SAFWAN, Iraq—"You are under an imminent threat," the British officer told us in a crisp voice. "You must leave here immediately. We cannot protect you."
So began a night that illuminated the risks and challenges of covering the Iraq war as a "unilateral" journalist, one not "embedded" with a U.S. or British military unit.
Rather than rebelling against Saddam Hussein and welcoming Americans, as some Bush administration officials and some journalists expected, southern Iraq has fragmented into patches of lawless, unstable no-man's lands. American troops have raced to the north, bypassing towns and leaving behind a thin line of British military police to guard the highways. Functionaries of Saddam's Baath Party, Iraqi intelligence agents and Iraqi troops are everywhere.
They're attacking U.S. and British troops from the rear—and making journalists' jobs a lot tougher, and sometimes impossible.
The British officer told us that Baath Party officials in the nearby town of Safwan were planning to attack us—35 SUVs and vans loaded with journalists—during the night, apparently with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
We had camped at this British military police base underneath an expressway, and the soldiers had assured us that they would protect us. Now we were told we were a liability. We had to move on.
We jumped into our vehicles and headed 15 miles west to another British military police base. But as we approached, it dawned on us that the British might not know we were coming. We didn't want them to open fire on us, so we called a U.S. military spokesman in Kuwait City. No, the British soldiers had not been told that a group of journalists was approaching. We gave the spokesman our geographic coordinates.
We waited. A half-hour later, we were given the go-ahead. We were ordered to turn off our lights and engines, not to transmit on our satellite phones and to keep silent.
This British base, too, was a potential target.
We sat in our cars in flak jackets and helmet. We could see the orange glare of oil field fires. We could hear the rumble of mortar fire in the distance.
Some wrote on their laptops. Many were jittery. Only a day before, four journalists, all of them "unilaterals," had been killed.
After an hour, we were told to head to the next British base. The soldiers ordered us to drive the 10 miles with our headlights off.
"Any attacks on your convoy will come from the right," yelled a soldier.
As we drove, some of us—mostly American journalists—communicated with each other on walkie-talkies. We cursed any car that flashed its brake lights too often.
When we reached the base, we were ordered to park in a field. After we got out of our vehicles, a British soldier told us we were in the middle of a minefield. Don't stray, he said. "I assure you that you will be safe here," said the soldier with confidence.
The next morning, we headed back to the first military base. It was gone: The British soldiers had packed up and left. Locals were scavenging through the remains of our campsite. One was picking up a black backpack left behind by a journalist, another wrapped up a large blue tent. They waved at us with large smiles.
We headed down the highway towards the port city of Umm Qasr. Less than a mile away, some of us encountered Iraqi men in civilian clothes brandishing AK-47 rifles. There was not a British military checkpoint in sight. We turned around.
The highway to Basra was also unsafe, and U.S. military officials told us that locals in Safwan were planning to ambush us if we headed there.
So we retreated to Kuwait. So much for predictions that Iraqis would hail Americans for freeing them from Saddam Hussein.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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