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Fear Factor

An independent journalist in Iraq describes the ever-shifting safety rules—and coping mechanisms—of the Baghdad beat.

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Baghdad—Yesterday, I was caught on the edge of a running street battle in downtown Baghdad, near the entrance to the Green Zone, while mortars fell on Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord’s offices. Traffic was at a standstill for hours as Iraqi and U.S. soldiers sealed off Haifa Street, where much of the fighting was raging. My driver’s car broke down when the fuel pump failed in the 120-degree heat. While troops locked down traffic, the sounds of bullets and missiles from Apache helicopters echoed up and down the street, mixed in with the cacophony of Baghdad’s largest traffic jam. I took refuge at the Foreign Ministry, home to the largest group of friendly guys with guns.

And yet, I wasn’t afraid. I was annoyed at my driver for not maintaining his vehicle. I was angry at the Iraqis for pointlessly honking in the heat and the traffic jam. But ultimately I was furious at the insurgents for making me miss an important appointment at the Mother of All Villages Mosque.

This is the insanity of covering Baghdad after the occupation. A few weeks ago, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz got a fair amount of press for essentially calling all of us covering Iraq cowards when, in comments before the House Armed Services Committee, he said reporters here are “afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors.” That didn’t go over well. In fact, the sentiment here could best be summed up by the bit of self-actualizing sexual advice the vice-president offered recently on the Senate floor.

Wolfowitz later apologized, but his comments made me think about the absurdity of talking about courage in a situation like this. Mitch Prothero, the UPI bureau chief, admitted that he and several photographers didn’t go out the day that Wolfowitz called us cowards. Why? Because they thought it was too dangerous. “We watched Baqubah, Ramadi, and Fallujah on television and said, ‘Hey, let’s order lunch,’ ” he said. “An hour later, we found out that Wolfowitz thought we were big pussies.”

A few weeks ago, word came from several sources that on June 25 all hell would break loose in Baghdad. The electrical lines would be cut. Drivers of car bombs would roam the streets. A trip I had planned to Tikrit to cover a story on the insurgents for Time magazine was called off—too dangerous. International phone lines buzzed as editors warned their reporters to hunker down, stock up, and stay off the streets. Mick Ware, a Time reporter with deep sources in the resistance, told me, “The shit is coming down.”

Others had heard the same thing, and the reactions ran from holing up in the hotel to blasé, as if someone had just spotted Paris Hilton in the Hamptons. Big deal, what else is new?

The night of the 24th, I was tingly and jittery, as if I’d had too much coffee. I live in a semi-fortified compound of several apartment hotels anchored by the massive, white al-Hamra Hotel. Most nights, up to a dozen reporters can be found lounging around the pool at the Hamra, a delicious oasis that, with its palm trees, deck furniture, cheap beer, and social chit-chat, makes me think we’re all in a Melrose Place spinoff series. My fellow reporters are at once allies and competitors, and the lines sometimes get blurred. It’s not so very different from New York’s media scene. Chris Hondros and Scott Nelson of Getty Images run the party penthouse, which is tricked out with wireless Internet and the latest pirated DVD movies bought from the local bazaar, the Thieves Market. (Fahrenheit 9/11 became available last week.) In the pool, reporters like NBC’s Kevin Sites blow off steam with testosterone-fueled bouts of water polo. The Boston Globe’s Thanassis Cambanis and Anne Barnard are the Hamra’s favorite couple, throwing dinner parties and barbecues. There are cliques, true, but we try to watch out for one another while not allowing ourselves to get scooped.

Most of the other reporters had heard the same warnings that day from Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the chief spokesman for the multinational force in Iraq, but had dismissed them because CPA and military statements are greeted with skepticism. I repeated what I’d heard. It was met with studied shrugs and dark humor.

“Maybe I’ll go out less,” said Quill Lawrence, a radio reporter for the BBC, an old Iraq hand who’s made numerous trips over the past four years.

“Hey, man, you and me will defend our end of the hall,” joked Thomas Erdbrink, my across-the-hall neighbor, who writes for NRC Handeslblad in the Netherlands. “We’ll defend it to our last notebook.”

I know journalists who swear that it’s unwise to hail cabs off the street or walk through Karradah, a busy shopping district. Then they drive to Fallujah for a story. The Sunni stronghold gives me the heebie-jeebies, but on my third day here, I ran toward a car bomb trying to get as close as possible for pictures. Our sense of what’s safe can amount to magical thinking: Many male reporters have grown halfhearted beards in the hope that they’ll look more Arab. (That not many Iraqi men have beards is beside the point.) Women, more convincingly, wear hijabs and dark glasses. We all lie about our nationality if we’re Americans. (The population of Canada must have doubled since the start of this war.)

I don’t know if these precautions do any good, and I suspect no one else knows either. But they give us a sense of control. So we sit around telling ghost stories that can be ridiculous—Al Qaeda’s going to storm the Hamra!—or genuinely chilling; most people have a story of being held at gunpoint by insurgents or being fired on by Americans. So much of what happens here is waiting. Despite the many rumors, hell did not break loose on Friday the 25th, nor did it on Saturday or Sunday. On Monday, the sovereignty transfer caught us all by surprise, and there wasn’t much violence. Since then, the nights have been filled with more explosions than usual, but until today there was nothing like pitched street fighting and the massive car bombs we were warned about. We’re reporters, yet we don’t know how risky it really is. It’s quiet now as I write this, but this morning, four explosions rolled over my hotel, kettledrum thumps I could feel in my chest. They were close. And I have grown a beard.


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