War reporter in limbo

Warren Richey plays the waiting game in Kuwait as the war goes on without him. Part 1: April 7-23

I got my orders to cover the war in Iraq on a Tuesday afternoon in Washington, D.C.

"Get to Kuwait as fast as you can and embed with American troops."

Oh, and by the way, my editor might have mentioned in passing, the Kuwaitis have stopped issuing visas to journalists and most flights into the Persian Gulf region have been canceled because it is a war zone.

That's how my adventure in Iraq began, as a kind of impossible challenge. The date was April 1. April Fool's Day. The war in Iraq was already two weeks old, and US forces were closing in on Baghdad.

But never underestimate the power of prayer and a company credit card. By Friday, I had a visa to Kuwait. And the next day I was on a plane headed for combat.

What I didn't know until I arrived in the Middle East was that the only all-out warfare I would see during this assignment would involve my own bureaucratic battles with US military public affairs officers.

At times, they seemed determined to ensure that I experience virtually the entire combat phase of the war in the Hilton Hotel in Kuwait City. Needless to say, most of the newsworthy action in the Pentagon's Operation Iraqi Freedom was occurring much farther to the north, in Iraq.

I spent 2-1/2 weeks with my bags packed and ready to go at a moment's notice to hook up with US forces in Iraq. That's 17 days in a five-star hotel with a great view of a crude-oil loading dock and a TV set tuned to constant war coverage. Every day a different oil tanker arrived and departed. Every day the possibility again arose of actually being permitted to do what I came halfway around the world to do - interview US soldiers and cover the war from their perspective. Several times every day I was reassured: "We're working on it."

In the newspaper business, 17 days is an eternity. Frequently, history is written in less time. The Russian Revolution in 1917 took only 10 days. And the first Gulf War was over in a matter of hours.

As if such time constraints weren't bad enough, I kept imagining my 14-year-old son later asking what I had covered during the war in Iraq. "I pretty much covered the breakfast buffet at the Hilton, son," would be my completely honest reply. "Really good waffles. And fresh-squeezed orange juice."

Other reporters were regularly being placed with US forces, including a TV news crew from Turkey sent out with the 4th Infantry Division as it left Kuwait. This was an interesting development because the 4th ID was supposed to enter Iraq through Turkey, but the Turkish government had refused to grant access.

I mention this not to suggest that the Turkish reporters should be denied access to the big news story, but merely to point out that reporters from countries unhelpful to the US were receiving better treatment from US military public affairs officers than an American reporter. There were even a handful of German and French reporters already out there.

But not me.

Another tanker arrives to take on crude. Another day of waffles, orange juice, and nonstop televised war coverage.

There are two theories explaining my experience with military public affairs officers.

One is that the Monitor was being punished for the earlier actions of another Monitor correspondent, who had angered military officials by allegedly being too specific in a televised interview about the location of US Marines in Iraq. The correspondent was escorted out of Iraq, but, like a good news reporter, he turned around and went right back in - a move that reportedly angered military officials again.

When I arrived in Kuwait, the head of the military public affairs office - who was in charge of placing reporters with US forces - sat me down and informed me that the military would find the offending Monitor correspondent, bring him back to Kuwait, and snatch away his press credentials. (They never did, and he continued to report from Iraq for many weeks.)

Military officials deny there was any connection between my 17-day breakfast extravaganza at the Hilton Hotel and their anger at the other Monitor correspondent. And I have no proof otherwise.

The second theory is that my treatment in Kuwait was simply a prime example of how US armed forces really function. It is even expressed as a kind of military slogan: "Hurry up and wait." That basically describes my existence from April 7 through April 23.

Under this theory, there was nothing personal about it. It was not a form of punishment - rather it was my introduction to a quintessential military experience. Ask any soldier about this and watch the knowing smile spread across his or her face.

I just wonder how Monitor editors will feel about the benefit of this "military" experience when they see the hotel bill?

I mean, 17 days? That's a lot of waffles.

Duck when the shooting starts

Finally embedded with the US military in Iraq, Warren Richey gets a front-row seat on war. Part 2: April 24 - May 22

When you travel with the US Army in Baghdad, you never know what the night might bring.

Late one evening I find myself standing with a handful of American soldiers in the shadows of a burned-out Republican Guard headquarters building.

Hours earlier a sergeant had been shot in the hand a few hundred yards away. His buddies have returned to the neighborhood to offer the shooters another chance to spill American blood.

"I feel like bait," I tell Capt. Scott Schumacher, as we watch a red car approach on the highway.

"Yes, but this bait fights back," the captain says.

It is the second time the red car has come by. On the first pass, someone said he thought he saw the barrel of a rifle inside.

As the car slows, everyone raises their M-16 assault rifles in anticipation of a firefight. Everyone, that is, except me. As a journalist embedded with US forces in Iraq, the only weapon I carry is a ballpoint pen. And while some smart guy once said the pen is mightier than the sword, at this very moment I'm thinking an Iraqi AK-47 trumps even a really big sword.

I glance around for a place to duck or dive when the shooting starts. That's the difference between a journalist and a soldier out here.

For a journalist, embedding with American troops in Iraq is like being the 10th man on a nine-man baseball team - when the action starts, there isn't much you can do, but at least you have a front-row seat.

For nearly three weeks I had a front-row seat with US Army scouts of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment as they patrolled and conducted missions in eastern Baghdad. It wasn't the "shock and awe" all-out combat of late March and early April. Rather, it was the kind of routine urban patrolling in a city armed to the teeth that is likely to characterize US involvement in Iraq for years to come.

Their mission is no less than to restore peace to Iraq and lay the groundwork for democratic government.

Tonight at 10:10 p.m., Operation Iraqi Freedom boils down to one thing - a red car rolling slowly up to a group of American soldiers in a dark corner of Baghdad.

What the driver of the red car probably doesn't know is that the soldiers and journalist he can see 30 yards away are only a decoy. The real American firepower - the jaws to this trap - is a platoon of snipers and machine gunners positioned on the roof, four stories up. They are at this moment painting the car and its occupants with their laser targeting sights, and have enough arrayed firepower to destroy the vehicle in the blink of an eye.

As the car pulls up parallel to us, I hold my breath. It slows almost to a stop. Then, suddenly, it speeds up and disappears into the dark night.

The episode illustrates how close to the edge life in Baghdad can be. No shots were fired. Officially, nothing happened. But the fact is US troops came within a mosquito's breath of destroying a car and killing its occupants.

It was a combat mission, not a police patrol. And there is something remarkable about the fact that I was there at all. What if a nearby car had backfired, triggering a barrage of gunfire from the roof? What if the only occupants of the car were women and children stopping to get directions from soldiers they trusted?

I thought about such possibilities and the terrible story I would have to write as a result. But it seems to me that is as much a part of embedding with US forces as ducking to avoid getting shot. It comes with the territory.

Some journalism experts have suggested that reporters who embed might be reluctant to write news reports critical of those upon whom they depend for their safety. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you flat out - I respect and admire these soldiers. I hope they don't foul up. I certainly don't expect them to foul up. But there is never a question in my mind about whether I would write that story if they do. It is not an ethical dilemma unless you are tempted to engage in self- censorship.

My job is to report what happens - good or bad - and the soldiers themselves understand that.

When I left Baghdad, I wrote a letter to the 2nd ACR. It reads in part:

"My grandfather was an Army colonel and my dad served as a captain in the Army in the 1950s. So I guess there's a little bit of Army green in my blood.

"I have always had great respect for the men and women of the US military. Now I have even more. I hope it shows in some of the stories I've written.

"My work here has been interesting. And it has been fun getting to know many of you. But in the end, all I do is write newspaper stories. You, on the other hand, are writing history. Make it a great chapter."

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