Ted Koppel left the competition in the desert sand yesterday, flying into Baghdad on a plane apparently sent by Iraq, being driven at "90 miles per hour" down an empty three-lane highway to a date at the Foreign Ministry and then broadcasting by phone to ABC's "World News Tonight" at 6:30 p.m.

Dan Rather was still packing his bags in Amman, Jordan.

But at least CBS's Rather planned to be reporting from Baghdad by today. With its top guns sitting in the United States, NBC vowed through a spokeswoman: "We fully expect to be in Iraq in 24 hours." Not Brokaw, but Garrick Utley, who's been toughing it out in Cairo and Amman for the past week.

The intense competition for the Gulf story seems to be searing the circuits of network news types, who exchanged insults yesterday as they talked about each other's coverage. Just about the only point of agreement -- and their colleagues in print media concur -- is that the pool coverage arranged through the Pentagon gives them too little access too late.

Koppel's Baghdad coup did little to reduce the anxiety. According to Joanna Bistany, a vice president at ABC News, the well-connected "Nightline" anchor started to lay the groundwork as soon as he arrived in Amman a week ago. Queen Noor invited the ABC crew to drop by, a get-together that turned into dinner with the queen and King Hussein, who has appeared on "Nightline" periodically. It was on this occasion that Koppel began his campaign for admission to Baghdad, Bistany said. Koppel said on "Nightline" last night that he believed King Hussein had been extremely helpful.

He resumed his campaign at the Arab summit in Cairo, collaring Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz after the meeting. "He pushed him hard to get into Baghdad," said Bistany. As Aziz was leaving, "he said he'd see Ted in Baghdad."

Back in Amman, Koppel and crew got their visas and all at ABC were "ecstatic" until they realized that no one could get into Iraq without permission to land a plane there, Bistany continued. The alternative was an arduous and risky 18-hour drive across the desert, which the network decided against.

Koppel pressed Jordanian officials and sent telexes to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry but got mixed signals in return. Yesterday, one source told him that he might get an interview by satellite in a couple of days while another said he might be allowed into Baghdad immediately, according to Bistany.

She said ABC's information is sketchy but that "Nightline" Executive Producer Dorrance Smith phoned ABC News President Roone Arledge yesterday morning to say that the trip was on. A plane -- Bistany isn't sure what kind -- picked up Koppel, correspondent Forrest Sawyer, Smith and several other producers and crew members. They were the only passengers.

"They had no idea what they were going to get," Bistany said. "They just knew they were going to get into Iraq."

When they landed in Baghdad at about 3 p.m. EDT, they were driven directly to the Foreign Ministry, where Koppel spoke with an official whom he declined to identify in his "World News" report. The problem then was letting the world know -- not easy when ABC wasn't certain whether or how it could broadcast. Koppel ended up phoning in from the U.S. Embassy, a necessity that endured through last night's "Nightline" broadcast despite its lack of visual allure from a television standpoint.

But that didn't take away much savor from ABC. "I'm really proud of them," Bistany said. "They're tenacious little bulldogs." She isn't sure what gave Koppel the final breakthrough. "No one thing," she said. "Everything that they tried played a role in it. ... Obviously, {the Iraqis} had made a decision. They wanted to let him in, for whatever reason." How long Koppel will stay is uncertain. "They're going to play it by ear," Bistany said.

Koppel said from Baghdad last night that the ABC team would have to be extremely cautious about where they go and what they film.

While acknowledging concern for the news team's security, Bistany said the question was settled over the weekend to Arledge's satisfaction. "They felt in discussions with the Iraqis and Jordanians that they {were} secure," she said.

That assessment was echoed by other broadcast executives and newspaper editors. "If they've invited you in, I think a person would be quite safe," said Ed Turner, executive vice president for news gathering at Cable News Network.

Turner was more generous than his counterparts at the big-three networks in appraising ABC's score. "I tip my hat to 'em," he said. "I throw my hat at 'em. I have a temper tantrum." CNN had been seeking visas to get into Iraq "all over the world," he said. But even Turner questioned the importance of Koppel's score since it remained unclear what he would get and how long he would be the only one there. "It may become a scoopette," he said.

Hearing of Koppel's arrival in Baghdad, CBS spokesman Tom Goodman seemed to enunciate a whole new approach to television journalism. "It's not a question of beating anyone on the air," he said. "Can you get good material?"

Steve Friedman, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News," raised a similar question. "We'll see what they all get," he said. Friedman said he was perfectly happy that the NBC guns remain stateside. "Being there is one thing," he began. "Getting something is another. ... I can't afford to have Tom Brokaw sitting there on a hope."

If Koppel's presence leads to an interview with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Friedman continued, "It's pretty sexy. If it doesn't, what would you call it? A C-plus?" He added: "We are in a position to get a very big score ourselves. I'm not going to say what that is."

Most of Friedman's ire was aimed at CBS. "Dan has been flailing about in the Mideast," he scoffed. "He's wasted a week." Friedman accused CBS of hyping Rather's presence in Jordan and of touting an interview with King Hussein as exclusive when the king had already appeared on NBC.

"They get away with this hysterical stuff ... and when the ratings come in, they don't seem to be doing better than anyone else," Friedman said. He seemed happy that CBS got scooped -- even if the victor was ABC. "CBS keeps trying to pretend they're ahead," he said. "In this case, it's clear Ted Koppel is in there."

Back at CBS, Friedman's words provoked mounting diplomatic tension. "They sound like a group of people who are extremely jealous, who are not in the picture and not on the scene," Goodman said tartly. "It goes beyond sour grapes. They've been crushed."

So far, the Baghdad show is apparently an all-television affair. Editors at several newspapers said their efforts to get reporters there have shown no signs of imminent success. "That's the price we pay sometimes with crises like this," said Alvin Shuster, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. "They tilt toward television."

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the media had to make do with a Pentagon-arranged pool of journalists that included reporters from various newspapers, CNN and National Public Radio. The pool serves all media outlets, and its members are accompanied by U.S. officials in all news-gathering efforts.

"We're in their clutches," said Bill Headline, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "They take us where they want to take us. And they in turn are in the clutches of the Saudis. ... I sense no conspiracy to keep us out on the part of the United States."

But Washington Post Foreign EditorMichael Getler said the Bush administration did not press hard enough for media access. "It seems to me in this case, given the size of the buildup and the gravity of the potential confrontation, that the president should have insisted from the start to the Saudis that American reporters be included and that reporters who know something about the Persian Gulf, and not just military operations, be allowed into Saudi Arabia," he said.

A Pentagon official said that he could understand the frustration, but that U.S. officials had done their best to persuade the Saudis to permit more coverage. "We're on the phone to them every day," he said. He said he could not confirm reports that the Saudis will soon open the doors to about a dozen news organizations that will be permitted to operate independently.

Television executives were particularly unhappy about the results of the pool. "One correspondent working for four news organizations in a country the size of Saudi Arabia with the number of American personnel and the importance of the story is so inadequate that it's almost not worth doing," said Bob Murphy, ABC vice president for news coverage. "It's so inadequate that it's ridiculous."

The response among print editors was mixed. "It's slim pickings," said the Los Angeles Times's Shuster. "We're not getting that much out of it." The first day's report was bland and lacking in detail, he added.

But The Washington Post's Getler said the quality of the pool report is "not an issue because nothing's happened yet. Everybody's interviewing sailors and soldiers. What matters is the quality of journalism should the shooting start. I'm sure it would be good, but it is nowhere near the overall coverage you would get if many more journalists were allowed in."