BAGHDAD — On Sunday, a journalist for Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language news channel, sat in the newsroom and explained that his staff had recently returned to the bureau after being forced to leave for weeks by threats from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
“Thank God we are able to work,” said the journalist, Mohammed Zuhair, the chief of the channel’s newsroom.
Less than 24 hours later, a suicide bomber drove a white minibus packed with explosives past several checkpoints and detonated the vehicle in front of the news channel’s office, killing 6 and wounding 16. The dead included security guards and a cafeteria worker, but no journalists. Among the wounded was a former Iraqi deputy prime minister who lives nearby. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia took responsibility for the bombing.
On Monday evening, two other explosions struck Shiite pilgrims as they marched from Najaf to Karbala to commemorate the birthday of Imam Mahdi, a revered Shiite saint. The attacks, which also bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, killed close to 20 and wounded more than 50, according to officials in Baghdad and Karbala.
While the bombing at Al Arabiya’s office spared the newsroom, the attack was a brutal reminder of the dangers Iraqis face in practicing journalism, which they have had the freedom to do for only seven years. The war here has been the deadliest in history for journalists. More than 140 have been killed in Iraq since the war began, the vast majority of them Iraqis, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Many newsrooms in Baghdad display photographs of slain colleagues. At Al Sumariya, another popular TV news channel, large photos in a hallway serve as reminders of two correspondents who were kidnapped and killed.
The attack on Monday came as officials have again been debating proposals for a new law to protect journalists — in the event that the country’s political class can end the nearly five-month stalemate that has followed March’s parliamentary elections and form a new government.
Among the ideas are to provide government protection for targeted journalists; offer compensation to the families of those killed; and set up regulations aimed at protecting the newsgathering process. A new law might also elevate a crime against a journalist to a higher level, a parallel to hate crime laws in the United States.
A draft law was sent to Parliament last year but never enacted; many here expect it will be taken up again. Officials recently held a workshop to discuss the proposals.
Mr. Zuhair, who was not hurt in Monday’s bombing, said a law would “give a capability to journalists and a stature.”
The need for a media law — which could also impose fines for publishing false information — is itself a matter of debate. Mindful of prior abuses — when the press was a propaganda arm of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, and the death penalty could be imposed for criticizing his government — some want no government interference in the news media, even with the aim of protection. Last year, journalists in Baghdad protested against a media law, fearing it would restrict them.
Feryad Rawandozi straddles the worlds of politics and the press. A former member of Parliament, he is the spokesman for the Kurdistan Alliance, a coalition of politicians from Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, and a newspaper columnist. His position is nuanced.
“Without a law, we cannot compensate families for losing their sons,” Mr. Rawandozi said. “Some areas are still very dangerous for journalists, but not all the Iraqi areas.”
As a politician, however, he believes the Iraqi press is not advanced enough to police itself on ethics, and favors a law to regulate the profession. “Some people think we need some sort of regulation because we are not exercising freedom of speech in the right way,” he said, mentioning an article that he said misquoted him. “It’s very hard to say that journalists stick with the ethics.”
Iraq’s Constitution protects freedom of opinion and speech, but some Western groups are urging the government to give the media a deeper constitutional imprimatur. A group of press advocacy groups working with Unesco recently published an open letter advocating the passage of a freedom of information law, writing, “We still lack the legal mechanism that guarantees the citizen’s right to have access to information.”
The Iraqi government is wading into the affairs of the news media in other ways, recently establishing a special press court to adjudicate libel offenses and press freedom issues. Western advocates have criticized the court, saying the government has not disclosed enough information about the court’s procedures.
“A specialized press court is hardly the solution to the problems Iraqi journalists face on a daily basis,” Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a recent statement. “Historically, press courts have been used for restriction rather than protection.”
On Monday afternoon, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia took credit for the bombing at Al Arabiya on a Web site it often uses to communicate, suggesting the attack was in response to a broadcast about the influence of the extremist group. The program was called “Creation of Death.”
“Wait for more,” the group’s statement said.
The capabilities of the group, which is homegrown but is believed to have some foreign leadership, have diminished in recent months with the killing of many top leaders, but it is still able to regularly carry out suicide attacks against institutions of Iraq’s nascent democracy.
Ayad Allawi, the former interim prime minister whose coalition won the most seats in the parliamentary elections, went to the scene of the bombing.
About a month ago the Interior Ministry notified Al Arabiya, whose headquarters are in Dubai, that it had intelligence that the network’s Baghdad office might become a target of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, according to Tariq Maher, a local correspondent for the channel who is a former employee of The New York Times in Baghdad.
The network’s Iraqi staff decamped to the Al-Rasheed Hotel for several weeks, and only in the last couple of days had returned to its office, with a scaled-down staff and added protection from the Interior Ministry, according to Mr. Maher, who was in the building when the explosion occurred. He had been up late working, and he and a colleague had gone to bed for a nap just after 9 a.m. He said a blanket that he pulled over his head saved him from falling debris.
“That is how the miracle happened, why we survived,” he said. “Two guards turned completely to ash.”