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Journalist Covering Iraq Discusses Slain Colleague

July 13, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: A funeral procession made its way through the Sadr City section of Baghdad today bearing the bodies of two Iraqi employees of the Reuters news agency. Namir Noor-Eldeen, a 22-year-old photographer, and his 40-year-old driver, Saeed Chmagh, were killed yesterday during what the U.S. military said was a clash between its troops and insurgents. Witnesses and the Iraqi police blamed U.S. forces for the deaths; the incident is under investigation.

As the Reuters personnel were taken to their graves — the fifth and sixth employees of the British agency killed in Iraq — word came that another Iraqi journalist was killed today. Khalid Hassan, a 23-year-old reporter and translator for the New York Times, had been with the paper since the fall of 2003.

The Iraq war has been the deadliest conflict on record for journalists, one in which reporters have often been seen not as noncombatant witnesses, but as active targets. The great majority of victims have been Iraqi personnel.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based watchdog group that keeps track of reporters killed worldwide in the line of duty, Iraq is by far the most dangerous theater: 110 journalists have been killed since the U.S. invasion of 2003; 88 were Iraqis; additionally, 40 news support personnel have been killed, all but one were natives of Iraq.

John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times, was a colleague of Mr. Hassan. He joins us now by phone from Baghdad.

Well, John, what’s known about the circumstances of Khalid Hassan’s death?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: It’s a nightmarish story of a kind that occurs at least 20 or 30 times a day in Baghdad alone. Khalid left his home this morning at about 8:45, sent a text message to our office saying that his route was blocked and he would try and find another road. He did, about two miles from his home in south central Baghdad.

A black Mercedes pulled up, forced him off the road. Men with automatic weapons opened fire on him. And he survived long enough to be able to make a mobile telephone call to first his mother and then his father, telling them that he had been shot but that he was OK, he survived. Another vehicle, standing in a kind of over-watch position, lurking behind him, seeing that he was still alive, pulled up. A gunman jumped out, ran over, and fired twice at close range and killed him.

Investigating the killing

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it possible to know at this point where he was targeted because he's a journalist, or was it random?

JOHN BURNS: Well, as you can imagine, we've called on every resource we have today to try and discover the answer to that. And we are like so many families in Iraq; we are left now in a state of complete uncertainty. Was he killed by Sunni insurgents? Was he killed by Shiite militias? Was he killed in a revenge killing related to some family dispute? We, frankly, don't know.

What we do know is that he lived in one of the most dangerous areas of Baghdad, Saidiya, where al-Qaida and the Mahdi Army -- that is to say Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- are engaged in a full-scale civil war and that many people have fled. Khalid himself was a Palestinian of a family that had fled to Iraq in 1948 and was a Sunni.

And we really don't know, and we've tried every avenue to find out. And, unfortunately, we have absolutely no confidence that the police will investigate this. They're completely overwhelmed. And in any case, they're infiltrated by Shiite militias. So my guess at this point will be that we will never know.

Iraqi voices in Western media

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Bill Keller, the executive editor at the Times, put out a statement that said that Khalid Hassan was, quote, "part of a large sometimes unsung community of Iraqi news gatherers. Without them, Americans' understanding of what is happening on the ground in Iraq would be much, much poorer." Tell us about the role that he and other Iraqis play in reporting.

JOHN BURNS: Well, they're incredibly resourceful and incredibly brave. I'm sure that many Americans watching Iraq from afar absolutely despair of Iraq and propensity of Iraqis to kill each other.

The other side of that story is that there are many, many Iraqis -- and we have been beneficiaries of this -- who believe in all the same things that we do and who, in the case of Khalid and in dozens of other people like him who work for Western media here, have been prepared to take enormous risks to try and ascertain the truth in the midst of all the obscurantism that surrounds us.

Khalid was an extremely resourceful and brave young man. He was only 23 years old. He had everything to live for. Full of life, full of vitality, full of jokes -- some of them good, some of them not so good -- and we loved him.

JEFFREY BROWN: As reporters are increasingly targeted, how much do you have to rely on Iraqis? And are there any further precautions they can take, or is this just a part of what life is like in trying to get the story?

JOHN BURNS: It's something that we work on all the time. First of all, simply, we could not work without them. That's not to say that we don't go out into the city ourselves. We very often go out with our Iraqi staff when they act not as reporters, so much as guides, interpreters and, in general, if you will, fixers. So they divide their time between both of those roles.

We try as much as we can to afford them protection, but in the end it's really impossible. We've spent much of today thinking of all the things that we might have done that might have given Khalid the degree of protection that would have kept him alive.

We did, in fact, suggest to him a few days ago that he leave him home in the neighborhood of Saidiya because it had become unacceptably dangerous. But you can be sure that we and other media organizations are looking at these questions intensively to see what we can do, among other things to help our employees do what may very well be the most dangerous part of their day, which is their commute to and from work.

Defining dangers for journalists

JEFFREY BROWN: How much are the dangers involved for the Iraqi journalists that we've seen, particularly in these last few days -- is that having an impact on the reporting that you and your bureau are able to do and what we're seeing back at home?

JOHN BURNS: Well, yes, there's no doubt that there is a relationship between the degree of violence and what we can report. But I've always said that our job is to develop workarounds and to try and cover the stories despite these hazards and these difficulties.

And I think that, speaking not just for the New York Times, but for the Western media here, we're still reasonably effective, in fact, very effective in doing that. It's not easy. But as I told you, Western reporters and Iraqi reporters working with them are out in the city and, indeed, across the country every day.

And I think we can still say that there is nothing of fundamental importance to Americans as they try and reach decisions about this war that you will not know if you are reading the principal newspapers in the United States and watching the principal television.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John Burns of the New York Times, thank you very much.

JOHN BURNS: It's a pleasure. Thank you very much.