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Last Updated: Friday, 19 November, 2004, 14:59 GMT
BBC crews embedded in Iraq
By Jonathan Baker
World Editor

BBC crews embedded with the military display great courage to file their reports. And living and working in the desert is no picnic either. Jonathan Baker caught up with them just before the US military's assault on Falluja.

US forces in Falluja
BBC teams have accompanied US forces as they move through Falluja

A US marines colonel briefs his soldiers on the plan for the imminent battle for Falluja.

They've already reached the outskirts of the town and are standing in what, in the days of Saddam Hussein, was a military training camp.

A huge picture of the former president, resplendent in the robes of a Mesopotamian warrior, looks down wordlessly.

Also being briefed are the BBC's Middle East Correspondent, Paul Wood, and cameraman Robbie Wright.

They work together in the Cairo bureau and are now embedded with the marines.

Paul and Robbie are among about a dozen small teams of broadcast journalists living with US troops.

Pooled material

All their material is pooled, because each can witness only one small part of the overall battle. They file their pictures by store-and-forward when they can.

Those pictures arrive in London and New York, and are distributed to all members of the pool.

THE CREW'S KIT INCLUDES...
camera
tripod
two satellite phones
a small camera with infra-red night sight
flak jackets
helmets
generator
power strip
batteries
tapes
microphones
videophones

A complicated system of email addresses keeps each organisation up to date with incoming material.

Paul also files live when he can, via sat phone or videophone, steering clear of disclosing sensitive military information on air - one of the few stipulations placed on embedded correspondents.

Keeping the kit working is a daily headache. They spend a lot of their time humping it from one location to another, often in pitch darkness.

Paul described one such episode: "We walked a mile to the forward artillery positions, hoping to catch them firing.

"We took camera, tripod, two sat phones, a small camera with infra-red night sight, flak jackets, helmets, generator, power strip, batteries, tapes, mics and videophones.

"We had to assemble and dismantle in total darkness. I did a videophone two-way for the Ten - the generator ran out of fuel a second after my last answer."

Paul's characteristically matter-of-fact tone masks the huge pressures, physical and mental, that these embedding arrangements - a big feature of the war in Iraq in 2003 - place on individuals.

He and Robbie are with a detachment of marines living in the old barracks and sleeping on canvas beds.

Ben Brown shaving in Iraq
The comforts of home seem far away as Ben Brown has a shave

There are often total blackout conditions at night.

There's plenty to eat (if you like grits) and there is even occasional hot water, but they shave outside in a cup of cold water.

Even Paul's considerable powers of description desert him when it comes to latrines.

Sixth sense

Mortar and rocket fire are a constant threat.

"Everyone has a sixth sense for the rockets, and if you hear whistling sounds in the middle of the night everyone rolls off the beds to get close to the floor," says Paul.

"I can get my flak jacket and helmet on in 15 seconds flat when motivated like this."

And all this was before the battle had even begun. Paul and Robbie spent the first night of the assault out in the open, trying to catch a couple of hours' sleep in the freezing rain.

British forces, now deployed a few miles from Falluja in support of the Americans, have their own system of embeds.

Welcome to Camp Dogwood, temporary home of the Black Watch. The first BBC team to live there was Ben Brown, correspondent, and Tony Fallshaw, cameraman.

An insurgent with a rocket launcher
Life is potentially very dangerous, the main threat being incoming mortar and rocket fire.

The Ministry of Defence, with their customary flair for these matters, invited the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 to join a pool of UK broadcasters.

They arrived at two in the morning in the pouring rain, their billet a small concrete shed a few feet square. They slept on the floor until the arrival of camp beds.

The workspace for the broadcasters, and their print colleagues, is an adjoining tent.

This provides the unalluring canvas backdrop for their videophone reports.

It's not easy to be at your best on a live two-way in the very close and silent proximity of a dozen of your colleagues and competitors in a tent in the Iraqi desert.

Shower bag

There are other tests of character, too. With no running water, personal cleanliness is a bottle of water, either put through a shower bag or simply upended over the naked body.

These ablutions take place out in the open with a potential audience of around eight hundred, men and women. The morning toilet is completed by a fifty-yard dash to small covered area.

Repeated attacks on the Black Watch demonstrate that camp life is potentially very dangerous, the main threat being incoming mortar and rocket fire.

Black Watch troops in Iraq
The Black Watch has come under repeated attacks

The group's movements are limited and they must wear body armour at all times. One rocket landed only a few yards from their quarters but didn't explode.

Because there is no satellite dish at Dogwood, pictures have to be sent back to London by the laborious anytime-consuming system of store-and-forward.

The group send a daily tape of the best pictures, followed by four pieces to camera; the pictures are then cut in London by the respective organisations, with the correspondents sending track by satellite phone.

Ben and Tony have now left Dogwood, to be relieved by David Loyn and Duncan Stone.

In spite of the many logistical and other difficulties, and abiding doubts about some aspects of the embedding system, our teams are once again displaying courage and resourcefulness in providing vivid frontline coverage.



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