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Feature: Journalists defy death sentence

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Richard Tomkins
Mosul, Iraq (UPI) Mar 12, 2008
In a city known as al-Qaida's last urban stronghold, fear of sudden death dictates how people live their daily lives. For 21 men condemned to death by terrorists here, survival has come down to a dingy, bullet-scarred building on Mosul's eastern outskirts.

Yarub Alsaleem, who survived rocket attacks on his office, is one of the condemned. So are Mustapha al-Sheh, whose car was riddled with bullets while driving down the street, and 30-year-old Khalid al Jahboor, whose family was told in a telephone call that he was to be home for beheading on a certain night or the entire family would die in his place.

"There is a ceiling of fear above our heads and the heads of the people of Mosul," said Yarub, 40. "But what can we do? This is what we know. This is our job."

Yarub is the general manager of IMN-Mosul, a television and radio station whose broadcasts can be seen and heard in villages as much as 60 miles away. Its parent is the Iraq Media Network in Baghdad, a news and entertainment organization founded after the fall of Saddam Hussein and believed to be U.S.-funded.

According to figures from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist, Yarub and his colleagues are high risk. Since 2003, 127 journalists and 50 of their support personnel have been killed in the ongoing violence. The vast majority have been Iraqis. At least 78 were murdered.

There's no shortage of news in and around Mosul for IMN. Mosul is Iraq's second-largest city, with a population of at least 1.7 million. About 60 percent are Sunni Arabs; the rest include Kurds, Assyrians and others. Mosul is also the last major urban stronghold of al-Qaida-Iraq and it's ISI (Islamic State of Iraq) front group following the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad and push north. A number of nationalist insurgent organizations also operate in the city.

Yarub said the Mosul station started several years ago with three people and slowly grew to its current roster of 21 journalists, technicians and managers.

Mustapha, 42, is an editor, announcer and program host, while Khalid is a reporter who takes to the streets every day to cover bombings, news conferences and other events.

Programming for both mediums is a mixture of feeds from Baghdad -- sports, national news, entertainment -- and local shows, including news events and call-in question-and-answer programs featuring Mosul's mayor, the provincial governor and military and police officials.

Yarub said two local radio programs have a special following: "The Coffee Shop" and "For Love."

In "The Coffee Shop" Mustapha takes phone calls in which people voice concerns over essential services, security and other matters. In "For Love," he plays traditional or ancient music and relates their content to the Iraqi experience -- then and now -- or he takes traditional literature and does the same. It's also a call-in program.

Yarub, Mustapha and Khalid, like others at the station, sleep in their offices. They take their meals in the studio canteen; they don't leave the station's small, barren compound except for work duties; visits to wives and families -- all moved to distant towns for their safety -- only occur weeks apart.

"We can't go to our homes," Yarub said. "We can't even go to the market safely or meet friends for tea or coffee. The terrorists have our pictures, they've put them up on walls and in papers (leaflets). They have our names and know the neighborhoods where we lived.

"Two weeks ago an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) was fired at the station. Since the first of the year, there have been maybe four to six attacks on us."

Yarub said his city is "a city of fear" because of terrorism. Every day there are explosions from car bombs and improvised explosive devices along the roads.

The U.S. military estimates the number of hardcore terrorists and active supporters could be at least 400, but many bombs are being planted by people for money rather than ideology.

"People don't have jobs," Yarub said. "Give a man $50 and he will kill anyone."

Job creation is high on the agenda for the government in Mosul as well as for U.S. provincial reconstruction teams, both of which hope expansion of U.S. and Iraqi army presence into the city will bring about the increased security needed to implement such programs.

That security is on the way. A battalion of the U.S. 3rd Cavalry Regiment and a battalion from the 8th Infantry Regiment are on the outskirts of the city and in the process of setting up Combat Operations Posts in various neighborhoods with Iraq's 2nd Army Division. The posts will be springboards for combined operations against terrorists in the city, and later give residents a tangible security presence as part of the "clear and hold" tactic that has worked in Baghdad and other areas.

Meanwhile, the men at IMN-Mosul continue to live lives in which fear is ever present. In that, they are no different from others in this city.

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