Iraqi journalist expelled at U.N. says it's all politics


For two years, Mohammed Allawi has been the sole Iraqi journalist based in the United States, the only reporter filing dispatches from the country that has been moving toward war with his own.

Even if his employer is the state-run Iraqi News Agency and his stories invariably hew to the official line, Allawi speaks with pride of his role in providing his fellow citizens at home with information from across an increasingly bitter divide.

Now, though, just as the simmering U.S.-Iraq tensions are threatening to boil over, Allawi's work here is coming to an end: The State Department has ordered him to leave the United States by the end of the month.

Accredited as the United Nations correspondent for Iraq's official news service, Allawi "engaged in activities harmful to the security of the United States," according to the U.S. mission to the United Nations, which announced the expulsion order last week.

Officials would not provide more specific charges or confirm reports that he was suspected of spying for Iraq.

Allawi said he believes his expulsion is part of the current U.S. campaign to make a case for war against Iraq.

"It's a political campaign to show Iraq is a threat," he said. "I didn't do anything wrong.

Allawi, 38, has lived in New York with his wife and five children during his two years as the U.N. reporter for the Iraqi News Agency, which is part of the government's Information Ministry.

Iraq retaliates

His expulsion last week triggered a tit-for-tat move reminiscent of the diplomatic maneuverings of the Cold War, as Iraq quickly ordered an American journalist reporting from Baghdad for Fox News to leave the country.

The expulsions come as the Bush administration seeks a new resolution from the U.N. Security Council that would authorize a war against Iraq. Against this backdrop, Allawi's expulsion shocked many, particularly his colleagues in the U.N. press corps, who protested the move in a letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

"He's quiet. He's a sweet guy," Tony Jenkins, correspondent for the Portuguese newspaper Expresso and president of the U.N. Correspondents Association, said of Allawi. "He's quietly gone about his work.

Jenkins said he knew of no previous cases in which a U.N. reporter has been expelled, "even at the height of the Cold War when many journalists were suspected of being agents, even at the height of the McCarthy era."

"This is unprecedented. This is not an action we can let go without comment."

Jenkins' letter - addressed to Powell because the 1947 agreement that established U.N. headquarters in New York requires the U.S. secretary of state to personally approve any expulsions of journalists - says officials have neither offered proof supporting their charges against Allawi, nor given him given a chance to refute the charges.

"We have seen no evidence that Mr. Allawi is anything other than what he purports to be: a working journalist," Jenkins wrote. "Moreover we note that the United Nations has chosen not to strip Mr. Allawi of his press credentials.

"As journalists we are dedicated to ensuring maximum transparency in the affairs of state; such transparency is the bedrock of democracy," Jenkins wrote. "We cannot accept the recourse by any member government to unsubstantiated and anonymous rumors and slurs as a means to smear one of our members."

A State Department spokeswoman said the office has not yet seen the letter and would not comment on it. Jenkins also wrote Iraqi officials to protest their expulsion of the Fox correspondent, Greg Palkot.

Jenkins said some of Allawi's colleagues at the United Nations agree with the Iraqi journalist that his expulsion is related to U.S. war efforts.

"Some members are deeply suspicious of this. The Bush administration is trying by hook or by crook to link Iraq to some sort of threat against the U.S., be it terrorism, be it weapons of mass destruction," Jenkins said. "Obviously, it's not news that it is not going well."

Assumed a spy

To be fair, he added, there are also U.N. correspondents who have assumed that Allawi is a spy because he works for Iraq's official news service.

Allawi denies this.

"I am working inside the U.N. I don't go outside this building," he said. "Do you think there are secrets in the U.N.?"

Nonetheless, Allawi said he will not challenge the expulsion and plans to return to Iraq next week. He said he will continue to work there for the Iraqi News Agency, his employer for the past 14 years.

Allawi, a native of Baghdad, said he studied English at the University of Baghdad and after graduation joined the Information Ministry and became a journalist with its news agency. He wrote political stories from agency headquarters in Baghdad, he said, before being assigned to the United Nations in New York.

Iraqi journalists work under decidedly different conditions than do their counterparts in the United States. Saddam Hussein's regime maintains a "stranglehold over all of Iraq's institutions, including the press," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit group that monitors press freedom around the world.

The head of the Iraqi Journalists Union is Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, who also controls the paper Babel. Publication of Babel was suspended for a month last year in a move interpreted as a show of force by the Iraqi president.

The Iraqi News Agency acts as a wire service that distributes reports for use by the country's newspapers, radio and television. Allawi's reports appear to be straightforward accounts of the activities of Iraq's mission to the United Nations, such the ambassador's speeches.

Other Iraqi News Agency accounts, particularly those from Baghdad related to the U.N. inspections and the U.S. buildup toward war, are simply transcripts of strident statements by Iraqi government officials, rendered without additional information or comment from other sources.

'A new stupidity'

This, for example, is how the news agency, quoting an Information Ministry source, reported Allawi's expulsion, according to a BBC unit that monitors Iraqi television:

"The U.S. administration of evil has committed a new stupidity that adds to the series of its previous stupid and arbitrary acts, which it has been carrying out continuously.

"The U.S. administration of evil has decided to expel ... Allawi, INA correspondent in New York, and his family. This measure shows a blatant contradiction between its claims of respecting the freedom of the press and its practices on the ground, which reveal its pale and ugly face towards the freedom of the press. By contrast, Iraq is hosting hundreds of foreign journalists, including a number of American journalists and correspondents."

Left unsaid, however, is that Iraqi government "minders" accompany foreign journalists on their interviews in the country.

Allawi said he was told last week that someone from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations wanted to speak with him. Allawi said he believed U.S. officials had been trying to get him to defect, and so he instead contacted his own government. When he went home that evening, he found a letter informing him of his expulsion from Patrick Kennedy, deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Douri, has said that Allawi's expulsion is part of a "harassment" campaign by the United States, which frequently tries to persuade diplomats and other Iraqi personnel at the United Nations to defect.

Iraq's mission at the United Nations is its only full-fledged base in the United States because the countries do not have diplomatic relations. Allawi said he does not know whether another journalist will be sent to replace him.

"I am a journalist. I am writing what I believe," Allawi said. "It is better when journalists write the stories."

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