Sunday, November 09, 2003

Knight Ridder correspondent Drew Brown and Detroit Free Press photographer David Gilkey, my battle-weary KR colleagues here, came back from an embed in Falluja Friday.

Nothing much had been happening on patrol and the soldiers told them to return Saturday afternoon for another go round. As they were leaving Falluja, one soldier turned to them and said "Sorry dude, we didn't have anything blow up while you were here."

Drew and David got back to Baghdad late Friday. The story Drew sent to Washington was about the soldiers' tedious but crucial and dangerous job of hunting down unexploded bombs - all the while subject to ambush at any moment.

"Till now, they've been lucky," he wrote. "They hadn't lost a single soldier."

Then Saturday morning, David heard on Arabia TV that a Bradley armored vehicle had been hit north of Falluja. He went into Drew's room to tell him they might be the guys they had been embedded with.

Drew was in the midst of emailing a girlfriend. "I can't do this anymore," Drew typed.

Both of them drove up to Falluja immediately. It was their guys. A roadside bomb had exploded next to the Bradley, killing two soldiers Drew and David had been on patrol with Thursday night.

Drew walked up to First Sgt. Greg Westbrook and told him: "I'm sorry, I don't know what to say." Westbrook put his hand on Drew's shoulder and said "It's okay. I think the guys liked having you guys around."

But it's not really okay.

In David's room, in between jokes that if only they had stayed another day, they wouldn't have missed the story, David and Drew looked at each other. These guys know each other from months of war reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Yeah, if we stayed, one of us would be dead," Drew said.

He is chain-smoking again tonight.

And I'm rethinking David's idea that we get embedded.


Tonight, while writing about the latest attacks and the response from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, I hear more explosions in the Green Zone - the Republican Palance compound where the top civilian administrator for Iraq lives.

My driver calls, asking if I need him to take me there. I don't, yet.

Then we hear an American tank has been hit in Baghdad. I call my translator and driver back to the hotel about 10 pm. They arrive but we soon hear from David that there are no fatalities in this IED attack (improvised explosive device: homemade roadside bomb).

An hour later, terrifically loud and rapid gunfire erupts across Baghdad. Combined with the military jets passing overhead, this seems unusal because we haven't gunfire for weeks and weeks.

The racket sends all of us onto our hotel balconies, not away from them.

In the distance I see what looks like a large bonfire but I'm told it's US military tracer fire. I call my translator again. This time, I'm told that Iraq has just beat Korea at soccer, 4-2.

Chip Somodevilla, another KR photographer, pops his head in: "Don't you wish we celebrated football victories like this at home?"


Today, Armitage insisted the future looked bright in Iraq.

"We've got momentum," Armitage said, adding that he didn't think recent attacks served to further isolate coalition forces, even though some soldiers say the security problems have forced them back into combat mode instead of being able to focus on civilian operations such as fixing schools and sewer pipes.

Armitage might take some solace from Malik Fakhri, 32, who sells nuts and nougat in Kadhimiya market, a busy Shi'ite neighborhood where merchants look out for each other.

While not without complaints, Fakhri thinks things are slowly getting better and he doesn't even hold the Americans responsible for restoring security.

"Till now, we haven't seen anything from the coalition forces," he said, a phrase that begins many conversations here.

"Let's forget the security issue because they cannot fix this. Let's talk about rebuilding. We haven't seen any new buildings. The government ministries are still looted and destroyed."

Fakhri supports the Iraqi Governing Council, which he thinks has a few good members on it. He just wishes the coalition would give them more authority and independence.

Actually, the council has sometimes suffered from a lack of coordination with the coalition. They recently issued an order that everyone who lost their government job in the previous regime for political reasons should get rehired. But because there are no funds to restore these jobs, former employees lining up at government ministries demanding their jobs back are being turned away.

Making a living is all that matters to most Iraqis. A one-kilo box of dried apricots that used to cost Fakhri 1,000 dinars wholesale now costs 3,000 dinars ($1.50). He turns around and sells it for 3,500 dinars, making the equivalent of about 25 American cents of profit per box.

"It's true that things are getting better," he said. "Business is picking up, but the prices are still high."

The price seems high for everybody here.