Published on Tuesday, January 13, 2004 by the Guardian/UK
US Military 'Brutalized' Journalists
News agency demands inquiry after American forces in Iraq allegedly treated camera crew as enemy personnel
by Luke Harding in Baghdad
The international news agency Reuters has made a formal complaint to the Pentagon following the "wrongful" arrest and apparent "brutalization" of three of its staff this month by US troops in Iraq.
The complaint followed an incident in the town of Falluja when American soldiers fired at two Iraqi cameramen and a driver from the agency while they were filming the scene of a helicopter crash.
The US military initially claimed that the Reuters journalists were "enemy personnel" who had opened fire on US troops and refused to release them for 72 hours.
Although Reuters has not commented publicly, it is understood that the journalists were "brutalized and intimidated" by US soldiers, who put bags over their heads, told them they would be sent to Guantanamo Bay, and whispered: "Let's have sex."
At one point during the interrogation, according to the family of one of the staff members, a US soldier shoved a shoe into the mouth one of the Iraqis.
The US troops, from the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Falluja, also made the blindfolded journalists stand for hours with their arms raised and their palms pressed against the cell wall.
"They were brutalized, terrified and humiliated for three days," one source said. "It was pretty grim stuff. There was mental and physical abuse."
He added: "It makes you wonder what happens to ordinary Iraqis."
The US military has so far refused to apologize and has bluntly told Reuters to "drop" its complaint. Major General Charles Swannack, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, claimed that two US soldiers had provided sworn evidence that they had come under fire. He admitted, however, that soldiers sometimes had to make "snap judgments".
"More often than not they are right," he said.
On January 2 Reuters' Baghdad-based cameraman Salem Ureibi, Falluja stringer Ahmed Mohammed Hussein al-Badrani and driver Sattar Jabar al-Badrani turned up at the crash site where a US Kiowa Warrior helicopter had just been shot down, killing one soldier.
The journalists were all wearing bulletproof jackets clearly marked "press". They drove off after US soldiers who were securing the scene opened fire on their Mercedes, but were arrested shortly afterwards.
The soldiers also detained a fourth Iraqi, working for the American network NBC. No weapons were found, the US military admitted.
Last night the nephew of veteran Reuters driver and latterly cameraman Mr Ureibi said that US troops had forced his uncle to strip naked and had ordered him to put his shoe in his mouth.
"He protested that he was a journalist but they stuck a shoe in his mouth anyway. They also hurt his leg. One of the soldiers told him: 'If you don't shut up we'll fuck you.'"
He added: "His treatment was very shameful. He's very sad. He has also had hospital treatment because of his leg."
Last August a US soldier shot dead another Reuters cameraman, Mazen Dana, after mistaking his camera for a rocket launcher while he filmed outside a Baghdad prison.
An internal US investigation later cleared him of wrongdoing. During the war last April another of the agency's cameramen, Ukrainian Taras Protswuk, was killed after a US tank fired a shell directly into his room in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, from where he had been filming.
Last night Simon Walker, a spokesman at Reuters head office in London, confirmed that the agency had made a formal complaint to the Pentagon last Friday.
He said: "We have also complained to the US military. We have complained about the detention [of our staff] and their treatment in detention. We hope it will be dealt with expeditiously."
A spokeswoman for the US military's coalition press and information center in Baghdad hung up when the Guardian asked her to comment.
The top US military spokesman in Iraq, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, later admitted that they had received a formal complaint and that there was an on-going investigation into the incident.
Journalists based in Baghdad have expressed concern that the US military is likely to treat other media employees in Iraq as targets.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004