On April 8th, 2003, U.S. forces were one day short of taking Baghdad. After a long morning battle in the city streets, coalition troops had quelled the recent stage of Iraqi resistance. With a lull in activity just before noon, hundreds of journalists based in the Palestine Hotel, on the east side of the Tigris River, took a breather and left their posts on balconies and on the roof. One of those who remained on watch was Jose Couso, a jovial, well-respected cameraman from Spain’s Telecinco news network. From a 14th floor balcony, he filmed the movement of U.S. tanks heading closer over the al-Jumhuriya Bridge, three quarters of a mile away. Slowly, one tank stopped, trained its gun on the press hotel where the cameraman stood, and fired. In his last act as a journalist, Jose Couso Permuy described this unthinkable occurrence. Later that day he died of his injuries at a Baghdad hospital. Reuters correspondent Taras Protsyuk had also perished, and three others were injured.
That was not all. Earlier that morning, regretful U.S. air strikes had hit al-Jazeera’s Baghdad office, killing Jordanian journalist Taraq Ayyoub, and had turned Abu Dhabi T.V. headquarters to rubble.
It seemed impossible. Only days earlier, U.S. officials had suggested that the press move to the Palestine Hotel. The Pentagon knew the locations of the three media hubs that took direct hits on April 8th. The official justification was that the soldiers involved were under fire and had acted in self-defense, that the U.S. sincerely regretted the accidents, and there was no more to be said. Scant coverage by the U.S. press contributed to a cool dismissal of a tragedy that may represent a breach of the Geneva Convention.
In Spain, however, bloody images of the chaos at the hotel dominated the media. Survivors of the assault repeated the story for an incensed public. The death of this young, committed photojournalist was an outrage, not only as a personal tragedy, but for its greater implications for the safety of journalists in war zones. The Couso case became a pursuit of justice that is yet to be concluded.
Eyewitness accounts of what happened on the bridge conflict with the official reports. One of various Pentagon accounts indicated that the soldiers fired on snipers spotted on the hotel roof. Guests at the hotel report hearing no gunfire at the time, and the single round had hit five floors below the roof. Although Spain officially accepts that the attack was unintentional, questions remain as to how such an error was possible given the extent of U.S. intelligence and the precision with which the invasion was said to have been executed.
In support of the Couso family, Spanish government officials promised to get answers from the U.S., but the investigation eventually ground to a halt in Spanish courts. In 2007, Wikileaks documents revealed that the U.S. ambassador and Spanish government officials, the same ones that had promised the family a thorough investigation, had quietly agreed to drop the case. In 2010, after two failed attempts to acquire more information from the U.S., Spain’s Supreme Court issued warrants for the arrests of three U.S. servicemen in the death of Jose Couso, although Interpol has declined to take up the case.
In the early days of the Iraq war, public opinion was swept along with the promise that coalition forces would soon overpower Saddam Hussein, and such mishaps would be compensated for by a new democracy in Iraq. Ten years on, we now know that whatever the intentions of the U.S. government had been, the Iraq invasion was plagued with errors from its inception. It is incumbent upon the U.S. to attempt, at the very least, to clarify the events that led to the shelling of the Palestine Hotel. We should do this out of respect for a sovereign nation and ally that has asked for answers, and because we value the free press as important witnesses to war, and as a crucial arm of transparency in a democracy.