BAGHDAD, June 17 (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers who shot dead a Reuters journalist in Iraq three years ago acted appropriately, but the Army’s probe of the incident was flawed because evidence went missing, a Pentagon investigation said.
Reuters said it was disappointed the Defense Department’s inspector general, the Pentagon’s watchdog agency, concluded the killing of soundman Waleed Khaled was justified. But it welcomed the inspector general’s recommendation the U.S. military work with the media in Iraq to improve safety for journalists.
Khaled was killed and Reuters cameraman Haider Kadhem was wounded on August 28, 2005 when U.S. troops opened fire on their car in western Baghdad as they covered the aftermath of an insurgent attack on Iraqi police.
In a report released on Monday, the inspector general found that U.S. soldiers who fired on the car, which was driven by Khaled, reasonably responded to what they thought was a threat.
The inspector general criticised the Army investigator for losing a critical piece of evidence — video Kadhem shot from inside the car that captured events leading up to and including the shooting.
That Army investigator’s actions rightfully led Reuters to believe the investigation was not thorough or independent, the inspector general’s report said.
“We found that although the (investigating officer) who conducted the Army investigation did not pursue some logical investigative actions, he properly concluded that during an ongoing enemy attack the soldiers thought a video camera and external microphone held out of an indigenous, unmarked vehicle was a rocket propelled grenade,” the inspector general said.
The inspector general faulted Reuters and its safety practices. The car carrying Khaled and Kadhem was not marked “press”, for example, and Kadhem wrongly stuck his camera out of the car window, according to the military.
Kadhem insists he never put the camera out of the window but filmed through the car’s windscreen.
The military confiscated his camera after the shooting. Footage shown to Reuters staff before the tape disappeared showed no frames shot from outside the car.
Reuters said it disagreed with the Pentagon agency’s findings but welcomed its recommendation that the U.S. military work with news organisations on safety procedures to avoid similar incidents.
“I am never satisfied when a journalist is killed in the course of covering a story,” said Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger. “I am satisfied that the inspector general took this case seriously and came up with useful and positive recommendations.”
Kadhem was in the front passenger seat when he filmed the aftermath of the ambush on Iraqi police. The car was not marked “press” due to worries that Iraqi insurgents were targeting reporters, Schlesinger said.
Soldiers positioned more than 200 yards (metres) away — the length of two American football fields — thought they saw someone leaning out of the car with a rocket propelled grenade, according to the U.S. military.
Without confirming what they thought they saw by using binoculars, the soldiers fired on the car, killing Khaled.
No weapons were found in or near the car.
Reuters characterised the lost video as a “key piece of evidence” and one that corroborated its version of events.
Reuters Chief Counsel Thomas Kim called the video “the only piece of objective evidence” available in the incident.
Hajar Smouni, North Africa and Middle East desk officer for Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, said the group had not seen the report but called for an investigation to pinpoint how the video was lost.
“There has to be an internal investigation to find out exactly what happened to this tape and answer the main question today — could the evidence on the tape modify the conclusions of the report?” she said.
Smouni welcomed the recommendation the U.S. military work with the media on safety.
“It seems to me that we did not have to wait for a three-year investigation to reach these conclusions. Deaths could have been avoided if this had been put in place from the beginning,” she said.
An independent inquiry commissioned by Reuters concluded in April 2006 the shooting appeared “unlawful” and said nothing Khaled or Kadhem did could have been mistaken as hostile.
Iraq is the world’s most dangerous country for journalists. At least 179 reporters and media assistants have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Seven Reuters staff have been killed in Iraq since 2003.
Journalists have been also been killed in other conflicts.
Two months ago, Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana was killed in Gaza by an Israeli tank shell. The Israeli army has not released findings of its internal probe into the incident.
(For a related factbox, click on [ID:nN16267969]).
Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts in Washington and Francois Murphy in Paris, Editing by Janet McBride