Letter From Iraq
Reporting Under The Gun in an Ambush Zone
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page C01
I guess I've been working for newspapers too long, but when I looked into the face of my would-be killer as he shot bursts of AK-47 fire into my SUV on the superhighway from Fallujah to Baghdad, the first thing that came to mind was the likely headline in the next day's paper: "Post Reporter Dies in Hail of Bullets."
It had already been a harrowing trip through Fallujah, the heart of rebellion, revenge and bloodshed in the so-called Sunni Triangle of Iraq. Along with my driver, Falah, we had woven our way through the city to find ourselves blocked at every exit by masked insurgents who had won free rein after the withdrawal of U.S. Marines in May. We were worried because the rebels kidnapped foreigners and sometimes killed them. This was the town where, in April, ambushers killed and mutilated four American contractors and hung two of the burned bodies from a bridge over the Euphrates River. I can't print the full name of my driver because mere association with a foreign organization like The Washington Post can mean death. Someone could find him, even in big Baghdad.
Last Friday afternoon, when we had made it to the highway that leads from Fallujah back to the capital, we were relieved.
"Hamdulillah," Falah said as he picked up speed past the Fallujah interchange. "Thanks be to God."
"Hamdulillah," I responded. It's one of the key Arabic phrases one should know in Iraq, along with salaam aleikum.
But God was not exactly finished with us. Out of nowhere, a car painted in the characteristic orange and white of Iraq's taxis pulled up close behind us. I heard a thud, something like the sound of a rubber sledgehammer or mud hitting a wall. I looked back and saw a spider-web pattern on the bulletproof rear window. And then more thuds. "Oh," I said.
Falah was more precise. "They're shooting," he said and sped up from his already fast 90 mph.
The point of this or almost any story from Iraq these days is how completely the conflict between the United States and the violent opponents of U.S. occupation is closing in on anyone who lives here.
For a long time, rebel targets included Iraqis who work for the Americans or other foreigners, or who work in government or even who labor for Iraqis in business or government. And for the past few months, Americans and other foreigners working in Iraq have also been victims of ambush. There is virtually no discrimination, and the narcotic sense of immunity that gave reporters the notion they could go out in a war zone, talk to people and get back safely has been shattered.
The brazenness and frequency of all kinds of insurgent assaults, from car bombings to mortar attacks and rocket fire to the roadside bombs hidden under trash, in goat carcasses, in date palm logs, inside barrels or under asphalt, have made one more and more likely to actually witness rather than just hear about an act of mayhem. Last week I was interviewing a sociologist about Shiite Muslim society at his office on the banks of the Tigris River. We heard a blast, looked out the window and spied three slim figures in masks firing mortars. They casually dismantled the launcher, put it in the back of an Opel station wagon and drove away. Ed Cody, our China correspondent who is doing duty here this month, was on the receiving end of one of the mortars, which landed near him on a busy street just outside the huge U.S. administration complex.
Of course Iraqis and foreigners alike must be careful to steer clear of U.S. Army convoys on the road for fear that an ambush might stimulate the heavy American guns to fire or a roadside bomb targeting the tan vehicle might go off late and hit civilians.
I have covered conflicts in Palestine, Lebanon, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Somalia, Chechnya and Kosovo and, during last year's invasion of Iraq, the fighting in Kurdistan, as well as coups and civil strife in Panama and Haiti, and riots in Miami. Each one presented its own menu of bullets, bombings, anarchy, anger and vulnerable situations. All had moments where risk constricted mobility. In Somalia, reporters hired their own mini-militias of riflemen to move about Mogadishu, and even these had to stay on the side of town belonging to their clan. In Chechnya, you were either with the rebels or the Russian army; you could not move from one to the other. During Israel's invasion of Lebanon, an elaborate pass system permitted travel among parts of Beirut controlled by alphabets of militias. In El Salvador, moving from government to rebel territory meant ducking Salvadoran snipers and picking your way through guerrilla minefields.
But rarely have I been in a place where danger arrives from so many directions as in Iraq. Members of our Baghdad bureau have had near-death experiences before mine. Last year, gunmen in a car chased Pamela Constable, our Afghanistan correspondent, down a road in southern Iraq, evidently trying to kidnap or rob her. Her driver raced into a nearby hamlet, where an Arab family took her in and villagers recounted their own woes about marauding highwaymen. Bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran was holding an interview in the Baghdad Hotel when a car bomb went off outside. Concrete walls diverted the shock waves and he was not hurt. But Falah, my future driver to Fallujah, was parked 100 yards outside. He got cut on the head from flying glass.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company