I know that journalists are supposed to convey the impression that their reportage is definitive and absolute, but screw it. We worked our asses off for 12 days in Iraq trying to get a clear idea of what the United States' temporary 51st is all about. What we came back with is confusing, full of contradictions and somewhat disheartening. Iraq is a dynamic country of proud, modern, patriotic people who — just like Americans — hope for a better future, for noble values and for a better standard of living. Unfortunately, those hopes and dreams have been upended by decades of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship but also by the United Nations' punitive sanctions and United States' unilateral war. The debate over Iraq in this country has been framed almost entirely in regards to 9/11, but the young people of Iraq have better, longer memories than that — they remember a time when Saddam was our strategic ally, and they remember U.S. promises to the Iraqi people that remain unfulfilled.
Our young men and women in uniform — though challenged daily by violence and doing their best work in a difficult place — continue to fight and die to make good on the policies of our politicians. And there is still an earnest and steadfast hope in the future, held both by Iraqis and soldiers, that seems to defy the evidence of 10 months of instability and bloodshed we and our allies have brought to Iraq. That hope, however, is waning. The "Diary" that we brought home isn't the be all and end all of reportage on the region, but I believe it represents what it feels like and is like to be in Iraq today. I sincerely hope that after seeing what we saw, you will continue to follow what the United States is doing there and you'll participate in the debate about Iraq that will take place in our country this year.
The online reports in this feature were all written and filed during the trip to Iraq and reflect my experience right in the moment. The show, "Diary: Gideon Yago in Iraq," hopefully combines more of that immediacy with the perspective of being back in the United States for a few months. I hope you take something away from both.
Day 1 — Baghdad
Dangerous Driving And Deadly Donkeys
I'm not sure if it was nerves or jetlag, but I got positively zero sleep last night and spent it instead watching television in the hotel and trying not to fixate on the probability of violence in Iraq. Sadly, it was there to greet me before I even left Jordan, news that a donkey cart rigged with rockets fired 18 shots at the Palestine and Sheraton hotels in Baghdad. Good thing we're booked elsewhere, but now it seems like hotels are becoming targets. Laura Haim, the French CBS/Canal+ producer who has become my adopted big sister in the last 48 hours, was pessimistic and worried that this meant the concerted violence in Iraq might now be directed toward journalists.
It's all good stuff to ponder on a 10-hour drive through the desert on hour 28 of a nervous day. I watched the sun rise over Amman this morning at 6 a.m. through glass cracked by the ricochets of bullets as Laura blasted Bach tapes that were a bit too ominous, albeit pleasantly surreal, to listen to as we cruised at 80 mph toward Iraq. The reason for the high speeds are twofold: First, you don't want to stay on the roads longer than you have to. Though traffic flows smoothly, highway robbery is common. And second, there is no law. The anarchy of traffic in Baghdad, how it moves and flows, is one of the biggest differences between pre- and post-Saddam Iraq. But more on that later.
The border was a trip, with queues up to six miles long of convoys bringing trucks, cars and people from Jordan into Iraq. Our driver steered us on and off the road to make headway, but it still took us almost an hour and a half to clear the border. The whole scenario had a vaguely "Mad Max" feel to it — huge lines of industrial vehicles loaded with goods, and crowds of Arab men and women waiting warily in lines to be processed by border control. It was a good sign, said Laura, that people were not afraid to travel into Iraq. Once in Iraq, the most visible differences of the American occupation were the toppled and defaced statuary and plaques of Saddam. What once was a beaming face and a broad mustache is now whitewash and bullet holes.
We met David, my producer, and Ken, our bodyguard, on the other side of the border. Ken is my new best friend, a former member of the British Special Air Services (similar to our Green Berets or Navy Seals) who now works private security detail. He's big, bald and bad-ass, vaguely resembling Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast," only tougher. I'm psyched he's around because it relieves some of the tension that fills this place. And it is a tense place. I'm not sure if it's the other journalists who are spooking me, and there is definitely stuff that's worth being spooked about, but the thing that really got me today was when our driver started chain-smoking near Ramadi. We strapped on body armor and flak gear until we cleared Fallujah, just to be on the safe side, as the road between Ramadi and Fallujah is considered an especially hot spot here. But each time a car trailed our convoy, each time an Iraqi in a car without plates pulled alongside us and flipped us off there was a moment of pause because you never know ... Ken would rub the stock on his AK-47 and our driver would pass out another round of Marlboros. There was smoke, but no fire — a few nebulous clouds of something burning along the highways. Could have been tires.
Once we got to Baghdad, the entire vibe changed. It was almost comforting to be off the roads and in the city. The traffic was totally makeshift, ignoring lights, cops and other vehicles, but we made it over the Tigris in one piece. The one thing that I was struck by was seeing firsthand the damage done by the U.S. "shock and awe" aerial campaign as well as from looting. Whole buildings are blown out with huge, story-high holes in them. In the vicinity, other buildings caught fire and were burned out. David told me that much of the damage we saw — in terms of burnt-out buildings — was done by looters. But there was no mistaking the work of American bombs. As when I visited the World Trade Center pile after 9-11, the first thing that struck me was the magnitude of the damage. It looks so tiny on television.
But this is not to say Baghdad is a decimated post-apocalyptic metropolis where bullets whiz by every second. Hardly. I will get a better sense of the city when we hit the streets tomorrow. Tonight, though, I have to tape up my windows just in case there are any more rocket-rigged donkey carts out there.
— Gideon Yago
Read Day 2: Baghdadis Still Have Hope
Read Day 3: What Those Plumes Of Fire Actually Did To Baghdad
Read Day 4: Cotton Candy And 'The Matrix' Amid The Rubble
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