Melinda Liu

Stories by Melinda Liu

  • A DEADLY FACE OFF

    Iraq is almost under control. The men in charge are trying to pretend so, anyway. But after the past two weeks of bloodshed, "control" is a slippery term. When the worst of the violence ended, a total of 90 U.S. and Coalition fighters were dead--nearly as many as died in the first two weeks of the war. Now a creepy sort of calm has descended on the country's Shiite areas. Late last week Iranian mediators and moderate Iraqi clerics were still haggling with aides of the renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr over the terms for an end to his uprising. U.S. Marines were no closer to subduing the city of Fallujah, despite the deaths of several hundred Iraqis there. Insurgents released a videotape of an American prisoner, Pfc. Keith Maupin, surrounded by masked gunmen. Meanwhile Washington ordered a 90-day extension for 20,000 U.S. soldiers who had dreamed of going home after a year of duty. "We're deeply concerned about the current crisis," said one Coalition official. Then he caught himself. ...
  • Mean Streets

    Sadr City has always been a volatile community, even in Saddam Hussein's day. The bloodshed and confusion that erupted there today are reminders to U.S. troops that people tend to blame America for anything and everything that goes wrong, even when it doesn't make sense. At least two mortars hit a crowded chicken market in the Ourfalli area of Sadr City this morning, killing at least 13 Iraqis and injuring 30. Bloodied human remains littered the market, and anguished residents held the parts up in front of television cameras, blaming U.S. helicopters for the carnage. A dead donkey lay on the street, its intestines spilling out and a sign on its back declaring "This is Bush."This sprawling Shiite slum in northern Baghdad, home to at least 2 million, is the original base of support for radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Jaish al-Mehdi, or Mehdi Army. This week, Sadr delivered an incendiary warning, threatening suicide attacks against coalition troops if they conduct...
  • THE COALITION: HOLDING ALLIES HOSTAGE

    ce sweeping across Iraq continues, America's few allies in the country have reason to worry. Italian, Salvadorean, Polish and Bulgarian troops have already come under attack by Shiite militias. More frighteningly, several foreign civilians have been taken hostage by insurgents: three Japanese, whose captors initially vowed to "burn them alive" if Tokyo did not withdraw its 550 troops from Iraq, as well as four Italians, a British contractor, a Canadian relief worker and two Palestinians with Israeli identity papers. By week's end Arab media reported the Japanese would soon be released, but by that time several more foreign contractors had gone missing. ...
  • 'WE ARE YOUR MARTYRS'

    Bearish and surly, Sheik Hamza al Taie wanted revenge. In a shoot-out the day before, Coalition troops had killed one of his comrades in arms and wounded several others. Now the Shiite-militia commander stood in a narrow Karbala street, sending his men into battle. He gestured, and two more cars, a Toyota pickup and a utility vehicle, pulled in front of him. He yelled, "Yalla mujahedin!" (Come on, holy warriors!), and a band of young men in sandals and red-checked kaffiyehs came running from a nearby building, waving AK-47s, grenades, pistols and machetes in the afternoon heat. As they climbed aboard, he carefully handed each one a container of orange juice as refreshment for the battle ahead. The vehicles sped off toward the center of town, and soon afterward a crackle of gunfire erupted in the distance, to Taie's evident satisfaction. "We will not accept anything but the liberation of our country from the occupiers," he told NEWSWEEK.This was just the scenario the United States...
  • Mutiny in the Ranks

    During his prime-time press conference last week, George W. Bush promised that, someday, "Iraqi security is going to be handled by the Iraq people themselves."That day isn't coming any time soon.As fierce fighting erupted in parts of Iraq in early April, the U.S.-led coalition tried to deploy U.S.-trained Iraqi units to quell the fighting. The results were disastrous: During the violence, many Iraqi police and civil defense personnel abandoned their posts, or joined Shiite militants loyal to renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. What's more, some soldiers of the first U.S.-trained battalion of the New Iraqi Army (NIA) deserted their unit or refused to follow orders. "There were a number of troops, there were a number of police that didn't stand up when their country called," concedes coalition military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt.In exclusive interviews with NEWSWEEK, Iraqi soliders and civilian witnesses described what happened.When bloodshed erupted during the first week in...
  • Occupational Hazards

    The gruesome scenes from Fallujah--the corpses of four U.S. civilians being burned, mutilated, dragged behind vehicles and hanged from a bridge by jubilant Iraqis--are grimly familiar. Most Americans remember Mogadishu in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers died after the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters, and triumphant Somalis dragged the body of an American soldier through the streets. The image triggered revulsion and outrage among Americans--and hastened the U.S. military pullout from Somalia. ...
  • A Year On, 'Everyone Is Torn'

    One of my last visits with Amal Murad Ali, almost exactly a year ago, was cut short by an explosion. She and I were huddled in the dank basement of her antiques shop, across from Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, waiting for the fighting to stop, when a huge blast shook the building. She stayed behind; I ran out to get the story. An American tank shell had hit the hotel, killing two Western journalists. The next day, joyous Iraqis tore down Saddam Hussein's statue a few blocks away. My friend, a Shiite, wasn't there, but I told her all about it soon afterward. She ate up every word.We didn't meet again until last week. I was back in Baghdad for the anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and I tracked Ali down. She's doing well, renting her old house to Western journalists for a hefty $5,500 a month. But she worries about the city's unsafe streets, especially the threat of terrorist attacks. Not that she regrets being free. "Of course things are better than they were under Saddam," she...
  • Soft Target, Hostile Crowd

    The site of the huge explosion in central Baghdad on Wednesday looked like Dante's Inferno. I happened to be just a few blocks away when the blast occurred, so photographer Kristen Ashburn got there within 15 minutes of the blast. It was sheer chaos. The five-story Hotel Mount Lebanon was on fire, with huge clouds of black smoke billowing above it. The ground was covered with rubble, sirens were wailing, an ambulance was leaving with wounded victims. Emotional Iraqis were converging on the scene. U.S. soldiers began arriving in Bradley fighting vehicles; one took up a position in the street outside the hotel.The neighborhood in Baghdad's Karrada district is one of the older areas of the city. There are shops and apartment buildings and houses, including some once-grand European-style mansions built in the early part of the 20th century by members of Baghdad's Jewish community. But the Hotel Lebanon was a nondescript hotel built of concrete and brick. Residents said Arab businessmen...
  • STATE OF DENIAL

    Late last year, when many experts were bracing for a resurgence of the SARS virus, Klaus Stohr's thoughts were elsewhere. The head of the World Health Organization's global influenza program was worrying about the bird flu. Trained as a veterinarian, Stohr had long been fascinated by diseases that could make the leap from animals to humans. One such killer bug--the H5N1 avian-flu virus--had killed six of 18 infected people in Hong Kong in 1997. And last fall it was back.A series of apparently unrelated outbreaks of avian flu had erupted among birds in Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. Then, while attending a medical conference in Okinawa in October, Stohr learned of a possible human death from the flu in China's teeming Guangdong province. Genetic sequencing confirmed that a girl had succumbed to H5N1 in late February 2003--back before SARS sparked a regionwide panic. "Now the H5N1 virus has killed again," Stohr remembers thinking. "A new pandemic could be just a matter of time."The...
  • Baghdad: 'Now We Are Free'

    I've reported on many conflicts, but I had never before been trapped in a city bombarded by my own government. The Palestine Hotel was a ringside seat for the deafening spectacle of gigantic fireballs exploding during the night of "shock and awe." Not many Americans were there to share the experience; most U.S. reporters had been pulled out by their jittery editors. I'd also been told to leave Iraq by my editors, which infuriated me so much I privately resolved to quit. But as I scrambled to try to depart, it became clear that it was too late--there was no time to prepare a safe exit from Baghdad. So I hunkered down (and deleted the resignation letter from my computer).I was lucky. I'd chosen a room close to the ground in a sheltered corner of the hotel. In the end, our most dangerous moment wasn't during the bombing itself but during the land war that followed, when a U.S. tank shell hit a couple of upper floors of the Palestine Hotel, killing two journalists.The Iraqis I talked to...
  • Technology: From Chaser To Maker

    Wang Dongsheng adjusts his glasses and gazes at the tiny computer chip lodged in a green plastic board. Emblazoned on the chip's casing is the word THUMP, an acronym for Tsinghua University Microprocessor. Wang, a 37-year-old computer scientist at the university, drew on "100 percent Chinese talent" to build the chip, which could serve as the brains of a personal computer or server made in China. The project is part of an ambitious effort to kick-start China's electronics industry, with an eye to supplying a good portion of the potentially vast home market. "We can't just rely on technology from other countries," says Wang. "We have to develop our own talent."Intel executives probably aren't losing sleep over the THUMP chip just yet--it's roughly comparable to Intel's Pentium II, introduced in 1998 and since surpassed by several later models. But the electronics push is yet another example of how China is putting itself in the driver's seat in key industries. "One of China's...
  • China Breaks Out

    Scheduled for just 20 minutes, the meeting went on for two hours. U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans had traveled to China to meet with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and press a stern message: Beijing's "unfair" trade practices and refusal to revalue its currency were "undercutting American workers." Wen heard him out during the November sit-down but, according to a Chinese diplomat familiar with the meeting, had a retort at the ready. Surely his American visitor realized that most of China's foreign-exchange reserves were in U.S. Treasury bonds. If China acted precipitously in revaluing its currency, it might be compelled to sell those bonds, which could create instant problems for U.S. financial markets. Wen reportedly told Evans: "China's a very big economy moving ahead very, very fast. If it stumbles and falls, it could make others fall, too."Not long ago few Chinese leaders would have been comfortable riffing on trade surpluses and T-bonds. But as Wen kicks off an official...
  • Finding Peace Of Mind

    When strangers visit, Shang Zhijun is on his best behavior. The 22-year-old Hebei peasant only seems a little pushy--talking too loudly, asking for cigarettes too often. "He doesn't admit he's mentally ill," says his adoptive mother, Zhao Shulan. "If my husband and I refuse to give him money, he flies into a rage. That's why we had to put him in a cage."A four-meter-square metal cage sits outside the farmhouse, now filled with ears of corn. In August, when Shang had one of his violent fits, the couple and some neighbors wrestled him to the ground, then locked him up. After a month behind bars, he was released when relatives brought him to Beijing for treatment for schizophrenia. But his parents couldn't afford to institutionalize Shang; soon he was back home. "He got some pills and so he's behaving better," says his mother. But she knows the respite won't last; his pills run out in less than two weeks.Schizophrenia. Depression. Anxiety disorder. Little more than a decade ago, most...
  • Stirring Up A Hornet's Nest

    Tian Fengshan never seemed like ministerial material. The eldest son of a peasant family in Heilongjiang province, he spoke with a thick rural accent that still makes him the butt of jokes among locals. Yet Tian won steady promotions, becoming provincial governor and then, four years ago, minister of Land and Resources in the central government. Even then, provincial authorities held meetings instructing cadres not to mimic his dialect. For all his lack of polish, Tian had one big advantage: he was an old acquaintance of Hu Jintao's, now China's president and party chief.The 54-year-old minister should have been reveling in his sterling connections when the party's top apparatchiks gathered for a mid-October plenum in the Great Hall of the People. But by the second day of the meeting, Tian had disappeared. On Oct. 14, a deputy took over his ministerial duties. Since then, central authorities officially confirm, he's been investigated for "serious breaches of discipline"--and that's...
  • The Mahathir Mystique

    The architectural hodgepodge that is Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, is testament to the country's dazzling cultural diversity. In the city center, not far from the Islamic Sharia court, is the British-built former cricket club--nicknamed "the Spotted Dog" for the Dalmatians that colonial planters used to tether out front. Now it's a posh social club ringed by glittering high-rise office blocks and banks. Perched on a nearby hill is the gaudy red-and-yellow Thean Hou Temple, where ethnic Chinese--who provided much of the drive and capital for Malaysia's economic miracle--divine their fortunes.Just 30 kilometers from KL, a different vision of Malaysia is taking shape. The vast, $5.3 billion city of Putrajaya--now the official seat of government--features man-made lakes, lush landscaping and a mosque designed by an architect from Mecca. This is not just another boring, custom-built national capital a la Brasilia or Canberra. This is a consciously Islamic city, likely to be...
  • In Outer Space We Trust

    Before space-shuttle launches were suspended early this year, even the most routine missions would attract diehard fans, who gathered along Route 1 in Titusville, Florida, in the wee hours to peer over the water at Cape Canaveral. Last week China, the world's most populous country, put on a show more exciting than anything NASA has in decades, and yet only a handful of ordinary tourists came to witness the historic launch. It wasn't for lack of enthusiasm; being a space groupie in China isn't easy. The launchpad in Space City is in the middle of nowhere. To get there, you first fly to Yinchuan City and then drive 11 hours through the Gobi Desert and a gantlet of military checkpoints. The 20,000 or so people who showed up were VIPs, soldiers, scientists, official media, security officials and, of course, the ground crew of technicians and engineers. Most of the onlookers sitting outside on carefully arranged stools in the early morning of Wednesday, Oct. 15, were in military uniform...
  • Great Leap To Space

    When China first started up a manned space program 11 years ago, the authorities were so keen on keeping a low profile that they didn't even bother to give it a name. Instead, they gave the program a number--Project 921--and kept a tight lid on every scrap of information. Launch dates, for instance, have been treated like state secrets. Chinese tourists are allowed to visit the launchpad, in the remote Gobi Desert, but never if there's a chance they might actually get a close look at one of the rockets going up. It's not that anybody would bother to spy on the technology, which is decades old. Rather, the secrecy has more to do with the vanity of China's authorities and the inherent risks of rocketry. No matter how proven the technology, there's always a chance that a rocket will blow up on the launchpad, to the great embarrassment of leaders in Beijing.The first crack in this Great Wall of Secrecy appeared last week. It came from, of all places, a tourist agency. Chinese...
  • Field Of Dreams

    Liu Yonghong had never seen--or heard--anything like it. A little more than 10 years ago this migrant worker from Sichuan walked into a supermarket in Hangzhou, 75 miles from Shanghai. All the goods were neatly arranged on the shelves, the aisles were clean and "nice music was playing in the background," he recalls. While toiling away in a local silk factory, Liu decided he wanted to be his own boss. So in 1997 he returned to his hometown in Santai County and opened the first of five supermarkets. In one store, smiling salesgirls in crisp pink uniforms welcome customers and say "thank you" in unison. If patrons prefer, the store will deliver purchases to their homes--and, yes, tinkling Chinese Muzak plays in the background.It may not sound like much, but Liu's supermarket chain is a revelation in China's vast, underdeveloped interior. Today, the very migrants who have fueled an eye-popping manufacturing boom in factories along the Chinese coast are fomenting a quiet revolution. They...
  • Petitioning The Emperor

    Not long ago Hua Huiqi lived quietly with his family in a Beijing courtyard house, minding his own business. That changed when authorities forcibly evicted him and his elderly parents in September 2002 to make way for a new development. Almost overnight, Hua became an activist. Now he makes the rounds of government offices and other gathering places every day, meeting with irate groups of Chinese protesters from all over the country who've converged on Beijing--as one puts it--to "petition the emperor." (Hua tells the out-of-towners to phone him if they need help, then hands over a card that reads YOUR BUSINESS IS OUR BUSINESS.) "We're trying to coordinate with people from all of China's provinces," says Hua, as a friend fields mobile-phone calls from various demonstrations around the city. "Already protests are developing the way they did in the spring of 1989."That may be an exaggeration: it's hard to imagine the motley assemblage of provincial protesters in Beijing--between 500...
  • Return Of A Killer

    In late summer, the live-animal markets of southern China are usually buzzing with street vendors and their wares--a flurry of fur, scales and feathers, blood and gore, and the inevitable stench. This year, though, the markets are preternaturally quiet. In the Baiyun district of Guangzhou, half the 290 wild-animal stalls are shuttered. The vendors who remain have plenty of time to catnap, wash their laundry, cook for themselves and lament the long list of delicacies people rarely buy now due to SARS: tufted deer, water dragons, porcupines and crab-eating mongooses. Even the trade in legal animals has dropped off. "I'm near bankrupt," says Luo Aimin, a 56-year-old vendor who's throwing a handful of snakes into a sack. "If SARS comes back, I'm finished."China's stern measures last winter to combat the SARS outbreak, which included a ban on the sale of 54 different live animals, has taken its toll on the poor farmers, butchers, traders and cooks who cater to the Cantonese taste for...
  • The Dalai Lama Looks Home

    The Dalai Lama landed in America to the usual swirl of praise and protest. After receiving an honorary degree from UC San Francisco last Friday, he is scheduled to meet with George Bush, attend a reception on Capitol Hill and deliver an open-air speech in Central Park to a crowd expected to number in the tens of thousands. Even before the whirlwind began, the government of Beijing's new President Hu Jintao was protesting his planned visit to the White House and scrutinizing the Dalai Lama's every word and deed for "separatist tendencies." It's a ritual that attends every one of the Buddhist leader's visits to America, but an especially important one this year because of changes underway back in Tibet.The Tibetan capital of Lhasa has metamorphosed into a brash Chinese city with a few pockets of traditional architecture. The 358-year-old home of the Dalai Lama, the Potala, now overlooks a glitzy five-star hotel, pulsating nightclubs and numerous brothels, most of them run by ethnic...
  • Uneasy Neighbors

    Within the last two weeks a large number of Chinese soldiers have poured into the remote northeastern frontier bordering North Korea. Troops are preparing for another grim winter, when the Tumen River freezes and desperate North Korean refugees dodge Chinese patrols to escape into China. In the late '90s, fleeing North Koreans won local sympathy with their heart-rending tales of repression, famine, even cannibalism. But Beijing cracked down on the influx in 2001, and this year China has beefed up border security to what one local professor calls "an unusual, abnormal degree." Over the next month, NEWSWEEK has learned, troops will move into five newly constructed barracks in key frontier towns, replacing smaller border-police units. Their mission: to repel the expected waves of refugees this winter--and to quash escalating violence involving North Koreans on the Chinese side of the border.Chinese authorities are losing patience with their northeastern neighbor. For decades Beijing...
  • Nukes And Crime: China's Borderline Troubles

    China's patience with North Korea is wearing thin. The trouble isn't only Pyongyang's crash program to create a nuclear arsenal--although that's caused plenty of sleepless nights in Beijing. Thanks largely to heavy diplomatic pressure from China's president, Hu Jintao, negotiators from Pyongyang are scheduled to begin talks in Beijing this week with representatives from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. But the Chinese have a more urgent reason than anyone else at the table to want major reforms in Kim Jong Il's regime without delay. Hunger and oppression inside North Korea have spawned an epidemic of violent crime on the Chinese side of the border. "The North Koreans aren't afraid of anything," says one area resident. "Now we're the ones living in fear."Although Beijing has mostly kept the crime wave out of the papers, it's no secret to anyone who lives in the area. More than 100,000 illegal North Korean refugees live in China in hiding, under constant threat...
  • A Bitter Friendship

    In July, Chinese tour groups of Korean War veterans returned to North Korea to commemorate their sacrifices on the battlefield. The conflict that bound the two socialist allies "as close as lips and teeth" left 360,000 Chinese dead when it ended in a stalemate 50 years ago. Yet when four Chinese vets visited their old headquarters in the North, they were shocked by what they saw: a massive painting of Pyongyang's late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung grandly instructing Korean officers into battle--with just one Chinese officer on the sidelines. "This isn't true!" fumed one Chinese veteran. "Kim came here only four times. Where are all the Chinese?"North Korea has been thumbing its nose at China for years, but what was once an irritation for Beijing is becoming a matter of serious concern. Since last October, Pyongyang has gone from restarting its mothballed nuclear facilities to bragging about reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear-fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium--enough to build at...
  • Behind Shanghai

    Staring at the rubble of his neighbors' row houses, Chen Guo-fang says he won't budge. Like more than a hundred residents who protested outside Shanghai's city hall last week, Chen is one of 2,000 homeowners who say that collusion between city officials and a big developer cleared the way for the reportedly $600 million housing project that is now bulldozing their homes. It's the biggest scandal to hit Shanghai in decades, and the victims demand fair compensation. "They can break my fingers but I won't sign any papers," says Chen, a 53-year-old laid-off engineer. "I don't have anything to lose."At first glance, the scandal enveloping Shanghai Land Holdings sounds like business as usual in post-Mao China. The country's embrace of "cowboy capitalism" has triggered corruption probes from Shenyang to Xiamen to Beijing. But look again: the Shanghai investigation appears to have got off the ground with a letter from the angry homeowners to President Hu Jintao, who is emerging as a...
  • 'America Can't Rule'

    The Iraq Hunting Club, which features a run-down outdoor movie theater and dilapidated tennis courts, used to be a favorite haunt of Saddam Hussein's elder son, Uday. Now it's the Baghdad base of Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. Last week Chalabi sat outside near a giant bingo board with two NEWSWEEK reporters to discuss his political ambitions and his ties to America. Guards hovered nearby with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.NEWSWEEK: You've returned to Iraq after 45 years in exile. What have you been doing [since you got back]?CHALABI: I've met leaders from every tribe around Baghdad--also business people, lawyers, justices and bankers. I've been proclaiming the end of the regime and the need for de-Baathification, emphasizing that this does not imply violence. I want to start the process of democracy and establish institutions of civil society. We've apprehended people on the U.S. wanted list, interviewed intelligence officers and people involved in weapons...
  • The 'Wolf' Who Would Be King

    At first glance, the scene inside the presidential suite of Baghdad's Ishtar Sheraton hotel seems almost, er, presidential. Armed bodyguards, tribal leaders and hangers-on mill about as a man in a well-tailored suit signs official papers and huddles with aides. The boss is Muhammad Mohsen Zubaidi, a former Iraqi exile who slipped back into town even as the regime was collapsing; immediately after liberation, he began acting like the new power broker in Baghdad. One member of Zubaidi's throng last week was a new assistant with a sheaf of papers. His job: moving families who'd become homeless during the war into houses abandoned by aides and bodyguards of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.Zubaidi's freshly printed stationery states only that he heads "the executive council of Baghdad," and many in his entourage insist they're just volunteers. Someone has even removed the words "presidential suite" from the presidential suite (nail holes leave an imprint that can still be read). Yet...
  • The Saddam Files

    At The Iraqi Intelligence Service, A Man Walked Up With A Grimy Sack Of Documents And Tapes. 'Tell The World What Happened Here,' He Said
  • In Revolution City

    After three weeks of war, Saddam City looked to me like an Arab version of "Blade Runner." Donkey carts and rattletrap taxis trundled through the vast Baghdad slum last week, crammed with anything that could be removed from the capital's abandoned ministries. My car inched past trash-choked alleys, burned-out vehicles and barricades thrown up by hard-eyed local vigilantes guarding their own neighborhoods from pillaging mobs. Even at the height of Saddam Hussein's power, his underlings seldom dared venture into the district that had been renamed for the dictator. Long before the U.S. invasion, this place was a revolution just waiting for a final provocation.There is no law in Saddam City. The closest thing to central authority is inside Saddam General Hospital, the only major medical center in Baghdad that has not been stripped virtually bare by looters. Residents now call it Revolution City Hospital, --from the district's pre-Saddam name. When the bombing began on March 20, the...
  • A City On The Brink

    Night after night, since the start of the war, the message boomed into the darkness from the loudspeakers of Baghdad's 14th of Ramadan Mosque. Sometimes the haunting, hypnotic baritone almost drowned out the fearsome din of the air war: "God is great!" the voice repeated. "God is almighty!" In person, the mosque's assistant imam, Murtadha Mustafa al-Zaidi, is a soft-spoken 30-year-old in a long gray robe and dusty flip-flops. "Residents from the neighborhood come to me and thank me," he said on a sunny afternoon last week as U.S. ground forces prepared to enter the capital. "They say my message makes them forget their fear." Birds were chittering in the trees outside. He added: "The Americans are attacking Iraq, thinking they are the world's greatest power. But we remind them that Allah is even greater."A night later the loudspeaker went silent: Baghdad's electricity had been cut. According to U.S. officials, the Iraqi regime had turned out the lights. Whatever that ploy was...
  • 'The Americans Have Come'

    For the first time in many days, there was no dawn chorus of aerial bombing or thudding artillery in Baghdad. I awoke today to a hot, scratchy breeze rustling through date palms and the muted chirping of birds.Very occasionally, distant warplanes or a muffled boom reverberated in the distance. The lack of nearby sounds of combat reassured many journalists here at the Palestine Hotel. But to me it also marked what, for us, had to be the most dangerous phase of the war.Yesterday, a senior Iraqi Press Center official told me glumly that "the American soldiers will be coming here. They'll be coming to talk with you journalists." I asked if he would stay, and he shrugged ambiguously. Later in the day, he made the rounds to many foreign television crews, asking them to pay their outstanding debts to the press center. One TV reporter, whose company coughed up $14,000, estimated the apparatchik must have personally collected about $200,000. Did he give any receipts? "Are you joking?" the...