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IRAQ: Bomb sites off-limits to press

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When a thunderous blast Sunday shook a Baghdad neighborhood that is home to the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations, photographers did what photographers are supposed to do: grabbed their cameras and headed for the huge cloud of black smoke, which was clearly visible despite a dust storm and the creeping darkness of night.

It was about a three-minute walk to the scene, but if you don’t see many photographs of the bomb’s aftermath, which killed at least two people and wounded seven, that’s because Iraqi soldiers seized photographers’ camera equipment. They got their camera bodies back, but the Iraqi officials refused to give up the memory cards inside them.

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The incident was an example of the twisted relationship Iraq’s government has with the media, who under Saddam Hussein had virtually no freedom and who now are promised freedom but often get the opposite. Scores of journalists have been detained by Iraqi and U.S. security forces since Hussein’s ouster in 2003, and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, at least 182 journalists or media employees ranging from drivers to technicians have been killed in Iraq. That does not include four abducted and killed Saturday in the northern city of Mosul while working on a show for independent Sharqiya TV.

Concerns about press freedom began growing in May 2007, when Iraq’s government declared that photographers would be banned from bombing sites, ostensibly to prevent them from destroying evidence. Media groups suspected the real intention was to prevent images that portrayed Iraq in a negative light from getting out. Whatever the case, journalists who tried to test the ban later that month had warning shots fired their way.

On Sunday evening, the Iraqi soldiers on the scene outside the Hussan restaurant in Karada did not feel the need to cite any laws except their own as they confiscated camera gear. Here is photographer Saad Khalaf’s description of what happened:

‘An Iraqi soldier came toward me as I was taking pictures. He screamed, ‘Give me your camera!’ So I gave it to him to avoid his anger. I thought he was about to break it if I didn’t.’

Khalaf said he waited a short while and then approached the soldier and said, ‘Please, if you give me back the camera I can erase the pictures. He replied, ‘No, go talk to the colonel.’'

That would be Col. Ali, the commanding officer at the scene. ‘Arrest them all!’ the colonel hollered at Khalaf and at a western photographer working for another organization. An Iraqi translator working for the media intervened, pointing out that as long as the military had the memory cards, it did not also need the cameras.

Col. Ali then ordered the soldier to return the cameras. Khalaf, thinking that Ali was afraid the photographers had taken pictures of the soldiers, said he had been taking shots only of the burning car that carried the bomb. That did not satisfy the colonel, who shouted back. ‘In this neighborhood under my jurisdiction, no one is allowed to shoot any photos. I don’t care what others say, but Col. Ali bans any pictures here.’

The memory cards remain in military hands, but the photographers were told they could get them back by reporting to a joint Iraqi-U.S. security station in the neighborhood on Monday.

As the soldiers focused on the media, cars were in flames and dazed survivors were marveling at their luck to be alive and lamenting the death of an Iraqi policeman and a well-known parking attendant named Abu Jamal killed in the blast. The bomb, placed in a Russian-made Volga car, apparently targeted a passing police convoy, but it went off just as the Hussan restaurant was beginning to fill with Muslims breaking their Ramadan-time sunrise-to-sunset fast.

‘I was buying ice cream. I don’t know what happened -- I just noticed the smoke and the fireballs,’ said a man who identified himself as Dr. Yasir. His mother was waiting in his car for him to return with the ice cream. ‘I rushed like crazy’ back to the car, he said. His mother suffered only minor wounds, despite being a few feet from the bomb.

Redha, another witness, said it was the third bombing to hit the area. ‘Unfortunately, the poor innocent guard Abu Jamal was killed,’ he said sadly.

— Caesar Ahmad and Tina Susman in Baghdad

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for ‘L.A. Times updates,’ and then clicking on the ‘World: Mideast’ box.


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