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Kidnapped in Iraq: One Journalist's Story - 2004-09-24

Iraq is now considered the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist. Since the war began, 32 journalists have been killed on the job in addition to some dozen of their mainly Iraqi assistants. An estimated 18 journalists have been abducted, although most have been released. VOA's Ed Warner reports on one journalist who spent five grueling days in the hands of insurgents in northern Iraq and lived, but barely, to tell about it.

Canadian war correspondent Scott Taylor had spent time in Tal Afar, a Turkmen city in northern Iraq, and so headed there to cover an expected U.S. attack. On arriving with Turkish reporter Zeynep Tugrul, he asked a U.S. trained policeman how to find a particular house. He was motioned to a taxi.

There began an ordeal that Mr. Taylor appropriately calls five days in hell. Masked men in the taxi took the two journalists to a small courtyard where they were accused of being Israeli spies and threatened with death. Pressed against the wall, Taylor heard a Kalashnikov cocked behind him and awaited a shot. "Don't shoot," screamed his companion in Turkish. "He has a son!"

Momentarily distracted, his captors debated his fate and then rushed the pair to another house, and from there they were taken to still another, handed from one group to the next in a bewildering, frightening series of exchanges.

Mr. Taylor says these various factions were sometimes quarreling but more often cooperating. By the time he reached the city of Mosul, it was clear to him the insurgency was well planned and organized:

"Even these fundamentalists, Ansar al-Islam, were dealing with former Baathists inside Mosul. Of course, the Baathists are socialists and secular. It didn't seem to matter. We had a bridge between Turkmen and Arab. It didn't matter, all these divisions I've tried to pin down in the north as to where civil war might erupt, along which lines. It's pretty blurred at that level, and the fact that these guys are all working in conjunction against the American occupation. That seems to be the one common goal."

While trading information and ammunition, Taylor's series of captors kept arguing about what to do with their prisoners: kill them or let them go. Zeynep Tugrul, perhaps because she is a woman, was finally released, but Taylor was not. "The knife or your life," his interrogators warned, depending on whether he was telling the truth.

Twice he was told to eat his last meal before being executed, and twice he was reprieved. In Mosul, he was tortured, and a militant announced with a smile: "I am the lucky one who has been chosen to kill you, American dog."

But he was spared for reasons that are not entirely clear. Throughout his captivity, he kept insisting he was a bonafide journalist. Just look up his work on the Internet:

"I had nothing to prove my identity whatsoever. My I.D., my birth certificate, my passport had been destroyed. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet and being alive in cyberspace, they could confirm most of what I had said. And the fact that my work was published on al-Jazeera, the same work that appeared also in Canada, did give them some measure of assurance that what I was saying was true."

Mr. Taylor thinks his captors eventually considered him a nuisance best removed. After all, he had not been targeted for ransom or propaganda. He was caught by mischance. He was finally freed, taken to a taxi and given money for the fare.

Harrowing as it was, Taylor's captivity provided some useful insights into the Iraqi insurgency. For one thing, the dedication. During the U.S. attack on Tel Afar, he heard insurgents repeatedly crying: "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" (God is great!) He thought they were perhaps cheering the downing of an American helicopter. No, they were applauding the deaths of their own newly created martyrs.

This is going to be a long war, says Scott Taylor.

And a particular kind of war, adds Joel Campagna, Middle East coordinator of the New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists:

"Now what we are seeing are the dangers of a conflict that really does not have a front line, in which there are myriad risks that include everything from car bombs to car-jackings. In 2004 we have seen the level of risk increase. There just seem to be so many different armed factions and groups out there that are willing to take foreigners, including journalists, hostage."

Because of the dangers on all sides, correspondents are now largely confined to their hotels, says Mr. Campagna, and much of the war goes unreported. Scott Taylor says he has no idea what occurred in Tal Afar after the U.S. attack. His last contact with the city was being led away with a hood over his head. And he says he has no plans to return to Iraq. Enough is enough.

He will continue to edit his monthly military magazine Esprit De Corps in Ottawa.