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Hounded by Iraqi Musclemen, a Journalist Awaited His Own Liberation Print E-mail

By John F. Burns
New York Times Baghdad Bureau
March 20, 2008

Shock and Awe, Baghdad March 2003
Shock and Awe, Baghdad March 2003

At the outset, for me, the approach of American troops to Baghdad was an issue of intense personal concern, as much as professional. The Army and Marine units that arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad in the first days of April 2003 were viewed, then, by an overwhelming majority of Iraqis as liberators from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. But they were my liberators, too.

Ten days earlier, Saddam's thugs had come for me in the middle of the night in my room at the Palestine Hotel beside the Tigris River in the heart of the Iraqi capital, during a lull in the American bombing. I had been expecting them; in the last weeks before the invasion, the menacing character who acted as ringmaster for the foreign press in Baghdad in his capacity as the regime's information director, Uday al-Tai'ee, had taken to mocking me as "the most dangerous man in Iraq" for stories I had written about Saddam's merciless terror on his own people, and I had understood the code.

 "Brave fellow, aren’t you?" al-Tai'ee seemed to be saying. "But just wait. You can insult Saddam with impunity now, because you know we won't kill a reporter for The New York Times as long as there's a chance of avoiding this war. So you're shooting from behind a blind, and that doesn't take so much courage. But once the war starts, and we're free to do what we please, that’ll be a different matter. Then we’ll see how tough you really are."

The practitioners of Saddam's miseries were brutal, but they were also cowardly and venal, and the plug-uglies who stormed into my hotel room were true to form. I told the lead thug, a man assigned to me by al-Tai'ee a few days before the war as my "minder," and whom I knew to be from the Mukhabarat, Saddam’s secret police, that his name was known to my editors in New York (true) and that if anything happened to me, they'd pass his name to the Pentagon and he'd end up in front of an American firing squad (pure fiction). With frontline American units advancing rapidly on Baghdad, I thought it might catch his attention. "You’re threatening me," he said.

"Yes, I am,' I said, "just as you’re threatening me."

The man, Sa'ad Muthanna by name, huddled with his fellow musclemen in a corner, and left, saying he would be back. I told the others that there was a stash of American dollars in the room, and that they could have it if they left the room for two minutes, and let me slip away. Once Muthanna returned, they knew the money would be his, not theirs. They huddled, and walked out. It was pitch dark, since the hotel had no electricity, and they had arrived with flashlights. I waited a minute, looked down the corridor for any sign of glowing cigarette ends, and seeing none, ran for the fire staircase and raced the 11 floors down to the hotels' side exit. For the remainder of the period it took American troops to occupy eastern Baghdad, I was on the run.

So when the marines crossed the Diyala River and took control of the Palestine on April 9, helping the crowd to topple the statue of Saddam in the square beside the hotel, they seemed like ministering angels to me. And, for all that came later, that’s how many Iraqis saw them, too. There were flowers thrown at the tanks, and hugs and ululating welcomes for the Americans. That changed rapidly when the Americans failed to halt the looting, the first of many mistakes in planning and execution that were to
follow, and which changed the way many Iraqis saw their liberators. Pretty soon, it became common among Iraqis to call the American presence an "occupation."

There have been some truly terrible failures that have stained American military honor, to be sure: Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Mahmudiya, among a lengthening list of instances where rogue American troops behaved no better than Saddam’s thugs. But like Ernie Pyle, Edward R. Murrow and others who covered American campaigns in World War II, most of us who have ridden to war in Iraq with American soldiers and marines, and come to know their officers and commanders, would say that America's armed forces, man for man, woman for woman, day by day, have tackled an almost impossible mission in Iraq with a resilience, resourcefulness and civic decency of which America, whatever the war's outcome, has reason to be proud.

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