It wasn't until Friday that the Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade set out from a checkpoint west of Route 80, the primary artery between Iraq and Kuwait City. The trucks and armored cars moved slowly on the dirt tracks at 12mph. "What the hell are we doing here?" said Lance Cpl. Sydney Woods, dusting off his pants and letting a thick gob of spit dribble out of his mouth. Few in the unit had showered in more than two weeks; all of them had been eating nothing but MREs. Pfc. Joel Adams, 21, was so lost in reverie about his home in Albany, Ga., that he didn't even realize that he was by then in Iraq, the second foreign country he had ever visited (Kuwait had been the first). "I don't even count the days anymore," he said. "I don't even know what today is."
A NEWSWEEK photographer and I had been hiding out in the desert frontier. We had crossed the border on our own. Now here we were with a group of Marines. As "unilaterals," journalists who are not embedded with U.S. forces, we were not all that welcome. But they let us join their convoy in our Pajeros (basically, gas-guzzling SUVs). We drove down a road with mines on either side. At night, the Marines told us that we had to go back south.
Despite the dangers, we chose not to follow their orders. After a night sleeping in our cars, we decided we would cut west into the desert to the town of An Nasiriya, west of Basra, and meet up with the Army's Third Infantry Division, which we knew was going north to Baghdad. We headed across the desert, off-road, at about 7:30 in the morning on Saturday. Following tracks in the sand, we used walkie-talkies and GPS devices that gave us our longitude and latitude.
It was a nerve-racking drive. There were no landmarks, just long convoys, snakelike things that shimmered across the desert. Sometimes, in the distance, we saw shepherds. Sometimes, a massive bombing campaign. There were mines and lots of unexploded ordnance, so we had to stay in the tracks others had made. We ran into a lot of U.S. military. Some were hostile about our not being embedded: unilaterals are a distraction and a potential problem. But none of the troops knew what was going on--they're all self-contained, moving around with directions given by commanders in helicopters--and they begged us for the latest news of the war.
Finally, we made it to a main road, a six-lane highway, outside An Nasiriya. There were hundreds of coalition tanks, Humvees--massive convoys of U.S. military equipment, all lining up to cross a bridge that had come under Iraqi fire. Cutting in and out of the convoy, we raced to the head. When we crossed the bridge, the terrain changed from flat and inhospitable into fertile farmland. There was evidence of bombing in some villages, and smoldering trucks.
The atmosphere was tense. The U.S. strategy had been to bypass towns, engaging only major targets. That left pockets of Iraqi soldiers and militiamen scattered all along the American "wall of steel" that marched steadily northward. Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians stood silently in the mud lining the sides of the road; some were giving troops the thumbs up. The troops had been briefed that in this part of the world that was the same as giving somebody the finger. They wondered aloud if that was true.
The photographer and I got to the head of the convoy and accelerated past. I saw a post with a soldier standing on an island in the middle of the road. I saw he had a gun--but I thought he was American.
I was wrong. As I passed, I realized he was Iraqi. I looked to my right; there were more than a half-dozen men with guns racing toward my car. Just then the photographer came on the walkie-talkie and said in French, "Weapons! Weapons!" At that moment I heard the Iraqis pepper my car with bullets, hitting it all over. It made an eerie patter, like somebody tapping a finger on glass. I ducked down and put my foot on the gas and sped as fast as I could. It was instinctive. I popped my head up and saw I was fishtailing and going in the wrong direction; trying to compensate, I made it worse. I slammed into the island in the middle of the road, about 150 feet from where the Iraqi had been standing. My car flipped and slammed into a light post.
I opened my eyes. I had ended up in the passenger's seat and was looking at the ground in front of my windshield. The Iraqis were still firing at the car. I was sure I was dead. I was sure they were going to pull me out of the car and execute me on the spot. Or blow the thing up. They were only 100 or 200 feet away. I thought, "This is it."
I began kicking the windshield because I didn't want to expose myself by climbing through the upturned door. After 15 kicks, it cracked and I squeezed out. I crawled away from the car, thinking it would explode. I was still hearing the whir of bullets overhead and the sound of them nicking the dust near me. Keeping the car between the soldiers and me, I crawled about 75 feet from the flipped vehicle. I lay there. There was more gunfire and shouting in Arabic. Then I heard the sound of the oncoming convoy.
The Iraqis stopped firing. The convoy went by and I put my hand up to every single truck that passed, trying to tell the advancing Americans where the Iraqis were hiding out. Trying to get them to stop and pick me up.
They wouldn't. Five more minutes. At least 15 tanks, Bradleys and Humvees rolled by me in the dust. Finally I got up; otherwise, I realized, they would pass, and the firing would start again. I started running after the convoy. A soldier named Jesse--a platoon leader in the Third Infantry Division, leading a medical unit--motioned me to his Humvee. I said, breathlessly, "My car flipped and they were shooting at me and I need help." I was hyperventilating from running, and from fear.
Jesse got on the radio and the convoy stopped. Troops went to investigate. They went back with some Bradleys and armored cars, and they found seven Iraqis with AK-47s and two RPGs; they had been lying in wait for the convoy. The soldiers rounded up the men who'd shot at me, and the last I saw they were sitting around the checkpoint with their heads bowed, guarded by U.S. troops.
When I went back to the car there was a huge hole that went in one side and blew out a two-inch-wide hole in the other. I had no idea where the photographer was. He had blown through the checkpoint. (I later learned he was rescued by the Americans, too.)
Dusk was falling. There were Bradleys everywhere, and they had discovered a group of Iraqis coming toward them with small arms. They engaged. There wasn't any return fire against the massive fire from the tanks. One American soldier was yelling, "Kill the motherf---ers!" This is not a stroll into Baghdad. All along this road they've been encountering similar attacks by militia loyal to Saddam who are taking it upon themselves to fight. Bands of Iraqis are resisting, and there are casualties. My car is shrapnel and I'm basically embedded now. I don't have much chance of going independent again and, to be honest, I don't know if I want to.