Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Tacoma News Tribune writer once again in world hot spot

They are not the words an editor wants to read in the last line of an email from her reporter working half a world away.

“And I heard the rumble of another car bomb just a couple hours after settling in.”

The email came Friday from News Tribune military reporter Adam Ashton. He left last week on assignment to cover Iraq as a correspondent for the Washington, D.C., bureau of our parent company, McClatchy.

At 11:01 a.m. Thursday, Ashton sent an email saying he’d arrived in Baghdad.

At 1:47 p.m. Thursday, the McClatchy foreign editor sent an email saying his sources believed a U.S. military strike was likely imminent in Iraq and that an announcement from the White House could come that evening.

It hadn’t taken long for Ashton’s assignment to get interesting.

But this is what foreign correspondents do. They go to far away places — oftentimes in the heat of war — to observe and tell the world what’s going on. Otherwise, we’d be left interpreting propaganda from one side or the other. In matters such as these, it’s important we know the truth.

Ashton has done this job twice before. He spent four months in 2008 and 2009 on assignment in the McClatchy Baghdad bureau. He covered Iraqi politics and wrote stories about everyday life in the city. He lived in a hotel outside Baghdad’s Green Zone and worked with Iraqi journalists. His steady temperament is well-suited for this work.

About 130,000 American troops were in country at the time, but Ashton was working as a “unilateral” reporter. Unilaterals have the advantage of operating independently, but they give up the security of being embedded with a military unit. It can be a dangerous way to do business.

Two years after joining our staff in 2010, Ashton went to Afghanistan as an embedded reporter with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade. That assignment wasn’t without peril. He and TNT photographer Peter Haley were in the same region immediately following news that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales had killed 16 Afghan civilians. Tensions were high. We were concerned for their safety.

This assignment is different still for Ashton. This time, he is one of a tiny cadre of correspondents reporting from Baghdad.

Most Western reporters left Iraq when American troops pulled out in 2011, as reader interest waned.

But earlier this year, Iraq began to fall apart, with frightening terrorist forces pulling the strings and political divisions reigniting. McClatchy moved back in to cover the story, along with The New York Times, The Washington Post and others. Some of those reporters have since moved on to cover the fighting in Gaza.

McClatchy asked a month ago if Ashton was interested in going back. He would rotate in for a few weeks behind the regular foreign correspondents. He wanted to go; we supported his decision.

I asked him on Friday to help me explain to readers why he wanted to go and what he hopes to accomplish. He wrote back:

“I am here because I wanted to see what Iraq looks like three years after the last large U.S. forces left the country. I appreciate their sacrifices much more after spending the past four years covering the Army and Air Force at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“This is a critical moment. On the way here, I visited former I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik in the other Washington. He characterized ISIS as pretty much the embodiment of the kind of stateless, extremist organization the U.S. has been fighting since 9/11. We’ll see what happens now that President (Barack) Obama has announced a plan to protect U.S. interests with possible air strikes against ISIS and more humanitarian assistance for the people displaced by the extremists.

“Over the next few weeks, I expect to cover security and political developments from Baghdad. (His first story ran Saturday.) I also hope to write a couple feature stories about what it’s like to live here now. We’ll see. Everything takes longer in Baghdad, and I don’t have a lot of time.

“My first impression is that the city itself is more open than when I saw it last in 2009. I noticed far fewer checkpoints and some new storefronts here in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood. Two wedding celebrations took place beneath my hotel window last night, showing that someone here has hope for the future.

“That said, we had to take a circuitous route to the hotel because of road closures stemming from a deadly car bomb last week. And I heard the rumble of another car bomb just a couple hours after settling in.”

I told him he was doing important work. And I told him again, for the hundredth time, to be safe.