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Judgement of US Troops Questioned After Journalists' Deaths - 2003-04-08

U.S. bombing and gunfire in Baghdad have killed three foreign journalists, one from Qatar's al-Jazeera television, one from Reuters television, and one from the Spanish television network. The incidents have sparked anger and sadness among the dead men's colleagues, and analysts say they could erode U.S. credibility in the Arab world.

A bomb dropped early Tuesday by a U.S. warplane hit the building housing the al-Jazeera office in Baghdad. Reporter Tarek Ayoub was killed and a camera operator was wounded.

A short time later, an American tank fired a shell into Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, where many foreign journalists are living and working. Two television cameramen were killed, one working for Reuters and the other for the Spanish network, Telecinco. Several other people were injured.

The senior U.S. military spokesman said journalists were not targeted in the attacks, but some people believe the strikes were at least negligent, and possibly deliberate.

At Reuters' headquarters in London, Editor-in-Chief Geert Linnebank called his cameraman's death unnecessary. In a statement, Mr. Linnebank said it is well known that the Palestine Hotel is the main base for foreign journalists in Baghdad. He said the incident raises questions about the judgment of the advancing U.S. troops.

At al-Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar, spokesman Gihad Ballout said while emotions are running very high over the death of its correspondent in Baghdad, the station is keeping an open mind as to why coalition forces bombed the Baghdad offices.

"We are not pointing the finger, as we speak now, out of a sense of objectivity," he said. "We would like to see the result of the investigation that I hope is being carried out by relevant authorities, and our own investigation, before we really commit ourselves to a decision. I think it is incumbent on us to maintain, unless we know otherwise, to maintain an open mind as to what is happening."

Mr. Ballout called the attacks in Baghdad a black day for journalism. He says al-Jazeera had sent a letter to the Defense Department in February detailing the exact locations of its operations in Iraq. Al-Jazeera is one of the most popular television channels in the Middle East, and its coverage is often critical of the United States.

The chief spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, Brigadier General Vince Brooks, said coalition forces do not target journalists and other civilians. He said the tank that fired at the Palestine Hotel had been fired on by someone in the hotel.

"There are a number of places in downtown Baghdad where there are civilian populations who are at risk," said General Brooks. "We know that there are practices by this regime to increase that risk deliberately, whether it's by positioning or by taking certain actions. This coalition does not target journalists. And so anything that has happened as a result of our fire or other fires would always be considered as an accident."

But two journalist groups quickly condemned the attacks. The Dubai-based Arab Journalists Union called the attacks deliberate murder and said the U.S.-led coalition is trying to prevent journalists from doing their jobs. The Paris-based group, Reporters Without Borders, also charged the bombing of the al-Jazeera office was deliberate, and it said it is infuriated by the U.S. army's attitude toward journalists.

Arab media and public opinion expert Sa'id Sadek Amin says despite the U.S. denial, two attacks on journalists in one day, and one of them on al-Jazeera, which is often critical of the United States, will lead many people in the region to also conclude that the strikes were deliberate.

"The United States has to explain why they broke this kind of tacit agreement that journalists and media are taboos in war," said Mr. Amin. "They have immunity and nobody should be attacking them. So, not only explaining to the Arab world, but the whole world how you target well known places for media officials."

At Central Command headquarters, General Brooks promised such an explanation.

"We will look into the circumstances that contributed to it," said General Brooks. "Where we have responsibility, we will accept that responsibility."

Before Tuesday, at least six journalists covering the war had died from coalition and Iraqi fire, land mines, accidents, and a suicide bombing.