#2 - JRL 7137
April 9, 2003
Vershbow: Convoy Changed Its Route
By Nabi Abdullaev
A broader picture emerged Tuesday of why a Russian diplomatic convoy may have come under fire as it left Baghdad two days before, with the U.S. ambassador saying the convoy had unexpectedly changed its route from the one U.S. military commanders had approved.
A Rossia television reporter traveling with the diplomats said their convoy could easily have been mistaken for one carrying troops loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The Russian ambassador to Iraq, Vladimir Titorenko, has accused American troops of firing on the convoy outside of Baghdad on Sunday, and television reporters who were in the convoy said this seems most certainly the case, but there was no confirmation of this Tuesday.
U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said the convoy had apparently changed its route without notifying U.S. officials.
"It is already apparent that the Russian ambassador may have decided for reasons we don't know to take a route different from the one we recommended, and instead to follow the advice of the Iraqis," he said in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio.
A senior U.S. diplomat quoted by Agence France Presse went one step further. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the Iraqis may have intentionally sent the convoy into a contested area with the aim of creating an international incident. "It looks like it was a trap set by the Iraqis," the official was quoted by AFP as saying.
Andrei Murtazin, a reporter with Channel One television who was among the 23 people in the convoy, said in an on-air report that the route was changed on the advice of Iraqi officials. But Murtazin said he believes the Iraqis did so for reasons of the convoy's security.
The Rossia reporter, Alexander Minakov, said two Iraqi cars traveling ahead of the convoy may have helped set off the attack on the eight-vehicle convoy.
"I am 80 percent sure that we were fired on by a group of American commandos," Minakov said in an interview with the Gazeta newspaper published Tuesday. "A group of commandos always goes ahead of the military columns to access the situation.
"Perhaps they saw the Iraqi cars and then the convoy with the jeeps carrying the journalists. Such jeeps are often driven by the Iraqi special forces that are most loyal to Saddam.
"The commandos saw this collection of vehicles and began firing from a distance of 100 meters," he said. "The Iraqis answered, and we found ourselves in the crossfire."
The Iraqi cars were not escorting the convoy, and four people riding in them were killed, Minakov said. There were two more Iraqi cars behind the convoy, he said.
Iraqi Ambassador to Moscow Abbas Khalaf said Baghdad would not comment on any possible complicity of Iraqi troops in the attack. "Let the Russian side make its own conclusions about the incident," he told Interfax.
Dmitry Trenin, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said it was not difficult to understand how American troops might have mistaken the convoy for hostile Iraqis.
"Imagine an unidentified column headed by vehicles carrying Iraqis appearing in front of the advancing troops and predict their reaction," he said.
Trenin said the situation was ideal for a provocation by the Iraqis, but he warned against jumping to any conclusions.
In a report late Tuesday, Interfax quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov as saying statements the convoy altered its route were "not quite true." There was no elaboration.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the Russians had provided the U.S. military with "detailed information about the vehicles and the personnel involved, as well as the route they planned to follow."
Ambassador Titorenko was riding in a regular car, which was flying a small Russian flag on its hood, Minakov said.
The ambassador's driver, who was shot twice in the stomach, was the most seriously wounded. He was operated on at an Iraqi hospital in Fallujah, 50 kilometers west of Baghdad, and remained there when the rest of the diplomatic group continued on to Syria on Monday.
Most of the diplomats flew back to Moscow on Tuesday from Damascus, but Titorenko returned to Fallujah to bring his wounded driver and another Russian who had stayed there with him to Syria, Interfax reported, citing a source in the Foreign Ministry. The U.S. and Iraqi militaries were informed of the ambassador's route, and he arrived back in Syria safely with the two others, Interfax said.
Twelve Russian diplomats, however, were still in Baghdad on Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said.
Mikhail Margelov, head of the international affairs committee in the Federation Council, said the U.S. military was prepared to provide a corridor for their evacuation, Interfax reported.
Kommersant reported on Tuesday that the ambassador and other embassy staff had left Baghdad only after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell "repeatedly and persistently" demanded their evacuation.
Citing an unnamed Defense Ministry official, the newspaper said Powell had demanded their evacuation because it suspected a global positioning system jamming device was located on the Russian Embassy grounds and was deflecting U.S. precision weapons.
The Defense Ministry said Tuesday it was not aware of Washington's request to close the Russian Embassy in Baghdad and denied the Kommersant report.
"Such reports citing sources in the Russian Defense Ministry are improper and do not reflect reality," ministry spokesman Nikolai Deryabin said in a statement carried by Interfax.
At the State Department, Reeker said he was not aware that the U.S. government had been advising the Russian diplomats to leave Baghdad.
"I think that is a decision for the Russians to make," he said at Monday's briefing. "They had been in contact with us about that. I don't have -- you know, we don't make that type of advisement. But clearly, it was a decision they made and had been in contact with us to discuss the withdrawal that they were planning."
The U.S. administration does not support the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to ban Russian firms from taking part in U.S.-funded reconstruction bids in postwar Iraq, Vershbow told Ekho Moskvy on Tuesday.