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‘It’s my destiny—I’m an Iraqi and I’m a journalist’

Saleem Kareem Al-Abbassi, Deputy Bureau Chief, Radio Free Iraq. Photo by Ahmad Wadiei RFE/RL.
Saleem Kareem Al-Abbassi, Deputy Bureau Chief, Radio Free Iraq. Photo by Ahmad Wadiei RFE/RL.

Saleem Kareem Al-Abbassi has been reporting from Baghdad with Radio Free Europe’s Iraq Service, known as Radio Free Iraq (RFI), since 2007. Previously, he worked for a local satellite TV channel and a radio station. During his time at RFI he has reported across multiple platforms, including TV, radio, and online. We sat down with him to talk about working as a journalist in a dangerous security environment, the stories we don’t hear from Iraq, and how he finds the grit to report the news despite constant threats.

RFE/RL: How would you characterize the level of sectarian violence in Iraq since the fighting began in Syria?

Al-Abbassi: It had stayed at the same level since U.S. troops withdrew in December, 2011, but recently it has started to get worse again. It’s creating a civil war, and I believe the situation will continue to deteriorate. There are always terrorist attacks, but after what happened in Abu Ghraib [a prison break in July, 2013 that freed nearly 500 inmates, including senior Al-Qaeda leaders] and Syria, there are now an average of 5-10 car bombs per day with 30-60 people killed. That’s compared to maybe 6 attacks per day before. The situation is absolutely out of control.

RFE/RL: How does this escalation of violence affect your work as a journalist?

Al-Abbassi: First of all, even for normal people in Iraq it’s very dangerous to go outside--whether you’re a journalist or a taxi driver--it doesn’t matter. There is no guarantee, and you can be killed at any time. The only safe place is the Green Zone. Secondly, the situation is even more dangerous for journalists. The third level of danger is to work as a journalist for international media, and the most dangerous is to work for American media. We are the perfect target for Al-Qaeda militias. They’re always looking for us, in fact.

RFE/RL:You have personal experience with this threat. Could you speak about it?

Al-Abbassi: Just before I started with Radio Free Iraq in 2007, I was working for a local radio station that was very popular at that time. One day I left my house to go to work in my car and I was stopped by two police cars. The men were wearing police uniforms and told me I had to stop because they thought I had a car bomb, but I knew what they were doing. They forced me in the police car, stopped, put me in another car, and tried to take me to East Baghdad. They were from a well-known Shi'a militia. On the way, they interrogated me and pistol whipped me, telling me one of my neighbors had alerted them that I might work for foreign media, which was not the case at that time. I was maybe 5 minutes from death. We had almost reached the end of Sadr city where there is a killing field used by the militias.

RFE/RL: How did you escape?

Al-Abbassi: It was a miracle I got away. They mentioned a name I recognized. It was a member of parliament connected to this militia. They called him and he confirmed that I didn’t work for foreign media at that time. They told me they would let me go, but that I had to stop working as a journalist at all or they would kill me. I did stay home for several months and moved twice. But eventually I went back to work, this time with RFI.

RFE/RL: When you go out on assignment now, do you still have the feeling it could happen again?

Al-Abbassi: Every day. But I also believe I have no choice. It’s my destiny--that’s it. I’m an Iraqi and I’m a journalist.

RFE/RL: The headlines in Western media about Iraq tend to be dominated by security problems. What are the non-security stories you report to your Iraqi audience that we’re not hearing?

Al-Abbassi: There is also a housing problem in Iraq, which I’ve done stories about, and a corruption problem, which we report on. These are very concrete issues that affect average Iraqis. We also report on women’s issues, poverty, the human rights sector and children’s education rights, especially girls. There is a big proportion of Iraqi girls who either leave school early or they never go at all. Iraq needs several thousand school buildings now and there are not enough resources for this. It’s massively overcrowded. We report on internal displacement and immigration too. There are more than 4 million Iraqis now living abroad.

RFE/RL: How much is the future of Iraqi security hitched to the deteriorating situation in Syria?

Al-Abbassi: The security situation in Iraq is very weak and anything that happens outside of Iraq can influence it, especially in Syria, because Al-Qaeda is there too. During the time between 2007-2011, Syria was a gateway for terrorists to enter Iraq, and there were accusations against the government of Syria that they helped Al-Qaeda to come into Iraq, and that they supported them with weapons and training. It will be very bad for Iraq if the security situation in Syria stays like this long-term.

--Emily Thompson