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Last Updated: Friday, 19 March, 2004, 11:40 GMT
Iraq war reporter's memories

By Paul Wood
BBC correspondent, Baghdad

The BBC's Middle East correspondent, Paul Wood covered the Iraq war from Baghdad. He remembers what it was like.

My journey to Baghdad began one year ago at the "window of shame", the tiny iron grill at the Iraqi embassy in Amman where you had to queue for a visa. Journalists called it that because waiting there was the start of a long process of flattering, cajoling, bribing and grovelling to one of the world's nastiest regimes.

Baghdad under the bombs
Baghdad under coalition air stikes
The BBC was fortunate in that because of our clout, the Iraqis wanted us there. So a senior manager had already been to Baghdad to negotiate a number of visas, including mine. I still spent an agonising morning while Iraqi officials scrutinised my passport for any evidence of a visit to Israel.

The "window of shame" stood for all the problems of working in the Arab version of a Stalinist state. They could throw you out at any time. They shadowed you with minders. Most Iraqis were too terrified to talk openly and, if they did, reporting what they said could get them killed.

Twelve hours of driving across the featureless western desert and we were in Baghdad.

Changed Iraq

Remembering the build-up to the war now is like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. The UN weapons inspectors, Arab League crisis summits, Saddam Hussein in uniform, it all seems slightly unreal and very distant from today's Iraq, especially with the former Iraqi leader in an American jail.

We came close to pulling out [ahead of the war] just once. It was when the Ministry of Information ordered the international press corps to move to the Rashid hotel. The American networks had been told by the Pentagon that it would definitely be hit
In the final days before the war, the BBC team stood in a little knot to debate whether to go or stay. On the one hand, we thought, Saddam Hussein wanted to be an Arab hero, celebrated by schoolchildren in poem and song for a thousand years. Killing us would not be in that image.

On the other hand, during the first Gulf War he did order that captured American soldiers be tied to the front of Iraqi battle tanks.

In fact, the BBC came close to pulling out just once. It was when the Ministry of Information ordered the international press corps to move to the Rashid hotel.

The American networks had been told by the Pentagon that it would definitely be hit. There was probably a command bunker underneath it. In other words, we were to be used as human shields. We refused to go. The Iraqis backed down.

Under the bombing

The day before the bombing started, I took a walk under the crossed swords memorial with our government minder, a captain in the Iraqi secret police.

The bombs were big and close. The concrete walls of the hotel flexed like sheets of tin. Three hundred cruise missiles fell on Baghdad in one night alone
"Our intelligence says British soldiers will go to every house to shoot people like me," he said.

We did a deal. He'd keep us alive now, we'd keep him alive when the coalition arrived. We shook on it. I gave him $1,000 to get his family out of Baghdad.

The bombs were big and close. The concrete walls of the hotel flexed like sheets of tin. Three hundred cruise missiles fell on Baghdad in one night alone. We watched as government ministries burst into flames.

Over the horizon, B52s flew in waves to attack the Iraqi soldiers dug in outside the capital. You couldn't see it but you felt the long, slow rumble beneath your feet as the bombs exploded one after another.

For people watching or listening at home, this was a war in real time. There were live cameras in several key positions. We were commentating on what people could see as much as reporting it for them.

The Iraqis were worried that such a rapid feedback of information might help the Americans in their targeting.

Information ministry raids

So, against the backdrop of thunderous, earth-shaking explosions and anti-aircraft fire, there would be the nightly raid by the Iraqi information ministry.

Absurdly, we had to invent a secret BBC door knock. If we heard anything else at the door, we had about 30 seconds to dismantle the satellite phones and stuff them into a heating duct.

Saddam statue is pulled down
The symbolic moment when the Saddam Hussein regime ended
We lost a couple during searches but saved enough to keep broadcasting.

There was no overt censorship of our scripts but it was always impossible to know where our Iraqi minders had drawn an invisible line.

We got summoned before the chief minder for "disrespectfully" failing to show up for every official press conference but not for reporting the curious fact of Baghdad's almost non-existent defences.

The real problem was the "prison of the mind" that every Iraqi lived in. Everyone would tell you they were prepared to fight to the death for Saddam.

In rare, hushed private conversations, some brave Iraqis might tell you otherwise, but you couldn't use it. Iraq under Saddam was the most difficult place I've worked in.

Journalists killed

One of the worst moments was when an American tank fired on the Palestine, the hotel where all the international press corps lived and worked. A piece of shrapnel the size of a British pound coin ripped through our satellite tent, narrowly missing our local engineer Mustapha, who was standing next to me.

But when the statue fell, it was an intoxicating, exhilarating moment - for the Iraqi people, and also for the journalists who had covered the war
Within 30 minutes, the Americans were briefing in Qatar that there had been gunfire from the hotel - a false claim they later withdrew.

The shell hit the 15th floor. The casualties were carried down to the lobby, one semi-conscious in a blood-soaked blanket. Two of the journalists died. People wept openly. The Iraqi chief minder expressed satisfaction.

On the final day of the war, I was interrupted in the middle of a broadcast by our bureau chief who urgently wanted to show us the escape route from the hotel.

We were still unsure how it would all end. The looting had started. There were rumours that Saddam's Fedayeen were coming to the Palestine to exact revenge on the nearest foreign targets - us.

So, there was relief when the Americans finally rolled into Fardus Square, in front of the Palestine hotel.

In our reporting we were already looking forward to some of the problems which have blighted the past year, looting, the resistance, the difficulty in bringing democracy to the "Arab Yugoslavia".

But when the statue fell, it was an intoxicating, exhilarating moment - for the Iraqi people, and also for the journalists who had covered the war.



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