Reporters’ Mysterious Deaths Chill a Press Corps Immersed in Violence

October 10th, 2005 - by admin

Kirk Semple / The New York Times – 2005-10-10 23:19:55

BAGHDAD, Iraq (October 8, 2005) — This alone seems certain about the killing of the American freelance journalist Steven Vincent: about 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 2, he and his Iraqi interpreter, Nooriya Taiz, were dragged by several armed men into a government pickup truck on a busy commercial street in the southern city of Basra, and found several hours later, riddled with bullets. Ms. Taiz survived.

The attack, the first since the invasion in which an American journalist in Iraq was killed, has been the subject of investigations by the F.B.I. and the Iraqi police, who have made no official comments.

On Sept. 19, Fakher Haider, 38, an Iraqi journalist working for The New York Times, was murdered under similarly mysterious circumstances and his killers also remain at large. Radical Shiite militias, who have infiltrated the government and police force in Basra, are widely suspected of committing the crimes, though it is not known whether the killings are linked in any way.

The two killings have quieted all but the most private conversations about the people who may have committed them. Shortly before Mr. Haider’s death, however, The Times spent a week in Basra investigating Mr. Vincent’s death and found in his killing a reflection of the climate of violence, rapacious politics and dread that has in recent months throttled the city.

Speculation about a motive for Mr. Vincent’s killing has centered on two possibilities: his relationship with Ms. Taiz or his provocative reporting. Many in Basra say it was most likely both.

Mr. Vincent, 49, arrived in Iraq in early May to write a book about the city, a forlorn and crumbling port of about 1.5 million people near the Iranian border. A former art critic, he became interested in the Islamic world after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and he intended to write about the rise of Shiite fundamentalism, said his widow, Lisa Ramaci. “He basically saw this as a real threat to the fledgling democracy,” she said in a telephone interview from the couple’s home in Manhattan.

Basra, with its open-air cafes, bars and bordellos, had long been known as a destination for fun-loving Iraqis. But January elections put conservative Shiite Islamic parties in local control and in short order they clamped down. Religious activists even became so offended by the bare breasts of a mermaid statue that they pulverized its nipples.

Unlike Most Reporters, Vincent Traveled without Bodyguards
Mr. Vincent checked into the Marbed, a homely downtown hotel with a reputation for safety. He joined up with Ms. Taiz, 31, his interpreter on an earlier trip and a woman widely known in Basra for being feisty and confrontational.

Over the next three months, Mr. Vincent, always accompanied by Ms. Taiz, became a familiar figure on the political scene, interviewing religious and party leaders and attending conferences. He sometimes wore a T-shirt showing the image of the Shiite martyr Imam Hussein and carried a copy of “An Introduction to Shia Islam.”

Unlike most foreign journalists, Mr. Vincent moved around the city without a bodyguard, in spite of growing concern over a wave of assassinations, some of them the product of competition between the conservative Shiite groups.

“He said, ‘I have familiarity,’ ” recalled Adel al-Thamiry, a professor at Basra University, who met Mr. Vincent once and thought he seemed overconfident about his relationship with the community.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Mr. Vincent and Ms. Taiz developed well beyond a business arrangement and a shared indignation about the spread of hard-line Shiite control. They clearly adored each other, according to Ms. Ramaci, Ms. Taiz’s brother and many people who met them in Basra, and they told various people there that they intended to marry. But Ms. Ramaci said Mr. Vincent had explained that Ms. Taiz’s life was in danger because she had worked with him, and marrying her was the only way to get her out of the country.

“I may sound like the self-deluded, cuckolded wife,” said Ms. Ramaci, who was married to Mr. Vincent for 13 years and involved with him 10 years before that, “but believe me, as sure as God made Cleveland, he would’ve come home to me.”

People who knew Mr. Vincent in Basra said there was no evidence he and Ms. Taiz were having a sexual relationship. But even the appearance of one would be a sin in the eyes of some conservative Muslims.

Numerous people who met Mr. Vincent in Basra said he was soft-spoken and courteous in person and that he had a “peaceful” face.

Reporter’s Criticsims Gave Rise to Threats
But on his blog, he was unsparing in his criticism of the region’s religious leaders, politicians and Iraqi and international security forces. He bristled at the conventions of Islam that, in his view, subjugated women.

Ms. Ramaci said her husband had told her in June that he had begun to receive calls on his cellphone from unfamiliar numbers and would hear only silence on the other end. “And someone came up to Noor on the street and said, ‘Why are you hanging out with this American who is asking all these questions?’ ” she said.

On July 31, The Times published an Op-Ed article by Mr. Vincent saying that Shiite militias were infiltrating Basra’s police force and that the British authorities were doing nothing to curb them. Local journalists, concerned for their own safety, had resisted digging into those issues.

A widely respected Basra journalist who knew Mr. Vincent — and requested anonymity out of fear for his safety — said Mr. Vincent was getting very close to understanding the intricate local relationships between religion and politics.

But Mr. Vincent’s articles apparently received little circulation in Basra: of about two dozen Iraqis interviewed in Basra — including politicians, academics and journalists — none said they had read his blog and few had seen his article in The Times.

Still, in the climate of mistrust and violence that has overwhelmed Iraq, rumor and suspicion is enough to lead to murder.

The Attack: Interrogations and Gunshots
The attack on Aug. 2 came just after Mr. Vincent and Ms. Taiz left a money-changing shop around the corner from the Marbed Hotel.

At first the group of assailants left Ms. Taiz alone, according to three of the shop’s employees. But as she tried to help Mr. Vincent, the men turned on her, too. The witnesses said the two were wrestled into the back seat of a pickup truck, which looked like a police vehicle: white with blue doors and a police light.

Efforts to interview Ms. Taiz were unsuccessful, including a request made through her brother.

A police investigator said Ms. Taiz, in a brief interview at the hospital after she was found, had told him the men had taken them to a building where she had been interrogated about their relationship. According to Ms. Ramaci, the F.B.I. had reports that witnesses had heard the abductors calling her “a whore and pig for consorting with Americans” and telling her “she deserved to die.”

According to the police investigator, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, the kidnappers also berated Ms. Taiz for supporting regional autonomy in southern Iraq, an issue that bedeviled the efforts to draft a constitution.

“They asked her, ‘Why do you love federalism? Why do you want to divide Iraq?’ ” the investigator said. Among the staunchest Shiite opponents of autonomy in the south are Moktada al-Sadr, the rebel cleric who has been a vociferous critic of the American military presence, and Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, another activist cleric who is the leader of the party that controls a majority in the Basra Province council.

The police officer’s statements could not be confirmed. In the braid of loyalties in Basra, it is possible that he was trying to shift blame away from other suspects, including the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The Badr group and Mr. Sadr’s militia are responsible for many of the recent assassinations in Basra, political analysts, local journalists and residents say, though the vast majority of cases remain unsolved.

Mr. Vincent and Ms. Taiz were eventually driven to a spot near a busy intersection in the center of Basra, less than a mile from where they were kidnapped. According to Ms. Taiz’s brother, the two captives were told they were free to go. As they stepped out of the car, they were shot repeatedly and left to die.

Copyright 2005. The New York Times Company

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