- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

With Powell in Iraq

With seats on Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s plane available for only 14 journalists — including TV sound and cameramen — it is inevitable that a certain closeness develops between Mr. Powell’s staff and the so-called “traveling press” who accompany the secretary on his foreign trips.

So it was no great surprise to these reporters or their editors when Mr. Powell arrived in Baghdad last weekend, even though no word of it was published in advance.

The first clue came when the reporters were told that stops in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had been added to a previously announced trip to India and Pakistan. Word about the stops was given “for planning purposes” only, with a warning that unspecified “measures” would be taken against anyone who publicized the plans.

No mention was made of Baghdad, but it wasn’t hard to figure out there was no other good reason for Mr. Powell to go to Kuwait on the anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.

Even on the flight to Kuwait, Mr. Powell’s staff refused to say where he was going the following day, but warned the reporters they would be entering a dangerous war zone and that they should stay close to their official escorts.

It was only after the entourage had taken off from Kuwait aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130 that the reporters were given a hand-written sheet with the secretary’s schedule in Baghdad.

The highlights of the seven-hour stopover were an address by Mr. Powell to coalition civilian and military personnel and a later press conference with L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

But before the press conference could begin, an Arab reporter rose to his feet and read a statement demanding an open investigation into the deaths of two Arab journalists at a U.S. checkpoint the day before. About 30 Arab journalists then walked out of the hall.

Reporter remembered

The journalists in question were a reporter and a cameraman for the satellite television station Al Arabiya. Few tears were shed in the United States, largely because Dubai-based Al Arabiya, like the better-known Al Jazeera, is seen in this country as biased against U.S. efforts in Iraq.

But the reporter, Ali al-Khatib, had won the friendship and respect of many of his American colleagues, including one of our most valued free-lance contributors, Borzou Daragahi.

“We remember him as warm, funny and effusively friendly, far more interested in talking shop professionally about ethical journalism than expounding upon the types of conspiracy theories that make much of Middle Eastern journalism so tedious,” Mr. Daragahi wrote.

Mr. Khatib was “among the most energetic, professional and kind” of all the Iraqi journalists working in the country today, wrote Mr. Daragahi, who recalled the day, “over thick-brewed tea and during a tour of Al Arabiya’s smoke-filled studios,” that Mr. Khatib recounted his life story.

Having studied English at Baghdad’s College of Arts, he found work as a translator at press conferences for Mohammed al-Sahaf, the comical former Iraqi Minister of Information who to the very end denied that invading American forces were anywhere near Baghdad.

Mr. Khatib had told his friends it was a difficult job because any mistake could mean instant dismissal. “But it was his first taste of journalism, and he loved it,” Mr. Daragahi wrote. He later landed a job with a British production house and eventually went to work for Al Arabiya.

Mr. Khatib had confessed to his friends his discomfort with the airing of tapes from Saddam Hussein and his followers calling for resistance to the Americans — the source of much American anger at the network — and always tried to balance them with comments from U.S. officials.

As a result, Mr. Daragahi recalls him saying with pride, “When I go to press conferences they call on me by name. Some of the Americans in the CPA, I consider my friends.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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