ABC, NBC put focus on work of longtime reporters in Iraq

Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Correspondent Richard Engel reports from Iraq in the NBC special "War Zone Diary," which premieres today on MSNBC. (NBC)

NEW YORK -- During his four years in Iraq, NBC News correspondent Richard Engel has escaped two attempted carjackings and a roadside bomb. Another bomb blew the door off his hotel room, sending shrapnel that burned holes through sheets of the bed where he was sleeping.

It's still an assignment he wouldn't think of giving up.

Both NBC and ABC this week are showcasing the work of two correspondents -- Engel and Terry McCarthy -- who have covered most of the war.

Engel's "War Zone Diary" premieres 9 p.m. today on MSNBC. It's a personal look at his experiences, filmed mostly on the small camera he brought to Baghdad as a freelancer before the U.S. invasion.

McCarthy is the lead reporter for the "Iraq: Where Things Stand" series that is being featured on all of ABC's newscasts this week. He traveled around the country as much as he could to talk to Iraqis about their lives.

The reporters' own lives in Iraq are filled with constant safety concerns and frustration that the danger restricts their work, mixed with the exhilaration of covering the biggest story in the world.

McCarthy, 45, covered the war for Time magazine before joining ABC News last June. He's married with two children under age 3, and his assignment regularly gives him six weeks in Iraq and three weeks home in Los Angeles. Engel is 33 and childless, with a divorce caused in part by his preoccupation with covering the Middle East since he graduated from Stanford 11 years ago.

Engel's career took off when he stayed in Baghdad at a time many networks pulled correspondents in anticipation of the American attack.

He recorded many of those moments for his diary, trying to capture the sense of paranoia while waiting for war and the realization he was truly alone.

One of the near carjackings scared him the most. In Baghdad traffic, cars suddenly pulled in front of and behind his car. Engel's driver instantly recognized what was happening, turned and jumped a concrete median. He tore away at 80 mph, dodging oncoming cars.

"Sometimes, what's most frightening is the down time, when you think, 'It's been four years now. How often can you press your luck?'" he said.

"At some stage if I keep doing this, and I plan on keeping doing this, I'll have to be fairly cautious and fairly lucky to walk away from this without getting hurt or worse."

Every trip out of the office for an interview requires a checklist of considerations, including escape routes. "You want to move in, do what you need to do and get out before anyone knows you were there," he said.

If you try to avoid every dangerous situation, "you might as well not be there," Engel said, while conceding the lifestyle has a certain addictive quality.

McCarthy keeps his worst moments to himself.

"There have been bullets that have come way too close to me," he said, "but I don't like to talk about that too much. There is nowhere that is safe here. We do our best to protect ourselves."

He had to abruptly leave one Baghdad neighborhood recently after a half-hour when a security guard noticed someone writing down the license number of his car.

Another neighborhood presumed safe was now off-limits.

"It's hugely frustrating, in that there are many places that we cannot get to," McCarthy said. "That goes against all of my journalistic instincts. I hate having to rely on secondhand sources. I want to go out and see places and talk to people and in many cases that's not possible. We are kidnap targets now."

The subject is particularly sensitive at ABC News, where anchor Bob Woodruff was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in January 2006. Any major story idea, like traveling with troops on patrol, needs to be approved by bosses in New York, he said. They often say no.

Much of ABC's reporting is done by local staff members, the unsung heroes of journalism in this war, he said. People are much more free to move around in other parts of the country, and McCarthy said he was surprised to see the level of commerce elsewhere, including a $1 billion retail and housing development in Kurdistan.

Despite the difficulties and time already spent covering a war that has changed shape several times, neither man wants to leave. They can't walk away without seeing how the story will end.

McCarthy met his wife three months before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, after which he was dispatched to Afghanistan. His three weeks off are family time and he uses a Web cam to keep in touch while he's in Iraq.

"It's not easy," he said. "I've made it clear to her that this is a little slice of history that I want to follow through."

He also feels loyal to people he's met in Iraq. He has difficult working conditions; this is the life they lead every day.

"Every time I come back I'm amazed that people still live in Baghdad," he said. "Why haven't they all left?"

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