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'Embedded' in Iraq

By Gavin Hewitt
BBC correspondent in Iraq

With their BBC Land Rover packed with spares, Gavin Hewitt's team - "embedded" with the US Infantry - headed north on the long slog through the desert from Kuwait to Baghdad.

Gavin Hewitt and James Grant
Gavin Hewitt and James Grant awake after a night in the desert

The road to Baghdad lay via boot camp. In February 2003 I went to Quantico, the headquarters of the US Marine Corps.

A kind of journalistic call-up was under way - for the first time in half a century, the Pentagon planned to integrate reporters into its war machine.

Quantico was intended to break us in - some basic training, some safety lessons and a light flick of discipline.

I was to be "embedded" with an American unit. It was a clumsy, bureaucratic word.

To most people it sounded like "in bed with" and that was a problem.

As friends never tired of pointing out when you go to bed with someone you have already expressed a preference.

To some the very idea of being "embedded" reeked of compromise.

Front line training

Our days at Quantico were filled with classes - maps, contour lines, military grids, true north and magnetic north.

We learnt about cotton underwear and moist towelettes.

The women were taught how to straddle ditches to urinate; how ponchos gave a shot at privacy.

Map of Iraq

Colonel Jay Defrank from the Pentagon wanted there to be no misunderstanding; we would not only be able to film at the front, we would be taking the same risks as the soldiers.

By the end of the first week in March, I was in Kuwait and embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division.

Its commander, General Buford Blount, wanted TV coverage so he agreed that a few networks could bring their own vehicle to carry equipment.

The only restriction was that we could not reveal our exact location or details of future missions
The BBC found a diesel-powered Land Rover Discovery in Luxembourg and flew it out.

We were a team of three; myself, cameraman Peter Gigliotti and Jimmy Grant, who would do the desert driving.

We bought shovels, tow-ropes, filters, fan belts, battery chargers that could run off the engine, cargo netting, luggage straps, desert-jacks and black-out material for the windows.

We wanted to broadcast live on the move so we found a local engineer to rig up a satellite phone antenna on the vehicle roof.

On 11 March we joined our tank unit in the desert. There were no media minders and our material would not be vetted.

The only restriction was that we could not reveal our exact location or details of future missions.

The war begins

The order to go to war came at about 4.30pm. Men were high-fiving each other and embracing.

One man grabbed me by the shoulders and wished me luck.

This was the World Series, the big game and everyone seemed up for it.

US army convoy en-route to Baghdad
The 3rd Infantry were on high alert, particularly for a chemical attack

We were told to break open our chemical suits and I recorded a piece to camera explaining why I was in uniform.

We travelled into Iraq in total darkness. Jimmy wore night vision goggles which picked out an infra-red panel on the tracked vehicle in front.

By morning we were on a gravel plain and the column fanned out into a giant formation a mile wide.

In the front line were Abrams tanks. Falling in behind them, stretching back for miles were the fighting vehicles and supply trucks.

It was one of the most dramatic and possibly the last great tank charge in history.

The BBC Land Rover was about 18 vehicles from the front.

When it broke down all the equipment was transferred to a Humvee.

We arrived outside the holy Shia city of Karbala where the unit expected to face the Revolutionary Guard as a blood-orange sun hung low and full in the sky.

Apache and Blackhawk helicopters circled in front of it; their rotor-blades a soundtrack to war.

Under fire

The battle for Karbala began with the whoosh of rockets fired towards the city; each a flaming parabola.

There were brief fire-fights and a few Iraqis emerged with hands held high.

None of them wore uniform. These were stragglers, irregulars. The Republican Guard had not yet made its stand.

"We're being shelled," said Jimmy. The fear was instant, neural; it envelops you before you have even thought of it.

Later we drove into Karbala. Hundreds of Iraqis came out to see us. To most, the Americans were liberators. Karbala had felt the lash of Saddam's cruelty.

We entered Baghdad on the highway from the west.

Shortly after there was a loud explosion, then another.

The column stopped, every vehicle taking up defensive positions, facing outward in all directions.

We moved forward again and there was another explosion followed by a plume of black smoke off to our right about 100 metres away.

"We're being shelled," said Jimmy.

The fear was instant, neural; it envelops you before you have even thought of it.

You are hard-wired to run and hide but we were trapped, hung out on a highway with few exits in a canvas-sided vehicle that offered no protection from shrapnel.

Baghdad was a place of ambushes and sniper attacks. A ricochet caught Peter in the leg.

Casualties of war

All around us was death, gruesome and unexplained. Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

On the other side of the highway, two cars had collided with the crash barrier.

Another two, with their doors open, had been abandoned, skewed across two motorway lanes.

A bus, with its windows shot out, had stopped close to the kerb.

Some bodies were still slumped in their seats; others were hanging out of the doors as if they had been trying to escape.

I told Peter Gigliotti to stay wide with his camera and avoid some of the detail but later I regretted that.

Then Saddam's statue fell and the war was declared over.

This was liberation day, bright shining but strangely incomplete.

There was celebration but also silence; the silent stare of half the population.

A BBC TWO series presents the best archive footage from five decades of BBC Television News.

1954-1974: BBC TWO, Monday, 5 July 2004, 1430BST
1974-1994: BBC TWO, Tuesday, 6 July 2004, 1430BST
1994-2004: BBC TWO, Wednesday, 7 July 2004, 1430BST

Reporters look back on Iraq war
17 Apr 03  |  Middle East
Eyewitness: Baghdad push
07 Apr 03  |  Middle East
The fear of suicide bombings
01 Apr 03  |  Middle East
Fierce battle for key town
27 Mar 03  |  Middle East
Pushing deep into Iraq
21 Mar 03  |  Middle East


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