Getting Out of Baghdad Is As Hard As Getting In

BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- For reporters, Iraq turns out to be a very small world

Part of a continuing series reporting on the life of an embedded reporter in Iraq.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Once I was off the chopper in the International Zone, a couple of soldiers from the Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC) swung around to pick me up to get my credentials. Within 30 minutes, I had a military-issue “press pass,” and, along with a reporter from the London Telegraph, I was taken back to the airstrip to get the next chopper out.

The Telegraph reporter, Oliver Poole, had been in and out of Iraq since the invasion in 2003, and knew how things worked. Based in Baghdad, he was headed up north to work on a couple stories of his own, but we were scheduled to share part of the flight together.

The weather had been bad for a few nights, and persistent fog had been screwing with the flight schedule, so nothing, we were told, was guaranteed. But we wouldn’t know anything for a couple hours.

Back in the waiting room at the airstrip, I ran into Spec. Seymour, my buddy from the previous day at Camp Stryker. He was among a group of Arab journalists and American soldiers sitting around watching “The Osbournes” on MTV, so we settled in and awaited word.

Poole, a veteran of this kind of thing, filled me in on the particulars of embedded travel in Iraq. The way it works is this: The choppers make several stops along the route. At each stop there are a couple “Space A’s” who are guaranteed a slot, and then there’s everybody else on the list, operating on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Tonight, Poole and I were Space A, so the only thing that could stop us was the weather. And, in keeping with my luck over the past few days, it did. Sometime around 2 a.m., we found out that all flights for the night were cancelled, so it was back to the CPIC office to stay the night.

The media holding area at CPIC is actually pretty nice: a large room with two computers for our use, wireless access, a couple couches and a row of four bunk beds, a virtual paradise compared to my time at Stryker. I felt like I’d hit the jackpot, and savored a night in a bed with a roof and four walls around me, before it was back to tent living on my embed.

Next morning, one of the soldiers took us across the street to the Al Rasheed hotel for lunch in the cafeteria. The meal — provided by KBR, of course — was free, but KBR gets paid by the U.S. government for every person who walks in the door. The food wasn’t what I’d call appetizing (the beef stew could have used some work), but then again, you get what you pay for.

Afterward, Poole and I walked around for a bit, and for the first time the Jill Carroll situation came up. Poole lived at the Hamra hotel in downtown Baghdad, along with many other Western journalists, and he and Carroll were part of a small group of young reporters who spent much of their free time together. There wasn’t much to say, really, other than the obvious: Kidnapping is a risk any unembedded reporter in Iraq faces, and not having the backup of armed guards that many reporters travel the city with, Caroll had been caught in a horrific situation.

Later that night, while we waited to be ferried back to the airstrip to give the chopper another try, a reporter came into the CPIC office with his Iraqi interpreter. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out it was George Packer, on assignment for The New Yorker. He was heading to the Baghdad airport to catch a flight up north for a couple weeks. It was an odd coincidence because he knew all about the story I was working on, from a couple emails we had exchanged about a week or so prior.

Small war.

That night at the airstrip, things were looking good. Weather was clear, flights were running on time, and I’d finally caught some sleep. And of course, sitting in the waiting room, was poor Spec. Seymour, still trying to make it out on R&R. If nothing else, this guy has a patience I’ve rarely encountered. He didn’t seem much fazed by the delays, he was just fixated on making his flight to Brazil — I guess he was used to the military time schedule. So we all settled down for some more MTV, and some more waiting.

The only problem I could forsee at this point was that Poole and I had lost our Space A status, so we were essentially flying standby. When the flights came in, though, we donned our helmets and vests just like everybody else and lined up on the runway. The Space A’s got on the first chopper, and filled it up. We all trudged over to the second chopper, and found, after some arguing under the deafening whoosh! of the propeller blades, that it was full as well.

There was no leaving the IZ this night. And since about 15 of us were stranded, the next night would be even worse.

The saving grace of the whole mess was running into two Los Angeles Times reporters who got off the inbound flight, and were staying at an American magazine’s house in the IZ before heading in to their hotel in Baghdad the next morning. It just so happened that it was the same hotel I was planning to stay in after my embed. Knowing an opportunity when I saw it, I asked for a lift so I could work on a longer story I had planned for CJR, and got the go-ahead.

Next morning CPIC drove me over to the magazine’s house (“compound” is more like it, with no dearth of Iraqi guards toting machine guns), where I ran into a friend of a friend from back in New York — small war — and we were off.

It was my first time outside the protective shell of the U.S. military — I was in Baghdad, on my own.

The embed would have to wait.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.