Salih’s Story

Slain Iraqi reporter knew the risks he faced

In an interview in The Washington Post’s Baghdad compound back in January 2006, one of the newspaper’s stringers insisted that I use his real name in a piece I was writing about the Iraqis who risk their lives working as reporters, stringers, fixers, and translators for Western news organizations. This seemed significant, since no other Iraqi I spoke to wanted his real name in print. That man, Salih Saif Aldin, was killed yesterday—shot once through the forehead and left on a Baghdad street while on assignment for the Post.

He became the 118th journalist killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war in 2003, according to a count by the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least ninety-six were Iraqis.

I asked Salih several times if he was sure that he wanted his real name used, (it would only be his first name, but combined with the details of his story would be enough to identify him). He was, after all, already living with a $50,000 bounty on his head, placed there by an official he had outed as corrupt in his hometown of Tikrit. But he seemed resigned to the fact that his location was already known to those who might want revenge on him for writing a story that implicated several Iraqi officials. At the time the gesture seemed either an incredibly brave or an incredibly stupid thing to do, but the sense I got from Salih was that he had nothing to hide.

In the Post’s article about their murdered colleague, the paper notes that one neighborhood resident claims that members of an Iraqi army unit shot him, while the police—reported to be heavily infiltrated by Shiite militants, as is the Army—claimed that Saif Aldin, a Sunni, “was killed by Sunni men belonging to the nascent organization known as the Awakening Council, a tribal organization aligned with the U.S. military that started in the western province of Anbar and has spread to parts of Baghdad.” Without getting into the sectarian politics of the killing—because we can’t possibly know at this point—it’s clear that it would undoubtedly work in the favor of Shiite elements to say that Salih was killed by the Sunni group, since the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq is very wary of the growing power of the Sunni movement.

In our conversations, Salih told me plenty of things that we couldn’t use in the article, either because it was too dangerous for him (he was much more open than he probably should have been), or we couldn’t thoroughly verify his account, but the story he told was harrowing, and opened a small window into the life of the everyday reality of Iraqi journalists.

As the Post notes, and as I wrote in my story, Salih had been working in Tikrit until he wrote the story accusing a prominent local official of corruption, and subsequently rumors began to fly that the official had placed a bounty placed on Salih. After the story came out, Salih was shot at while walking down the street, his family was threatened, and he was brutally beaten with a metal pipe and the handle of a gun before the Post made him move to Baghdad to protect his life. Sadly, given the reality on the ground in Baghdad, he wasn’t safe there either. He’s a little of the story Salih told me back in January, 2006:

The Post’s Salih is the only Iraqi stringer I met who had worked as a reporter before the war. A thickset man of thirty, with a shaved head and large, expressive eyes, he came to the Post a little over a year ago. At the time he was working at one of the numerous papers that sprang up in the wake of the invasion, and heard the Post was looking for local help.

Speaking through a translator in a fortified house with armed guards out front, he told the story of his ongoing struggle with Jassam Jabara. It started in August 2005, when Salih helped report a story about a man who died in custody, only five hours after being arrested by Jabara’s security forces. According to Salih, a day before the story ran, Jabara’s cousin visited him and urged him to pull it, suggesting that otherwise, “Jassam has the ability to make you disappear.” The story ran the next day, and Jabara complained to the governor of Tikrit, urging him to have Salih arrested. The governor refused. Three days later, Salih said, “a black BMW stopped in front of me and two men jumped out, one holding a pistol and one holding a metal bar, and tried to force me inside the car. I kept pushing back and they beat me with the gun and the metal bar.” He showed me thick scars behind his ear and on his back, which he said came from the beating.

Luckily, some locals who knew him came to his aid, and the men fled. Just a few days later, he says, while he was walking near the governor’s office, a man jumped out of a car and opened fire on him with an automatic pistol. Salih ducked, and the shooter’s aim was high.

I don’t have any particular insights into the man or what drove him—we can leave that to his colleagues who spent so much time with him—but his story is a glimpse behind the body count we get in our papers every morning.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.