Carroll: we must keep reporting from Iraq

By Dominic Ponsford

The Guardian’s Iraq correspondent Rory Carroll has urged journalists
to continue covering the war-torn country despite his 36-hour
kidnapping ordeal and this week’s massive bomb attack against two media
hotels in Baghdad.

He also told Press Gazette he wants to return to Iraq, but admitted it would be “irresponsible” to do so in the near future.

Carroll
was snatched by a 15-man armed gang after he left a private home in the
normally comparatively safe Shia district of Baghdad, Sadr City.

Following
the release of its reporter, The Guardian has recalled all its staff
from Iraq to reassess the risks of covering the country.

But
Carroll, who had been in Iraq since January, said a long-term
withdrawal of British journalists from the country would be an
overreaction.

He said: “I’m concerned that British as well as
other Western media operations will shut down or all but shut down
their operations in Iraq, which would be understandable, but
unfortunate and unnecessary.

“Yes there’s a huge issue about
security in Iraq, and specifically in Baghdad, and no organisation
should be putting their people at undue risk. But Iraq has to be
covered in some form because it is such an important and complicated
story. There’s so many nuances and layers of the story that you can
only really appreciate if you’re there.”

Carroll was taken by
followers of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al- Sadr, apparently in an
attempt to negotiate the release of jailed Shia militiamen.

In
London, news of Carroll’s kidnapping prompted editor Alan Rusbridger,
managing editor Chris Elliott, chief executive Carolyn McCall and PR
boss Shaun Williams to form a “crisis management committee”.

Elliott
said: “We pushed out feelers through our own journalists who had
experience in Iraq and started getting in touch with governmental
bodies, the foreign office and the Irish foreign ministry.

“At
the same time we had people on the ground asking them what they knew.
We hoped we were going to have a better chance of negotiations with the
Shias than one of the hardline Sunni groups.”

Guardian Middle
East correspondent Rory McCarthy flew out from Beirut to Baghdad and
deputy sports editor Ian Prior, a former flatmate of Carroll, travelled
to Ireland to stay with the Carroll family.

Elliott said: “We
were all feeling really quite tense when we hadn’t heard anything for
24 hours. Then at around 7.40pm on Thursday I got a telephone
call from Ian Prior saying that Rory was on the other line to Joe
Carroll, his father. He was out. It was the most fantastic feeling.
Paul Johnson, the deputy editor, joked that it was the first time I had
danced since we came under budget in 1999.

“The relief was
palpable. Everyone in the office had a part to play, other newspapers
were extremely good and we were very grateful to them for the way they
responded.

It was one of those occasions when Fleet Street shows a bit of unity and all in all we were extremely happy.”

Carroll said he suspected the “huge pressure” put
on his captors may have contributed to his release. He said: “They
hadn’t anticipated the furore that would be caused by it, with so many
of their own allies or political affiliates leaning on them demanding
myrelease and specifically Ahmed Chalabi, the deputy prime minister.”

Carroll
believes pressure from the UK Government, various Muslim clerics and
the Iranian Government may also have played a part. He added that the
fact he is Irish, rather than British, may also have helped.

Carroll
said he wants to return to Iraq “because I’m curious about what’s going
to happen next”, but added: “I don’t want to push my luck. I was
extremely fortunate to get out alive and so quickly, it would be a bit
irresponsible for me to go back so soon.”

On Monday this week the
risk to journalists in Iraq was further heightened when two bombs
exploded outside the Sheraton and Palestine hotels in Baghdad, killing
20 Iraqi passers-by.

Both hotels are popular with media staff, but British journalists mainly use another hotel in the city.

Despite
the dangers, Carroll insisted journalists could still operate in
Baghdad: “You can do lots of good reporting in the Green Zone. That’s
where parliament meets, the executive and cabinet sits and the
embassies, at least the US and British ones, are there.”

He
added: “There are also still parts of Baghdad where you can go out on
to the streets and talk to ordinary Iraqis… You can do vox pops if you
pick the right area, interview a fruit seller on the street or go into
a shop.”

When asked about the suggestion that British journalists
in Iraq just report from their hotel rooms, Carroll said: “I get quite
annoyed when that perception is reinforced. For TV crews it is mostly
hotel journalism, because they are bulkier and more visible than print
people – they have to travel in big convoys, and their insurance and
bureaucratic rules are such that it’s a huge deal for them to leave the
hotel.

“The print guys, and this applies to all the other British
papers, we get out of the hotel pretty much every day. Our security is
contingent entirely on invisibility, which is why we try to blend in.”

According
to Carroll, Baghdad’s main hospital and its national theatre are among
the safer areas where journalists meet ordinary Iraqis. And he said
embedding was a safe and uncensored way of reporting in the country.

He said: “It was not anywhere near as circumscribed as people might think, that we are cowering in the hotel all the time.”

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