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Reporters embedding with troops may send timeliest coverage in war history

PHILADELPHIA—If there is a second Persian Gulf War, the U.S. military has adopted a plan that, together with new satellite communications technology, will provide more instant battlefield news coverage than at any time in the history of armed conflict.

The Pentagon, which had held the news media at arm's length since the Vietnam War, is allowing some 600 print and broadcast journalists to live, eat and sleep alongside troops in the field under what is known as an "embedding" program.

Knight Ridder Newspapers have more than 40 journalists in the war zone, many of them with the military and others operating independently.

The military hosted several "media boot camps" to teach sedentary newsroom denizens how to run with 50-pound packs and put on their gas masks in nine seconds. While embedded journalists are required to agree to certain ground rules, including not disclosing the names of dead and wounded American soldiers before their families have been notified, the Pentagon promises that news reports won't be prescreened.

Many print reporters assigned to infantry units will be carrying pocket-sized satellite phones that connect to the Internet. Television reporters can broadcast from remote locations with laptop-sized satellite video-phones, raising the possibility of the first live combat coverage.

There's little doubt that this combination of access, lack of censorship and instant satellite communication is unprecedented.

The Persian Gulf War was a paradox: The public got an unprecedented view of bombs bursting in Baghdad on the first night of the air war in Iraq. However, journalists and soldiers agree that the system created to cover troops in the field was a dismal failure.

All but a handful of the reporters who went into battle with the troops during the four-day ground war relied on the military to send their stories back. But the military often took so long that the stories were unusable, particularly for television.

The result was that the biggest battles of the war, for example Medina Ridge and 73 Easting, remain largely unknown except to military historians. Americans heard of 73 Easting, in which Eagle Troop of the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment destroyed an entire Iraqi armored regiment in 21 minutes, only because the troop's commander, then-Capt. H.R. McMaster, sent a 38-page handwritten account of the battle to his mother, who sent it to a reporter.

This time, the military is permitting more direct reporting, in part to counter what it expects will be Iraqi disinformation about American atrocities and civilian casualties. Photographers and reporters will be embedded with all four branches of the services, and a fifth of them will be from foreign news organizations, including Arab ones.

Even if only two-thirds of the "embeds" saw any combat, that would be 10 times more reporters on the battlefield than there were at any one time in Vietnam.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+EMBED

Iraq

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