interact with people; it’s not just a matter of finding the PIO, and going to news conferences. You get as close as you can to the action.”

Covering the conflict in Monrovia, she says, was more dangerous than Iraq: “You’d see a bunch of rebels scratching cocaine into their veins with razors — they were young guys with AK-47s. Our cars would get stopped by these very drunk, very unpredictable kids.”

The persistent threat from IEDs is an occupational hazard Knickmeyer felt she had to accept. Most reporters, she observes, have the kind of close call she experienced in May 2005 while reporting on the ferocious battles in western Iraq, where the U.S. military was trying to hunt down foreign fighters coming in over the Syrian border. Knickmeyer reported on the catastrophic losses of the “Lucky Lima” Marine squad, with whom she’d been traveling.

One day, “because these guys had several squad members and friends killed,” their commander asked her “not to bother them, so I switched to another vehicle.” Their Amtrac was the one hit. Among the four Marines killed and 10 wounded in that explosion were the last members of the squad with whom she had shared space.

“To do your story well, you have to go out,” she asserts. “IEDs are one of the risks in doing this. If you’re riding around in an armored vehicle, you’ll probably die quickly, if there’s any consolation in that.”

Of course, experiencing the same dangers does not mean the military and reporters share the same goals, and Knickmeyer says there is constant friction about photographers taking pictures during firefights or ones that show wounded troops. “The military doesn’t want to see the nitty-gritty of war in print,” she notes. “You see that with the Lucky Lima story: a gunnery sergeant actually got into an altercation with a photographer. “

Earning her stripes

Knickmeyer attended Washington University and the University of Oklahoma, where as managing editor of the school newspaper she offered a future colleague — and Pulitzer winner for his Iraq coverage at the Washington Post — a job. “Anthony Shadid was highly recommended to me by some journalism professors. I thought working at the college paper was kind of hot, but he declined,” she laughs. “I don’t think he remembers it.”

While still a student she worked as a copygirl for the Tulsa (Okla.) World and joined the staff of The Daily Oklahoman without finishing her degree. She also worked briefly in California at the Gilroy Dispatch and The Press-Democrat in Santa Rosa before joining the AP in 1990.

All reporters who’ve worked in Iraq come back with indelible impressions. For Knickmeyer, who on previous leaves always wanted to go back, this time was different. “I felt real relieved, not having to worry about a staff of 30, keeping them safe,” she admits, noting that most reporters have had close calls with IEDs. During her tenure, there was also a car bomb attack on the hotel next to the Post’s bureau.

“Iraq is such a depressing grind now, and it’s so sad to see all the hopes of the Iraqi people crushed,” she points out. “You can’t be happy there, aware of all the suffering other people are going through.”

She recalls that when she first went into Baghdad in 2003, she interviewed a Shiite family of seven sisters, dressed in their sweatsuits. “The first thing they wanted to know was what plans the Americans had for starting up the degree exams in the universities,” she says. “They were so sure the Americans would take care of that, and of course all the looting was going on at that time, and the Americans had not prepared at all. When I tried to follow up this year, the family refused to talk to me. The neighbors told me the girls don’t go to school any more, they don’t work. When they go out, they’re completely covered, even gloves.”

Another reporter who certainly did “go out” in Iraq, Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder and McClatchy, says he admires Knickmeyer “for her tenacious reporting. Iraq is a tough place to work in and indeed live in, and she handled it with aplomb.”

When asked what advice she would offer reporters coming to Iraq, Knickmeyer hesitates. “I want to say, ‘Don’t assume you can’t go out,’ but each person has to make that choice.” For her return to the Middle East, she has been studying Arabic — and so far she’s finding that “every word has a word that sounds almost identical that means something dirty. I keep hitting on those.”

After her return from Iraq — she’s back overseas now in Beirut and will head to Cairo in a few months as bureau chief — the center of action for Knickmeyer was Oklahoma, where she finalized a land purchase near her family and made sketches of her planned house. The house feels like a welcome grounding after almost a decade as a foreign correspondent. “When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t know what to answer,” she says. “So having a home among my family in Oklahoma really does appeal to me.”

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