The calls on social media were informal and scattered, urging demonstrations Oct. 1 in Baghdad to protest deteriorating living conditions in the battered Iraqi capital. There was nothing to indicate that the protests would be of more significance than previous actions.
But Khalid Mohammed, AP’s chief photographer in Baghdad, had a hunch. He put the demonstrations on the bureau’s planning memorandum and urged all formats to be ready, despite the prevailing mood of skepticism.
Mohammed’s assessment proved prescient. The demonstrations erupted into five days of furious violence, the worst in the country since the quieting of its internal war against the Islamic State group. AP was on hand to witness the first violence and stayed on the grueling story for days.
For their efforts to put the AP ahead of others on such a massive story, Mohammed, photographer Hadi Mizban, video journalist Ali Jabar and reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra, share the Best of the Week award.
The protests, apparently spontaneous and without political leadership, were supported on social media by Iraqis fed up with corruption and lack of basic services in the country, including electricity and water. Security forces turned out in force, blocking intersections to quell the demonstrations. Within hours, riot police were responding with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas. From there, the unrest only got worse. Over the next five days, demonstrations spread to other cities and security personnel began using live ammunition, targeting protesters and killing more than 100 people. People continued to take to the street, defying an internet shutdown and a government-ordered curfew.
It was the most serious challenge to the year-old government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a leader who was already grappling with being in the middle of rising U.S.-Iranian tensions in the region.
Braving bullets, tear gas and government orders to stay off the street, the AP team delivered a steady stream of dramatic and fast video and photos. Mohammed’s and Mizban’s images were used to lead stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. A video shot by Jabar of protesters burning a Humvee and others showing wounded protesters being ferried away were played countless times by AP broadcast customers, with each of the videos racking up usage of around 1,000 hits few days. AP’s running tally of those killed, meticulously assembled by Abdul-Zahra by talking to hospitals and security officials and others, was flashed and cited by other media organizations.
Braving bullets, tear gas and government orders to stay off the street, the AP team delivered a steady stream of dramatic content in all formats.
To work around the curfew, staffers resorted to walking and used motorcycles to get to the protest site. Mohammed and Jabar left their family homes and slept at the office for four nights, while senior Baghdad cameraman Majid Khodeir, Irbil video journalist Salar Salim and Beirut senior producer Bassam Hatoum worked around the clock to package and feed the material. Throughout, the Beirut bureau provided crucial backing, firing off alerts and updates called in by the team on the ground.
Only after appeals for peace from the country’s religious leaders, and the government’s agreement to pull back the army from city streets, did the violence finally subside.
For smart anticipation and courageous eyewitness journalism that set AP apart, Mohammed, Mizban, Jabar and Abdul-Zahra share AP’s Best of the Week honors.