Don't read this account of al-Arabiya journalist Atwar Bahjat's grisly murder if you don't have a strong stomach. I'm not kidding, be warned. As al-Jazeera puts it, the details of the murder - captured on footage evidently taken by a videophone - are horrific even by the standards to which we've grown accustomed in Iraq. Absolutely horrifying... and a grim metaphor for the struggles of the media in today's Iraq.
The way she was killed proves beyond a doubt that Bahjat was not collateral damage. She was targeted by people who knew exactly who she was, people who were obviously familiar with her reporting and her persona. Just like the bombing of the al-Arabiya offices over a year ago, and the killing of scores of other journalists, their savagery sent a direct message to the Arab media. All parties in this conflict see the media - particularly the Arab media - as a central front of the war, quite literally.. and her murder shows that nobody is untouchable.
Who did it? Hala Jaber points out that the murder was carried out by people wearing Iraqi National Guard uniforms (which could easily have been a disguise) ... and things done to her bore the signature style of both Zarqawi and the Badr Brigade. My money would be on Zarqawi. It's easy to see how such a savage murder could follow from the vitriol expressed towards Arab media such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya (Bahjat worked for both) on the jihadi forums and by Zarqawi himself. I certainly don't put this kind of thing beyond the pale of what Shia death squads have done, but they haven't seemed to place as much emphasis on the media dimension as has al-Qaeda. Either way, her murder shows starkly the dangers of journalism in today's Iraq, and the dangers involved in a media literally becoming a central war front. Just horrifying.
UPDATE: thinking it over, though, this is strange:
A source linked to the Sunni insurgency who supplied the film to The Sunday Times in London claimed it had come from a mobile phone found on the body of a Shi’ite Badr Brigade member killed during fighting in Baghdad.
If the tape were made by Zarqawi's al-Qaeda for propaganda purposes, why wasn't it posted on one of the jihadi internet sites like usual? Why supply it to a British newspaper? While the barbarity of the execution and the targeting of the Arab media fit Zarqawi's profile, the way the tape reached the public most definitely does not. Its appearance via a London newspaper raises some serious questions. Did Zarqawi make the tape and then choose not to air it for some reason (just as his organization stopped running beheading videos)? Or is something else going on here - whether a Shia death squad operation, PsyOps, or something else?
UPDATE 2: I've spent quite a bit of time off and on this morning looking at various jihadi forums to see what they have to say about the tape of Atwar's death. In the comment section, I linked to one thread on the al-Tajdeed forum (which included a link to a picture of Atwar's corpse, head intact, to cast doubt on the veracity of the tape - many of those pictures can be found at the Wikipedia site). Most commentors on the jihadi boards I've read think that she was killed by a Shia death squad, not by al-Qaeda or the insurgency. I also haven't seen much of the kind of celebration or even defense that would often appear after a nasty Zarqawi production hit the internet. I don't know who did it - and the killers and the producers of the tape could be two different groups - but I'm increasingly puzzled by the whole affair. If it turns out that Atwar was killed by a Shia death squad (as if we'll ever know for sure), it would pose a bit of a problem for the conventional wisdom on many blogs that the tape just demonstrates the evil of the enemy... since the Shia are pretty much America's allies. It wouldn't diminish the horror of her death or the evil of her murderers in the slightest, but may better reflect the real complexity of an Iraq which rarely fits simplistic storylines.
UPDATE 3: The "Jawa Report" is arguing that the whole video is a hoax, and actually depicts the murder of a Nepalese hostage from August 2004. If he's right, then it would mean that this was indeed the work of the Zarqawi group, not Shia death squads - but that it dates back a long way, to a period when these horror videos were fairly common, and tells us little we didn't already know (good lord the video is horrifying, though, whoever the victim actually was). I don't know yet how much credibility to place on this analysis either, though it's good to see skeptical investigation from other sources. If this is correct, then it does bring us back to my question from last night: who produced and distributed the tape, and why? The "Jawa Report" suggests that it's a fake which had been circulating on the jihadi boards - which would contradict the Sunday Times account of how it received the tape, but wouldn't answer the question of who made it and why. I'd want to know when it appeared on the forums, too - according to what I'm hearing, it appeared on the forums after the Times reported on it, not before, though that could well be wrong.
UPDATE 4: Al-Arabiya is now denying that the tape depicts Atwar Bahjat. I, and others, had been puzzled as to why al-Arabiya hadn't commented on the video. Now we know. Al-Arabiya reports that the woman in the video was not their slain colleague. It presented footage proving that Atwar's head had not been severed (as I had noted a few updates ago), and confirmed this with one of her relatives who attended her body at her funeral. I think that this is conclusive: the Atwar Bahjat video story is a hoax. So, again, back to last night's question: a hoax perpetrated by whom, and for what purpose?