Shark Attacks

When insurgents fired a rocket into the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel in downtown Baghdad yesterday, it was hardly the first time, and fortunately once again no one was hurt. What was remarkable was the Agence France-Presse wire story about the attack, quoting a journalist who lives in the heavily fortified hotel: " 'A rocket hit an air-conditioning unit on the sixth floor and knocked down a small portion of a wall,' the journalist said on condition of anonymity."

Recently, another major American news organization moved its entire staff into the Sheraton, but its bureau chief asked that the organization's name be withheld, even though the hotel is crammed with other Western journalists. Another news organization, according to sources who cannot be named, was evacuating a translator after she received death threats for working for Americans. And a bureau chief for a third major news organization, who also asked to remain anonymous, said three of its local Iraqi staff had quit yesterday after attacks on Iraqis working for the news media.

Clearly, the Western media here is running scared--and with good reason. Today Omar Kamal, a translator for Time magazine, died of his wounds, after he was ambushed on his way to work in what was apparently a targeted attack. Gunmen laying in wait only two blocks from Time's offices yesterday shot 12 rounds into his car, hitting Kamal four times. He left a wife and a 4-year-old son. Many other incidents have gone unreported or scantly reported by Western media, unwilling to draw too much attention to themselves in a volatile situation. An American reporter (who asked to remain nameless) in an armored car was nearly BMW-ed on a trip to Hilla south of Baghdad earlier this week, chased by a BMW car full of young men who showed a strange, sudden interest in a carload of foreigners. A photographer he knows was BMW-ed, too, last week--shot at but missed, fortunately. BMWed is a phrase we've all come to know. For reasons of speed and availability, the insurgents favor these cars to chase after carloads of foreigners, open fire and speed away. Security consultants call such hit-and-run incidents "shark attacks." They're becoming more and more common, not just against journalists but anyone foreign, or working in any way with foreigners. Two Finnish contractors were killed last week on a Baghdad road in circumstances still unclear; two Germans also died in the last week in a highway ambush. Three Iraqi journalists for the U.S.-funded Iraqi Media Network were ambushed and killed in a shark attack on the minibus taking them to work a week ago; eight of their colleagues were wounded, too.

Attacks on foreigners have been a commonplace in Baghdad for a long time now, going back to the bombing of the United Nations headquarters and, even more inexplicably, the follow-up suicide bombing of the International Committee of the Red Cross last summer. But for months, journalists persuaded themselves that they were not specifically the targets. At first, the Palestine and Sheraton hotel complex in the center of Baghdad, heavily guarded by American troops, were the residences of choice for the press; car bombs, occasional rockets, and monumental traffic jams drove many in the media away from those locales. Some took up in smaller hotels, others in individual houses. Reduce the size of the target, and increase the chances of not getting attacked, was the rationale behind the soft option. "It's kind of like being an ant on a dartboard," says New York Times bureau chief John Burns. "The dart could hit you on the first time or it could never hit you."

The last few weeks have challenged the wisdom of such arrangements. The insurgents have started mixing up their tactics, using not only suicide bombings and IEDs--improvised explosive devices--but increasingly resorting to shark attacks on roads and highways. And they've begun targeting Iraqi staffers working as translators and fixers for the news organizations. The Washington Post, for instance, last month evacuated its house after one of its translators received a death threat at his home; Post guards also spotted Iraqis photographing their house from the street. Earlier this month, the Voice of America's Iraqi translator, Selwan Abdelghani Medhi al-Niemi, was shot and killed in his car as he left a relative's house; killed with him was his 5-year-old daughter and his father-in-law. Informed sources say he had recently worked with VOA on a story interviewing underground opposition figures. Many initially insisted it must have been a common crime, though nothing was stolen. But then at Niemi's funeral, a banner was put up at the mosque referring to his wife, Ban, and warning she would be next. Ban, who worked for another American news organization as a translator, fled the country after the funeral. Other news organizations say their Iraqi staff reported seeing leaflets threatening foreigners working for Americans, including journalists.

The shark attacks have made it increasingly difficult for news organizations to staff their bureaus in Baghdad, and while there's no sign of a general exodus as yet, several journalists recently said they were planning to leave, or at least reduce how much time they spend in Iraq. Adam Davidson, a correspondent for public radio's "Marketplace" program, said that he recently caught the security guards at the house he shares with other journalists lounging around inattentively. When he protested, they said there was nothing to worry about. "I started yelling at them, 'I don't want to hear any of you say we're safe, I want us working together against the enemy. The simple fact is there are people who spend their days trying to figure out how to kill people like us, and if that happens here the journalists will leave and you'll be out of a job'." Davidson said he's found himself spending more and more time on security precautions, and decided it was time to leave for a while as a result. "I'm not leaving now because I feel I'll die, but I'm just always exhausted, worrying about the security stuff, and what little energy I have left I spend on reporting."

American and British television networks have long had elaborate precautions for their staffs in Baghdad. They employ legions of ex-Special Forces security guards and close protection details and live in heavily fortified quarters. CNN, for instance, refuses to allow its correspondents to go out of their offices at the Palestine Hotel without a detail of bodyguards, mostly foreign or foreign-trained, many of them billing at more than $1,000 a day each. That was CNN's policy even before a shark attack near Hilla on Jan. 27 killed a CNN translator, Duraid Mohammed, and a driver, Yasser Khatab, both Iraqis. An Australian cameraman, Scott McWhinnie, was wounded as well, shot in the head but not seriously; correspondent Michael Holmes was in the seat next to him and escaped harm after their security detail returned fire. Smaller organizations and print media for the most part haven't been able to afford that level of protection, although increasingly they've been hiring guards and adding fortifications to their homes. One American newspaper, whose bureau chief asked that it not be named, has 20 Iraqi guards among its 45 local staffers. Many others have similarly large guard contingents, and some have invested in armored cars. That may explain why translators have been the targets recently, rather than journalists themselves. "Translators are just easier to hit than you," one Iraqi told an American journalist recently. No one thinks that situation will last. "No doubt there are going to be foreign correspondents whacked before this is over," says Burns. "The soft option is gone."

All the security precautions of the hard option, fortifications and guards, only go so far. "You can do everything rational you can think of, and all you can do is reduce your risk maybe 10 percent," Burns says. To do that, many journalists have taken to adopting disguises, especially when traveling; men wear the checkered Arabic headdress called kaffiyehs; women wear hijab scarves. Others use vehicles with tinted glass and curtains to screen their occupants, hire Special Forces trainers to teach their drivers how to escape pursuit and greatly curtail their own movements. Few admit to being American or British when asked by strangers; their staffs rarely even tell neighbors and friends where they really work.

Still, at the end of the day, however well-guarded their homes, journalists have to go out. If they use them, bodyguards are scant protection against a well-planned ambush. "Even the most experienced correspondents are starting to give this a second thought," says Burns, echoing the feeling of many others that Iraq has become one of the most dangerous wars yet for the press. "I've never felt so vulnerable in my life," says a correspondent for an American newspaper who has covered wars in other places. "I'm really scared for the first time." So far, 22 journalists or media workers have been killed covering the Iraq war, seven so far this year. "It struck me, walking through the rubble of the ICRC [Red Cross] building," says Burns, "No exemptions. There is no way in which we will be perceived by the bad guys as worthy of any exemption."

In other conflicts that were especially risky for the press, like Somalia and Chechnya, there was always the option to just walk away. Once there were no American troops left in Somalia, the major U.S. media could afford to ignore it as a story--and for the most part did. Once the Chechens started kidnapping and killing journalists, the already considerable risks of covering the Russian military invasion just weren't worth taking any longer. That isn't an option in Iraq. As long as it's the biggest story in the world, and more than 100,000 American troops are up to their necks in it, a large body of journalists will be, too. But the way things are going, they won't be doing nearly as good a job as they could.