“Get Some, F–KERS!”

Some combat footage from Mosul, as shot by a soldier and given to me. Looks bad up there.

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Thanks to a civilian source in Mosul, I have some footage of an attack on or near the American consulate up there, and the soldiers’ response. If you don’t find it impressive in its ferocity, you’ll at least agree that it’s loud. I’m sorry I can’t stream these files. My server doesn’t support it. But you can download the files by clicking on the images above.
The back story on this battle is thus: A civilian in Mosul sent me this footage of an August battle between American forces and insurgents in Mosul. The people in shorts and t-shirts are not contractors; they’re soldiers who got caught up in the battle when it flared up suddenly. They popped on some body army and got into the fight.
From my source:

It’s deadly around here — we are right against the city, not out in the boonies. I wasn’t here ten days before a firefight broke out about 50 meters from the office I work in. [This is the video sent to me — CA] I’ve lost count of the car bombs, and the mortars are commonplace. Had two guys in a Stryker brigade killed last Tuesday — car bomb outside the gate. Avoid this place — do not come up here; without military security you will get killed.

These videos were shot by a soldier and given to the civilian. I suspect it was a little digital camera that had MP4 recording capability, but I don’t really know. Anyway, this shows you a little of what combat — and life — is like in Mosul.
We’ve been hearing that Mosul is in danger of turning into a Fallujah of the north. When I get back to Iraq in mid-November — yes, you read that correctly — I’ll be up north and have an embed opportunity. Then we’ll get to see more of what’s going on.

Bugged Out

AMMAN — Well, as you can see from the dateline, I’m out of Baghdad. I evacuated after we learned of further threats against journalists. And just this afternoon, upon landing at Queen Alia International Airport, I learned that Margaret Hassan, the top CARE official in Iraq, has been kidnapped. She was taken while driving to work.

Her abduction fits a pattern. She did not employ armed guards and, like my friend John, was a “soft target.” It’s tragic, because she has done more for the Iraqi people than these insurgents ever will. She’s been in the country working for children’s issues and other health-related causes for more than 25 years. My heart goes out to her family.

Even so, I’m not happy to be out. It’s cutting and running, and it feels like crap. I want to cover the story, as best I can, and I really don’t like leaving my friends and colleagues behind. My fixer and translator have no work now, although I’m trying to find them another journalist to work with while I’m gone. I plan to return after Ramadan or whenever we hear that it’s safe(r) again.

To answer some questions: The journalists are clumped together because we only endanger ourselves that way. Kodia asked me why we didn’t disperse and stay with families.

  • It’s more difficult to secure their houses (blast walls, guards, etc.);
  • We can’t trust the neighbors not to rat us out;
  • I don’t trust any Iraqi I don’t know well;
  • And most important, we endanger them by staying with them — they would be branded as collaborators.

So our options are limited in terms of where we can stay. Anyway, I’m going to be exploring my options for the next few weeks — and watching the American campaign closely. Talk about a nail biter. I won’t be coming back and “stumping” for anyone; that’s not what I do. I report what I see. What you guys do with that information is up to you.

Cheers for now,
Christopher

My Friend, the Kidnap Victim

He turned out of the front gate, took the first right — as most of us do — and a car stopped in front of him and a tailing car pulled in behind him. Four men with pistols jumped out and three of them managed to force their way into the car, putting guns to the heads of John, his driver and his translator…. We’re not sure what all happened during his captivity, but he was able to persuade his captors that he was an Australian and a friend to the resistance and not to the Americans.

My friend, John Martinkus, was the one kidnapped Saturday and held for 24 hours. He was very lucky to be freed. I had to be circumspect yesterday because of security concerns, but John is now out of the country and the embargo has been lifted. Here’s the story as he related it to us:
Saturday around 2 p.m or so, John was picked up about 500m from our hotel compound. He turned out of the front gate, took the first right — as most of us do — and a car stopped in front of him and a tailing car pulled in behind him. Four men with pistols jumped out and three of them managed to force their way into the car, putting guns to the heads of John, his driver and his translator. They then took him to western Baghdad, held him overnight and interrogated him.
We’re not sure what all happened during his captivity, but he was able to persuade his captors that he was an Australian and a friend to the resistance and not to the Americans. It appears, by the kidnappers’ statements and questions, that they were nationalists and not jihadis, lucky for John. Also, he was lucky for not being American, because the kidnappers said if he had been, they’d have killed him quickly. They had tracked him for three days, they said, and proved it by asking him why he had gone to the Green Zone and to the Palestine on two separate days. This was how they were able to pick him up so easily.
At one point, one man disappeared, saying he would check out John’s story. He came back after about 15 minutes, John said, convinced John was who he said he was. We suspect they Googled John, because they referenced previous stories he had covered.
After some hours, his captors relaxed and said that he would be released in the morning. But before he was released, a sheikh from a village near Fallujah arrived. He again interrogated John, but this time it was much more aggressive questioning, John said. Finally, the sheikh said that while they were convinced he was a man of good heart and a journalist, he would not be freed Sunday as promised because Australia was a member of the Coalition and thus, a “warring nation” as Zarqawi has said. Instead, the sheikh would consult with his supervisors in Fallujah on what to do.
Now, this was serious. There’s no doubt the sheikh would return to fetch John and turn him over to al-Tahwid w’al-Jihad. So, in a fit of humanity, after the sheikh left, the nationalist captors took John and released him. We’re unsure of the ramifications of this act at this point and if there will be any retaliation within the Sunni resistance or against us. It’s possible.
As frightening as John’s experience was for him, it shows that journalists’ plans for “security through obscurity” has been blown out the window. John’s captors said they received a phone call that he was on the move and that the time for taking him was now. This fits in with our intelligence that there are kidnap teams up and down Jadirya Street looking for us. His captors said they had penetrated the staff at the Hamra Hotel, where many of us live. They have people in the compound watching us. They know who we are and they’re looking for “soft targets” — reporters moving around with little security or few precautions.
John was lucky — very lucky. He was picked up by nationalists who, we hear, are getting out of the kidnapping and beheading business. He wasn’t an American. He had a pedigree of lefty, anti-war reporter. And he fell in with a (more or less) kind-hearted bunch who were just doing their job as national resistance fighters. (He said they expressed concern that he wasn’t married and that his living arrangements in the Hamra weren’t safe. Bizarrely, they offered to let him stay with them the next time he came to Iraq — I’m sure.)
John’s story is indicative of the situation facing reporters — and other Westerners — in Iraq. They told him they were really looking for security contractor or CIA staffer. I haven’t left the compound since I returned from Beirut; I haven’t had a specific reason to. And now, without a specific reason, I won’t be going out. This is why you won’t be seeing any “Iraqi on the street” stories here. They’re too hostile; the population has turned against Westerners and the press. While they may not be actively assisting the resistance, I fear they would stand by idly if I were dragged into a car and taken away. The police won’t be much help either. Once, when John was being transported from one house to another, his kidnappers let him take off his blindfold. A cop car was cruising by just as he did so, making no move to stop a car carrying a blindfolded Westerner.
My options are limited but they seem to be go north to Kurdistan for a while. I’m warming to this idea as it’s been an under-covered region, as usual, and it would allow me to keep working. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do, but I have to be careful with what I say. I can’t assume any potential kidnappers don’t know about this blog.

Shellings and kidnappings

Today was a bad one. Another friend was kidnapped last night, and this morning a mortar shell hit our compound. Thankfully, my friend was released after a day — but he was very lucky.

Today was a bad one. Another friend was kidnapped last night, and this morning a mortar shell hit our compound. Thankfully, my friend was released after a day — but he was very lucky. (More details to come tomorrow after he leaves the country.) The mortar caused no real damage, hamdillah, but hit a house near one of the hotels in the compound. The explosion, in size and intensity, sounded exactly like the car bomb that hit the Karma hotel back in May.

Staying here is becoming increasingly untenable. There’s talk of TIME moving me up north for a couple of months, which would be a welcome change, to be honest. I’ve not been able to get out of the compound, and after the kidnapping, I’m disinclined to even make the attempt. The bottom line is I can’t work like this and I’m getting more and more frustrated, as I’ve mentioned. Hopefully, by moving to the north for a little while, my work will improve and so will my state of mind.

More as the situation develops, but things are changing here in Baghdad — for the worse.

UPDATE 2321 +0300 And now a large car bomb with many casualties — in first reports — has just gone off down the street from our compound.

Ramadan

Ramadan starts today, and we got off to a violent start with the sound of a large explosion nearby. I was in my room and couldn’t tell where it came from, but it sounded like another car bomb, based on the boomy oopmh of the blast…. After yesterday’s dual attacks in the Green Zone, the center of power in Iraq is locked down, meaning no one gets in or out without a special pass.

Ramadan starts today, and we got off to a violent start with the sound of a large explosion nearby. I was in my room and couldn’t tell where it came from, but it sounded like another car bomb, based on the boomy oopmh of the blast. So far, nothing on the Arabic stations about it.
After yesterday’s dual attacks in the Green Zone, the center of power in Iraq is locked down, meaning no one gets in or out without a special pass. But to get that pass, one has to go into the Zone to get it, so it’s a bit of a catch-22. Bother.
And since it’s Friday and the start of Ramadan and the Green Zone is locked down and it’s too dangerous to go out and just roam around looking for stories, there’s not a lot I can do today other than make a few phone calls.
This is the reality of journalism in Iraq — at least if you’re Western. And since we’ve been under a semi-lockdown of our own since I got back because of Paul Taggart’s abduction, I haven’t even had a chance to get my legs back under me and find new stories to work on. The ones I have started reporting require access to the government or the embassy, which are closed and … oh, you know the rest.
Highly frustrating.

Back from Holiday

I spent a week in NYCand a week in Beirut, with too little time in each. Beirut was, frankly, more restful, despite a car bomb two blocks from the apartment where I crashed…. Anyway, it’s been a busy and stressful two weeks in the world, what with the jaw-dropping performances of President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in the Rose Garden and before Congress.

Greetings. I’m back from my holiday, and now I’m recovering from it. I spent a week in NYC and a week in Beirut, with too little time in each. Beirut was, frankly, more restful, despite a car bomb two blocks from the apartment where I crashed. (What, do I attract these things now?)
Anyway, it’s been a busy and stressful two weeks in the world, what with the jaw-dropping performances of President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in the Rose Garden and before Congress. I watched the press conference and practically yelled at the television that the vision of Iraq didn’t mesh with the reality of what I had experienced on the ground: constant violence, the ever-present hum of fear, a growing insurgency and increasing bitterness toward the occupation — if more bitterness is even possible. I felt that it would have been wonderful to have the Baghdad press corps and the Washington press corps to trade places for a week while Allawi was in town. On the one hand, the president and prime minister would be challenged by reporters who had just been there and could call BS on them. “Ah, Mr. Prime Minister,” someone could ask. “I was just in Samarra, and you’re painting an exceedingly rosy picture of conditions for elections. No one here thinks they’re going to be held any time soon, including your interior ministry. Comment?”
And on the other hand, we’d get rid of the Washington press corps because they’d all be kidnapped. (Joke!)
Then there was my friend Farnaz’s email, which echoed many of my own complaints and concerns from September. The difference is she was writing a private email to her friends and family while mine is out there for all to see. There’s been a lot of speculation that the Journal came down on her, but I’ve learned that’s not the case and her vacation is just that — a scheduled vacation in line with her regular rotation. I have no idea of Karl Rove called the Journal or not to complain, but let’s just say I’m skeptical. I hate conspiracy theories.
And the debates! Wow! Who knew Kerry would come on so strong? I missed the first one, as I was in Beirut and the time difference was just too much for me, but I saw last night’s, and I was shocked to see Bush so fidgety and, yes, still peevish. His answers were pretty damn thin. In fairness, he did seem to calm down in the second half of the debate, but if people just watch the first half, it won’t look good for him. Kerry, for his part, was calm, but he did dodge several questions, including what he would do about Iran. I’m kind of curious about that as well. How about it, Senator?
An aside: Is anyone else, uh, peeved that the give and take is so compressed? I mean, honestly, I’d like to see more from each candidate than 90 seconds for a response and then 30 seconds for a rebuttal. Give ’em three minutes for a response and 90 seconds for rebuttal. From the questions asked last night, I think the American people are mature enough to deal with a longer debate format.
As for Iraq, well, it’s pretty much the same as when I left: chaotic, dangerous, reeling from everyday violence that’s the new normalcy. The attack on the Sheraton was really nothing unusual — it gets hit fairly often by rockets. But this time, there were television cameras around and CNN was desperate for footage. Most of us here in the press corps not living in the Palestine or Sheraton hotels were a little amused by the amount of play the attacks got. No one was killed or even seriously hurt, except for that lone, charred palm tree in front of the hotels. It will never give shade again, thanks to those evil-doing tree terrorists.
But I shouldn’t make light of it, really. It could have been much worse, and the only reason I can engage in macabre humor with a relatively clear conscience is because it wasn’t a very serious attack. The casualties, next time, will probably not be confined to the arboreal variety. And that’s no laughing matter.
There’s not much to report on this dispatch. I’ve been back only a couple of days and laid up with a nasty migraine for much of them. In the two weeks I’ve been gone, it feels like I’ve lost the plot of the story here, and it will take a few more days to get up to speed. In the meantime, there’s debate spin to digest.