They live in hiding. They move around Baghdad by stealth. They sneak into and out of the country by gloom of night, and when challenged by strangers for their nationality, they're ready with a practiced lie. Asked where they live, they name any old hotel rather than their safe house, which is littered with guns of a half-dozen types. They even resort to disguise and camouflage. Perhaps this is what it's like to be a terrorist hunted by the American military; I can't say. But for sure this is what it's like for those of us who are American civilians living and working in Iraq.

I didn't anticipate this. When one of our translators confided last July that he hadn't even told his wife, let alone his neighbors, that he worked for Americans, I was skeptical. "She talks a lot," he explained. It turned out NEWSWEEK's other Iraqi staffers had done the same--and for good reason. As the months went by, and the military became harder to hit, the insurgents turned to soft targets. In the last few weeks, terrorists have repeatedly attacked Iraqis working for Western journalists, killing translators for both Time and Voice of America. The assassins of VOA translator Selwan Niemi were so savage they also murdered his 5-year-old daughter and his mother. At the funeral, banners were draped on the mosque threatening his grieving wife as well. It looks as if NEWSWEEK's Iraqi staffers knew our enemies a lot better than we did.

And yet there's something uncomfortably sleazy about telling strangers you're a Dane, which was my cover story until an Iraqi replied to me in perfect Danish. I muttered the only two words I knew, "kroner" and "skol," and edged away. (Now I say I'm a Spaniard.) Dark-haired foreign men about town have all been growing beards or mustaches, the better not to be noticed. And a lot of Western women here have discovered that the Muslim higab, or headscarf, can be more than just a religious accessory. It's a shame because Baghdad is a big, bustling metropolis of 5 million people, and most Iraqis are genuinely friendly toward Americans. Outside of a few hard-core places, like Fallujah, the bad guys are a small minority. But they're a minority with lots of explosives, and no scruples at all.

Some of my civilian colleagues aren't as careful as I am. A group of Germans invited me to a party Saturday night in their unguarded apartment downtown. I'll pass; the killers don't check passports. An American friend suggested dinner in her low-profile house, but I'd rather she came to the NEWSWEEK place. We don't carry weapons ourselves, but we have guards with lots of firepower. I'm continually astonished at people who choose to fly to Iraq, considering that 5,000 of Saddam Hussein's SAM-7 antiaircraft missiles are unaccounted for--except for the dozens of them that have been fired at planes.

No place can be fully safe. Mortars sometimes even hit the heavily protected Green Zone; one killed a Bechtel employee recently. The Blackwater Security guards killed last week in Fallujah were by reputation some of the best in the business--ex-SEALs and Special Forces types--yet they couldn't even save themselves. My colleagues debate this all the time: is it wiser to bring along ever more armed guards and raise our target profile, or stay low to the ground and just slink around? Whichever, it's a hell of a way to cover a country.

Join the Discussion