In Iraq's Tikrit, tensions flare over footage of death of an unknown soldier

Medical personnel at Tikrit's Dijla Hospital work to save the life of a wounded man, their efforts in vain.

Story highlights

  • A CNN crew finds medical personnel trying to save a wounded fighter in Tikrit
  • But when the man dies, demands start for the crew's video footage

A CNN crew -- correspondent Ben Wedeman, video journalist Mary Rogers and producer Kareem Khadder -- managed to make their way to a hospital in Tikrit while heavy fighting raged around them. Wedeman reports from the scene in this first-person account:

Tikrit, Iraq (CNN)Two men in blue smocks were mopping up blood spilled in the main entrance to the Dijla Hospital south of Tikrit when we arrived there mid-morning Friday. The air shook with outgoing rockets and artillery roaring toward the center of the city.

We were escorted by men from the Badr Brigade, the biggest and best-organized Iranian-backed force fighting ISIS.
    As we got out of our car, a man wearing a vest with the emblem of the Iraqi Red Crescent beckoned urgently to video journalist Mary Rogers to come inside. He led her to a gurney surrounded by four or five men, some wearing blue disposable surgical gowns, others in dark green military fatigues.
    They were huddled over a man naked to the waist, a thick plastic tube inserted in his side, red with blood, leading to a bottle filling up with more blood. The wounded man -- no one knew his name -- had been shot in the head, the chest and the leg. He was motionless.
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    The head doctor, in dark green combat fatigues, told me the man was in critical condition.
    All the while, the windows of the building shook from the concussion of the bombardment of central Tikrit. From the sound, it was clear that artillery and rocket launchers were nearby.
    Several other wounded fighters were in the entrance, but their condition was much less grave. One, who identified himself as Sadiq, had been shot in the upper thigh, but was fully conscious.
    He told producer Kareem Khadder he had been shot in central Tikrit that morning, recalling at the time he was uncertain whether it was shrapnel or a bullet because the fighting was so intense.
    While Mary and Kareem were doing that interview, I walked around the hospital to see if there was anything else that might help us put together a report. It was a ramshackle place, it looked like much of the facility had been in a state of neglect for a while, perhaps because until recently it was in no-man's land.
    When I went back to see where Mary and Kareem were, I was told Mary was down a corridor where an "operation" was about to take place. Mary was invited to film the operation. I found her putting on a surgical gown and blue shoe covers.

    Effort to save a life fails, argument over video ensues

    Several men rolled a gurney through the corridor in our direction. The same critically wounded man was wheeled into a side room. He never made it into the operating theater.
    A different set of doctors or medics started working on him, pumping air into his lungs, then applying CPR. His chest took a final heave, as the doctors tried to find a pulse, but there was no pulse to find. There was no "operation." This was a last, desperate attempt to stop this unknown man from dying. His face was yellow and waxy.
    He was dead, but the doctors didn't call time of death,
    In the meantime, our escorts were calling us to leave, we needed to move to our next destination, which they had told us was the position from which artillery and rocket launchers were at work.
    Mary, who was at the far end of the gurney, wedged her way out and we went outside. She went to the car, I chatted with a pair of Iraqi journalists in the entrance. They had been here for more than two weeks. I bade them farewell, and walked toward our car.
    And then, everything changed. I heard a commotion behind me, and the doctor I had spoken to before passed me, shouting, "Grab all the cameras! Get the cameras!"
    "What's the problem?" I asked him.
    He didn't provide an explanation.

    Harsh words, backed up by guns

    "Give us your cameras now!" he barked at me.
    A group of militiamen had surrounded Kareem, and was insisting he give them his small camera.
    More militiamen, plus some of the hospital staff gathered around him, shouting angrily that all cameras must be surrendered. Right next to me a tall man with a military shirt over running pants raised his rifle, about to shoot in the air.
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    This is going to get very messy, I thought to myself.
    Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and there was no shooting. But everyone was very agitated.
    Much shouting ensued between our entourage and the local militiamen.
    Our chief escort, Ma'in Al-Kadhimi, was gesturing wildly and arguing with them to calm down, but he wasn't having much luck. He is a commander of the Badr Organisation, but these men were with the Soldiers of the Imam Brigade (Kataib Jund Al-Imam in Arabic). It's a separate group, and clearly Al-Kadhimi, who was treated with deference by his own men, didn't enjoy the same esteem here.
    In the meantime, I joined Mary in our car, concerned that too many of us arguing with this large group would only make matters worse. Kareem was busy negotiating outside the hospital. We locked the car doors and did our best to pretend we were simply waiting patiently to move.
    Soon a group of men armed with AK-47 assault rifles gathered outside the car, knocking on the window and angrily gesturing that we must give them the camera. Mary discreetly pulled out the data card with the footage she had just shot and replaced it with an empty one. It's an old trick that sometimes works in situations like these. Although I could understand everything this crowd was saying, I feigned ignorance.
    This went on for about 45 minutes. Some in our entourage were trying to keep the crowd from banging on the car windows and wrenching open the locked doors.
    Kareem hid his small camera in one of the cars and saw the big camera being taken away by several people. Kareem followed the camera to make sure it was safe.
    Inside, everyone was shouting, with Kareem refusing to do anything before someone explained what was going on.
    The armed men wanted the sequence of the dying fighter deleted, and weren't going to take "no" for an answer. Kareem then went inside one of the rooms to carry on negotiations. Armed men barred Kareem from leaving the room.

    Unity against ISIS -- but that's about where it ends

    Eventually, Kareem said we should delete the sequence of the dying man, after our Iraqi security guard had said we needed to do just that -- otherwise, we were in trouble.
    Kareem looked at the camera and noticed the card was missing. A media-savvy member of the Soldiers of the Imam Brigade insisted we were hiding the card with the footage.
    Finally Kareem returned and said that if we didn't hand over the camera there would be trouble. The atmosphere was such that we realized that not handing over the camera would make matters much worse. So we gave Kareem the camera and waited.
    A few minutes later, he returned. They know the data card is empty. They want the one with the pictures, he said.
    So we gave it to him. Soon Kareem was back.
    "They don't know how to delete the pictures of the dying man," he said. So Mary went with him inside the hospital to delete the footage of the dying man.
    To cut a long, tense story short, Mary didn't delete the footage. Someone else did, all the footage from the hospital.
    After about an hour and a half, we finally left the hospital compound. Our escort, Al-Kadhimi, was shaken.
    He, and we, were reminded that with all the different armed groups fighting on the Tikrit front, there might be unity against ISIS, but that's about where it ends.