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 were deeply ambivalent about the war. Some who visited me during the first night of the bombardment were secretly exuberant, eager to welcome advancing American troops. But every moment of happiness met its counterweight in sorrow. After Saddam was toppled, I wandered through the empty jails and torture chambers, moved to tears by graffiti on the prison walls and the stories of former inmates reveling in their newfound freedom. One had returned to his old cell clutching the striped prison uniform he used to wear. But I also met still-grieving relatives of the disappeared, desperately searching for loved ones swallowed up forever by the gulag. Later the jail cells began to fill up again with new occupants--suspected terrorists, looters and thieves--caught by Coalition soldiers or Iraqi police.
After I left Baghdad, some Iraqis kept in touch with me through e-mails and phone calls. They were universally anxious, puzzled, even angry about the continuing lack of security in Baghdad. One former government official--a minor bureaucrat, not one of the "most wanted"--criticized "a new sort of repression" under the post-Saddam occupation. He sent a number of gloomy e-mails, then went silent. Only after Saddam was captured did the former official get in touch with me again. "Now we are free," he said.