Baghdad, April 13 (Reuters): CNN correspondent Brent Sadler and his crew escaped serious injury today when their vehicles came under gunfire in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.
Live television footage shot by CNN had earlier shown Sadler and his team passing through the deserted and abandoned northern outskirts of Tikrit.
But when they ran a checkpoint close to the centre, shooting erupted and his convoy sped out of the town with CNN security advisers returning fire with automatic machinegun.
Some of the convoy vehicle windows were shattered and Sadler first said one of the drivers had suffered a head wound, but CNN later said the entire team escaped injury. “It is the first time in my 25 years as a war correspondent that I have come under such close, deliberate fire,” Sadler said. “That was a pretty ugly moment.”
As they accelerated out of the northern Iraqi town of 200,000 people, they were followed by unidentified figures in a car who shot at them with small arms fire.
Sadler lost contact as his convoy headed out of Tikrit, 175 km north of Baghdad, but resumed transmission temporarily. CNN later said the team was safe. “Iraq remains a dangerous place and that applies to soldiers as well as reporters,” said a US defence official in Washington who asked not to be identified.
Saddam’s concentration of power among his closest family, and distrust of most people outside his Albu Nasir tribe, meant Tikritis formed the backbone of his most loyal military forces.
No fighters or armour were visible when Sadler and his team entered the northern approaches of Tikrit on their drive from Mosul. His footage first showed an abandoned military base around 8 km from the centre, with destroyed artillery and empty tanks.
“Where is everybody' Where are the soldiers' Where are the final divisions of the Republican Guard'” Sadler said.
After hearing explosions from the town and seeing people heading out carrying belongings, CNN’s security advisers instructed Sadler’s convoy to turn back. But he was later told by civilians he stopped to speak to that there were no Saddam fighters in the town, and the CNN convoy decided to drive back into Tikrit.
“They say Saddam Hussein is finished in Tikrit,” Sadler quoted one of the Iraqi drivers as saying. Sadler was the first western journalist to attempt to get into Tikrit since the US-led invasion of Iraq began on March 20.
Sadler had entered a bombed military complex on the outskirts of Tikrit, with the ruins of dozens of destroyed warehouses. Scores of armoured personnel carriers, some covered in rubble, were parked around the shattered buildings or inside warehouses which had escaped destruction.
“If you have air pounding, bombs dropping on your head for a week, it’s not surprising they walk away,” said Central Command spokeswoman Major Rumi Nielson-Green, responding to pictures of the deserted outskirts.
US generals have said even though Saddam’s forces had melted away after American soldiers took control of Baghdad last week, reinforcements had been seen digging in around Tikrit.
Some observers speculate that elements of Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programme, which formed the central plank of Washington’s case for war, but whose existence remain unproven, could be hidden in and around Tikrit. Many experts believe the city is also a nerve centre for Iraqi security services and command-and-control infrastructure.
A media watchdog in Paris expressed concern today that a CNN team reporting from Iraq was travelling with an armed guard, saying it set a “dangerous precedent” that could imperil other journalists.
“There is a real risk that belligerents will believe all press vehicles are armed,” Robert Menard, Reporters Sans Frontieres secretary general, said in a statement.
He added that the use of armed private security guards only increased the confusion between reporters and combatants in the conflict.