Once the fighting stopped, it seemed like the country was getting more pacified. By mid-April or so, all of the most experienced war journalists said, “Okay, now we can do it our way,” and, much to the shock and amazement of our embed people, we hired local Iraqis, you know? “Hey, do you have a car?” “Yes, have a car, sir. Yes, no problem.” “Okay, come here tomorrow. We’ll pay you forty dollars a day.” “Okay, yes, no problem.” You know, like we normally do in Africa, Asia, anywhere else. That whole first year Iraq was pretty safe to cover, relatively speaking.
It was a fool’s paradise in a way. I felt we could go anywhere, and we did, including into the Green Zone, which was extraordinary, because we were able to stroll around Saddam’s playground those days and see that crazy canal system where he’d putter around on his little boats.
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It wasn’t like we were greeted with flowers and sweets, but it was an incredibly warm welcome. I’m fond of saying that back then the greatest risk I felt I was in was being invited into somebody’s house and being served food of sketchy origin or tea made from water pumped directly from the Tigris River. When I went up and told people I was an American with The Washington Post, I was embraced, I was welcomed into people’s homes. They wanted to tell me their stories. These were people who couldn’t speak freely, in many cases, for their entire adult lives.
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To me, 2003 was really distinctive. It was unusual in a lot of ways. The most unusual was that for the first time, with the possible exception of Lebanon and Palestine, you had an Arab country where you could really try to get a handle on what was going on in the country, try to understand it in a more fundamental way. For so long I had been dealing with information ministries, with censorship, with intimidation, with a certain hesitation to speak. For that period after the fall of Saddam in April 2003, you could really do any story you wanted as long as you were determined enough, dogged enough, patient enough.
Right away the Shia clerics — the Shias were the ones who were supposed to welcome the Americans as the liberators — were certainly happy that Saddam was gone. But nobody was thanking the Americans. Nobody was greeting them as liberators. [Saddam] was an authority figure, and authority right away became the mosque. Everything else was wiped out. The vacuum was immediately filled up by the clerics, the tribal leaders, but in Baghdad, mostly clerics. And they were talking about pretty much the same thing: they were warning against the Americans, they were telling the Americans to leave, they were worried about American values corrupting their values — this is what you heard in every single mosque throughout the country.
In November of 2003 I was supposed to just go do a simple story on troops celebrating Thanksgiving. So I went to a base in Fallujah, and our car broke down within a hundred meters of the base. My translator and I hitchhiked into Fallujah and got a tow truck to pick us up, pick up the car, and then drive us in his tow truck to Baghdad with the car in tow. We knew it was a little dicey and I told my translator, “I won’t speak any English, and I can kind of pass myself off as an Iraqi.” And we did that, but it was still something you could do in those days. You could just show up in Fallujah and ask for help.