The Mysterious Case of the AP Photographer

By Terry McCarthy

Nov 23, 2007 9:30am

A talented Iraqi war photographer detained by the U.S. military because his photos portrayed the war too accurately? Or an insurgent spy who infiltrated the Associated Press to better gather information for Sunni militants who were targeting U.S. troops in Fallujah and Ramadi?  The truth, as ever in this complicated war, may lie somewhere in the middle. Bilal Hussein was part of an AP team that won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 2005. In April 2006, he was detained in Ramadi after the U.S. military says it found bomb-making components and documents linking him to the insurgency in his apartment. Bilal has been held since then without charge in a detention center at Baghdad Airport. His lawyer says the U.S. charges have not been substantiated. But two Iraqis in Fallujah who know Bilal have been interviewed by ABC News and have provided a more complicated picture of the 36-year-old photographer. Neither wanted to be identified for fear of retaliation by insurgents. Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage. One man from Fallujah told ABC News that one of Bilal’s brothers is known locally to belong to one of the main Sunni insurgent movements and now lives outside Iraq because he is wanted by the U.S. military. He says that when Bilal was arrested, there were also some gunmen in his apartment, and that he had taken pictures of insurgents executing a foreign hostage, suggesting a relatively close relationship with the insurgency. Another man who had been detained in the same facility as Bilal and spent several months in the same holding pen as him before being released, however, told ABC News that the photographer does not appear to be a militant and does not express any support for the insurgency in the prison camp. What was Bilal Hussein’s relationship, if any, with the Sunni insurgency in Fallujah and Anbar, which until recently were two of the most dangerous cities in Iraq? An Iraqi journalist known to ABC News who works in Ramadi and Fallujah says that to operate as a journalist in those cities required at least some level of contact with the insurgents. Otherwise the journalist risked his or her life trying to report. But he says that there is a big difference between those who simply told the insurgents who they were and whom they worked for, and those other journalists who went out with the insurgents on operations. It is no secret that a number of Iraqi journalists working for foreign news organizations had developed relationships with the insurgents by late 2003 and early 2004, for two reasons:  their own safety in accessing zones of conflict and the knowledge that some Western news organizations paid handsomely for footage of car bombs and other attacks that could only be obtained with some degree of foreknowledge.  Some news organizations chose to turn a blind eye to the practice, but the U.S military had a list of cameramen and photographers who uncannily happened to always turn up just before a major attack or car bomb. The Iraqi government accused the Arab television channel al Jazeera of relying on insurgent contacts to get some of their more dramatic video — something the network denied — and subsequently expelled al Jazeera from the country.    The extent of Bilal’s links with insurgents, if any, remains unclear. The U.S. says that after 19 months of detention, Bilal is due to be handed over to an Iraqi court, at which point concrete evidence will have to be produced or he will simply be released. Whether he’s innocent or guilty, the story of Bilal Hussein and journalists like him show how entangled ordinary life has become with the insurgency in many parts of Iraq — an entanglement the U.S. is only now beginning to undo. Do you have a tip for Brian Ross and the Investigative Team?

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