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Iraqi Backer of U.S. Became Its Victim

Times Staff Writer

Asaad Khadim was an unapologetic supporter of the U.S. project in Iraq, long after the initial euphoria of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow had waned among most of his countrymen. Even many of his fellow journalists, now enjoying the chance to practice their craft freely for the first time, had soured on the occupation. Not Khadim.

“Asaad was always talking about how the Americans would bring us liberty, bring us progress,” recalled his colleague Jassem Kamel, decidedly more skeptical about the U.S. presence. “It was too much.”

But Khadim, 26, a correspondent for the U.S.-funded Al Iraqiya television station, never lived to see if his optimism was warranted. He and his driver, Hussein Saleh, 31, were killed Monday when U.S. forces apparently opened fire on their vehicle as they drove near an American base in Samarra, north of Baghdad. Kamel, a cameraman, and an Iraqi police officer in the car survived.

As journalists, friends and family gathered in the capital Tuesday for the funerals, they expressed more than grief for the loss of two men known for their courage and determination. The mourners’ outrage and disbelief also seemed to encapsulate a profound disappointment with the entire American endeavor in Iraq, underscoring how moderate Iraqis -- professional men and women like Khadim who have been eager for economic progress and democracy -- are losing faith in the U.S. effort.

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The discontent on display Tuesday echoed a chorus of dashed expectations that can be heard these days among doctors and lawyers, merchants and professors here. Many see little hope that Iraq will be able to shed the violence and disorder now marring an occupation they initially welcomed. Their spreading disillusionment is, in many ways, as grave a threat to U.S. aims as the masked gunmen of Fallouja or the religious militants of Najaf and Kufa.

“Is this the freedom and democracy that the USA brings us?” said a disconsolate Fian Faik, an announcer at the TV network who took part in the funeral cortege for Khadim and Saleh, which wound its way down Haifa Street in central Baghdad. “A freedom where a journalist gets shot down doing his job?”

Monday’s incident followed the recent shooting deaths of three other Iraqi journalists. In late March, an ABC cameraman was shot to death while filming clashes between Marines and Iraqis in the city of Fallouja; hospital workers indicated he was struck by a U.S. bullet.

About a week before that, U.S. troops in Baghdad shot and killed two Iraqi journalists from the Al Arabiya network based in the United Arab Emirates. A day after those killings, Iraqi journalists staged a walkout at a news conference by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

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On Tuesday, U.S. officials expressed condolences for the deaths of the employees of Al Iraqiya, which is known for its generally upbeat coverage of the occupation.

“We deeply regret the loss of any life, in particular two Al Iraqiya employees, who were working for their country,” Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told livid Iraqi journalists and other reporters at a briefing. U.S. officials promised a thorough investigation, but on Tuesday there were more questions than answers about the incident.

According to Kamel, the cameraman who survived, the Al Iraqiya crew was finishing up a day of news gathering about recent unrest in Samarra when things went terribly wrong.

The newsmen had interviewed policemen, politicians and others, Kamel said, when they decided to have a look at one of the town’s landmarks, an ancient minaret known as Malwiya. A policeman accompanied the crew in their vehicle to help guide them.

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Driving near a U.S. base, they heard shots ring out. The driver stopped, but the bullets came closer and began exploding through the car. Kamel and the policeman, seated in the rear, jumped out and took cover beneath the vehicle, with Kamel yelling “Press! Press!” in both English and Arabic in the hope of stopping the fusillade.

“I could hear the bullets hitting my colleagues’ bodies over and over,” Kamel said. “It was a terrible sound.”

Finally, the shooting stopped. Wounded, Kamel made his way to the base entrance on foot and was held for two hours, he said. He was treated at a Samarra hospital and was recuperating Tuesday at Baghdad’s Jenin Hospital. A bullet lodged less than an inch from his spine, his doctor said, leaving the 28-year-old lucky to be alive -- and fortunate to not be a paraplegic.

Kamel asserted that they were fired on without provocation. But Kimmitt said the press vehicle failed to yield to warning shots after the occupants were observed filming “Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and Iraqi police checkpoints, a coalition base, and routes to and from these locations.” He said five signs in the area clearly prohibited filming or stopping near the base.

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Kamel, however, said the Al Iraqiya reporters did not film the base. Their car was in motion and they were not filming anything when the firing began, he said. The experience has hardened his attitude toward the occupiers.

“I told Asaad he was too trusting of the Americans,” Kamel said. “But he always believed in them.”

Khadim was a political science graduate of Baghdad University who gravitated toward journalism, working with state television in the old regime before joining Al Iraqiya. An intrepid reporter with a keen sense of humor, he covered the uprising in Fallouja and the suicide bomb attacks on pilgrims in Karbala in early March. Saleh, the driver, was the father of two small children.

On Tuesday, the farewell for the two men did not feature incendiary slogans or angry mullahs excoriating the U.S. as “the Great Satan” -- as some more radical anti-American demonstrations have recently.

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Those denouncing the U.S. were not ex-party hacks of Hussein’s Baathist regime or religious fanatics.

They were people like Abdul Karim Hamadi, a broadcaster at Al Iraqiya who stood in his gray suit in stunned disbelief among the mourners waiting at the capital’s north gate for the arrival of the bodies from Samarra. Hamadi was trying to come to terms with what he clearly regarded as the unfathomable.

“How is it that this country that toppled the worst dictatorship in the world cannot differentiate between journalists and fighters?” he said.

At last, the bodies arrived from Samarra.

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A procession of vehicles bearing flowers, mourners and the two coffins wound through downtown Baghdad, a police escort leading the way.

The funeral cars stopped briefly outside the offices of Al Iraqiya, before heading to the heavily barricaded gates of the so-called Green Zone, the security perimeter around the headquarters of the U.S. administration here.

Relatives and friends hoisted black-and-white images of the two men, but there was no chanting or thrusting of fists in the air. The cortege lingered for a few minutes at the barbed wire and concrete barriers, then moved on to the cemetery and a final farewell.


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