Monday, December 20, 2004

The Odds Against

An Associated Press article describes the execution of two Iraqi electoral officials by insurgents in a Baghdad street. 

A series of pictures taken by an AP photographer show three pistol-wielding gunmen, who had earlier stopped a car carrying the election officials and dragged them into the middle of Haifa Street in the midst of morning traffic. ...

In the dramatic photo sequence one of the captives is shown lying on his side on the pavement, while a second is on his knees nearby in the street. The gunmen casually display their handguns as they shoot the two men. Both of the victims shown in the sequence wore traditional Arab headscarfs. In contrast, the attackers were bareheaded and apparently unafraid to show their faces. The entire sequence shows only two of the three victims lying dead after they were shot at close range. The final photo of the sequence shows a man standing near one of the bodies waving for help, as a U.S. Apache helicopter appears above the crime scene after the gunmen apparently melted away into the crowd.

One of those photos is shown in this story.

Three employees, identified by the commission as Hatem Ali Hadi al-Moussawi, a lawyer and deputy director for the commission's Karkh office, and two of his office employees Mahdi Sbeih and Samy Moussa, were dragged from their cars and shot dead. Two men escaped unhurt. In the dramatic photo sequence one of the captives is shown lying prone on the pavement, while the another one seems to be kneeling as the armed men approach, casually carrying their handguns or aiming them at the men.

Even with today's proliferation of compact photographic equipment, a legitimate photojournalist rarely gets the opportunity to capture an execution. Apart from the beheadings which are purposely recorded on video by the jihadis and from gun camera film, most footage of people actually being shot are taken by photographers in company with combatants who are ready to film an ambush. Those individuals are combat cameramen for their armies or embedded reporters. The most famous analogue to the Associated Press sequence of photographs is probably the Eddie Adams photo of the execution of Vietcong Captain Bay Lop by South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Adams owed that opportunity to General Loan himself, who brought Adams along to cover what he believed to be a justifiable summary execution. Adams depressed the shutter at exactly the moment Loan fired and photo analysis actually shows the impact of the bullet on Bay Lop's skull.

It may have been pure luck, but it was surely the longest of odds that would have brought an Associated Press cameraman to the site of a surprise attack on two Iraqi electoral workers. As it was, the AP photograph was unable to capture the actual execution, only the moments shortly before and after the Iraqis were killed. Although the Eddie Adams photograph was widely used to illustrate the 'brutality' of the Saigon government, the photos taken by the Associated Press are unlikely to reflect badly on the electoral worker's killers. Press reports highlight the confidence and boldness of the insurgents. "Both of the victims shown in the sequence wore traditional Arab headscarfs. In contrast, the attackers were bareheaded and apparently unafraid to show their faces", suggesting that 'collaborators' must conceal their faces while the Ba'athists stride with impunity through the light of day. It was fortunate for the AP that their photographer was accidentally there.

Sometimes they are accidentally there on purpose. In November of 2003, two French journalists from Paris Match accompanied a group of men who set out to shoot down a DHL Airbus. A translation of the "journalist's" account is given below:

On Friday, Nov. 21, somewhere in Baghdad, the head of these commandos told us that one day he had seen a DHL Airbus, flying low. "We did not fire, we never fire on civilian aircraft. Also, I didn't know what DHL stood for. Afterwards, when my friend explained that these planes transported the mail of GI's, I regretted that a little. I could have deprived the soldiers of the letters from their moms and their fiancees. Next time, I'd fire!"

After driving half an hour in the countryside, the leader gives the order to stop at the end of a sunken lane and to park the cars so that they are ready, spread out and pointed in different directions. We are within two kilometers of the airport, a little before 9 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 22. ... Three men wait at the wheel of the cars, ready to go. Suddenly, the leader, who, since arriving has been listening acutely and scanning the sky, shouts, "A plane! Come on, you, get in position, prepare to launch!" The aircraft is flying approximately 1500 meters up, 3 km away from us. The two men, 50 meters apart from each other, await the orders, Strellas on their shoulders. They believe they've spotted an American military Boeing 747. The leader howls, "Fire!" At 9:08 the first missile takes off. The second, five seconds later, misses the target. The leader jumps with joy like a child and raises the hands to the sky, "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" Then he gives the order to quickly pack up the weapons and each car takes off in a whirlwind, each in a different direction. We will discover later by the press dispatches that the commandoes had fired on a DHL Airbus... A civilian target!

The Paris Match account, though somewhat confused, conveys the impression that not everyone knew what the letters DHL stood for. In any case, the target was mistaken for a military 747, though of course, the attackers had no way at all of knowing anything at all about the identity of the flight. The journalists discover only later that the "commandoes had fired on a DHL Airbus... A civilian target!" Sacre Bleu! So sorry. Such careless noncombatants. Recently, the Guardian described how difficult it was to keep the noncombatant status while the United States exists on the planet.

The chief executive of the British Red Cross has warned that the international movement's neutrality is fast becoming a casualty of the global "war on terror". Sir Nicholas Young told the Guardian that the US-led coalition's defiance of international law in Iraq threatened to obliterate the capacity of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement to operate in areas of conflict.

In an interview in today's Society Guardian, he says: "The respect the Red Cross relied on, the sense that when we're wearing our emblem and doing our work we are protected, we are sacrosanct, is under threat. "We are able to work across the frontline for only as long as we are seen as neutral. The moment that sense of impartiality is lost, our mission is lost. "We might as well pack up and go home. We'll be seen as part of the war machine and we'll be unable to operate." Driving through the streets of Baghdad in a clearly marked Red Cross vehicle last year, Sir Nicholas says, he was acutely aware that local people did not recognise the agency's neutrality. "I had a very strong sense that we were regarded as the occupying powers," he says. "And this was something I hadn't felt before."

Hard being hors de combat. The electoral workers were noncombatants too.