“Being in Baghdad is a narrow escape every day,” says Loren Jenkins, NPR foreign editor, reflecting on the dangers surrounding the network’s team of reporters and Iraqi employees who have covered the Iraq War and occupation for five years.
The latest incident was the closest call so far—a thwarted attempt to kill foreign correspondent Ivan Watson, his producer/translator Ali Hamdani, and two Iraqi drivers whose identities are withheld for security reasons.
The armored BMW that transported Watson and his team on a Nov. 30 reporting trip in western Baghdad was blown up by a so-called “sticky bomb” as the foursome returned to the car. They had been interviewing Iraqis and having lunch in a kebab shop on Rabiye Street, a once-thriving commercial district that was the scene of multiple bomb attacks during the al-Qaida in Iraq insurgency of 2005-07.
“Sticky bombs”—which attackers often attach to vehicles using magnets—have been used with increasingly deadly effect over the past year.
Acting on an informant’s tip, Iraqi Army soldiers from a nearby checkpoint ran up shouting “Bomb!” in Arabic. They pulled one driver away from the BMW.
Watson, who had been talking with the kebab shop owners about the bullet holes outside their building, began to take cover. He knew something newsworthy was going on and kept recording sound. “I didn’t begin to imagine my car had been sabotaged,” he says.
Moments later, the BMW exploded in a fiery mass. The vehicle’s armor prevented shards of glass and metal from flying into the air and injuring bystanders, as shrapnel does in most car bombings.
Cartons of eggs offered for sale by a street vendor just six feet away were undamaged, but the car itself became a burned-out hulk. Video footage of the charred wreckage and a photo slide show of the bombing are posted at NPR.org.
The incident, widely reported by other news media, was a “wake-up call,” reminding journalists how much they risk by working in Iraq despite assurances that the situation is improving, says Ellen Weiss, senior v.p. of news. “We are grateful that, even under circumstances that are harrowing and traumatic, Ivan is there continuing to do his job.”
Bombings are daily events in Baghdad. “There’s not a day that goes by that people are not being blown up by car bombs,” Jenkins says. “This is the first time one has come really close to us.”
Watson was circumspect about news coverage of the bombing. “The only reason this got so much attention was because a white American journalist was nearly killed in the attack,” he says. “I want to stress the fact that our Iraqi staff are living side by side with these kinds of incidents, day after day.”
In an appearance on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week, Hamdani, a native of Baghdad, described how Iraqis view security in the capital. “We are now down from 55 dead bodies in the streets every day,” but bombings remain part of daily life, he said. “It is improving, but it’s confusing. It’s a blurred image for most Iraqis.”
“They don’t know whether things have been resolved, and the government has been able to get rid of the elements that made this violence,” Hamdani said.
Many of NPR’s Iraqi staff members are making arrangements to flee the country, according to Watson, and Hamdani resigned last week. “He’s quitting journalism and planning to leave the country. We were talking about that in the café before the bombing.”
“For people to make this decision to run away tells you how difficult it is and how massive the brain drain is,” Watson said.
It wasn’t the first close call for Watson, a veteran of CBS News and CNN who is now NPR’s Istanbul correspondent. He is one of several correspondents who rotate into the Baghdad bureau for temporary assignments. In August 2003, Watson was NPR’s reporter on the scene of the Imam Ali Mosque bombing in Najaf.
“That was an enormous blast,” Watson recalls. “It took out a city block and killed 70-plus people and blew up a dozen cars. I was protected because I was around the corner from the explosion.”
The Najaf bombing, along with Anne Garrels’s experience covering the U.S. military’s 2004 offensive in Fallujah, are two of NPR’s most dangerous reporting forays in Iraq, according to Jenkins. But correspondents encounter life-threatening situations there every day, he says.
War-zone assignments are voluntary, and the NPR reporters who take them are trained for work in a hostile environment.
“I tell them all to be cautious rather than foolish and to be conservative, because just being there is a risk,” Jenkins says. “The game is trying to limit the risks that you can. There’s no story worth venturing out to that risks their lives.”
“Once they get out there, they develop street smarts and learn how to be cautious and look over their shoulders to make sure they’re not being followed,” Jenkins says. “There are places that are no-go.” The network’s Iraqi employees often venture into no-go zones to be NPR’s eyes and ears.
Security protocols dictate how correspondents move about the city. When they leave their secured neighborhood, reporters usually travel in armored cars with a second “soft” or unarmored car accompanying them.
They have followed two hard-and-fast rules—not to stay in any unsecured place for more than 15 minutes and not to leave a car unattended. But, as the security situation seemed to improve this year, at least one NPR reporter has been able to push those limits.
Before completing his sixth posting in Baghdad in mid-November, Corey Flintoff traveled from Baghdad to Basra in a “soft” car. He wasn’t disguised and didn’t attract attention as a foreign journalist. “I may not be as Western-looking as Ivan is,” Flintoff says, referring to Watson’s blonde hair and fair complexion. Traveling in a soft car was thought to be safer than an armored vehicle because it gives you a lower profile, he says.
“Armored cars are good, but people on the street recognize them,” Flintoff says, “and you get more scrutiny from soldiers at checkpoints.”
Flintoff took his first Baghdad assignment in 2006. “That was when security was at its worst,” he says. “You couldn’t go anywhere without being embedded” with a military unit. “This past year I’ve been going every four months, and with each time back it’s been easier to get around.”
“In January, for the first time ever, I ate at a restaurant in Baghdad,” Flintoff said. “I’d never done that.” Flintoff and colleagues were able to watch the car from the restaurant window. “We stayed a little over 20 minutes.”
“Now I think we need to keep somebody in the car at all times,” Flintoff says, “and, depending on the neighborhood, limit our exposure to 20 minutes.”
Watson and the others didn’t take that precaution on Rabiye Street.
“It was a lapse when the drivers went into the restaurant instead of staying with the cars,” Jenkins says. “The cars should not have been left.” NPR has reissued its safety protocols and probably will ask the drivers to take a refresher security course.
“We are trying to scrape the money together to replace the car,” he says. The cost will be roughly $90,000.
Watson, who followed Flintoff in the Baghdad bureau last month, had been encouraged by his colleague’s ability to travel around the country undisguised.
“We made the mistake of staying in one place and feeling too comfortable for too long,” Watson wrote during a Dec. 2 chat on NPR.org.
“I’m not going to fault my drivers,” he says in an interview with Current. The reporting foray could have turned deadly in many ways, Watson adds. “If someone felt comfortable enough to place a bomb on my car in broad daylight, near an Iraqi Army checkpoint — that tells you something. I could have been kidnapped from the back of the restaurant, or insurgents could have followed us and ambushed us down the road.”
“The important thing is we made it out, and we’re alive,” Watson says. “The truly terrifying thing for me is if I would have taken someone somewhere, and they’d been hurt. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to handle that kind of responsibility and guilt.”
“If good things came out of this, they are that nobody was hurt,” Watson says, “and it serves as a warning for people to be a bit more careful. It may possibly prevent something happening that could be deadly or hurtful.”
Despite the danger and costs of maintaining a Baghdad bureau, NPR remains committed to having reporters on the ground in Iraq. “We feel very, very committed to this story,” Weiss says. “As long as we’re committed to having people there, we’re committed to providing for their security.”
While the Baghdad assignment is voluntary for reporters, it isn’t for NPR, Jenkins believes.
“If we pulled out because it’s dangerous, we wouldn’t be a credible news organization,” Jenkins says. “We just have to cover it.”
NPR.org coverage of the bombing includes streaming video footage of the wrecked car, a photo slide show.
Ivan Watson’s bio on NPR.org.
Copyright 2008 American University