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July 7, 2006

A Story Left Incomplete

by Sanjay Suri

Alaa Hassan never lived to see publication of the last story he had filed. It got caught for a while, as stories sometimes are, in that no-man's land between what a correspondent could reasonably get, and what an editor would really like.

The two do not often converge immediately, or at least find minimal common ground, when someone has to report from a place where just stepping out of the house – or staying indoors for that matter – is a risk to life, and where access to "official" information is usually blocked.

Our correspondents in Iraq sometimes cannot tell what is "official" any more – a dubious occupation force, or an uncertain government with its own record of running death squads. No journalism school in the world teaches how to get a story in Iraq. And yet every story from Iraq too must meet standards.

And so the IPS news desk looked greedily for more in the report filed by Aaron Glantz working together with Alaa Hassan, the contributor to IPS stories from Iraq, who was shot dead as he was leaving his house in Baghdad Wednesday June 28.

The report was on people being forced to move out to areas dominated by fellow Shias or Sunnis, in the face of soaring sectarian violence. It might just have been that kind of violence that claimed Alaa's life.

Alaa was not a longtime career journalist, and that was his strength. He was the alert, aware man about town, and an excellent partner to Aaron Glantz, who has reported on Iraq at length for IPS over the past three years. Aaron's experience and extensive knowledge of Iraq have meant that he could, and did, guide Alaa to find information along professional news paths, just as Alaa could be the eyes and ears on the ground when Aaron was not in Iraq.

The partnership worked remarkably, like other journalists who have teamed up to report for IPS. The visiting and well-resourced foreign correspondent of a large news organization is now something of a rarity in Iraq. Those around are rarely able to step out of the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the occupation bosses and government leaders sit.

If Iraq is being reported at all, it is through new team initiatives that step around the old mold.

Look at the kind of information Alaa brought out through his too brief pursuit of the news story. We could see developments building up against the governor of Basra through such sources as the president of the Iraqi oil workers union. How many news providers know of such a group, never mind reach one?

Through the Aaron-Alaa team we heard Fadil el-Sharaa, spokesman for Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, giving his perspective on the Basra violence. "What happened in Basra is that Ayatollah al-Sistani's representative talked about the corruption created by the governor and his administration, which caused the governor to say that the religious offices were responsible for all the violence in Basra and that we are dividing people against themselves."

This kind of close reporting opens up windows to a certain level of differences and dissent within Iraqi society. Such reporting came with local details that alone can tell the tone of Iraq.

Alaa helped ground coverage of stories like the Haditha killings other than the massacre that hit the news, and the story on what the killing of suspected al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi might mean.

As someone living next to two U.S. military bases, he knew all about violence coming from U.S. troops. And he could speak to people whose tone gave us a sense of life in Iraq in a way that broad statistics never can.

In the report "Multiply Haditha by Thousands," we heard Alaa speak to lawyer Nezar al-Samarai about killings by occupation forces in that town: "We describe this kind of incident as 'normal' because it has happened over and over, not because it is normal or because the Iraqi people accept it. It's happened a lot, and there has been no reaction from the U.S. government to stop it. So people will say it's normal."

Alaa was able to give us a sense what the killing of Zarqawi might mean, along with some interviews that Aaron was able to conduct long-distance.

Fadil el-Sharra, spokesman for the Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, was quoted as saying: "After this, the terrorism will be reduced. The terrorists now know what their future is, and their future is they will be killed just like Zarqawi … the terrorism will end and we will have an Iraq without dictatorship, without problems, and with stability."

But really? And so Aaron brought us also the view of Mathona al-Dari, spokesman for the Sunni clerics group, the Association of Muslim Scholars. "The issue is not the capture of Zarqawi. It's not related to one person. It's that the occupation wants to destroy anyone that's resisting them – armed group and political groups alike. [This killing] is meant to hide the fact that the occupation is not meant to help Iraqi people."

But quotes alone do not tell any story, and particularly not the Iraq story. Alaa brought us the tone of the talk, the feel of the street. Together with Aaron he brought us the voice of the people of Iraq, and their suffering, as did our other teams of correspondents working in Iraq – and as perhaps no other news organization could.

True, we had the Haditha story broken by Time magazine. But Alaa did much to make possible a report on the many unreported Hadithas, again going to places and accessing information that more regular correspondents have been unable to access.

Alaa became the more effective journalist for not being a journalist of the usual kind. How much better for journalism too if he could have continued what he had just begun.

(Inter Press Service)

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