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

U.S. calls ousted reporter threat to national security

February 22, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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.

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