- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 22, 2004

The Sivits trial

Our staff reporter Sharon Behn had just cleared the heavy security at the entrance to the Green Zone and arrived at the Baghdad Convention Center to seek credentials for the special court-martial of Spc. Jeremy Sivits when, in her words, “I heard a muffled boom and the ground trembled.” The explosion, she learned later, was caused by a car bomb near an entrance to the Green Zone that killed Izzedine Saleem — the man who two weeks earlier had begun what was to have been a one-month term as president of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Security measures are intense in and around the Green Zone, the walled city within a city where officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority and many Governing Council members live and work.

As a result, Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists have found that the easiest place to strike at those in authority is at the gates to the zone. The Iraqi drivers who transport reporters and others to and from the zone have also figured that out, and become visibly nervous when approaching the entrances, Mrs. Behn reports.

The security measures were even more intense than usual on Wednesday, the day Spc. Sivits was tried and a handful of other U.S. military police were arraigned on charges stemming from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

“Getting into the convention center normally consists of showing your passport at several stops to both military checkpoints and Gurkha security guards,” Mrs. Behn says.

But on the day of the trial, there were new security barriers in addition to the usual concrete walls and razor wire; additional armed American soldiers and armored vehicles were there to supplement the usual complement of tanks.

TV crews had been instructed to set up their equipment the day before the court-martial, and print reporters were told to arrive three hours early in order to clear security. “We had to go through metal detectors, and had all our bags searched, everything taken out, cell phones taken away,” Mrs. Behn reports.

Inside the bare, low-ceilinged conference room where the hearings were held, up to half a dozen soldiers stood guard with automatic rifles.

Dramatic moment

Each arraignment lasted about 10 minutes, while Spc. Sivits’ court-martial lasted about three and a half hours, Mrs. Behn says.

“The place was crawling with military. They were standing at every corner, as were the Gurkhas. But all were polite and calm. The only drama was when Sivits started crying and saying sorry, and a couple of soldiers began dabbing their eyes.”

This is the second visit to Iraq in recent months for Mrs. Behn. We had asked her to postpone it a couple of months ago when the surge of fighting and kidnappings began in Fallujah and southern Iraq and we were uncertain about the safety of reporters there.

Our fears were heightened when a number of civilians were kidnapped on the road between Baghdad and Fallujah just a day or two after another of our reporters, Willis Witter, had passed by on his way to cover the Marine offensive in Fallujah.

We are still less than happy with the conditions, but things have stabilized somewhat; reporters are lined up wanting to go, and that is where the news is. So we will continue to pick the staffers with appropriate experience and training, implore them not to take risks and send them off.

One can even achieve a semblance of normalcy in Baghdad, though reality is liable to intrude at any moment.

“The major hotels have swimming pools, and those who can, cool off in the afternoon and evening,” Mrs. Behn reports.

“I was sitting by the pool the other afternoon when there was another loud boom that rippled all the glass windows for a few seconds and shook the walls. No one even moved.

“Gunfire pops off all the time, rocket fire too, and most people don’t even flinch. ‘Just another day in paradise,’ is the standard reaction.”

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

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