NEW YORK – NBC fired journalist Peter Arnett on Monday, saying it was wrong for him to give an interview with state-run Iraqi TV in which he said the American-led coalition's initial plan for the war had failed because of Iraq's resistance. Arnett called the interview a "misjudgment" and apologized.
Arnett, on NBC's Today show on Monday, said he was sorry for his statement but added "I said over the weekend what we all know about the war."
"I want to apologize to the American people for clearly making a misjudgment," the New Zealand-born Arnett said. He said he would try to leave Baghdad now, joking "there's a small island in the South Pacific that I've inhabited that I'll try to swim to."
NBC defended him Sunday, saying he had given the interview as a professional courtesy and that his remarks were analytical in nature. But by Monday morning the network switched course and, after Arnett spoke with NBC News President Neal Shapiro, said it would no longer work with Arnett.
"It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV, especially at a time of war," NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust said. "And it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview."
Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting in Vietnam for The Associated Press, gained much of his prominence from covering the 1991 Gulf War for CNN. One of the few American television reporters left in Baghdad, his reports were frequently aired on NBC and its cable sisters, MSNBC and CNBC.
Leaving a second network under a cloud may mark the end of his TV career. Arnett was the on-air reporter of the 1998 CNN report that accused American forces of using sarin nerve gas on a Laotian village in 1970 to kill U.S. defectors. Two CNN employees were sacked and Arnett was reprimanded over the report, which the station later retracted. Arnett left the network when his contract was not renewed.
In the Iraqi TV interview, broadcast Sunday by Iraq's satellite television station and monitored by The Associated Press in Egypt, Arnett said his Iraqi friends tell him there is a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to what the United States and Britain are doing.
He said the United States is reappraising the battlefield and delaying the war, maybe for a week, "and rewriting the war plan. The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan."
"Clearly, the American war plans misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces," Arnett said.
Arnett said it is clear that within the United States there is growing opposition to the war and a growing challenge to President Bush about the war's conduct.
"Our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States," he said. "It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments."
At a briefing Sunday in Qatar, Gen. Tommy Franks ticked off major achievements of the war campaign, including the advance of troops to within 60 miles of Baghdad. But he found himself answering questions about whether he had enough troops to do the job and denying that coalition forces were stalled.
A Republican congresswoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, told Fox News Channel on Sunday that Arnett's remarks were "Kafkaesque" and "just crazy."
"Let's hope that he's being coerced," Ros-Lehtinen said.
The first Bush administration was unhappy with Arnett's reporting on the Gulf War in 1991 for CNN, suggesting he had become a conveyor of propaganda. ARnett was denounced for reporting that the allies had bombed a baby milk factory in Baghdad when the military said it was a biological weapons plant.
Arnett went to Iraq this year not as an NBC News reporter but as an employee of the MSNBC show National Geographic Explorer. When other NBC reporters left Baghdad for safety reasons, the network began airing his reports. NBC said Monday he wouldn't be reporting for National Geographic Explorer either.
The Iraqi TV interview was broadcast in English and translated by a uniformed Iraqi anchor. NBC said Arnett gave the interview when asked shortly after he attended an Iraqi government briefing.
In the April 5 issue of TV Guide, Arnett said he felt he had found redemption reporting on the current war.
"I was furious with (CNN founder) Ted Turner and (then-CNN chairman) Tom Johnson when they threw me to the wolves after I made them billions risking my life to cover the first Gulf War," Arnett told TV Guide.
"Now (Turner and Johnson) are gone, the Iraqis have thrown the CNN crew out of Baghdad, and I'm still here," he said. "Any satisfaction in that? Ha, ha, ha, ha."
He said the Iraqis allowed him to stay in Baghdad because they respect him and "see me as a fellow warrior."