The days began to blend into one long day. While the Marines were ready to hop into action whenever they were called upon, they were also ready to sleep anytime they were not needed. But instead of sleeping along with them, that is usually when I was able to transmit my work. Many nights while my Humvee companions were snoring away, I was sitting in the dark huddled under a poncho and sleeping bag to keep light from the computer screen from alerting any enemy to our position. As the Honda generator created a steady drone while keeping the computer and satellite phone charged, I would file my work and contact the photo desk in LA to inform them of my progress as best I could while keeping within the ground rules. As a journalist, it was frustrating to be vague but the ground rules would not allow me to precisely pinpoint where I was or where I was going. So I was always, "south of An Nassiriya" or "near Al Kut" or "on the outskirts of Baghdad."
We weren't always certain where the Iraqi soldiers were, either. They fled in a hurry in many places, choosing to run rather than face the unleashed fury of the U.S. Marines. Iraqi tools of war were left behind as their fighters ran. Uniforms, boots and helmets littered both sides of the road as soldiers became civilians with a quick change of clothes.
Heavier weapons were also abandoned. Missile launchers, anti-aircraft guns, and artillery guns sat empty, still dug into their fighting positions. They were like gifts to the advancing Americans and even more so to the two engineers I rode with. After weeks of declaring their uselessness to the mission, having never been asked to blow a bridge or clear a mine field, they finally got the call.
It was dusk when the last Iraqi anti-aircraft gun was
set to blow. There was little light to photograph by then so I lay uncomfortably
in the back of the Humvee trying to catch up on some much needed sleep.
Five Marines bounded back into the already running Humvee to facilitate
our escape before the 60-second fuse reached the C4 charge. As the driver
mashed on the gas the poorly running engine sputtered out. "Why
is the vehicle not running?" asked the sergeant. in an even but
plaintive tone. Still in a half-sleep I then heard one of the engineers
mutter a low "go, go go." With that I bolted upright, peeled
back the canvas tarp and hit the ground running. I was vaguely aware
of the direction in which the explosives were set and did not stop running
until I reached the steep, long bank of an irrigation canal.
"Never trust combat engineers," is a mantra I have come to live by after having too many close calls. I didn't need another example to make my point but the very next day afforded me yet another one.
At least six large bunkers chock full of rockets, mortars,
anti-aircraft and small arms munitions had been discovered. The Marines
needed to move north but were hesitant to leave behind huge supplies
of ammunition that could be recollected by Iraqi forces. The lieutenant
gave the order to blow the bunkers. Time was of the essence. The engineers
elected to set explosives on just one of several dozen rockets inside
the bunker that contained the biggest weapons cache. It was a test to
see how the others would blow. The aim was for the explosive force of
one rocket exploding to set off the rest of the rockets.
Every time we thought all the rockets had launched, another one would shoot off with a deafening whistle. We had to go. Two men were sent running into the field to retrieve our Humvee so we could continue north and out of harm's way. We got on the road and convoyed at the highest speeds I had gone in weeks, about 45 k.p.h. Cpl. Teasley survived to see another day and so did we.
While I reserve the right to a final opinion on the war until enough time has passed to realize its benefits or detriments, I must say that there was a point when my view of the war was altered. I came into the war with an open mind. But I did have reservations as to the U.S. justifications for war against Iraq. Why had the U.S. not seized the opportunity to rid Iraq of Saddam back in 1991? And why now? I felt like Saddam Hussein had won the public relations war over Bush by allowing inspections, by then destroying his longer range missiles and by the lack of hard evidence of "weapons of mass destruction."
By this point, I had only seen the destruction caused by a better armed and better prepared force dominating a scrappy underdog in hard fought battles in dinky southern towns. In Al Kut, which was supposed to be our battalion's battle from the start, we merely made a dashing run in from the south and came right back out. Instead of pushing the fight through Al Kut and continuing north toward Baghdad, we headed south . This move did not make sense and from what I gather it cost one general his job. But it did offer a chance to revisit towns that we had devastated just days earlier.
Amazingly, people from towns that were still smoldering from our attack were out on the streets in force cheering our convoy as it retraced its path south. Women and children, some dressed in their nicest clothes, smiled ear to ear. These formerly forbidding places welcomed our return with open arms. My opinion was smashed. Maybe the U.S. was doing the right thing after all.
My opinions became as confused as the direction we were traveling to get to Baghdad.Through the night and most of the next day we traveled south, then west, and then north to end up on the eastern edge of Baghdad. A bridge reconnaissance team reported that the bridges would not sustain our battalion of heavy amphibious assault vehicles. They had to find another way. So the Marines got to do what they are trained for: get in the water.
These tracked, armored vehicles are designed to propel themselves through water but they had just spent weeks in the desert covering hundreds of miles. Mechanics had worked night and day just to keep these things moving, much less make them watertight. It had been a common sight to see one track towing another that had broken down along the way. And though higher command had called for these tracks to cross the Diyala River as the only option to move into Baghdad, the track drivers themselves said only a low percentage of them would make it across. They were not "seaworthy" at that point.
Yet Marines always seem to make do with what they have, and enjoy complaining loudly about how poorly equipped they are in relation to the Army. But one by one the amphibious vehicles, also known as "tracks", plunged into the river until all of them crossed to the other side. Unlucky Marines watched with sadness as a few of their rucksacks and sleeping bags were dislodged from the outside of the vehicle and began to float freely downstream. The tracks grabbed at the mud on the banks of the other side as waves splashed against the shores of the otherwise placid river.
1st Battalion, 4th Marines then held the ground on the other side so another Marine unit could push through our lines and further into the fight. It was evident that we sent Iraqi government workers on the other side of the river scrambling to escape before our arrival. It took only minutes for poor locals to take advantage of what was left behind. Groups of them dashed into a compound and began to remove anything of value.
The looting had begun. Sofas, chairs, lamps - anything that was not nailed down and some things that were - went streaming out of the compound on the backs of the formerly oppressed. I watched as a man removed a portrait of Saddam Hussein from the wall of an office and smashed it onto the ground, sending glass in all directions. He retrieved the paper reproduction and tore it up in my face with a smile. There was no language barrier there.
Soon carts being towed by horses screeched onto the scene as the mad scramble to increase one's station in life reached a fevered pitch. A man ran out with the keys to a front-end loader and drove it away. Doors were kicked in and windows were broken. There were small arguments over who would get what as Iraqi's made their own little piles of looted items on the long driveway leading into the compound.
Many approached me saying, "Bush good, Saddam bad." But I could not tell if they were really excited about Saddam's ouster or just elated at the prospect of gaining trivial items in the midst of the mayhem.
Smoke funneled skyward in all directions. I could feel the reverberations of artillery fire hitting targets rumbling through my chest. Fast movers, as jet fighters are known among troops, made repeated passes at targets further into Baghdad. The release of their laser-guided bombs could be seen with the naked eye. I tracked them almost all the way to the ground before they faded into the smoky haze that hovered close to the ground. Seconds later, a distant boom and yet another black plume of smoke.
Closer to our position, slow-moving A-10 Warthog airplanes
moved in on urban targets, unleashing a sustained barrage of automatic
gunfire that sounded like a jackhammer on pavement. The 1st Battalion,
4th Marines lost their first man that day, killed by an Iraqi soldier
from a rooftop. His sucking chest wound could not be addressed in time
and he bled out. Another was shot in the neck on the same day, and yet
another was sliced through from stomach to back by shrapnel from a friendly
artillery shell. The latter two were expected to survive but the damage
was already done. The former left behind a wife whom he had married
the day before he was deployed.
Iraqis in Saddam City showered the Marines with adoration as they streamed into the city. Civilians lined the highway on either side cheering and yelling as we went by. There were thousands of them. I stood up in the back of our open Humvee and tried to take it all in. It felt as if I was in the Rose Parade. Seeing myself as a representative of America, I felt as compelled to wave back at them as I did to document the moment on film. It wasn't all smiles from there, however. Marines were fired on by snipers; vehicles full of gunmen shot AK-47s at Marines on foot patrol in the city. More Iraqis died. Smiling looters ruled the days and unseen gunmen ruled the nights.
Commanders decided that a multi-story building with an advantageous view of the smaller buildings in the area would become a base of operations. And it brought great joy to hundreds of Marines, including the four smoke-aholics I rode with, to discover that the compound was a cigarette factory. On the way north, smokes became the most sought after commodity. Packs were sold for several times their face value. Now the Marines were joyfully swimming in an endless supply of smokes. The Marines are a fierce group of fighters and to think of the fury that would be unleashed if they had run completely out of tobacco products is frightening.
Baghdad had fallen. Resistance groups were fractured and mostly on the run. I said my goodbyes to those who kept me safe and crossed the Tigris with fellow Times journalists Carolyn Cole and John Daniszewski. They bravely stayed in Baghdad throughout the war. My desire at this point was to embed with the Army and a favored reporter that I spent most of the prior year in Afghanistan with. He had already had his own war complete and separate from mine but we were to join up at Saddam's Presidential Palace for the rest of the ride.
As I stepped into the darkened palace, empty hallways stretched out before me, hallways that Saddam Hussein must have ambled down in the not so distant past. I had made it, and the feeling was beyond surreal. Most of the furniture had been cleaned out, and all but a few of the exquisitely carved wooden doors were gone as well. What the regime itself did not pack up and haul out looters were quick to exploit.
For weeks after the fall of Baghdad, reporter David Zucchino and I had the run of the area with only a handful of other embedded reporters. But after idling all the way to Baghdad we finally found ourselves with autonomy but not mobility. We covered miles each day, walking from place to place within the confines of the closed off military zone. The zone consisted of several square miles of exclusive real-estate that few common Iraqis had ever seen.
Half-exploring, half-reporting, we searched for a better mode of transportation each day. The ignitions of abandoned cars had already been tampered with and neither of us was skilled enough in the arena of hotwiring cars to make an engine run with no key.
After a few days, any soldiers we came across said they were working on getting us some wheels. We aided as best we could as soldiers tried their hand at starting a go-cart, an armored Mercedes, a Range Rover, a Nissan pickup and countless other prospects. A dune buggy seemed to be our best bet and some engineers towed it back to their headquarters to see if they could charge its battery. No luck.
Finally, we were able to get a rented car into the gates with some help from our colleagues from the outside. We left its befuddled Iraqi driver to walk back into the city as we drove our 80's era Chevrolet Celebrity with peeling gray paint into the military zone with a sense of pride and accomplishment. And with a sense of caution as well. It was soon emblazoned with bright orange panels on the front and back, military issue of course, in hopes that we would not be fired upon by U.S. troops guarding the complex. The sight of anything besides a U.S. military issued Humvee is rare in here.
While ours may not have been the white, shiny and new armored Mercedes that was being driven by NBC reporters, it was a slight improvement over the Massey Ferguson tractor that an embedded writer from the Associated Press was seen tooling around on.
As we covered new stories not directly related to war but more on its aftereffects, the adrenaline that kept me going for weeks was finally allowed to settle. The highs of being involved in war gave way to the lows of realizing that it was already over. During the war it seemed like days dragged on forever and there was no end in sight. Now it seemed as if the war was what happened during a three week idle to Baghdad.
Now that my war is over, I am anxious to get back to read articles and see photographs to learn what really happened. I did the best I could to cover my small corner of the war. I saw a lot, but even within what I witnessed there was much that I missed because of a lack of autonomy. But then I would not have seen any of if were I not embedded with the military. It's a double-edged sword and I am glad that the Times had counterparts in many of the war's other arenas to help show a more complete picture.
As Iraq slowly fades off the front pages of the news I am still here. Zucchino is exhausted and hopes to leave early in the morning to return to the United States. I will push on and transition further into the next phase of covering Iraqi's rebuilding with reporter Eric Slater. Slater, like Zucchino and myself, has had his own war. Most of it was spent at an Army fort in Colorado and in desert camps in Kuwait, waiting for his assigned division to be called to the fight. And Cpl. Teasley, our fearless pigeon, had his own post-war plans. He had endured the stench of the putrid feet of four Marines and one underbathed journalist. He had survived two explosions, had transitioned uncomfortably from eating bird seed to MRE's and tolerated the confines of his ever-shrinking cage as it got crushed more and more each day by the people and gear around it.
On the day I left the Marines to embed with the Army I went to the Chicken Truck to gather my belongings. Someone had placed Cpl Teasley's cage on the hood, presumably so he could get some air. The cage was empty.