Washington says it can't warn journalists before attack

Alarmed by dire safety warnings from the Pentagon, TV news networks are talking with each other about pulling al3l correspondents out of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in the coming days or weeks — before a U.S. invasion.

“Odds are, everybody will leave,” one top news exec said.

The evacuation discussions even include CNN, whose daring coverage of the bombing of the city at the onset of the Persian Gulf War a decade ago put it on the journalistic map.

This time, though, a U.S. strike on Iraq’s capital city is expected to be more extensive, and devastating. Such invasion is appearing more and more likely.

American journalists reporting independently from Baghdad can’t even count on a warning from Washington that an attack is imminent, a point made abundantly clear at a recent Pentagon media briefing.

“If there is military action, it is going to be a bad place to be,” Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told news orgs late last week at a Washington bureau chief briefing. “We can’t give you a sense of timing — we can’t tell you within 72 hours or 48 hours or whatever. So we can’t make business decisions for you, but we can tell you how extraordinarily dangerous we think it is to have your people there.”

TV news operations have clearly taken the warnings to heart, deciding that it may be futile to remain and try to cover a U.S. strike.

None of the news nets wanted to comment on the record.

All the networks have set up their main press operations in Kuwait City in neighboring Kuwait. They also are positioning correspondents in other Mideast countries including Qatar, Jordan and Israel.

The goal of the joint discussions among news execs regarding Baghdad is to see if everyone is on the same page, insiders told Daily Variety. No one wants to watch a competitor stay behind and get the exclusive story.

There also are ongoing discussions between news nets and the Pentagon.

“There have been other conversations with one person at a time, or two or three people at a time with very senior people at the news organizations and we will continue to do that going forward because that’s how seriously we are taking this,” Clarke said

The danger to news crews remaining in Baghdad is very real. One of the first goals of a U.S. strike will be to take out all communications, cutting off Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from his military forces and chief officers.

A top target is the Iraqi Ministry of Information, home to Iraqi State TV. It’s also where most U.S. news crews have set up shop.

Not far away is the Al-Rasheed Hotel, the favorite haunt of Western journalists. When the U.S. began bombing Baghdad in 1991, journos, including some of the CNN news team, sought safety in the basement bunker.

This go-round, even the Al-Rasheed could be on the list of U.S. targets. In 1991, top Iraqi officials may have used the bunker as well, knowing that the U.S. coalition wouldn’t drop bombs on journalists. This time, the U.S. might not hold back.

At the Pentagon briefing last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff press secretary Capt. T. McCreary said it would be a grave mistake to compare any future military action to the first Gulf War. “I’ve got to tell you, the difference in the kinetics will be extreme if this would ever come to pass.”

Even if news nets kept their crews in Baghdad, there are no assurances that high-tech devices such as satellite phones or videophones would work. Such signals could be easily blocked by the American military.

The Pentagon also has warned journalists that Saddam Hussein could launch a chemical attack in Baghdad. There’s also concern that Hussein could kidnap Westerners — any Westerner — and use them as human shields.

Fox is the only news net without a correspondent in Baghdad. The Fox reporter was expelled in February.

Any evacuation of news crews in Baghdad does not impact the Pentagon’s unprecedented embedding plan, whereby hundreds of TV, radio and print journalists have been assigned to military units being deployed to the Persian Gulf.

Many of the journalists have already been deployed to units in unspecified locations. It’s unclear whether there will be any reporters embedded on the front lines.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more