Baghdad Checkpoint Revisited

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The U.S. military recently has redesigned the checkpoint at the entrance to Baghdad's Green Zone to address security issues. Before, reporters had to walk to the checkpoint, exposed to snipers and kidnappers. When they got close, they risked being shot at by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.


Last month NPR reported on dangers facing journalists and others attempting to enter Baghdad's Green Zone; that's the heavily secured area where Iraqi and American officials live. It's one of the safer places in the Iraqi capital. But for those who don't live there, getting in and out can be risky. After complaints from several journalists about being shot at by nervous Iraqi troops, the US military promised to review its security measures. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on the results.

PETER KENYON reporting:

Last month just as Cox Newspapers' foreign correspondent Larry Kaplow was leaving the Green Zone with his translators, a car bomb exploded in front of the high concrete blast walls before the entrance. The ensuing confusion was marked by screaming Iraqi and Georgian troops assigned to guard the checkpoint and general uncertainty as to where the journalists could move without having a weapon pointed at them. US Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan reached the scene and helped the journalists get to relative security. That incident combined with a number of reports of journalists have warning shots fired in their direction prompted the military to review the setup at the entrance.

For a time journalists were required to walk two to three city blocks to reach the first checkpoint, which left them feeling highly vulnerable to attacks or kidnapping attempts. Boylan says the military has made some improvements.

Lieutenant Colonel STEVE BOYLAN: They have created a drop-off point with blast shields. It's not that far away from the checkpoint at all, maybe 75 meters. And we've also made one-way traffic, so that if somebody's going into that lane, it's very clear that that's what they're doing.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: On a recent day a soldier from the Republic of Georgia scrutinizes ID badges at the first of several checkpoints that must be passed to reach the Green Zone. The center line of the road leading to this entrance has now been lined with concrete barriers, leaving only one lane with access to the checkpoint. The new drop-off point is no more than 80 yards from the entrance, but the concrete walls at the drop-off zone itself are only a few feet high, presumably to allow guards to see who's getting out of the cars that stop there.

Reached by e-mail, Kaplow, who's covered Iraq for Cox Newspapers since the beginning of the war, had a mixed reaction. He finds the one-way traffic system an improvement and the clearly marked drop-off point. On the other hand, he notes reporters can still find themselves caught between soldiers and potentially suspicious cars trying to use the vehicle checkpoint, which remains right next to the pedestrian entrance journalists must use. Lieutenant Colonel Boylan says he knows reporters aren't happy being exposed even for the shorter distance they now have to walk, but additional improvements are not on the table at the moment.

Lt. Col. BOYLAN: Well, I haven't heard of any complaints since the new drop-off point started. So we're wanting to see how this works.

KENYON: Reuters bureau chief Alastair Macdonald says getting into the Green Zone is just one of many hazardous activities his reporters face on a regular basis, number one being the ever-present danger of kidnapping. Added to that are incidents of confusion and miscommunication often involving members of the new Iraqi security forces that might be comical if they weren't potentially life-threatening. He recalls an incident involving reporters for Knight Ridder...

Mr. ALASTAIR MACDONALD (Reuters): which two policemen were simultaneously pointing their guns at their car, one say, `Move! Move!' and the other saying, `Stop!' In those sort of situations, it's extremely alarming.

KENYON: Foreign journalists who keep returning to Iraq know that for all the hazards they face, this country remains a far more dangerous place for the Iraqis themselves, including the Iraqi journalists, translators and drivers, who put themselves at risk every day helping foreign correspondents draw compelling scenes from the confusion and danger that are likely to be the hallmark of everyday life in Iraq for some time to come. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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