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Last Updated: Friday, 10 June 2005, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
48 hours in Baghdad
Just how dangerous is it working at the BBC's Baghdad bureau? What kind of pressure are its reporting teams under? BBC Head of Newsgathering Fran Unsworth recently paid to a visit to the city to find out.

Iraqi policeman at site of bombing
Bombings are frequent in Baghdad

To a first-time visitor to Baghdad, once you are out of the military airport the road into the city appears relatively normal.

It begins as a four-lane highway edged with scrub and a few palm trees.

After six miles it then enters bustling communities of roadside food sellers, shops selling household goods, and people going about their daily business.

For a moment, one could forget that this is a war zone and this is the probably the most dangerous stretch of road in the world, on which many lives have been lost - blown up by car bombs or attacked by armed insurgents.

Frisson of fear

The BBC's team of safety advisors in Baghdad do this commute probably once a week.

In early April, they arrive at the airport to pick us up and take us into the city for a visit. They are experienced ex-military men who have clearly been around a bit.

They appear relatively relaxed about this operation as we set out along the road, although the frisson of fear is inescapable.

Fran Unsworth
The value of first-hand reporting had to be balanced against the risk to life and limb
Fran Unsworth

As a novice to the city, with untrained eyes, I am naive about its dangers. To me it is an inconvenient traffic jam we are stuck in.

For them, we are now a sitting duck for a vehicle containing a suicide bomber to drive in from a slip road, or an ambush by armed kidnappers.

Our potential for escape is limited by vehicles on all sides. My fellow passengers have gone quiet and I am beginning to sense a rise in anxiety levels.

It was an every day illustration of the nerve-jangling tension that underpins life in Baghdad.

I was only there for 48 hours. To spend too long would be exhausting.

Flicker of unease

Every route our news team take on their limited travel around the city - crossing the bridge into the Green Zone, or the drive to the airport - has been the scene of major atrocities over the past few months.

And everywhere there are guns, not least in the hands of jittery, inexperienced young men guarding the many checkpoints at which our vehicle was stopped.

We could see the flicker of unease in their eyes as we drove up. The gun's safety catch would go off whilst they tried to assess us.

For them we were potential suicide bombers. It was easy to see how any London-style road rage incident could result in carnage.

Burnt out Humvee in Iraq after an attack on US troops
The US is losing soldiers at an average of more than two a day

The idea for this visit began at a BBC News Festival session in January on the safety of journalists working in the field.

It was pointed out that no member of News management had ever been to visit the Baghdad bureau to see the conditions for the producers, correspondents, crews and engineers who had been going in and out, both during and after the war.

For the last three years Iraq has been a dangerous posting. But during 2004, kidnappings of Westerners were at their height and slaughter on the streets was an almost daily occurrence.

Too dangerous

The value of first-hand reporting had to be balanced against the risk to life and limb.

One way of reducing that risk was to impose limits on the numbers based there. So why add to it with a visiting manager who was not there to file for programmes?

But this spring I felt that it was important to try to see the operation for myself, in order to be able to make informed choices.

The BBC operation is down a barricaded street with other media organisations.

The BBC frequently asks a great deal of its staff... but possibly nowhere more so than in Baghdad
Fran Unsworth

It is guarded by an armed force 24/7 and there is a curfew. All unnecessary journeys are limited.

There is no lazy wandering around souks to be done, or whiling away time in tea shops. These activities are now regarded as way too dangerous.

We have asked ourselves on numerous occasions whether the risks posed to staff, and their lack of ability to travel around to report freely, negate the value of a bureau in Baghdad.

But having visited I am completely convinced that we should be there - despite the limitations.

The team do get out to film and record. While I was there they visited a hospital and a prison.

Caroline Hawley vox-popped on a nearby street (she didn't hang around too long) and she went into the Green Zone to interview new members of the Parliament.

She is much better-placed to report the story from Baghdad, where she can meet and talk to people daily.

The BBC frequently asks a great deal of its staff, particularly on location, but possibly nowhere more so than in Baghdad.

Operating in a war zone, forced into each other's company with no escape, and worked around the clock if there is a story. One can only admire their dedication and resourcefulness.


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