The Digital Journalist
Saddam's Palace
November 2003

by Robert King

I'm sitting in Ar-Ramadi, Iraq with the Florida National Guard. Waiting to go out on a night time raid. We live in one of Saddam's palaces. M16, AT4's, digital cameras, personal computers, and Kevlar are scattered around the palace floors. A group of soldiers watch a Bruce Willis film on the 42-inch TV and eat microwave popcorn. Others are playing the latest shoot 'em up war video game and one lone officer plays the violin in the hallway. Mortar rounds explode nearby every night. The threats of roadside bombs and RPG attacks are real. In the morning we are moving closer to Fallujah to conduct raids on the Iraqi resistance. The MRE's are by far better than any local food I have eaten in about three months. When I eat local I tend to pop Imodium like vitamins.

U.S. Army soldiers arrest two Iraqi carjackers after the car they stole raced passed a military checkpoint and refused to stop even after soldiers fired at the car.

Photo by Robert King/Polaris
I'm a native Memphian and I declined my invitation for a media embed during the "real" war in order to help my wife give birth to our first child, Whitfield King. Like many American citizens I sat by the TV or had my nose pressed into news magazines believing the tales of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

I wanted to go to Iraq for many months but could not finance the story and lacked all the digital gizmos required in the 21st century. I approached the military for a free flight and Polaris Images for a satellite phone. The 101st Airborne Division offered to fly me into Iraq directly from the U.S. and my agent J.P. Pappis of Polaris Images gave me the Bgan satellite. With under 3,000 dollars in my pocket I kissed my wife and baby goodbye and set out for Iraq.

With such a small sum of money I can not afford translators or personal security agents from England like so many other journalists have.

There are three reasons why I came to Iraq. As a father I must provide for my child. As a journalist I want to know the truth about the war in Iraq. And as a professional photographer I want to work on developing my Web site

SGT John from the 1-124 Infantry Regiment of the Florida National Guard detains suspected Saddam sympathizers accused of attacking American forces.

Photo by Robert King/Polaris
This is a complicated place. There are no easy truths here. I've seen some successful reconstruction projects performed by the American government. I've also seen the effectiveness of the Iraqi resistance. Most days all I see and hear are pro Saddam songs and anti American gestures. I hate walking on the streets because many journalists are attacked by the Iraqis as well as by the American military. In the months that I've been here an AP journalist car was shot up in Fallujah by the U.S. military. Scott Petterson was almost killed by an angry mob in Najaf. In Baghdad, NBC had to move after a bomb blew up their hotel. A Reuters cameraman was shot by an American tank at the Abu Ghraib prison, a New York Times photographer had his head smashed with a brick by an angry crowd. A Knight-Ridder journalist was chased by an angry mob and had to hide in an abandoned building for hours. A driver for a French journalist was stabbed. Another photographer for Knight-Ridder had cameras stolen during a demonstration. An AP photographer has had two cameras smashed in one week. A few female journalists have also been attacked by sexually frustrated Iraqi men. The threat to journalists in Iraq is real and seems to be getting worse because most Iraqis do not make the distinction between the media and the occupational forces.

A suspected Saddam sympathizer cries while being detained by 1-124 Infantry Regiment of the Florida National Guard.

Photo by Robert King/Polaris
This is a very hard place to work because you never know where the trouble will come from. If you are unlucky enough to be behind a military convoy that is attacked, chances are you will be shot at by both sides. If you are out in the Sunni Triangle and the Iraqis find out you are not a Muslim, you may get beaten, have your gear smashed, or worse.

The best access I've had since I've been here has been while I've been embedded with the National Guard. I think it has a lot to do with the unit I've been with. The men of the National Guard unit I've been photographing tend to be more mature, have careers of their own back home and have opinions of their own, too. The unit has been very eager to show us both the good and the bad.

There have been many opportunities to photograph the effects of bombs exploding in Baghdad. If you arrive at the blast site 30 minutes after the explosion you will see and photograph nothing. This is because the Iraqi police and the U.S. military will not let you enter into the blast zone. I have made little blood money in this war. Most of my assignments and picture sales have been when I work as a unilateral journalist.

The situation in Iraq is an economic disaster. Many Iraqis hate the occupational forces and resistance is getting stronger and more tactical with each attack. The new Saddam free Iraq is free of Saddam but is becoming a dangerous battlefield for guerrilla warfare. The only thing I have understood in the three months that I've been in Iraq is that the American military will be in country for many years to come.

© Robert King