From Iraq and back - Page 3

Omar Fekeiki's work with the Washington Post in his native country brought him death threats and a rare ticket to UC Berkeley. So why does he want to return?

I think the only good news is we're getting any news at all."

Iraqis are the only bridge for any respectable news organization attempting to gain access to what's going on, but alliances with Americans paint clear targets on their backs. "One of the things that distinguishes this war from others is that most journalists are not being caught in cross fire. They are being murdered," Mahoney said. Murders account for about two-thirds of the Iraqi journalist deaths, and without those reporters, he said, the American public "doesn't have all the information it should have at their fingertips to make informed decisions."

One wonders if the military and the administration do either. Camille Evans, an Army intelligence sergeant, said during a March 20, 2007, panel of Iraq war veterans at the Commonwealth Club, "For most of our intelligence, we did use CNN."

Though affiliations with Americans put all Iraqi journalists in peril, other risks lie along the sectarian divides. If they work for an independent Iraqi newspaper attempting unbiased journalism, they're just as bad as Americans. If they spin for one side, they're targeted by the other. In short, the only agreement between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias could be their shared attitude toward journalists: work for us or you're dead.

There were many times Fekeiki believed he would die — when he was covering the November 2004 assault in Fallujah as mortars hummed over his tent, or when he was kidnapped by Mahdi Army fighters who told him, "You will disappear behind the sun," before he managed to escape into a passing ambulance. And then there were the straight-up death threats.

"I was threatened three times," he told us. "The first time, my bureau chief was Karl Vick, and he said, 'We'll fly you out to any place you want. We'll take care of you,' and I said no. He said, 'We have to do something. We can't risk your life.' I said, 'OK, I'll go embed with the Marines in Fallujah, to cover the assault.' "

Fekeiki saw this as a way to disappear from his neighborhood for a little while but still be involved at the Post and give the paper something he thought it needed — an Iraqi to cover the Iraqi side of the story. "They didn't have one. The Iraqis in our office didn't want to do it."

Fekeiki didn't tell a soul about the second death threat, a letter on his doorstep. "I didn't want them to fly me out of Iraq. I wanted to stay. I knew that if I told the Post, they would ask me to leave, give me another job somewhere else. I didn't want that."

He had dreams of using this opportunity at the Post to eventually start a newspaper in Iraq and, if that went well, perhaps a career in politics. First he would need the hard currency of an American education. Reluctant to leave his family, Fekeiki bargained with himself and decided he would only apply to UC Berkeley, where some of his Post friends had attended journalism school. If he didn't get in, he would stay in Iraq.

The final death threat came June 15, 2006. "A car chased me from the office to my house," he recalls. Flooring the gas pedal of his Opal, he managed to get away.

By then he'd received his acceptance letter to Berkeley and had a scholarship fund started by Post owner Don Graham and continued by his colleagues at the paper. All he needed was a student visa, but the risks were mounting. "I was supposed to leave early August. I thought, why would I risk two months? Let's just leave now," he said.