Iguess 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.
For me, Friday's ambush was the Mother of All Close Calls.
"They're shooting," Falah said. He looked in the rear mirror. Falah was cool. Neither of us was armed. We never are. He's a former military officer who has worked for The Post since the occupation began. Because Falah knows every road in the country and every shortcut in traffic-choked Baghdad, we call him King of the Drivers. He liked that nickname and liked to travel all around Iraq, to get away from the office with its dreary round-the-clock broadcasts of sensationalist reports from Arabic-language TV and the BBC's stately procession of bad news. I am alive because of him.
After the first fusillade, the taxi roared up beside the driver's door. I was shocked at the determined rage on the mustached face a rifleman who was riding shotgun. I saw shell casing jump from his weapon. He seemed to be aiming first at the front wheel, then at the cabin. He missed the tire, but a bullet grazed the windshield of our vehicle, which is equipped with armor plating and bulletproof glass on the outside as well as inside, dividing the front cabin from the cargo area.
The taxi dropped back. The killers fired again -- this time the shooters popped their heads out and unloaded their AKs out both sides of the car. One tire was flattened, and our SUV wobbled. "It's all right, we can keep going," Falah said.
The taxi pulled over to my side. I slid down in my seat, butt toward the door thinking: "Well, there's more meat on that side." This time they didn't shoot. Having trouble aiming, they had decided to race ahead and park.
I popped back up in my seat.
When the taxi stopped on the highway shoulder, two of the men opened their doors and awaited our passing. "Let's rip off the doors," I suggested to Falah. Our conversations were without emotion. No raised voices. We could have been discussing which exit to take on the Beltway.
"Hmmm," Falah said. "I am afraid we will hurt our own car."
So we kept going. Their plan didn't work very well; only one bullet nicked the door above my head. I swore and told Falah: "They are going to shoot until they kill us." It struck me I would not see my wife and child again. I thought to myself, I can't break down right now.
Falah said, "Yes. Maybe they wanted to kidnap before, but now they want to kill."
The taxi-turned-war-wagon approached again from behind. We had one small advantage: The riflemen seemed afraid Falah would ram them. He deftly kept the SUV weaving to block them from passing.
But they kept shooting and with each volley, the spider-web pattern on the rear window kept growing until the panel looked like a translucent marbleized sheet. Finally, the window burst. Then the riflemen let fly.
The thuds now reached the inner armor plating and the reinforced window that protected the cabin. Later, we would count a dozen bullet scars. A second tire burst, and the SUV began to spin. I thought: That's it, we're done.
When we stopped I wanted to get out and run for the reeds in a nearby canal. Falah shouted for the first time: "Don't!" He still thought it safer to stay in our armored confines.
The taxi had passed us. I watched as it sped down the highway to see if the brake lights came on. Our car was still functioning and Falah said if they came back, he would crash into them head-on. "I will kill them," he said.
"Yeah," I said. The shooting had lasted about two minutes.
The taxi became a dot, then disappeared. Highway traffic that had held back while the shooting spectacle played out started to pass. Falah tried to wave someone, anyone, down. Many gawked, but no one stopped. We began our two-wheeled journey to safety at Abu Ghraib prison, where American soldiers let us take refuge. It was 15 miles down the highway. No orange and white taxi came into view.
Falah and I tried to figure out how our car was spotted. Did the police in Fallujah we talked to tip someone off? Was it the Fallujah Brigade, a corps of former Saddam Hussein soldiers supposed to be keeping order in the city? Or was it the two men in the white Chevrolet Caprice who kept appearing beside our car and never seemed to pass?
I recounted our story to Marine hosts at Abu Ghraib. Two were playing chess, shirtless. Geometric tattoos made them look like members of a pale-faced Polynesian tribe. They had no theories. "A lot of that goes on out there," one said. "Check."
Falah and I slept in a cellblock that usually hosts Red Cross inspectors. Saturday morning I awoke with the thought: Why am I still alive? All told, the circumstances favored death over survival. If they had shot out the front wheels, if they had come to finish us off, if the SUV had flipped, we would have been killed.
To soothe myself, I wondered how the newspaper would have handled my obituary. The usual quotes came to mind. "Beloved colleague," "veteran correspondent," "will be missed." And in my case: "Couldn't spell very well."
That night back in Baghdad, my article about conditions in Fallujah was elbowed out of The Post by news of Ronald Reagan's death. So goes the newspaper business. Maybe they could have combined the story with mine, I fantasized, and headlined it, "Reagan Dead, but Williams Still Alive."
When he saw me writing this article, Falah said only, "Be sure and get my name right."