Baghdad radio station burns
Kareem Yousif knew it would be a rough day when armed men tried to abduct four of his employees as they rode to work in a company van. The Radio Dijla staff members escaped unharmed, but the maverick news-and-talk station did not.
Hours after Thursday’s foiled abduction, editors, security guards and other radio staffers battled with dozens of gunmen who stormed the building, killing one guard and wounding two others. They drove off the assailants, but the next night, arsonists returned to finish the job.
By Saturday, the station was a smoldering, looted ruin, one more casualty in a war in which independent voices face deadly repercussions.
Yousif, the station’s acting director, and Ahmed Rikabi, its founder, blamed groups linked to Al Qaeda for Thursday’s attack, which occurred on World Press Freedom Day.
“We’re a symbol of unity. What we were doing is absolutely against their thinking,” Rikabi said.
Rikabi launched Radio Dijla, Arabic for Tigris, in April 2004 in Jamiya, a residential neighborhood of Baghdad. The station opened in a split-level villa down a side street from the main road, and began broadcasting news and call-in shows. The area was Sunni-dominated, and plenty of admirers of Saddam Hussein, who’d been ousted a year earlier, lived there, Rikabi said.
But the employees were drawn from a variety of religious and ethnic groups, and Rikabi believed that the station’s nonsectarian, apolitical approach would shield it from attack.
He got the idea for the station after a year as head of the U.S.-run Iraqi Media Network, which operated from a tent near the Baghdad airport and then from a building that has since become home to Iraq’s parliament.
Whereas the U.S.-funded operation presented a pro-American viewpoint, Radio Dijla was meant to be an independent outlet where anyone could call in and express an opinion on anything from the weather to the U.S. military presence.
“We never said what we think,” said Rikabi, who spoke from London, where he spends most of his time because he has received death threats. “We never shut the phones off because someone expressed an opinion we didn’t like.”
At first, he said, callers who disagreed were often rude and even cursed one another.
“Slowly and gradually, we noticed the dialogue becoming more intellectual, more developed. After a while, people got used to listening to different opinions,” he said.
It was an unprecedented format for Iraq, where open political debate had been quashed for decades. But as Iraq’s sectarian war and Sunni Muslim-led insurgency spread, Radio Dijla found itself sucked into the fray.
A year ago, Yousif’s driver and a guard were shot to death. In the last nine months, one editor has been killed, and three other employees, including the news editor, have been kidnapped. None has been found.
The latest attack began about 8:30 a.m. Thursday, when two sedans, each carrying armed men, attempted to cut off the company van bringing employees to work. The van driver evaded the trap, and the would-be abductors fled after a gun battle with station guards.
About noon, Yousif noticed mysterious movements on the quiet streets outside. There were too many strange cars prowling the area. He picked up the phone and called Iraqi security forces.
“I explained we had weird things going on in the neighborhood,” Yousif said. Before any reinforcements arrived, the station was under siege.
A rocket-propelled grenade blasted the station’s front door, killing the guard behind it. More gunmen, firing automatic weapons and RPGs, took aim from rooftops surrounding the villa. As two more station guards on the roof fell wounded, assailants stormed through the front entrance and began trying to make their way upstairs.
Yousif and his employees had a plan for just such an event, and they swung into action. Everyone rushed to the second floor, where an arsenal of weapons was kept. Some grabbed automatic weapons. Others, including Yousif, grabbed their own pistols.
Producers, news anchors, guards and other employees stationed themselves at the top of the stairs and fired at the attackers trying to reach the second floor.
“Everybody was shooting. We kept fighting for about 20 minutes,” Yousif said. “They tried to kill us all. When they tried to advance, we’d shoot at them.”
Some of the attackers wore masks. Some had managed to get on the station’s roof, so the employees found themselves sandwiched between hostile forces. Other employees huddled in offices, some screaming and crying.
Eventually, the attackers backed away, apparently aware that security forces soon would be on the scene.
When they arrived, the security forces evacuated the staff, but Yousif said they did not respond to his appeals to provide armed escorts back to the villa later so he could retrieve computers and other equipment.
On Friday night, people in the neighborhood called Yousif at home to report strange noises. Then they called to tell him the building was on fire. But it was too late to salvage anything.
Yousif, sounding weary from lack of sleep, said he had repeatedly appealed for better protection.
“We’ve asked the government more than once to please secure this road. Every week, someone gets killed or kidnapped around here,” he said. “They come and secure it for a week, but then it goes back to what it was.
“Jamiya has become a cemetery for journalists,” he said, citing a list attacks on other media outlets and journalists in the area.
One of those attacks also occurred last week. One of Iraq’s best-known radio personalities, Amal Mudarris, narrowly escaped death when she was shot in the head outside her home in the neighborhood.
Last month, a truck bomb exploded near the Jamiya offices of Baghdad TV. Also in April, another well-known journalist, radio reporter Khamail Khalaf, was found shot to death in a neighboring district two days after being kidnapped.
Yousif and Rikabi had planned to move to a safer spot.
“But they were quicker than we were,” Yousif said of their predators.
Radio Dijla was off the air Saturday, but its website was up, featuring a story about the attack on the station, along with the usual mixture of miscellaneous features -- including a recipe for macaroni and meatballs and tips on how to have perfect fingernails.
Listeners offer help
Rikabi said his goal was to be back on the air with limited programming within 72 hours. He said listeners had called to offer anything, even their gold jewelry and houses, to help pay for the station’s revival and its move to a safer location.
Finding such a place in Baghdad, though, will be a problem.
“If you move to a Shiite area, your Sunni staff won’t come to work. If you move to a Sunni area, your Shiite staff won’t come to work,” said Rikabi, who estimates that he has lost about 30 employees because of security worries. Now, the station has a staff of about 55.
“We should probably just choose a place in the middle of the river,” he said with a slight laugh. “That’s not Sunni or Shiite.”
Special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.