Live From Baghdad

Saturday was a quiet spring day in Baghdad. Early in the morning I drove around town to look at the effects of the previous night's "shock and awe" airstrikes. Just a few hours before, the night sky had pulsed with crimson fireballs and Iraqi tracer fire, the concussion had knocked the plaster from my hotel's ceilings and an entire riverbank of government buildings had disintegrated as I watched from an upper floor. Now, the streets were mostly empty, except for groups of Iraqi soldiers digging trenches and bunkers for a last stand against the Americans. The July 14 Bridge was strewn with bits of shrapnel, perhaps the remains of the huge military complex that once stood at its southern end. A palace on the other side appeared intact, but a water main or hydrant had burst in front of it, turning the street into a lake. An acrid, burning smell hung in the air. I saw coalition aircraft flying overhead, but the air-raid sirens had stopped for now, and the antiaircraft guns were silent.

By late afternoon, massive black--plumes of smoke were rising from the edges of the city. Perhaps Iraqi troops were finally torching the moats of oil that Saddam Hussein had built there. I wasn't driving out to see. Darkness was coming, and more airstrikes along with it. But the bombs didn't worry me as what might follow: a waking nightmare between the regime's collapse and the establishment of U.S. control. Looters. Hostage takers. Out-of-control lynch mobs. The most dangerous time may still be ahead.

I almost didn't get to see the war. The day before it officially began, Newsweek's editors asked me to leave the country. I was furious. I had spent the previous two months in Iraq covering the showdown. Now they suddenly decided the place was too dangerous. What did they expect? What did they suppose I was doing in Iraq, anyway, if not reporting on the actions of a government that the Bush administration called one of the world's deadliest regimes? Frustrated, exhausted, torn and angry, I decided to follow orders and get out--and then to give the editors my resignation.

It didn't work out that way. Five hours before Bush's final deadline expired, I called New York to say I was staying in Baghdad. I was prevented from leaving by an Iraqi bureaucrat we called the Gnome, a wizened little man with no fingernails. No one could say just how he lost them. "So nice man, so nice man," said one driver who knew the story but refused to divulge it. "It was something that happened to him in the Army." We couldn't help being obsessed with the Gnome's fingernails. He was the Ministry of Information Press Center official responsible for collecting fees from registered journalists. Each of us had to pay him $225 a day for access to the Press Center and permission to use our own satellite phones. We watched him count it, bill by bill. His looks somehow reminded me of Gollum in "Lord of the Rings."

Baghdad has always been a strange place, but in Saddam Hussein's last days, it got more surreal than ever. Ordinary Iraqis gave up pretending to have faith in their government and began talking, quietly at first, about how they really felt. At about 5:30 one morning at the Rasheed Hotel, I bumped into a floor attendant. "I'm so scared, so scared," he whispered, wringing his hands. "Please help," he said. "Please." He was obviously looking for sympathy and a bit of easy cash. But he had good reason to be scared. The hotel's multilevel basement, a labyrinth of VIP bunkers and tunnels that reportedly include a government command-and-control hub, could make the place a coalition target. (Actual slogan: "Al Rasheed--It's More Than a Hotel.") The hotel's hairdresser, Abboud, left town a week earlier. His assistant, Suwaad, gave me an unexpected hug, saying, "Don't forget us." Then she locked up the salon and followed Abboud's lead.

The city felt virtually empty when the bombing began. Every day for weeks the roads had carried a steady rush of cars and trucks piled high with suitcases, home appliances and rolled-up carpets, all headed for safer places. The drivers, reckless and jittery, formed long lines at the gas pumps, sometimes as late as 2 or 3 a.m., and they kept getting into minor collisions on their way out of town. By Wednesday night the city seemed deserted, its normally bustling shops shuttered and its boulevards dominated by sandbagged machine-gun emplacements and armed security forces.

Like other Western journalists, I moved from the Rasheed to the dingy, government-run Palestine Hotel. We figured we would be safer there, on the opposite side of the river from the Rasheed--and the government ministries, presidential palaces and other important targets for U.S. bombing. My room was done in royal blue and dark blue. There's a wraparound modular desk with peeling veneer, a circular coffee table and a pair of round-shouldered swivel chairs on chrome stalks. Other rooms are done up with tangerine orange walls and dark brown bathroom tiles. "They're all so 1970s, sort of 'Avengers' style," Mike Moore, of Britain's Daily Mirror, told me. "You can play Emma Peel--martinis, anyone?" I must be getting old; I've hardly taken a drink in the last two months.

I chose a room on the lowest floor available, the third, directly across from the emergency stairway. From my balcony I ran a cord down to my generator in the garden. When I first arrived, the room smelled as if an electrical fire had been smoldering in the walls. "I think you'll like our [bomb] shelter, it's very strong," the night manager said as he gave me a tour of the Palestine's underground bunker. In fact it was only a converted basement parking garage, fitted out with some metal beds, long rows of white plastic patio chairs lined up neatly against the walls and a couple of hospital gurneys in one corner.

The day before the war started, I went back to the Rasheed for a meeting with a half dozen other foreign journalists. All of us had suddenly been ordered out of the country by our editors. We cursed our bosses and planned our escape. We didn't dare travel after dark, when greedy apparatchiks and highway bandits are on the prowl. That meant we had to leave Baghdad by noon Thursday in order to reach the border, a five- or six-hour trip across the desert, before nightfall. We would carry nothing that could get us arrested, no undeclared cash, no extraneous electronic equipment (we heard of one guy who got arrested for having a Palm PDA), and all our paperwork would be in order. We needed exit permits from the Ministry of Information. But first we had to pay our fees at the Press Center, a time-consuming ordeal even in the best of times.

The gnome said he would be there to take our payments at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. I stayed up all night, frantically packing my things, organizing a convoy, worrying and trying to dispose of everything I would have to leave behind: cash, food, water, electronic gear, body armor and other war-zone necessities. In the morning there was no sign of the Gnome. We sent minders and drivers to look for him. I tried to calm my nerves by pasting receipts onto 8-by-10 pieces of paper for the monstrous expense report I would have to file in New York. I suspected I looked silly. But anyone who said so could go to hell. Besides, I was quitting, so I would have to file my expenses immediately.

Someone finally found the Gnome in a different office, shoving heaps of Iraqi dinars into bags. He told us to come back later. All around us, ministry employees were shouting and hauling away office furniture and equipment to save them from the impending U.S. airstrikes. Larry Kaplow, a Cox Newspapers reporter, tried to persuade a Press Center official to intercede for us, but that official got into a shouting match with another Iraqi, and we lost our chance. Early in the afternoon we canceled our convoy. We could never be out of the country before dark.

I had to undo the previous 24 hours of work--and quickly. Two days earlier, I'd been fairly ready to face a war. Now I was bone tired, frustrated, my carefully assembled survival system scattered all over town. It was a fight just to get my room back at the Palestine. But at least I was confronting dangers I had chosen instead of journeying down a dangerous, isolated highway away from the story.

On Thursday I had dinner at the Palestine with Kadhim al-Taie, an Information Ministry official who helps run the Press Center. He still had his sense of humor, even though he'd gotten only an hour's sleep the previous night. The hotel's restaurant, the Orient Express, is essentially a tired buffet of execrable food. We had watery lamb curry of an unsettling orange hue, with rice. I asked for bottled mineral water, and the waiter brought tap water decanted into an open plastic bottle, without even the pretense of being sealed. I was joking with an L.A. Times reporter about the fact that our visas had run out. Suddenly another Press Center official ran over and demanded in a mock fury: "You must get another visa extension--give me your passports!" Everyone at the table erupted in laughter. The official walked away, chuckling. I felt totally exhausted, and I said so. Kadhim leaned toward me. "The adrenaline will come back," he said. "You'll see."

The one good thing was the sudden appearance at the buffet counter of some freshly cooked kubba, a buckwheat pancake filled with ground lamb. Kadhim grabbed a plateful and offered me some. They were delicious, but I'd taken only two bites when he tipped his head to one side and raised a finger for silence. "I hear something," he said. Straining to listen, I heard it--and felt it. A distant, almost subliminal thudding, more like waves of air hitting my eardrums than a proper sound. American bombs. Then the loud staccato of outgoing antiaircraft fire.

The adrenaline was back.

I ran to the cashier, ahead of everyone else in the room. My hand was shaking as I scribbled my name on the bill. The sounds of bombing and antiaircraft fire had become unmistakably clear. They seemed very close, even though I could tell they were on the far side of the river. I was more afraid of misdirected Iraqi defensive fire than of U.S. bombs. A stray antiaircraft shell could easily land on the building. Plenty of Baghdad residents were killed that way during the U.S. airstrikes of 1991 and 1998. And if the hotel took a hit, swarms of looters would no doubt immediately descend on the place. In my room I had a bag packed with my essentials, and I wanted it.

I took the emergency stairs and raced to my third-floor room. My driver, Tlala Al-Jabar, who had the room next door, was waiting in the hallway. The bombardment was louder than ever. The door of my room shuddered with each concussion. From my balcony I saw tracer fire across the river and one or two spectacular explosions. After one intense blast, a scrum of Iraqis ran down the corridor, shouting, "The ministry's been hit! The ministry's been hit!" Some of them scurried off to put on their body armor. From my balcony we saw plumes of smoke rising on the opposite bank of the river. "The sky is on fire," Tlala said. Then he realized he had locked himself out of his room.

We had to laugh. only that morning, as sunrise marked the end of the first night of bombing, Tlala had encountered a distraught woman in the corridor. Barelegged and barefoot, she wore only a delicate white satin nightshirt. Her hair was disheveled, and she was cursing in French. "Please let me back into my room," she begged, mistaking Tlala for a hotel employee. "I've left my key inside." Tlala helped her call the front desk. The last we saw her, she was cursing louder than ever.

Now Tlala had put himself in the same predicament. We called the front desk. Eventually a man arrived with the master key. Meanwhile Tlala and I went out to another guest's balcony, where the view was better. An Iraqi was scrambling to fasten his body armor. Across the water a big government building was in flames. The Iraqi said it was the Hall of Ministers, where the cabinet holds its meetings. For hours after the bombing stopped, rumors ran wild. Some people said the airstrikes had hit the notorious interrogation center known as The Palace of the End, where the torture cells' red-painted walls are said to be covered with graffiti scribbled by detainees who were taken there and never seen again. Other Iraqis later said coalition cruise missiles had struck the residences of three of Saddam Hussein's relatives, along with a computer center run by his son Qusay.

During a lull in the bombardment, Tlala went back to his room to turn in for the night. I was thinking of going to the hospital, to ask about casualties, when an Iraqi acquaintance arrived. He sat quietly for a moment. Then he smiled. "I'm very happy about this bombing," he said. "Nobody will fight to defend him." He was talking about Saddam Hussein. I gestured at my visitor to watch what he said. The room was almost certainly bugged. My friend only chuckled. "Everybody feels the same way, believe me," he said. He's a patriot, a veteran of two Iraqi wars. But this time he's rooting for the Americans. He says Iraqis have no country because Saddam stole it from them.

Later I got a call from Kim Sengupta, and I trudged up 10 flights of stairs to see him. I didn't want to be stuck in the elevator if the electricity suddenly went out. Kim's editors at The Independent, the British paper, had called him home several days earlier, when the U.N. inspectors started leaving. He never made it past the border. Iraqi authorities arrested him and six or seven other Westerners for "currency violations." A print journalist in Iraq needs well over $600 a day in fees, bribes and basic room, board and transportation. But the most you can legally bring into the country at any time is $10,000. Anything extra is subject to confiscation and a stiff fine. The Iraqis detained Kim and the others for several days before returning them to Baghdad.

I was suddenly glad I hadn't got past the Gnome. If I'd left with Kim, I might have faced the same treatment. Maybe worse. Kim said his captors had tried to separate the women detainees from the men. A driver overheard one of the guards wisecracking about one of the women: "If she needs a place to sleep, let her come to my bed." The group insisted on staying together, and the guards finally gave in.

I feel safe in my third-floor room. Tlala bought me three lengths of sturdy rope, each long enough to climb down to the floor below. He told me he had finagled it from supplies usually reserved for Iraqi counter terrorist commandos. I've done my homework on the building, and the night manager has been most helpful. He agreed that the building's lower floors are safer than its upper stories. And he told me that some windows were shattered by the bombing in 1991 and 1998, "but mostly on the west side," facing the river, that is. My room faces south.

Location isn't everything. The room had too much glass: sliding doors leading into the balcony, framed pictures, mirrors, a TV set, all potentially deadly flying shards if a bomb falls nearby. I stowed the portable stuff in the hall closet and swathed everything else--balcony doors, bathroom mirror, even the shower enclosure--in duct tape and Saran Wrap provided by Mike, the one who joked about living in an "Avengers" episode.

I tipped one of the single beds on its side as a shield between the window and the other bed. The best thing is that my room has a narrow foyer, with doors leading to the bathroom and the toilet and another door to the room where the bed is. If the bombing ever gets too bad, I can retreat to the foyer and close the doors. This is where I've stashed my food and water, an air mattress and sleeping bag and all my essential belongings. I could live, work, bathe and sleep here--for days, even weeks, if necessary. I have two humongous plastic barrels of water in case the plumbing goes out. I think I'm ready for whatever comes.