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Iraq's Heavy Journalist Death Toll Keeps Climbing

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NEW YORK — The killing of an Iraqi journalist, shot dead by unidentified gunmen Tuesday, highlights the dangers facing reporters in a conflict that has claimed more media workers' lives than any since World War II, a watchdog group said.

Riyad Assariyeh's killing coincides with the release of a Reporters Without Borders report entitled, "The Iraq War: A Heavy Death Toll for the Media," documenting the deaths of 230 media workers since 2003.

The report's author, Soazig Dollet, said the killing of Assariyeh, who worked for state-run Al Iraqiya TV, was not surprising in a country where 99 percent of the killings of media workers go unpunished.

"I'm really, really sad and really shocked and I wish the Iraqi authorities would find a solution to this violence against the media," Dollet said in a telephone interview from Paris.

Dollet said now that the Americans have officially ceased combat operations in the country, the responsibility to protect journalists lies squarely with the Iraqis.

"They can no longer say 'we're not fully in charge,'" she said.

A proposed law protecting journalists that Dollet described as "far from perfect" has been stalled in the Iraqi Parliament since 2009.

According to the report, since the 2003 U.S. invasion, 172 of those killed were journalists, the rest were translators, drivers and assistants.

By comparison, Dollet says, 63 journalists were killed over 20 years during the Vietnam war, 49 media workers were killed in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995 and 77 media workers were killed in Algeria between 1993 and 1996.

Reporters Without Borders did not have precise numbers for how many journalists were killed during World War II.

Dollet said that while a number of foreign correspondents were killed at the Iraq war's beginning between 2003 and 2004, Iraqi journalists are now the main targets, especially photographers and TV journalists who are easier to spot.

She said part of the reason for the high number of killings has to do with the sectarian nature of the conflict with journalists being linked to different factions.

The report also examines the phenomenon of journalist abductions, with more than 93 media professionals seized over seven years.

"I'm sorry, but even if they do neutral work or independent investigation, people can make a link. They consider the media as being created by occupation forces and consider them (reporters) traitors," Dollet said.

Karim Hamadi, head of political programs at the state-run channel where Assariyeh worked, said he believed insurgent groups and al-Qaida were behind the attacks that have seen 15 Al Iraqiya's journalists killed over the past seven years.

"We are shocked and saddened for the loss of our colleague who was killed in a heinous crime because he was committed to his work and principle. He was an independent journalist who tried to convey truth to the public," said Hamadi, who himself escaped an assassination attempt in 2005, forcing him to live in his office for several months.

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Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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