- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

Baghdad to Beirut

We felt pretty good about setting up a deal for Baghdad coverage from freelancer Mitchell Prothero when staff reporter Sharon Behn and regular stringer Borzou Daragahi both left the Iraqi capital soon after the Jan. 30 elections.

We knew Mr. Prothero’s work from United Press International, for whom he had covered the 2003 war and been back to Iraq repeatedly since. And we knew he was highly regarded for his professionalism by other reporters there.

We also knew we wouldn’t be able to count on him for long. Mr. Prothero, who has set up his home base in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, had been planning to stay on a little longer in Baghdad and then head off to Jordan for a romantic holiday with his girlfriend.

But in the news business, things seldom go according to plan, and so it was for Mr. Prothero.

He filed for us last Sunday when Iraq’s election commission finally released the complete results of the Jan. 30 balloting, and we had hoped for at least a couple more stories as the various parties and factions jockeyed for top jobs in the new government that is still to be formed.

But that all changed on Monday when a massive car bomb exploded in Beirut, killing former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and at least 16 others.

Mr. Prothero had already been making plans for his departure, he explained in an e-mail, which required working through a “fixer” to bribe some low-level government functionary for an exit visa.

“I saw the Hariri bombing on CNN,” he wrote. “Suddenly I was inclined to pay more of a ‘tip’ for the exit visa.”

He and his girlfriend, a news photographer who had been working in the Gaza Strip, “ditched the Amman stop and I went Baghdad-Amman-Beirut in time to join the entire French media” as they arrived in the Lebanese capital for the Hariri story.

The Hariri funeral

The first hours back in Beirut were pretty much of a loss.

“I arrived without credits on my local mobile phone to a city in ‘mourning,’ which meant soldiers and police made sure everything stayed shut,” Mr. Prothero reported in his e-mail.

“So Wednesday morning I had to work without a phone or being able to contact my driver. Our house had no food, no stores and we have no land line. So I couldn’t even find a phone card until Wednesday night.”

Until Monday’s explosion, Beirut had been one of the quieter capitals in the Middle East, and Mr. Prothero says he had used it mainly as a place to relax between assignments.

“But I do have sources, none of whom were at work these past days, and for the first 24 hours I couldn’t reach them by phone.”

Nevertheless, he headed out to cover the Hariri funeral, which turned into a massive protest with some 200,000 angry people parading through the streets and demanding that Syria remove its troops from the country.

“Somehow my driver and sometime fixer Hisham—a former police detective who is now a taxi driver—heard I was working the protest and ‘found’ me in the middle of the demonstration,” Mr. Prothero said. “It’s best not to ask how, I suppose.

“With Hisham’s phone, I was able to pull off a photo assignment for a French magazine and a written story for The Washington Times.”

Death wish

On another matter, our staff photographer Maya Alleruzzo says I erred in an earlier column when I described how she and Mrs. Behn had to move around Baghdad in armored sport utility vehicles accompanied by armed guards.

“I need to point out something,” Miss Alleruzzo told me in an e-mail. “We were not riding in armored SUVs. Nobody except for an idiot with a death wish would do that — too high profile. We were in armored sedans.”

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

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