Coverage of the Conflict

BEIRUT — Well, the situation up north has settled into a standoff, despite a bout of gunfire on Monday. The various Palestinian factions are trying to negotiate an end to this crisis, and the Lebanese government has given them time to get the job done. But while several politicians, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, have said the military option is off the table, we may very well see more violence before this is over. Lebanon simply can’t allow these guys to walk away, as I’ve mentioned before.
The group continues to refuse to hand over any of its fighters. “This is impossible,” said Fatah al-Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha via telephone from inside Nahr el-Bared.
I’ll be heading back up, probably Tuesday, to monitor the situation. In the meantime, here are some of the stories I filed over the last week:
* Lebanon, Syria Point Fingers in Recent Violence (Washington Times)
* Lebanese army assault cheered, but raises fears (San Francisco Chronicle)
* Bodies piling up in assault on camp (San Francisco Chronicle)
Another one on the foreign fighters in Fatah al-Islam is due out tomorrow morning.
*UPDATE 5/30/07 2:13:53 AM:* And here it is! Sorry for the delay. Been busy here taking care of daily life that got put on hold while the North caught fire. Right now, things are more or less quiet, with the occasional exchange of fire. We’ll see how long it holds.

Scene from the North

Here’s the story I filed for the San Francisco Chronicle last night,giving you a sense of the scene up around the Nahr el-Bared camp. It’s grim:

Across the street, black smog billowed over the camp while half a dozen buildings blazed. Sniper fire crackled in the air as the army pounded the camp with 120mm mortar and tank shells. Fatah al-Islam militants responded with rocket propelled grenade launchers and machine-gun fire.
Dense orange groves surrounding the camp were scorched from explosions while the army seemed to methodically lob shells on a specific sector of the camp, setting a number of buildings on fire before moving on.
Conditions in the camp — a miserable warren of alleyways and cinderblock homes housing between 30,000 and 40,000 people — are grim. A source at the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in New York said it was impossible for camp medical workers to get to the dead and wounded. Water and electricty have been cut off and about 50 foreigners — many of the Westerners — are hunkered down as their embassies work to get a cease fire in place so they can be evacuated.

I’m heading up in a couple of hours. Word is a UN convoy is going to try to get into the camp.

Snapshot of journalsts’ dangers in Iraq

One of the “commenters”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2007/05/dmitry_chebotayev_russian_phot.php#comment-211984 in the “post about Dmitry”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2007/05/dmitry_chebotayev_russian_phot.php below wanted to know how many journalists who had died in Iraq were foreign and how many were Iraqi. Well, the Committee to Protect Journalists has just such a list.
Of the 101 journalists killed in Iraq, 79 were Iraqi. The others included 12 Europeans, three from other Arab countries, two from the United States and five from all other countries.
That the vast majority of journalists killed — as well as the “38 media workers”:http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/Iraq/iraq_media_killed.html, which includes translators and the like — are Iraqi is significant. Like the Iraqi civilians, the local journalists there are the ones who are most affected by the violence that permeates their country.
Fourteen journalists died in 2003, the year of the invasion and the trajectory has been mostly pointing up in the number of deaths each year: 24 in 2004, 23 in 2005, 32 in 2006 and now 8 in 2007.
For a capsule account of each journalist who was killed, here are the links:
* “for 2007”:http://www.cpj.org/killed/killed07.html#iraq
* “for 2006”:http://www.cpj.org/killed/killed06.html#iraq
* “for 2005”:http://www.cpj.org/killed/killed_archives/2005_list.html#iraq
* “for 2004”:http://www.cpj.org/killed/killed_archives/2004_list.html#iraq
* “for 2003”:http://www.cpj.org/killed/killed_archives/2003_list.html#iraq
(Note, the links include journalists killed in places other than Iraq as well.)

Dmitry Chebotayev, Russian photographer, killed in Iraq

Dmitry-Chebotayev-AP.jpgIt’s been a fatal weekend for foreign correspondents.
On Sunday, the day the plane carrying Anthony Mitchell of AP was found, Dmitry Chebotayev, a Russian photographer for EPA and Russian Newsweek was killed in Diyala province along with six U.S. soldiers, with whom he was embedded.
As the Committee to Project Journalists said in a statement,

The Committee to Protect Journalists mourns the death on Sunday of Dmitry Chebotayev, the first Russian journalist to be killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Chebotayev, a freelance photographer embedded with U.S. forces, was killed along with six American soldiers when a roadside bomb struck a U.S. military vehicle in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.
Chebotayev was on assignment for the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine, reporting on the efforts of U.S. forces to control roads in Diyala province, Leonid Parfyonov, editor of the magazine’s Russian edition, told CPJ. Chebotayev had been in Iraq for more than two months.

Chebotayev, 29, had freelanced for several news agencies, including the German-based European Pressphoto Agency and the independent Moscow daily Kommersant. A sampling of his photos can be viewed on his Lightstalkers profile page. Lightstalkers is an online network of photographers and other visual journalists that serves as a directory, database, and resource center.
At least 101 journalists and 38 media support staffers have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, making Iraq the deadliest conflict for the press in CPJ’s 26-year history. Seven embedded journalists have been killed since the war began.

He last logged into Lightstalkers five days ago. His location is listed as Baqoubah, Iraq, and his travel log shows that he worked in Russia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Syria, Chechnya and Iraq. My friend Bill Putnam, another photographer, offered advice to him regarding embedding in Iraq. It’s another sad day for journalists in the tight-knit world of Middle East coverage, after the loss of Anthony on Saturday.
Six soldiers and a journalist killed in one blast makes me suspect it was an awfully big IED that hit a Bradley fighting vehicle, rather than a humvee, which holds five guys, tops. I’m just speculating, though.
I hope I don’t have to do any more posts like this. Rest in peace, Dmitry and Anthony. You will be missed.

AP’s Anthony Mitchell on plane that crashed

me_and_anthony_out.jpg
Me and Anthony in a Djibouti bar in March — much better times.
It just not bloody fair.
Earlier tonight, I found out that Anthony Mitchell, a reporter for the AP based in Nairobi and one of the most interesting and funny guys I’ve met in a long time, was on a plane that crashed in Cameroon on Saturday. In all, the Kenyan Airways flight was carrying 114 people.
It doesn’t look good, and my heart is heavy tonight. As the report says:

Among the passengers of the Boeing 737-800 was a Nairobi-based Associated Press correspondent, Anthony Mitchell, one of five Britons on a passenger list released by the airline. Mitchell had been on assignment in the region.

Most of the passengers were apparently en route to Nairobi to transfer to other flights.
I met Anthony, who is 39, in March in Djibouti, when we both were onboard the _FGS Bremen_, a German frigate, for a story on maritime security operations in the area. Anthony was full of funny, self-deprecating stories about himself and Africa, stories that contained no small amount of hard-won wisdom, too. He talked about the clans of Somalia, the US military’s actions in the Horn of Africa and constantly took the piss out of our military escort in the most good-natured way possible. (Anthony’s from London while LCDR “Grassy” Meadows of the Royal Navy is from the north of England.)
I didn’t know him long, but in the few days I knew him, he was a reporter’s reporter, working constantly, cell phone seemingly glued to his head as he chased down reports of the kidnapped Britons in Ethiopia and set up an interview with the president of Djibouti.
He was kicked out of Ethiopia last year, he said, because he upset the government there. Apparently, they didn’t like his reports on corruption and he was given just 24 hours to leave the country. While that was no doubt a huge inconvenience, I can’t help but have a soft spot for reporters who tweak the powers-that-be as much as he did.
He loved Africa, he said. He liked small towns and eschewed most of the “mod-cons,” as he called air conditioning and the like. He also carried around in his wallet a photo of his wife, Catherine, and his kids, Tom and Rose. They looked like a really nice family.
I wish the outlook looked better, but right now I’m left with hoping for the best for Anthony’s family — and for all the families of the people on that plane. For while this post is about Anthony — only because I know him — I know that he was just one person and that 114 families are anxiously awaiting word.
*UPDATE 5/7/07 12:38:20 PM +0200 GMT:* A grim update. Cameroon officials say there is “no chance” of survivors.

A response to the Jerusalem Post

BEIRUT — A response is in order to the Jeruasalem Post‘s story today, in which Michael Totten is interviewed and my name comes up in the article.
The _Post_ says, “Chris Allbritton, who sometimes works for Time Magazine, briefly mentioned on his blog during the war that several journalists he knows were threatened by Hizbullah because of what they were writing.”
Let’s look at what I “actually wrote”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/07/tales_from_the_south_sort_of.php:

To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.

In a “follow-up post”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/08/silence.php, I expanded on this, as this one comment was taken completely the wrong way by many, many right-wing blogs and publications (Such as Totten’s and the JPost.)
The beginning of my response was this:

Let’s set aside that the Lebanese Internal Security also has photocopies of our passports. The reason for the hassling and the threat was that a reporter had filmed or described either a launching site or Hezbollah positions. (I’m not sure which.) To the best of my knowledge, that’s been the extent of the hassling. I’m going to get in trouble for this, but I think it’s a reasonable restriction. This is the exact same restrictions placed on journalists by the Israeli army and by the Americans in Iraq. I don’t think threatening journalists is cool at all, and it certainly doesn’t endear me to them, but that has been the extent of Hezbollah’s interference in our coverage.

You can read the rest of it, and I hope you do, “here”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2006/08/silence.php.

Massive protest swamps Beirut

BEIRUT — In a massive show of force, Lebanon’s protestors loyal to Hezbollah and its political allies poured into the streets of downtown Beirut by the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing last weeks show of support for the government and delivering a sweeping rebuke to Lebanon’s political establishment.

The streets, squares and bridges of several neighborhoods were a sea of red and white Lebanese flags as supporters of the Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal, as well as the Christian groups Marida and the Free Patriotic Movement, took to the streets in an attempt to topple the U.S.-backed government.

“The real problem with this government is that they did not stand with us during the war,” said Muhammad Obaid, 40, a Hezbollah supporter, echoing a common complaint of the opposition, which is also called the March 8 coalition.

Hezbollah, which is supported and armed by both Syria and Iran, captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12, prompting a massive retaliation by the Jewish state that turned into a 34-day war. More than 1,000 Lebanese died — mostly civilians — and the country’s infrastructure and industries were devastated. Hezbollah feels that the government in Beirut, which is led by Sunni politician Fuad Siniora, didn’t support it enough and even quietly hoped for it to lose the war so that the Shi’ite group would no longer be a viable political opponent.

Hezbollah emerged stronger than ever, however, and demanded more power in the government for itself and its allies in the March 8 coalition. After six cabinet ministers from their political bloc resigned, and Christian industry minister Pierre Gemayel was murdered, the March 8 forces hope to force the resignation of the Siniora government so that new elections can be held — which they feel they will win.

“The government will fall today,” Obaid said confidently.

Obaid comes from a small town in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut, a stronghold for Hezbollah. He said that the group had paid him to drive his bus to ferry protestors to Beirut. From his village alone, he said there were four large buses and 15 minibuses.

By any count, the crowd was massive, easily topping 1 million people. It was unclear how many people were in the streets because of the sheer numbers, but today’s protest may have surpassed the original 2005 protest that gave Siniora’s bloc its name — the March 14 movement. That protest, coming exactly a month after the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri, led to the end of Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon, a defeat the regime in Damascus would like to undo with its allies in Lebanon, such as Hezbollah.

Packed and partying crowds of mostly young people stretched from the Christian neighborhood of Gemayze to the east, to the government buildings ringed by concertina wire on the other side of downtown toward the west, and from the site of Hariri’s grave near the port up to Sodeco Square in the Christian enclave of Achrafiye. They filled alleyways and overpasses, and all seemed to carry a flag of some sort.

Most carried the Lebanese flag, its red and white stripes framing a green cedar, but becoming a dramatic sweep when thousands upon thousands of the banners waved. But the Lebanese could not resist putting their own party’s stamp on their outfits, with Hezbollah members draping the milita’s flag about their shoulders and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriot Movement supporters wearing orange sweatshirts or baseball caps.

The crowd for the most part was friendly and respectful of the call by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah not to damage property or resort to violence, but a group of young toughs did celebrate the murder of Pierre Gemayel, by saying, “Congratulations to Pierre, when is Geagea next?” Samir Geagea is the leader of another Christian political party called the Lebanese Forces and is particularly hated by the Shi’ites of Lebanon. “We want your wife, Hakim,” they chanted referring to Geagea’s nickname and his wife, considered one of the more beautiful women in Lebanon. Their jibe was an ugly, sexist chant.

They called the interior minister a Jew while Hezbollah security stood by, watching impassively. It was only after I asked the youths why they were chanting such things — and their violent reaction when I said “I’m a reporter” in my badly accented Arabic — that the Hezbollah security guard intervened.

“They are not polite,” the guard said as he pushed me away roughly. “I don’t want you talking to people who aren’t polite.”

The March 8 movement has vowed to stay in the streets, staging sit-ins until the government resigns. As night fell, trucks carrying portable toilets and water tanks arrived while tents were being set up in Martyrs’ Square.

“If they don’t step down, we will stay here,” said Hayan Ismael, 22, a physics student from the Bekaa village of Bednayel and a supporter of another Christian group. He said protest organizers had timed the protests for Friday afternoon before the weekend to minimize the economic impact of shutting down the heart of Beirut, indicating that March 8 may be expecting a resolution by Monday morning. Downtown merchants have been complaining for months since the war about all the disruptions to business.

“Every day the government stays and doesn’t step down, it makes the economy suffer,” said Ismael.

Siniora, however, vowed last night not to step down.

“We will not allow a democratic government to be toppled or its institutions,” Siniora said in a televised address. “Nor will we allow a state within a state. We are the legitimate government and responsible for all Lebanese.”