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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 April, 2003, 00:49 GMT 01:49 UK
Reporters look back on Iraq war
Three BBC correspondents look back on their experience of covering the conflict in Iraq.

Gavin Hewitt:

Gavin Hewitt
I moved up with the American 3rd Infantry Division all the way from Kuwait to Baghdad. It was a sense of awesome power.

Initially our tank column was four kilometres wide - 10,000 vehicles were all pushing north towards Baghdad.

This was an army quite unlike anything I had ever seen before.

And then later on when there was resistance, I also saw the change in American soldiers from the almost certainty that they were going to get this over quickly, to the realisation that they would be involved in real fire-fights - and they were.

But it was obvious to me early on that even though there would be problems along the way the result was never ever in doubt.

At the outset there were critics of process of "embedding" correspondents with US troops, and I myself was concerned that this would inhibit what we were going to be able to say.

But just before we crossed into Iraq we were told our equipment would never be jammed, and it was not, we would never be prevented from saying what we felt even if it was critical.

The only problem that we had was that we could not say precisely where we were unless we were already involved in action and therefore the Iraqis knew what was happening, nor could we say what future plans were.

Beyond that I had freedom as a journalist to report in precisely the way that I wanted.

Fear

One day when the unit I was with was pushing in from the west, suddenly I saw the reality of war.

I mean burned out tanks, Iraqi bodies lying on the highway, civilian vehicles also which had been shot up, and civilians just lying there dead in the road.

And then as we drove forward through all of this, suddenly, we were under fire from artillery, shell-fire landing either side of this highway.

For what seemed like an eternity we were just sitting on the highway.

Then we went down, took a turning to the left, and then I saw real fear in the eyes of American soldiers; they were jumping out of vehicles, they were believed they were under attack from another position.

We all crouched behind a wall. Another shell came in. After it hits, you can hear the shrapnel and little bits falling everywhere. Very frightening.

And we pushed on down the road and again some soldiers thought they were under fire from one position.

They began opening fire. I could never tell if we were under fire at that moment. And then again, burning tanks, exploding ammunition, dead civilians lying by the highway.

And both the smell and the sound of being actually in the midst of the battle. And it just seemed to go on and on.

And I got the impression that day that not only were the Iraqis losing a lot of people and a huge amount of equipment, but that in this push into Baghdad they were going to be civilian casualties.

That evening I just thought, if this war does not end quickly, a lot of people - a lot of civilians are going to die in Baghdad.


Paul Wood:

We were living and reporting from a Stalinist state. The problem was, first of all being monitored by the Iraqis.

Paul Wood
At one point they did actually preview a tape, but mainly it was a case of the press centre officials would listen back to the BBC. The head of the press centre had the BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera on three televisions in his room al the time.

And the difficult thing to do was always to go as far as you could and not get yourself thrown out, or worse, but not to mislead the viewers and listeners.

It was a moment of liberation for the Baghdad press corps, as well as for the Iraqi people, when the US marines came over the horizon, started rumbling around the statue of President Saddam Hussein.

One of the really bad moments of course was when two of our colleagues were killed by an American tank shell.

It is always said that this is a war that is more covered than the previous war, but this really was a war in real time.

People around the world could see it live as it happened. And my colleague Rageh Omaar was on the air when the shell came in and people saw him ducking.

We were in the BBC's live position tent and had been under artillery fire before, and it is a very characteristic sound. It sounds like a jet literally landing on your head.

We hit the ground very quickly, and it is a good job we did, because a piece of shrapnel came ripping through the top of the tent and through the plywood roof narrowly missing our Iraqi dish engineer.

Then you heard what was almost like the sound of hail, for about a minute as masonry just kept on coming. It must have been thrown up into the air and stones came down on the roof of the tent.

Escape route

Another one of the surreal moments in the war came as my injured colleagues were coming out - one of whom subsequently died - very badly wounded, literally trying to hold his guts in with a blanket.

The Iraqi Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf - whose nickname among the Baghdad press corps, I can now reveal, was Comical Ali - gave us a little speech about how Iraq was winning the war, as our colleagues were literally dying behind us.

Another bad moment was when Mr al-Sahhaf left, the Iraqi police left, there was nobody around, but the Americans had not got there yet.

And we were told looters were on the way to the hotel, the Saddam Fedayeen were on the way to the hotel to take an act of revenge against us.

And our bureau chief pulled us off the live position saying that is the escape route; off that roof, onto the next roof, down there is a car waiting.

You will have seconds to get out if we have to. Go back to work, but if you have to that is the way to get out.

And you can imagine our relief when a couple of hours later we saw the American marines coming.

We were, you know, just delighted to see them - both for our own safety, and for the freedom, finally, to report the story naturally and not having to worry about Mr al-Sahhaf and his colleagues.


Jonathan Marcus:

The handling of journalists at US Central Command in Qatar was very stage managed.

Jonathan Marcus
It was interesting because there were two press operations going on in Doha.

There was the over-arching American press operation - which was very much a public relations exercise if you like - and within that a much smaller British press operation which was very different in tone but which was struggling to try and get some real information out because of the tutelage of the Americans over the whole thing.

This was the fascinating thing about this war: You had this absolute avalanche of material from our colleagues in Baghdad and with the actual units in the field.

But in a strange sort of way a lot of it was like looking though a key-hole at a very small piece of the war.

And the great problem we had was when people said to us: "What does it all mean?", "Is it going wrong?", "Is it not going wrong?", "What does this particular bit of action mean?"

Pulling all that together proved dramatically difficult in this particular campaign. And I think that is precisely what the Pentagon and other wanted.

I think they were prepared to allow this extraordinary vision of what modern warfare is really like at the grass-roots level.

But because of this extraordinary campaign that saw operations going on all over Iraq, most of which actually we could not even see - there were no embedded people out in the west, in much of the north, and so on.

I think they were very happy actually that people did have to struggle to put the pieces together. Of course the military came away from that war thinking it was a jolly good system.

But in a way I suppose, the real test of all of these kind of media arrangements for fighting wars is not when the war goes well.

The real test is when the war goes badly.

The war went very well for the Americans and the British, and this highly intrusive press arrangement served them, because it was largely reporting on success - dramatic movement, collapsing Iraqi formations and so on.

If things had gone very differently, perhaps in Whitehall and back in the Pentagon, they would not have been quite so enamoured with this system.





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