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Last Updated: Friday, 13 August, 2004, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
A reporter's life in Basra
By Colin Freeman
British freelance journalist, formerly in Iraq

Colin Freeman: Shot while reporting from Basra
How dangerous is it to work in Basra as a freelance journalist? One British reporter who spent more than a year in Iraq says he is luckly to have lived to tell the tale.

When I heard the news that my journalist colleague and friend James Brandon had been kidnapped in Iraq, the last place I expected it to have happened was Basra.

Ever since the southern Iraqi city fell last April, it has been notably more peaceful than other parts of the country: car bombs go off only occasionally, attacks on British troops are relatively few, and the kidnaps, robberies and murders of Westerners that have many other Iraqi cities no-go zones are virtually unheard of.

By countrywide standards, that makes a trip to Basra one of the less fraught assignments on the books.

But the fact that the majority of locals still wave at British troops as they drive through the town does not guarantee foreign visitors a safe passage.

I should know - three months ago, I was lucky to get out of Basra alive after being shot, beaten and dragged through the streets by an angry crowd.

He walked up behind us and fired his pistol into the ground, the bullet ricochet lodging right in my backside - I was then spread-eagled against a wall, searched, and then marched off towards an unknown fate through a sea of angry faces
Colin Freeman
The people who attacked me were members of the Al Mehdi army militia loyal to radical Shia cleric Moqtadr Sadr, whose followers may also be responsible for kidnapping and shooting James.

After being invited to one of their Friday prayer meeting last May, my translator and I were accused, without warning, by one follower of being "British spies".

Without warning, he walked up behind us and fired his pistol into the Ground, the bullet ricochet lodging right in my backside.

Despite my translator's furious protestations that I was only a journalist, I was then spread-eagled against a wall, searched, and then marched off towards an unknown fate through a sea of angry faces, one of whom punched me as I was frogmarched past him.

Luckily, just as I was pondering the prospect of being kidnapped, publicly lynched, or worse, my translator managed to get hold of the sheik's deputy, who was able to vouch for us.

Basra
Militias: Expect the unexpected
He barged through the crowd in his car, bundled me in, and, after a brief and rather nervous spell being held in the local Sadr headquarters, I was finally driven back to a nearby hotel.

Later that day a British army surgeon dug out the 0.22 bullet that had lodged perilously close to the base of my spine.

I was extremely fortunate. My life was saved by the fact that even the volatile street mobs who make up Mr Sadr's following still respect the authority of his anointed deputies.

James, who was apparently seized by a group who broke into his hotel and took him at gunpoint, clearly had no such luck.

It is hard to say at this point whether his captors were acting alone or with the backing of Mr Sadr's militia, tacit or otherwise.

The Mehdi army has frequently clashed with British troops in Basra and elsewhere, but until now it has largely avoided violent kidnappings of the kind carried out by in known troublespots like Fallujah.

Hoping for goodwill

The problem with such a volatile country as Iraq is that one must always expect the unexpected. The problem in Basra is that like other smaller Iraqi cities, it is impossible to conceal your presence there.

Video footage of Mr Brandon
If you listened to every warning you received as a reporter in Iraq, you would never leave your hotel room
Colin Freeman
Word quickly spreads that Western journalists are in town, and as they tend to stay in one or two particular hotels, it would have been no problem for James' captors to track him down.

True, James was in the city at a time of heightened tensions: in recent days, members of the Mehdi army have been clashing once again with British troops, resulting in the death of one British soldier earlier this week.

But that, unfortunately, is the nature of the game he was in: where trouble goes, members of the press - some of them at least - invariably follow.

I have no doubt that some of his colleagues in Baghdad - especially the American ones, who tend to be much more cautious - may have advised him against going there at present.

However, if you listened to every warning you received as a reporter in Iraq, you would never leave your hotel room.

Instead, my overwhelming feeling, and probably that of the rest of the foreign press pack in Iraq, is "there but for the grace of God go I".

Western journalists have visited Basra scores of times over the last year, trusting only the power of their press cards and the goodwill of the locals to keep them safe.

If a group of armed men decide to put you in their sights, there is, as this latest incident shows, very little you can do about it.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Nick Thatcher
"British troops in Basra will now help in the search to find him"



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