Middle East

The Press and Iraq

The Un-Embedded Story

Journalists carry a wounded Reuters cameraman out of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad
Reporters carry a wounded Reuters cameraman out of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, April 8, 2003. The cameraman, who was wounded by a U.S. tank shell, later died (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP).

For every journalist embedded with U.S. or British troops, five went into Iraq on their own to report on the war. The experiences of two of them, both reporting for Israel but carrying French passports, reveal the risks of being an independent journalist in the second Gulf War.

As an Israeli reporting on a war in an Arab country, Boaz Bismuth knew he was taking risks. But he didn’t think being arrested as a spy — by the Americans — was one of them.

He arrived in Kuwait in the wake of a last-minute decision by his newspaper, Israel's Yediot Ahronot, to send him into the Iraqi desert. After registering with the Pentagon, Bismuth received accreditation as a “unilateral”—“meaning I was supposed to stay in Kuwait and wait for them to organize the tours.”

At that point, he chose to set out on his own. He and three other unilaterals—Israeli TV journalist Dan Scemama and Luis Castro and Victor Silva of Radio Television Portugal—rented a jeep and trailed coalition troops deep into Iraq.

Roger Auque, reporting officially for French radio (RMC) and secretly for Yediot Ahronot, had chosen Baghdad over the desert. He did not want to repeat his experience of the first Gulf War, when he and other Kuwait-based French reporters, disguised as soldiers, organized FTP (“fuck-the-pool”) excursions to get into Iraq.

Free of all military control, Bismuth and his companions scrambled from one war zone to the next, interviewing soldiers in British, Marine, and Army units as well as Iraqi civilians. Their encounters were marked by courtesy and, in some cases, friendliness. At one point, Bismuth, who speaks some Arabic, helped negotiate the passage of an Iraqi hearse through a U.S. army blockade.

En route, they ran into embedded journalists who wore the same equipment and were almost indistinguishable from the soldiers they accompanied. Much to his amusement, Bismuth saw several of them don flak jackets in preparation for the cameras rather than the fighting.

“Perhaps they would just accuse me of being jealous, but they seemed to know nothing about what was going on outside the unit they were assigned to,” he said.

The journalists in Baghdad, though subject to fewer restrictions, were isolated by fear, according to Auque. “The journalists in the Hotel Palestine were terrified of the Iraqi forces, the shelling, everything. Even seasoned war correspondents were scared our of their minds.”

He decided to limit his reporting to the things that he could see and verify for himself. “I had to leave the hotel and move around the city every day. It was terribly difficult.” During the battle for Baghdad, he could observe the American forces from the hotel itself as they approached the city center and, much to his shock, fired on him, killing two of his colleagues. “It is difficult to imagine that they didn’t know there were 350 journalists in that building.”

According to Bismuth, the journalists in the Iraqi desert formed two distinct tribes. Unilaterals stuck together in the face of danger even if it meant Arab reporters were helping their Israeli counterparts and vice versa. Embedded journalists, by contrast, resented the presence of free-roaming colleagues. Ted Koppel of ABC turned livid when Boaz greeted him near Karbala, 85 kilometers south of Baghdad. “Where is your biochemical suit?” he asked. “Where is your gas mask?”

“I told him that we were just doing our jobs, like him,” said Bismuth, “and that I didn’t believe anybody was going to use chemical weapons, which turned out to be true.”

One week after entering Iraq, Bismuth and his companions crossed paths with U.S. military police. They were told to drop to the sand, face down. Their satellite phones, computers, and identification were confiscated. Luis Castro was first warned and then beaten for demanding the chance to call his wife. The American soldiers accused the four unilaterals of spying for Iraq and held them for most of two days without giving them food or water. They were then forcibly returned to Kuwait.

Bismuth thinks their treatment might have had something to do with his French passport: “The color is red, you know, it was like waving a flag in front of a bull.”

Bismuth and Auque said they wouldn’t cover the war differently if they had the chance to do it over again.

“If the Americans had read my articles” observed Bismuth, “they would have seen that they were totally honest and fair. I wrote about the war in all its aspects.”

“If they hadn’t kicked me out, I would have met Roger in Baghdad at the Hotel Palestine.”

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