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A day in the Green Zone
oFlak vests, burgers with the troops and sleeping in the Emir's palace -- it's all in a week's work on the trail of Donald Rumsfeld.
By John J. Lumpkin '95
Reporter for the Associated Press
I'm not a war correspondent.
Until this year, I spent the war on terrorism in Washington covering the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.
The September 11 attacks came less than two months after I started in the D.C. bureau of The Associated Press. I was in Washington that day, saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon and watched the National Guard deploy to the streets.
I covered the Afghanistan war, the worldwide hunt for al Qaeda and the Iraq war all pretty much from my desk, in the halls of the Pentagon or over lunch with sources. When the bombs fell on Baghdad, I worked the phones in Washington, trying to get someone to say whether Saddam Hussein was alive or dead.
It wasn't until February of this year that I stepped into a war zone.
It was a day trip. The Pentagon press corps was invited to cover Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as part of a five-nation, six-day tour. We flew on Rumsfeld's plane, but we refunded the government the cost of the flight.
We landed in Kuwait for the night and stayed as guests of the emir at one of his palaces, which resembled a fancy Holiday Inn with a wall around it. The next morning, we traded the relative comfort of Rumsfeld's airliner for the utility of a C-130, a four-engine cargo plane that's equipped to fly in combat zones.
The more experienced reporters slept on the short flight to Baghdad.
The rest of us read the paper or had shouted conversations over the din of the engines.
At Baghdad International -- the scene of heavy fighting 10 months earlier -- we switched to helicopters to navigate the city. Just on the tarmac alone, I saw more guns than I'd ever seen in my life.
Assault rifles, carbines, heavy machine guns, you name it. The soldiers wore desert camo; the private security guys preferred khakis. The military loaned the press corps flak vests.
We loaded into two big CH-47 Chinooks and, with a gunship escort, flew to a base on the outskirts of Baghdad where we met up with members of the 1st Cavalry Division, who briefed Rumsfeld on efforts to train Iraqi security and military forces.
Officers brought out three Iraqis, the poster guys of the effort. They even passed out the poster. The Iraqis looked a little awed as they shook hands with Rumsfeld.
This was two months before all hell broke loose. In April, Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in south-central Iraq and the Baathist-terrorist nexus in Fallujah rose up. Some of the new security forces refused to fight or deserted.
After the briefing, we all hopped aboard the helicopters to return to the Green Zone.
We got a little thrill on the flight back.
Our helicopters were racing close to the ground, barely above the trees and the rooftops, when a series of bright flashes filled the small windows. Across the cabin, I saw a colleague's eyes widen.
Were we being shot at?
A glance out the back indicated otherwise. Whereas a missile or tracer round would continue into the sky, these points of light slowly descended toward the ground, like detonated fireworks. Nor was the pilot reacting like we were being fired upon, as the plane continued straight and level.
We had just fired off flares, countermeasures if the helicopter's threat receivers get a twitch. After we landed, the Chinook's gunners assured us it likely was nothing, just a precaution in case somebody was, in fact, pointing a surface-to-air missile at us.
That's as close as I came to combat. Rumsfeld was kept well-protected.
We were with Rumsfeld, so we were well-protected, too.
We spent much of the rest of the day at one of Saddam's palaces, where Paul Bremer, the head of the occupation, and his staff worked. The building looked like a particularly ugly state capitol.
Former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq Tariq Aziz's old office had been turned into the pressroom.
We interviewed Bremer, who told us things were difficult but getting better.
Rumsfeld took off for the Baghdad police academy to review some cadets. At the last minute, the whole press corps, except for a TV camerawoman, was prevented from going. Something about not having enough armored vehicles to drive us there. We all watched the video later of Iraqi cops-in-training standing around Rumsfeld chanting.
"Long live the new Iraq!" shouted the new Iraq's deputy interior minister, Ahmed Ibrahim.
The rest of us went back to the airport, where I achieved a supreme technical accomplishment. I sent an e-mail from my laptop through a satellite phone.
We joined Rumsfeld and his crew again and threw a few questions at him, and he threw a few answers at us, taking a moment to chastise Syria and Iran for allowing anti-U.S. fighters to cross their borders into Iraq. He offered no specifics.
Next, we convoyed to dinner in a big warehouse not far away. Burgers with the troops. Rumsfeld got the rock star treatment and gave a short speech. Somewhere in there, I transmitted my story. Then we packed up, drove to the airport and took a C-130 back to safety in Kuwait.
So is the war justified? I can't say. I try not to answer that one in my head, to keep my reporting objective.
As I write this in late July -- five months after my trip to Baghdad -- Saddam reportedly gardens, writes poetry and waits for his court date. Iraq is no longer a repressive dictatorship, but it remains a violent, wild place. In five years, perhaps it will be a beacon of democracy.
Still, no evidence of active pre-war chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs has been found. The chance of Saddam passing such devices to terrorist groups appears to have been remote.
And about 900 U.S. soldiers are dead. More than 100 people from U.S. allies are dead. Thousands more Iraqis -- some fighters, some not -- are dead.
A common Bush administration complaint about media coverage of the war is that we ignore the "positive" things going on. While not totally unfair, I would say that if, on a given day, a school opened in your neighborhood and a car bomb killed 20 people and destroyed a police station, you'd pay more attention to the car bomb.
So it is with reporters in the war zone.
While all the high-level access -- to Rumsfeld, to Bremer, to other senior officials -- is useful for our reporting, these men are professionals in dealing with the media. Rumsfeld, in particular, is precise in what he says, presenting the administration's position while offering few specifics.
It's the off-the-record conversations between the interviews, press conferences and briefings where we get a feel for the situation. Some of these are with leaders; others are with the men and women who carry out their decisions.
There was a retired Royal Marine who was happy to be making good money as a private security contractor in Iraq. Some Army guys talked about how they preferred the M-4 carbine to the longer M-16 rifle, which is more difficult to get in and out of vehicles.
And I talked to three National Guardsmen who were guarding our motorcade, even staying with our bus during dinner. They simply wanted to do their job well, and they didn't divulge opinions on the wider conflict. There was, however, a sense of satisfaction among them that Saddam had been captured.
But mostly these soldiers talked about the things we talk about back home: sports, jobs, families, current events. And beer. Those three guys probably deserved a beer more than anyone I've ever met.
Too bad I didn't bring any.
John J. Lumpkin '95, former editor of the TCU Daily Skiff, is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for The Associated Press. In addition to Iraq, he has traveled on assignment with U.S. defense leaders to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, China, Australia and Japan.
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