BAGHDAD - The U.S. military said Tuesday a cameraman killed in the Iraqi city of Ramadi while on assignment for Reuters had died in a gunbattle between Marines and insurgents.
"Marines from the 1st Marine Division of the I Marine Expeditionary Force engaged several insurgents in a brief small arms firefight that killed an individual who was carrying a video camera earlier Monday morning," it said in a statement.
It was the military's first response to questions from Reuters about the killing.
Video footage of the incident showed no apparent fighting and no sounds of shooting in the vicinity before Dhia Najim was killed by a single bullet. He filmed heavy clashes between Marines and insurgents earlier in the day but that fighting had subsided.
Najim's colleagues and family said they believed he had been shot by a U.S. sniper.
Reuters Global Managing Editor David Schlesinger said: "We reject the clear implication in the Marines' statement that Dhia was part of an insurgent group.
"This claim is not supported by the available evidence. I strongly urge the U.S. military to conduct a proper investigation into this tragic event."
The cameraman was near his house in the Sunni Muslim city's Andalus district when he was hit by a single bullet in the back of the neck that killed him instantly.
Video shot from an upper floor of a building nearby shows Najim, at first half-hidden by a wall, move into the open. As soon as he emerges, a powerful gunshot cracks out and he falls to the ground, his arms outstretched.
Civilians are seen gathering calmly at the scene immediately afterwards to look at his lifeless body.
Marine snipers are posted in Ramadi, news photographs taken Sunday show.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters in Washington Monday that officials were "deeply disturbed" by deaths of journalists in Iraq, including Najim's. "We rededicate ourselves now to providing an environment in which the free press can do its work," he said.
Ereli was commenting on a spate of attacks on journalists in Iraq, including a bomb attack on Al Arabiya television at the weekend which killed seven people. He was speaking before the Marines' statement.
The military statement said: "Identification badges found on the dead man confirmed employment with a major news agency.
"Inspection of videotape in the camera revealed footage of previous attacks on Multi-National Force military vehicles that included the insurgent use of RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), an IED (roadside bomb) and small arms fire."
It was not immediately clear how the U.S. military had been able to view the tape in Najim's camera or check his identity cards. Reuters has asked for the camera to be returned. "The insurgents fled the scene with their wounded but left the body of the dead man along the side of the road," the military statement said.
Najim, who left a wife, three daughters and a son, worked freelance, supplying occasional material to Reuters Television. He was born in 1957.
The last footage received by Reuters from him Monday was shot from behind a red metal container in a dusty street. It shows U.S. Humvee vehicles speeding across an intersection amid flashes from gunfire and explosions.
Marines are gearing up for an expected offensive against insurgents and Islamist militants in Ramadi and Falluja as part of efforts to pacify Iraq before elections in January.
Ramadi, 110 km (68 miles) west of Baghdad, lies in mainly Sunni central Iraq where anti-U.S. sentiment runs high.
© 2004 Reuters