Baghdad TV
Family and colleagues of journalist Mahmoud Za'al mourn at his funeral on Jan. 25.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/6/2006 9:29:41 AM ET 2006-02-06T14:29:41

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Mahmoud Za’al never wanted to be a war correspondent.

A reporter for Baghdad TV, he was assigned to the Iraqi channel’s humanitarian beat.

But then the war came to Mahmoud Za’al.

On Jan. 24, while covering a story about a water project in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, Za’al, 35, was killed by gunfire. He was apparently caught in a skirmish between the U.S. military and Iraqi insurgents.

The circumstances surrounding the incident in Ramadi remain unclear, but Za’al’s death underscores the grave dangers faced by Iraqi journalists covering the evolution of the post-Saddam state.

Foreign reporters in Iraq are not immune to violence. On Jan. 29, ABC News co-anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were seriously injured by a roadside bomb while on patrol with U.S. and Iraqi troops.

But in stark contrast to the wide media attention that incident received, the plight of Iraqi journalists has gone relatively unreported.

More than two-thirds of the 61 journalists killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 were Iraqi, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

High profile target
Za’al’s colleagues describe him as a dedicated journalist.

“He was a keen person, very courageous,” said Ahmed Rushdi, Baghdad TV’s director. “He was loved by everybody here.”

Za’al, like many other Iraqi journalists, took extreme precaution in his work.

To protect his family, he never appeared in his TV reports. In Iraq, being seen on camera can bring kidnappers to a reporter’s door.

That’s what happened to Nagham Abdul-Zahra.

Zahra, 29, is Iraq’s answer to Martha Stewart. But appearing in popular cooking and variety shows made her a high-profile target.

On Jan. 24, the same day Mahmoud Za’al was killed in Ramadi, gunmen forced their way into Zahra’s Baghdad apartment. The kidnappers overpowered her husband, tying him up and beating Zahra in the corner of the living room. The couple’s one-year-old son was covered by a carpet and shoved under a bed.

Nbc News
Nagham Abdul-Zahra's popular cooking show made her a high-profile target for kidnappers.

When her husband’s struggle in the other room distracted the gunman guarding her, Zahra wrestled free from her bound hands and made a run for it. She jumped off a second-story balcony and screamed for help. Startled by the commotion, the gunmen fled.

“I decided I would rather die than be captured,” Zahra said in a phone interview from a hospital bed, where she was treated for a broken leg and other fractures. Her husband and son were unharmed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates 39 reporters were kidnapped in Iraq since 2003, though many cases go unreported.

A week after Zahra’s narrow escape, on Feb. 1, gunmen abducted two Iraqi journalists working for Samaria TV.

Marwan Ghazal and Reem Zaeed were returning from an interview at the offices of the Iraqi Islamic Party in Baghdad when six masked men surrounded them, according to eyewitnesses. Their fates remain unknown.

Triple threat
In an interview on Baghdad TV after Mahmoud Za’al’s death, the head of the Iraqi Journalists’ Union, Jabar Shimari, condemned violence against Iraqi reporters, who face a triple threat --from insurgents, ransom-demanding criminals and the U.S. military.

Shimari pointed a finger at the American forces.

“Every time a journalist is killed, [the military] says it’s an accident. But we know that they killed him on purpose,” Shimari said.

Neither Shimari nor Baghdad TV provided information supporting their claim that U.S. forces killed Za’al. The military said the incident is under investigation.

Upon learning of Za’al’s death, Baghdad TV dispatched a cameraman to the scene. He found Za’al’s body in a morgue. Videotape of the body shows what appears to be a bullet wound in Za’al’s shoulder. A section of his left foot is missing.

Rushdi, Baghdad TV’s director, insists Za’al was not in Ramadi to cover insurgent activity, which could have caused U.S. forces to view his presence as a threat.

“We have a policy,” Rushdi said. “No reports on shooting and fighting.”

Za’al was carrying a press ID issued by the Combined Press Information Center of the Multi National Force Iraq, the U.S.-led military coalition.

At his funeral, Za’al’s brother brandished the plastic photo ID, waving it angrily in front of a video camera recording the service.

“I would like to ask the Americans what crime Mahmoud committed,” he said.

Some Iraqi journalists aren’t waiting for a verdict.

Last week, TV presenter Nagham Abdul-Zahra, and her family moved to Egypt.

NBC’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Baghdad.


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