Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson doesn't scare easily. In April, radical armed Shiite militiamen detained the Middle East bureau chief for Knight Ridder newspapers on suspicion that she was a CIA agent. Sarhaddi Nelson eventually convinced her captors that she was a journalist and remained in Iraq to finish her monthlong assignment before taking a break. When she returned to Baghdad last month, even she was surprised by the breakdown of order in the city. "There is no sense of safety anywhere in Baghdad," says the Iranian-American reporter. "Journalists have became targets."
Foreign journalists have joined U.S. troops, Arab truckdrivers, Iraqi National Guardsmen and European aid workers as attractive prey. In August, jihadists captured and killed an Italian reporter, and two French journalists were kidnapped days later; their whereabouts remain unknown. Last week CNN aired live footage of a rocket attack on a Baghdad hotel where Fox News and The Washington Post have offices. "It is absolutely the worst war I've ever covered," says John Kifner, a New York Times reporter who worked in Lebanon during that country's civil war in the late 1970s and '80s. "[In Beirut] you had a much better physical sense of where danger could come from, whereas in Iraq it's just all over."
Though more than 6,000 journalists have registered with the U.S. military's press office in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, several European networks, including Britain's prestigious ITV News, have withdrawn from Iraq. No major U.S. network or publication has closed down its editorial operations. But some editors are having problems finding reporters willing to work in Iraq, and two leading newspapers now assign armed guards to escort correspondents in the field. "We can live with occasional mortars and bullets, but kidnapping is different," says CNN senior international correspondent Walter Rodgers. (NEWSWEEK pulled its American staff on a temporary basis two weeks ago but is keeping its Baghdad bureau open.) Small wonder: a group of hard-line Sunni clerics recently suggested some Western journalists were spies for not giving the insurgents' side of the story.
What effect has the chaos had on reporting? A foreign press corps that no longer feels safe dining in Baghdad restaurants is in no position to investigate claims by the U.S. military or the insurgents about civilian massacres and precision bombings outside the capital. That's what most worries Iraq experts. "It enables Washington, London and [Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi to produce a picture of Iraq which is fantasy, but, ironically, we can't refute that because it's so dangerous," says Patrick Cockburn, a London-based correspondent for The Independent and coauthor of the 1999 book "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein." The mayhem has led some American journalists to dye their blond hair brown, grow unkempt beards and avoid speaking English in any public setting. It has also prompted a lot of soul-searching. Asks Sarhaddi Nelson: "The question becomes, 'What service are you providing other than having a Baghdad dateline?' "