A Rebel Reporter's Gulf War Flashbacks

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What do you remember about the moment the war started?

An atmosphere of disbelief. Everybody expected the Iraqis would pull out rather than be bombed, but there we were at U.S. headquarters in Dahran and the air raid sirens were going off as the allied air strikes against Iraqi positions began. Everybody was getting into the elevators and going down into the shelters; I got into one going up onto the roof to be able to watch. I'd been in Philadelphia before that covering the crack wars, and this felt safe by comparison.

The Gulf War was a carefully managed media affair, in which journalists were herded around and shown pretty much only what the Pentagon wanted them to see. How did you deal with the restrictions?

Well, I didn't join a press pool. After the first attacks, my photographer and I simply got into a car and went west along the frontline in Saudi Arabia. We ended up being based at a place called Hafr al-Batan, where a lot of the seasoned war correspondents who were trying to evade the pool system basically hid out.

So once free of Pentagon media minders, how did you fare on the ground?

Extremely well. In the first week, in fact, we captured the first Iraqi prisoners of war and got an exclusive interview about what it was like behind Iraqi lines.

How did you come to take prisoners?

We'd been out in forward positions with Kuwaiti special forces. But they liked to be back before nightfall. So a few of us stayed out in the forward positions overnight. And suddenly these Iraqis crawled out of nowhere and surrendered to us, a group of journalists. So we had the first prisoners of the war in our hands.

What did you do with them?

We had to run them through a series of allied checkpoints, to get somewhere we could interview them. Our car was well known along the front line, so we could drive slowly up to the checkpoints and then race through. Eventually we went to a Saudi special forces camp where we made a deal with a lieutenant. We parked the car some way from the camp and I went in and told him I had four Iraqi prisoners who wanted to be taken prisoner by fellow Muslims, but that I'd only hand them over if he'd agree to translate for an hour of interview time. I told him the journalists in the car were watching, and if I raised my arm, they'd simply drive off. So he agreed, and we cut a deal.

And what did you learn by interviewing the prisoners

That the Iraqi army was not the vaunted force that it had been painted to be, and this was definitely not going to be the "Mother of All Battles."

The U.S. military can't have been happy with a bunch of reporters running around taking prisoners...

The military went ballistic. They had an arrest list of journalist, and I was No. 1 on it. In the hotel where we were staying, we had an arrangement with the staff to send us a signal if it looked like MPs were approaching. We were planning to sneak out the back and spend a night in the desert, if need be.

It got even worse the following week. Because of the p.r. effort over the war, the U.S. military wanted no talk of casualties. But we came across a mass burial ground that had been prepared in advance of the ground war. It covered a full square mile, complete with roads and road signs indicating that American dead would go here, Iraqi dead there, Saudi dead there and so on. We photographed it and filed a story on it. That got me right back on top of the arrest list.

How did you manage to continue operating if the U.S. military was out to stop you?

We had a lot of help from some of the Arab armies, who were much more open to journalists than the U.S. was. If the U.S. Army was looking for us, we could hide in Arab areas. And they got us the best access to the battlefield for the great battle that never happened. That was the Battle of Khafji, one of the more important clashes of the ground war. I'd been having tea with an Egyptian general when his phone rang. It was General Schwarzkopf, and they had an animated conversation. Schwarzkopf told the Egyptians that a huge Iraqi assault was expected on the Western flank of allied lines. He was saying they're coming straight at you. So the general let us go out with his special forces, who were setting ambushes along the wadi where the attack was expected. We were lying there in the desert all night with these special forces guys when suddenly we hear these B-52's flying high overhead. They fly over, and then we feel the ground shaking. And the smell of burnt flesh wafts down the wadi. And that's it, the assault on Khafji is repulsed, the entire attack wiped out by carpet bombing by B-52's.

What was your most hair-raising moment?

I was north of Kuwait City with the Second Marine Division when the Iraqis received their order to retreat. We heard the city was opening up, and we obviously had to get there immediately. So we decided to drive. But Kuwait was a mess of burning oil wells and minefield. We figured that the Iraqis wouldn't have mined under the hydroelectric pylons, and those would run all the way down to Kuwait City. But it was this hellish nighttime drive under the pylons, with burning oil wells and mines all around.

When we got to Kuwait City, we figured that the place to go was the Emir's palace. The Kuwaiti resistance hadn't shown up. A watchman there said don't go in, it might be booby-trapped. But we went in slowly, carefully, looking for trip wires or other signs of booby traps. There weren't any. Eventually, we got to the Emir's bedroom. It was covered by about three feet of emptied jewelry boxes. Everything had been taken — the refrigerated cabinets to hold the furs were empty. The only thing the Iraqis didn't take were a bunch of cotton bags: the Emir had the biggest stash of pot we'd ever seen.

Another time, we were at the huge Iraqi air base at Talil, as U.S. troops were first capturing it. These guys said they'd found an Iraqi bunker, and were about to call an artillery strike to take it out. I look through the binoculars, and although there's an anti-aircraft gun on top, the structure is the Mound of the Ziggurat — a step pyramid reputed to be the spot where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac. The beginning of civilization, one of the oldest structures in the world. So we pleaded with them not to do it, and urged them to call the chaplain. Luckily the chaplain knew the Bible well enough, and he managed to persuade them not to destroy it.

But my worst moment came a week after the victory. The war was won, everybody filed their stories. Then the Shiite rebellion began, egged on by President Bush's call on them to rise and overthrow Saddam. I'd gone up the Euphrates, and crossed a river into Shiite territory. The Iraqi Republican Guard was killing thousands and thousands of Shiites. It was incredible, just slaughter. I came out and tried to do a story about it, and no one would listen. The war was over but now there were more casualties happening than in the war itself, and nobody cared.

What lessons would you take from the experience?

That war is chaos. This incredibly well functioning military machine simply doesn't work that way in the fog of war. People were lost. Although it was the culmination of the Powell doctrine of applying overwhelming force, Saddam is still there. He outlasted most of the Western leaders who fought against him.

And it was confusion over our political goals that allowed a terrible massacre to occur. Had we limited the movement of Iraqi tanks and helicopters, we might still have been able to hold Iraq together without allowing the Republican guard to massacre tens of thousands of Shiites. One of the hardest things was facing Shiite leaders telling us "You're now on Saddam's side." In the south that's what they'll remember. That they were told to rise by Bush, and then betrayed.