A spectacular effort from the AP’s Middle East team set the pace with blistering all-formats coverage of the U.S. drone strike that nudged the United States and Iran closer to the brink of all-out war.

The initial tip from a security source seemed fairly run-of-the-mill for Baghdad: A late-night rocket attack hit the international airport.

But when the caller added that one of the rockets had slammed into a car, AP’s Baghdad correspondent Qassim Abdul-Zahra sensed something unusual was afoot. He alerted Zeina Karam, AP’s news director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and kept digging.

More calls to militia sources deepened Abdul-Zahra’s suspicions.

“I sensed that they were uncomfortable,” he said. “It was as if there was something missing.”

Then, from another source, Abdul-Zahra teased out a name that set all alarm bells ringing: Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general and one of the Middle East’s most powerful protagonists, might have been in the car. 

If Soleimani had been targeted in the strike and killed, Abdul-Zahra and Karam knew the repercussions would be huge for the Middle East and beyond. 

But as much as they wanted The Associated Press and its clients to be first with the news, they most of all wanted AP to be right.

AP proved to be both, as a spectacular effort from the news cooperative’s team in the Middle East set the pace with blistering all-formats coverage of the U.S. drone strike that nudged the United States and Iran closer to the brink of all-out war.

As Karam roused sleeping colleagues across the region and prepared the words that would quickly flesh out the first AP alert breaking the news, Abdul-Zahra worked his sources.

“I decided that confirming the death of Soleimani can’t be 99% true. [It had to be] 100% true because [otherwise] it would be bad for AP’s reputation,” he said.

Soon, from three sources, came confirmation that Soleimani was dead. 

I decided that confirming the death of Soleimani can’t be 99% true.”

— Qassim Abdul-Zahra, AP Baghdad correspondent

Karam filed the AP alert just as Soleimani’s death was being announced on Iraq state TV. It put AP and its customers ahead of other agencies by nearly 10 minutes, a whopping margin. 

Across the region and beyond, AP teams sprang into action, quickly producing a competition-beating array of photos, video and text coverage astounding in its breadth, speed and insight.

In Baghdad, senior TV producer Ahmed Sami and photographer Nasser Nasser had been watching a soccer match on TV, unwinding after work, when the targeted strike killed Soleimani. As Abdul-Zahra was working to confirm the death and details, Sami and Nasser sourced and processed the first photos. Sami also organized live video from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square at the crack of dawn. 

The first video edit reached AP’s broadcast customers within 35 minutes of the initial alert. The first photos of the burning wreckage of the car in which Soleimani had been riding were transmitted to AP customers 50 minutes ahead of the competition.

With 40 video edits the first day, AP offered a larger selection than the competition and filed consistently faster throughout.

Photos by Tehran photographer Ebrahim Noroozi made the front page of the New York Times online edition two days in a row. Regional video chief Balint Szlanko and regional photo chief Dusan Vranic coordinated. 

On the text side, 400 words transmitted moments after the first AP alert were speedily followed by a constant stream of breaking developments and insightful analysis from Gulf and Iran news director Jon Gambrell, working with Tehran's Nasser Karimi, Aya Batrawy and many others. Gambrell and Karimi expertly and quickly pulled together a thoughtful profile of Soleimani explaining why the general was so influential and popular in Iran.

Others who contributed to this outstanding team effort included Beirut newsman Bassem Mroue, who wrote a comprehensive obit of the Iraqi militia commander killed alongside Soleimani, Beirut newswoman Sarah El Deeb, Beirut video senior producer Bassam Hatoum, Baghdad photographer Khalid Mohammed, Baghdad cameraman Ali Jabbar, Tehran video producers Mehdi Fattahi and Mohammad Nasiri, Tehran cameramen Saeed Sarmadi and Mohsen Ganji, Tehran reporter Amir Vahdat and Tehran photographer Vahid Salemi.

Usage in all formats was off the charts, both by AP customers and on social channels.

For their standout work in a competition-beating tour de force by AP’s Middle East team, Abdul-Zahra, Karam, Gambrell, Karimi, Sami and Nasser are Best of the Week winners.