When the U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011, many American news organizations followed suit, scaling back or shutting down their bureaus. Ned Parker was among a handful of American journalists who continued to report from Iraq.
But Parker, the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad, abruptly fled the country last week after receiving death threats for his recent report on human rights abuses by Shiite paramilitary forces that are fighting alongside Iraqi government troops against the self-described Islamic State, or ISIS.
NPR Morning Edition Host Steve Inskeep spoke with Parker, who is in Washington, about the decision to leave and what this episode suggests about the ongoing battle in Iraq.
On the story that generated the controversy
The day that Tikrit was liberated, [my Reuters team] called me during the day and said that we’ve witnessed an execution by federal police of a detainee, in the street, and it was a mob mentality. They could only stay a few minutes because it was such a crazed scene. I think our people feared for their own safety.
So when they came home that evening, we had a huge debate about ‘Do we report this? Is this too sensationalist? It’s one incident.’ But when you looked at the whole picture, we also saw a body being dragged by a group of Shiite paramilitaries … And there had been looting and arson of areas that surround Tikrit.
So we felt that we had to report what happened there, that if we didn’t we wouldn’t be meeting our obligation to report fairly and impartially about the critical issue right now: what happens when security forces enter an area that has been under Islamic State control, that is Sunni, and then has predominantly Shia security and paramilitary forces enter?
On the reaction to publishing story
After we published the story, it was picked up everywhere. I think it was seen because of what our correspondents witnessed — this execution, which was horrific — where they watched two federal policeman basically trying to saw off the head of a suspected Islamic State fighter … it was about vengeance for one of their own who had died. The account was so horrific, our story became really the example of what went wrong in Tikrit.
It was published on April 3. The night of April 5, on Facebook, on a site associated with Shiite paramilitary groups and political forces, a picture of myself went up, calling for Iraqis to expel me. It quickly received over 100 shares and comments, including, ‘Better to kill him than expel him.’
On leaving Iraq
[On the night of April 5], I had just written a note talking about the security situation — my feeling that we could find a way through — when some of our guards yelled, ‘Oh, our boss is on the TV.’ And we look on the channel for Asaib Ahal al-Haq, [a prominent Shiite political party and paramilitary group], and my face is the backdrop as the anchor talks and he actually waves also a printout of my face and talks about how I should be expelled from the country and then proceeds to read a letter from an Iraqi living in the United States who also again calls for me to [be] expelled and describes Reuters as trampling upon the dignity of Iraq and Shiite paramilitary groups. It was incitement plain and simple.
And after that, there was no way I could have stayed in the country, both for myself and for my staff. My presence was polarizing the situation and clearly with my face being exposed like that, with inciteful, hateful language, I wasn’t safe in Baghdad, so I left the next day.
On whether he will return to Iraq
Of course I want to go back. It’s a place that I’ve covered for over a decade, I care about the country, I have great friends there, it’s a story that I’ve devoted a lot of time to, so I hope at some point I can go back.