Live from BAGHDAD

The official daily diary of Dave Rossís Baghdad Broadcast

April 5-9, 2004

AMMAN, Saturday April 3

People ask "arenít you scared?"

Iíll tell you my most frightening moment so far. Gate 4, Terminal 3, Kennedy Airport.

But before I tell you that story Ė a little about the technical side.

Were warned to expect a strict weight limit in the flight to Baghdad, so Paul Carvalho and I worked to pare down the big black equipment case. Our primary feed will be via satellite, fed by a Tie Line unit serving as an audio amplifier. The Tie Line also includes a modem that can send compressed studio-quality audio over a standard phone line Ė full duplex (coming and going).

It will serve as my return feed (so I can hear calls from Seattle) and as a back up outgoing feed if the satellite is unavailable.

So we packed the Tie Line unit Ė about five pounds with power supply Ė the laptop, two microphones (on a special self-contained amplified model in case the Tie Line fails and we need to feed the satellite directly, every possible audio adapter, telephone kit, headphones, a miniature shortwave, batteries, battery charger and 100 feet of telephone wire which can do double-duty as a shortwave antenna.  It's a little like being responsible for the payload on a Mars mission.

The digital camera, my clothes, grooming kit, and various digestive remedies suggested by friends and listeners would have to fit in a Landís End canvas bag; my notebooks and main mini-disc (for interviews), press credentials, letters of introduction, standby aspirin and disinfectant towelettes stow in a small fanny pack.

At the check points, the TSA typically tears all this apart, so Iím in the habit of counting everything going in and coming out.

So back to JFK, Terminal 3, Gate 4.

Iíve finished a chicken salad at the food court, visited the menís room as close to the flight as possible (itís an 11-hour flight, so you want to be able to last at least until halfway through the first movie when the restrooms are most likely to be free), and Iím at the Royal Jordanian waiting area, when my row is called.

I reach for my equipment case.

Gone.

Panic.

I run back to the menís room. Nothing. Search the waiting area. Every bag is black, but this one is distinctive. Nothing. I call KIRO, alerting them that we may have to make backup plans. Could someone have taken it by mistake? I get on the plane, and tell the flight attendant whatís happened. I check the overhead bins. Nothing. Thatís when I notice that I am pumping adrenaline Ė I am truly scared (in addition to feeling like an idiot) because at this point, the broadcast is toast. Could someone really have mistaken my bag for theirs? Unlikely Ė too heavy, hard plastic, unusual shape Ė it had to be clipped. Someone saw all that equipment during the security check.

Weíre about 20 minutes from takeoff, but I leave the plane along with a crew member for one more look, and as we emerge from the jetway, I see a young man approaching with a black suitcase that looks suspiciously likeÖ "Let me see that tag!"

Thank God. Heíd found it in the waiting area. The last bag standing.

Iím still not sure how Iíd missed it. But I must have communicated the potential catastrophe pretty clearly because one of the NY cops on the jetway said as I went past, "pretty important bag, eh?"

Yep.

After that, the 11 hours sped by, as I mentally thanked every saint in the Catholic Church.

I was met at the Amman Airport by Ayman and Ahmed, who work for Amjad, our "fixer."

Ahmed actually pulled me out of the passport line, took my passport, disappeared into a back room somewhere and emerged with a special stamp that clearly conferred upon him a magical power to propel me ahead of everyone else in the customs line.

Amjad, whoís been arranging these trips for CBS, met us at the hotel, and gave me a security briefing (including the information that the nickname for the head of our security detail is "Smudge"). But at this point, I cannot think of anything that could possibly induce the kind of panic Iíd felt at Gate 4.

Perhaps thatís why it happenedÖ
 

The Prodigal Bag
 



AMMAN, Sunday April 4

Clouds and a little dust moving in from the east, where I'm headed this afternoon.  At breakfast, I overheard an official with US AID taking about the security problems in Baghdad, so I introduced myself and we spoke briefly.  The need to have guards everywhere is both slowing the reconstruction work and raising the cost -- enough that some people will be asked to take pay cuts.  Not a good recruitment tool.  Although he likes the work enough that after three weeks back in DC, he plans to re-up for another year.


The port of Umm Kasr in the south is turning a profit ($8,000,000) and should be entirely in Iraqi hands by the turnover in June.  But other projects are slowing down.  Contracts have been signed, but because of security considerations, work has yet to begin.

The morning paper here in Amman tells of the search for three suspects and two vehicles carrying explosives which entered the country last week.  The suspects' photos have been on the air since Thursday; meantime, another set of terrorist suspects under arrest here are allegedly linked to Al Qaeda's Abu Musab Zarqawi, who stands accused of assassinating a US AID official in Jordan in 2002, and has a $10 million reward on his head.

Checkpoints have reportedly been set up throughout the Kingdom for fear of some kind of attack here, but we didn't encounter any on the way in from the airport.

Our departure for Baghdad is set for 1:00.

Morning in Amman



BAGHDAD, Sunday April 4

The elevator lurches.  Switchboxes have wires poking out.  The swimming pool is empty.  But this will be home for the next week -- overlooking the banks of the Tigris.  I'm set up temporarily in the CBS business office, which has a web link, and a case of Amstel conveniently located behind the bathroom door, adjacent to the break room for the security guards.

The flight over the western desert was uneventful; my first direct view of Iraq without the superimposed crosshairs.   No visible WMD, but I understand the landscape has been pretty picked over.

Our landing at the "International Airport" (de-Saddamed) was one of the more assertive approaches I've experienced.  Not the leisurely glide path that seems to drag on forever -- when the pilot says prepare for landing, he means it.  The all-white Fokker F-28 (operated by Royal Jordanian) pitched down at about a 15-degree angle, brakes on all the way, in kind of a gentle corkscrew.  It's the only landing I can remember where I actually needed the seat belt to keep me from sliding forward in the seat.

Big airport, but uncrowded.  Empty, in fact.  Us and one other prop plane.  Plenty of helicopter patrols, though, and excellent airport security.  Guys in baseball caps reading "security" toting automatic rifles.  No worries about stolen baggage here.

No mall, no duty free shop, no rental cars; just the underpowered bus to "Checkpoint one."  One of the guards got on with us for the two-mile ride along the airport road, which is fenced on each side and  monitored by parked tanks and sandbagged bunkers.  The checkpoint itself is a gravel lot protected by a chicane of jersey barriers.

A CBS driver met me there for the trip to the hotel.  Just the two of us in a van -- apparently no need for the flak jackets.

We drove on streets with blowing trash racing us along the curb, piles of rubble, walls and masonry homes with the occasional spray of bullet holes.  There were one or two upscale neighborhoods, but Baghdad is no Doha.  Depressed, dusty, and no operating traffic lights.  The cops are constantly yelling at the traffic.  The traffic feigns deafness.

US troops run check points along expressways that reduce three lanes to one and can back traffic up for miles.

Once we got to the downtown area, we could see the damage from bombs and vandalism.  The Baghdad Cinema studios across the street are burned out, and across the river is the burned out shell of the International Telecommunications Center.

The exceptions to the generally decrepit skyline are the Mosques, which look to be untouched -- including one with a dome resembling a turquoise Faberge Easter egg.  As the sun sets, four Apache helicopters have just passed the hotel with a low rumble headed down the Tigris.



BAGHDAD, Monday April 5

On the bulletin board in the Pilgrim Security office:  "Security level -- AMBER.  Hostilities imminent, body armor and medical kits must be worn."

The fighting in the Sadr district across the river left seven US soldiers dead here in Baghdad -- I heard one large explosion last night -- and indicates that Iraq has a new Shiite leader with the power to pack the streets with angry followers.  He is Muqtada al-Sadr, whose newspaper was closed down last week for "inciting violence."  We now know he can do it without his newspaper.  Since the press was controlled for so long under Saddam, people here developed their own news distribution system -- an elaborate message tree that's also used to pass down the rulings of Ayatollah al-Sistani, who never appears in public, but speaks only through agents.  These agents post paper messages at designated locations for followers to read.

Ken, one of the security people, (British veteran, favorite quote:  "I never killed a man that wasn't trying to kill me") just took at look at the bridge traffic across the Tigris and pronounced it unusually light.  In addition, the road to Jordan's been closed due to military operations (it goes through Fallujah).  With Easter coming up, and a Shiite religious pilgrimage underway, this could be Mardi Gras weekend.  Ken's off to install a little barbed wire (helpfully provided by the Coalition to any business that requests it) to protect a client's house.

The staff here is debating whether it's safe to go out, although I have to say, were it not for the news accounts, you could spend the say in the sunshine blissfully unaware of all this.  It's sunny and breezy, the birds are chirping, there was an owl roosting in one of the upper floors this morning (I imagine it's a buyers market for rats) -- it's tempting to take a stroll, but not tempting enough.

Another Apache patrol goes by -- five this time.  Can't ignore that.

I got about three hours sleep last night, after equipment tests and work on various fallback plans for the broadcast tonight.   I have a satellite phone which works only outside, a cell phone which works inside but only within Iraq, and a hard line that uplinks through London, but has a substantial delay.

The other sleep-inhibiting factor (despite jet lag) is that hotel generates its own sound effects.
The windows aren't snug, the wind makes the building wheeze, and because the banquet rooms and lobby on the bottom floors are without furniture or carpets, it sounds like a sad siren that doesn't know whether it's coming or going.

Last night, four Iraqi men sat in the lobby watching Paul Bremer take questions from Iraqi journalists.  One woman accuses the Americans of taking the country's wealth.  Another scolds the Americans for coming in the night and killing innocent people.  I ask the man translating for me if they're right.  "Fifty-fifty" he says.  And the siren echoes again.

The View Across The Street



BAGHDAD, Tuesday April 6

There was more fighting in the city last night, in fact, there was a large explosion during the last commercial break of Monday's show which made us perk up, and I had time for only the briefest mention during the talk-up to the news.   This afternoon I could see smoke on the horizon, be won't find out what it was until the military issues a news release.  They reported that three Marines were killed a few miles west of here last night -- another ambush -- and reports from Fallujah report four deaths.  The number of Iraqis killed is around 40.

I doubt that there are many Iraqis sympathize with Muqtada al Sadr, but his uprising, is one more symptom of a bigger betrayal.  I talked to a man who was at this hotel when it was bombed a year ago, and it was clear that while he knew Iraqis needed help to remove Saddam, he felt we did it carelessly.  Americans stood by, he said, as hoodlums looted and then set fire to this hotel.

In essence, we are just now getting around to the job that should have been part of the planning a year ago.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmet told me yesterday that the goal is not "hearts and minds" but "trust."  That makes sense. But we clearly blew it in the beginning.  A harsh conclusion?

If the only purpose had been a military purpose -- to defeat Iraq -- we could justifiably declare success.  We are clearly in control; unless you live adjacent to the fighting, you need a television to even know it's happening.

But the Bush Administration has since argued that our ultimate goal is to plant democracy in a land with little experience of it.

And for the people of Iraq, democracy -- so far, anyway -- equals insecurity.

War Damage at the Al Mansour ...   "Take Our Picture too"


 

I talked to an Iraqi cameraman who has worked for CBS for a long time, but who won't tell even his relatives he works for an American company, so resented are the Americans for their handling of the country.  Here in Baghdad, simply working for the Americans makes you a target.

Before Saddam fell, Iraqis lived in fear that a thug from the regime might kill them.  Now, they live in fear that a thug from the neighborhood might kill them.

It would be interesting to see some of my more patriotic listeners try to persuade the average law-abiding Iraqi that American-style "liberation" is a good thing.  Because so far, it has only liberated a new class of bad guys.



What does it mean when all the doors in the room rattle at once?  It means a bomb's gone off, at least according to the more seasoned hands here.  The gunfire started about ten minutes into the last hour of today's broadcast, continued throughout, and is still going on as I write this.  In a couple of cases (so the Staff in Seattle tells me) it was loud enough to get on the air.  Which, I admit, is the reason I'm doing the broadcast on the balcony.

There were some callers upset about my calling Rumsfeld "clueless" for talking so glowingly about "freedom" and "liberation."  From this vantage point, it sounded like a man doing a parody of himself.  And the President saying that Iraqis are still suffering the effects of being "terrorized and traumatized by a tyrant" ... surely by now his intelligence briefings are better than that.

But just in case, here is a translation of some of the comments of Iraqis interviewed in Sadr City today:

Hikmet Rashid:   "[Americans] say we are guilty - but it's them who blocked our roads so we can not reach places where we work  I saw with my own eyes what happened here; we've lost children,  we've lost innocent people for nothing, it's awful terrorism. Why did they come to Iraq? what do they need in Iraq?

Qadir Musa

When Bush first appeared on TV he said he is going to free Iraq from Saddam, now we've got rid of Saddam Hussein but we are facing more strong oppression than before.  Look what happened yesterday - killed children and women, what have they done? They are controlling the city with the help of helicopters and [mimics a shooting noise] machine guns.

On my street mother is crying about three of  her  sons, killed when americans bombed her house, four houses were destroyed, our people became so angry, furious, and they've hit another place in our neighborhood - destroyed everything, look at me - the roads are blocked and I can not go
where I need to.
We are confused, we don't know what to wait for, what will be our fate.  I'm afraid of going out, going to this or that place, I'm scared.
 

Ali Rahim Wadai

Yesterday US Apaches were shooting civilians, all our houses and cars were on fire, and americans say they've used "a light weapon".   They were firing at everything - houses, cars, people - no difference. Why? What was the reason? Because they say - people were gathering near Al Sadr's office. So what?

It's [the Americans] who provoke us to fight, but not everyone like to fight, some here are the followers of Sistani [who has urged calm], but all of us here - we say - we are all against America. And we will continue to hate America, to be against America.

Sean, One Of Our Escorts

Old Woman

It's oppression, it's oppression, we are in panic, we are starving, we have no safety, we need our own government and a law! 00.06.26 - This Government, they are all [American] agents and thieves!



BAGHDAD, Wednesday, April 7

I spent the day at three news conferences.  The first was the daily briefing with CPA spokesman Dan Senor and General Kimmitt, in which they both pointed out that the insurgents are the bad guys.  Reasons:  they are anti-democratic, and they don't care who they kill.  We, by contrast, ARE democratic, and DO care who we kill.

I know that's true; now we just have to convince Iraqis caught in the crossfire that if they get caught in OUR crossfire, they can rest assured it's the GOOD kind of crossfire.

The second was an off-camera news conference held by the "Iraqi investigative judge who issued the warrants" against Moqteda Al Sadr.  He did not want to be identified, nor have his picture taken, so I should probably not describe him, except to say that he knew the case against Al Sadr by heart, and it matched exactly what an Australian coalition lawyer had told us the day before:  that a year ago, Al Sadr and his followers ambushed and executed Abd Al-Majid Al-Khoui, a moderate cleric.

No one questions the need to get rid of Al Sadr; but what the judge would not explain was why, if the act was so heinous (Al Khoui was stabbed by a mob in the Mosque, and then dispatched with a single shot as he lay unconscious on orders of Al Sadr), and if the warrant was ready in August -- the Coalition didn't arrest him sooner, before he had time to form his private army?

Finally, the President of the Iraqi Governing Council held a news conference which was also more remarkable for the questions that WEREN'T answered -- such as, are you ready to take power in 84 days?  Answer:  Yes, if a democratic government can be formed.  Well, thanks!

It's Wonderland out here.

And it gets curiouser the deeper you go into the green zone.  I boarded a bus (provided by Halliburton) to the Republican Palace, where Paul Bremer works.  A contractor befriended me, seeing I didn't have the proper pass, and soon I became the latest American to pose for a shot amidst Saddam's Fantasy Ranch.

He loved pigmented marble and high ceilings.  In fact, the whole complex resembled a Hollywood back lot where some long-lost epic had been filmed, including an armageddon scene -- ruins rising from overgrown gardens.

Soon I saw my friend emerge with a flak jacket to go to his next appointment.  A flak jacket?  In the ultra secure Green Zone?  Hey, he said -- at night, this is the most dangerous place in town.  The bad guys (see above) could drop a mortar in here any time.

He must know what he's talking a about because soon, three black suburbans drove up, as a Blackwater helicopter did tight circles overhead and a jeep-mounted machine gun stood by.  It was all for Paul Bremer's commute home.

It's not easy being green.



BAGHDAD, Thursday April 8

Another glorious day, sunny, breezy, almost no gunfire.  I met Captain Jeff Greenlinger in the Green Zone and visited the Combat Support Hospital, which has had a very busy week.  No one talks about it much, but because of the excellent body armor and helmets in use, most of the major injuries are between the eyebrows and the neck.  As a result, Dr. Glen Poffenbarger, one of two neurosurgeons, is a pretty busy man.  He's calm, very thin, and says the key to maintaining morale is to keep in touch with family and not count the days until you're out.

After the interview Jeff took me on a little tour of the Green Zone, down to the Tigris, and Saddam's little waterfront balcony, where on a warm night the troops will sometimes smoke a cigar and enjoy the view.  By the way, you can buy Cuban cigars in the Green Zone.

In fact, he says Baghdad isn't bad duty if you ignore the occasional mortar strike and small arms fire.

It turns out the loud booms we heard last night were indeed mortars landing in the Green Zone -- one cratered a vacant lot near the home of Chris Exline, the businessman I interviewed yesterday.  Neither he, nor his optimism, was hurt... but he seemed a little more concerned about taking me to his shop.

I checked with Smudge, head or our security detail; he put a vest on, and we went.

Finally, a chance to walk around Baghdad!  The Al Mansour district is similar to a marketplace you'd find in Jordan, fully stocked, lots of storefront food, small grocery stores, furniture, barber shops -- and the rubble of the Iraqi intelligence headquarters.  Man they obliterated that!  A few small outbuildings are now inhabited by impoverished squatters. 

Ali, Chris's business partner, and our guide, made me take off my equipment pack, and leave my tape machine behind, because we looked too American as it was.  Whenever we paused to look at something, he urged us to keep moving, which we did, especially when crossing the streets, which have no working traffic lights.   Actually, I saw one today, showing a steady yellow. It's the only "working" traffic light I've seen this week.   We also saw a major construction project -- the only sky cranes I've seen.  If it's ever finished, it will be the world's largest mosque.

I talked to Ali and Chris about how a Muslim and a Christian deal with the dangers of being here, and they both believe that all you can do is acknowledge that God is in control.  I didn't ask Smudge the question because I had a feeling I knew how he'd answer.  Afterwards at the hotel, he pointed out that he didn't much like the idea that God might have intended all those marines to die in Fallujah, and said that leaving God in control, especially here, is the LAST thing he wants to do.
Inside The Green Zone
(The smoke in the background is apparently from an explosion.)


LATER THAT NIGHT... I'm back in the business office watching "Two Stupid Dogs" on the cartoon network; a nice break from Al Jazeera.  The mini-disc is running next to the open window, trolling for bomb noise, which will have the soundtrack to "Two Stupid Dogs" in the background if I get some.

It just dawned on me what this whole experience is like:  a pantry full of snacks, perpetual coffee pot, stacks of take-out pizza, eating together in the cafeteria, sharing each other's rooms, discussions of politics and religion -- this is the freshman dorm!   Skull and Bones on the Tigris.



BAGHDAD, Friday April 9

We spent the day under house arrest, confined to the hotel because of the one-year anniversary of the war.  Where has the love gone?  The State Department reps in Doha told me last year there was a six-month window, and now it's long past.   If only the repairs had begun right away!  But the Baghdad skyline still looks like the The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Rahul Mahajan, author of the Empire Notes blog, arrived at 8 pm, just barely in time to make the first hour of the show.  His taxi driver got lost!  Lost in Baghdad after dark -- not a good idea.  Rahul ended up staying in my room for the night.  No taxis available, and even if one was, this neighborhood is safer than his right now.

Salah Ibrahim -- our fixer -- is the only Iraqi I met who feels strongly that Iraq can stand on its own in three years.  But he would do it by giving each interest group exactly what they want.   The zealots get Fallujah, the free-marketeers get jobs supplied by the Americans, the party crowd gets night clubs. I told him he should start a movement to campaign for this -- but he said it's more than he can do.

To read the wires, you would think that the biggest story here in Baghdad was the mortar that fell on a shed near the Sheraton.  I didn't even hear it -- but it was right near the press hotel so it got instant coverage.  There have been at least four mortars, an RPG, and several truly heart-stopping explosions since then; no coverage.  Salah taught me the difference between the sounds of the various weapons:  mortars, two thuds.  RPGs, one bang.  Gunshots in the air always echo, gunshots into the ground do not.  (I don't understand that last rule.)

One of our Iraqi security guards informed me that Saddam was headed to the White House for Chivas and cigars with George Bush, after which he would retire to Hawaii.

Maybe Iraq needs therapy more than democracy.

I will say one thing:  the idea that people can get hold of mortars and fire them off in populated cities is outrageous.  You wouldn't tolerate it for a moment in an American city -- even pacifists would turn vigilante to track down the culprits.  But here -- it has become just another meteorological phenomenon.



AMMAN, Monday April 12

The Royal Jordanian flight had only two empty seats -- members of the convoy that was attacked on the airport road right after we arrived? -- and when it took off, it took off like a drowning man  struggling for the surface.  Only when we popped above the clouds did I believe we were out.

Thanks to our driver's DoD pass we took the shortcut through the Green Zone, traveling largely empty streets.  But the guards seemed on edge, and no wonder.  The road to the airport is IED territory.  The palm trees in the median have been cut down to make hiding difficult, but it still happens, and we got word from our security man that a convoy was indeed attacked about 15 minutes behind us.

At the airport checkpoint -- another tense moment as the GI told us the road ahead was closed.  I made a decision that I would sleep at that airport if necessary until I could get on a plane out... but he finally waved us through.

The young lady at the reception desk, an employee of Custer Battles, was unusually cheery.  She gave us a sing-song greeting worthy of The Love Boat.  "Might as well be cheerful.  If you from you get lines."

She's out in May.

The security man who inspected my baggage was from Nepal, and told me he wasn't re-upping either.  Like the Green Zone, the airport gets mortared regularly, and it was getting old.

I can understand that.  My wake up call that morning had come at 5:30 -- four mortar rounds that hit directly across the Tigris from our hotel.  I scrambled for my mini disc hoping to capture the sound, but all I got was the gunfire that followed -- and then, unaccountably, the air raid siren.  I was pretty sure there wasn't an air raid, although if there was, it would be our side, and I was pretty sure our hotel wouldn't be on the target list.  The guys with the mortars don't seem to care.  A listener e-mailed me saying that instead of worrying about the weapons of mass destruction, we should have worried about the Mass Weapons of Destruction.  Good point.  A couple of military teams with mortars can easily close down a city. Although based on the nonchalant attitude of our Iraqi guards, the human mind can create a comfortable cocoon of denial after a while.  I wasn't there yet.  One mortar would get my pulse to 120, two or more to 140.  Good cardio conditioning, I suppose.  After a while, you get the feeling the whole city is out to get you.  That's how it is:  Americans fear the city, and the city fears the Americans.  Maybe if the President delivers a few more stern Radio addresses, we can persuade these ungrateful Iraqis to let us help them!   Let us help you, dammit!  And don't make us ask you again!

I think we have a lot more to investigate than a pre-9/11 presidential briefing memo.  We have a lot more to investigate than the faulty WMD intelligence.  Someone needs to investigate how anybody thought this rescue mission, as badly planned as it was, could possibly have worked.