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The Mirror, May 28 2003
HE is good-looking and brave - an irresistible combination. But when I ask the BBC's star of Baghdad about his many talents, he squirms with embarrassment.
"I feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights," he says. Add modesty to Rageh Omaar's list of attributes.
Millions were glued to his rooftop reports from Iraq but after the bombs and bloodshed, the Scud Stud - as he was dubbed by his US TV fans - just wants to get back to family life.
I met the 35-year-old Somali-born dad-of-two at BBC Television Centre - and the action hero didn't disappoint. He's softly-spoken, charming and stunned by his new profile - although I suspect he's also quietly pleased.
"It has been pretty bewildering," he told me. "I've only been back in Britain for a week but I've been amazed by how many people have been coming up to me every day.
"Part of me just wants to dive under the table. But I want to hang on to my life as a journalist and keep my feet on the ground."
Yet Rageh, a fit 6ft and 13 stone, may find it tough. Just imagine a genteel literary festival, suddenly succumbing to Rageh fever....
Once word of his attendance got out, demand for £5 tickets was so high that organisers of the Hay-on-Wye book festival in Powys twice had to move the venue to accommodate a sell-out 650 crowd.
Rageh, there to launch a campaign to help Iraq's marsh Arabs, was happy to sign autographs and pose for photos with his fans.
"He's fantastically glamorous," said Hay Festival director Peter Florence. "Thousands of people want to meet him... and the vast majority are female."
ONE of them was university student Gemma Hicks, 19, who drooled: "He's very sweet and really fit."
But Rageh is trying to laugh off the attention. "I'm embarrassed by it. I've had an almighty ribbing from my BBC colleagues," he smiles.
"Basically, you've got to take it in your stride and be a good sport about it.
"However, it does make me feel proud because it means people were listening to my reports in Iraq and it was getting through.
"The real compliment is that they have taken notice of what I've been saying."
But he's the first to admit that his good looks have helped.
"Sure, let's be honest. TV is a merciless medium. It either likes you or it doesn't."
Johannesburg-based Rageh, the BBC's Africa correspondent, spent three months covering the conflict.
He arrived back home anxious to see his family - occupational therapist wife Nina, 33, and their children Loula, two, and Sami, eight months.
"I desperately missed home. There was a time when I thought the war could go on for five months...it was difficult being away from loved ones."
He made sure he rang home every bedtime and admitted he was worried about how his absence would affect his kids. "I'd been back from Baghdad for three days and we were watching BBC World and a promo about me came on.
"I said to Loula 'who's that?' She just looked at the TV and then back at me and said: 'Another daddy!'
"First day back, I did the school run with Loula. I'd left the family rhythm and you have to slot back into that as soon as possible... I was very determined to go and hang out the washing because it's the normal things you miss most."
Dressed casually in a khaki-coloured shirt and slacks, Rageh chats happily about his family.
But his face clouds over when he remembers his most terrifying moment of the war, the bombing of the Palestine Hotel, which killed Reuter’s cameraman Taras Protsyuk.
Clearly upset, he explains: "I was due to go on air when I heard this huge explosion. We hit the floor and three seconds later there was this rain of pebbles.
"I knew the Reuters office had been hit and I ran into our tent to make sure we were all there. I grabbed a trauma pack and went up in the lift... and it was just awful.
"I went to Taras' room. He'd already died and he had horrendous abdominal wounds.
"I hope I never have to go through that again. We had a makeshift memorial service that night and the level of fear among us was just terrible.
"We had never felt we were being targeted and then we were so vulnerable. I'm angry because it happened 48 hours before it all ended."
Although he agrees that war reporting is a selfish profession, he has vowed not to put himself in deliberate danger.
"My wife didn't ask me not to go. I think she trusted me. The only time she saw me each day was during two-and-a-half minutes of mayhem on TV, when bombs were going off all around.
"But we weren't gung-ho metal-heads. When the looting of Baghdad really began after Saddam's statue came down, I didn't want to leave the hotel car-park. There were vigilantes everywhere. Nothing would convince me to go out because I had made a promise to my family. If anything felt bad, I wouldn't do it."
Rageh was also annoyed when newspaper reports accused him of writing fawning letters to Iraq's Ministry of Information to gain access.
"I was ticked off for a brief period, then I thought 'don't bother trying to put it into context because it'll look like you've got something to hide'. Closed and dictatorial societies are one of the most difficult things to cover.
"So many journalists have gone into Iraq telling complete lies at the border to hide their equipment and throw officials off the track."
But Rageh's annoyance doesn't last long - because he soon steers the conversation back to his family. The reporter, who speaks fluent Arabic, married Berkshire-born Nina in 2000 after a six-year relationship and plans to return to London in the future.
"Nina has travelled a lot but there comes a time when you want to settle and put down roots. It's OK when the kids are so young but they'll soon need to be around family and cousins and grandparents." Rageh joined the BBC in 1992, as a freelance in Somalia for the Africa Service. He remembers: "They gave me a tape recorder and microphone and just sent me off."
He later came to London and worked in the World Affairs Unit for three years before being appointed Africa Correspondent two years ago.
He spent the first six years of his life enjoying "a very middle-class privileged background" in Somalia before moving to London with his agricultural economist father Abdullahi, now 67, mother Sahra, 62, and his sisters.
Despite his success, Rageh claims he has not had any sniping from his BBC colleagues.
"I haven't detected any jealousy. It may be there but I haven't come face-to-face with it," he says.
"Some people have told me I look about 12. But I knew I'd made it when I got an email which read: 'I don't like TV reporters but I saw you were in Viz magazine and you're now my favorite roof-top commentator.'
"People talk about me being the Scud Stud but that's not me - far from it. You want to see me get up in the morning and waddle off to work.
"When I told Nina, she burst out laughing and said I was more of a Scud Dud. But the nice thing is that my mum's really proud of me.
"And my nine-year-old niece Hodan has made me promise that she can be my autograph agent, so she can flog them at school."
DURING his time in Iraq, Rageh kept a diary and is now considering writing a book about his experiences. "I'd definitely like to. The Saddam era is gone and I'd like to write something about the years I've spent reporting there."
He is also hoping to try his hand at documentaries but claims he is not planning to follow in the footsteps of former GMTV reporter Lara Logan, who was snapped up by a US network after her reports in Afghanistan.
"I haven't had any formal discussions with anyone but I do want to consider my options," he says. "I really like reporting and being out in the field and so I want to stay a foreign correspondent."
Rageh now plans a much-needed two-week holiday, before returning home. "But I'll be back on the screen before long," he promises with a twinkle.
That should please his fan club at the book festival.
"We are really fond of him," admitted two Omaar fans, Kay Rangasawy, 47, and Viv Southern, 55.
"We all watched Baghdad because of him. He seems genuinely nice and doesn't look hard-bitten like some of them."
Viv added: "He's just the little boy next door you want to take him home to mother him."
Additional reporting: Richard Smith