I think you are looking at a situation where the foreign press corps, maybe a group of about twenty or thirty people who go to Iraq regularly, probably know more about Iraq than anyone else. More than the people at the embassy who are stuck inside the Green Zone and only get a particularly slanted point of view. More than the military behind their barbed wire.
Occasionally my desk will ask me, “Can we get an expert to explain this to us?” Or “Is there a report on how many deaths there have been and that kind of thing?” You haven’t got experts who know about Iraq. You have experts who are very well informed about Iraq. But the details of what is going on on the ground, the day-to-day bits of things, really, the journalists are the only ones who know that.
There was a particular incident that happened on January 18, 2005, up in Tal Afar in the north of Iraq. I got out there on Saturday, and they wanted me to go out [on an embed] on this mission they had going out on Sunday. The next day, we went on a routine patrol. I got with one unit that seemed to be pretty good: the Apache company. They were pretty press-friendly, these guys, and we went on a walking patrol in downtown Tal Afar, just in the middle of the afternoon, handing out flyers supporting the upcoming election and all that. And sure enough, in the middle of the afternoon we got into a firefight. They got ambushed a little bit — a few shots were fired, and before they knew it they were surrounded, and they were firing out, they were firing in — dramatic, hourlong gun-battle in downtown Tal Afar. And because none of their guys were injured, and they basically came back, they were all exhilarated, and I had all these dramatic pictures, and they liked them. Then Monday I just hung around the base. The mortar guys, the guys who fire the long-range mortars, they were just firing a few mortars — I took some pictures of that, nothing special.
And then finally on Tuesday, the same guys — the Apache guys who were in the firefight — were going out on a late afternoon patrol. So I said, “All right, I’ll go on that.” But they got delayed. So finally at six we went out, and it was the same kind of thing, a little smaller, like a small group of twenty men or so, patrolling. And it was also dark by this point. So they’re out on the streets, and it’s after the curfew, which is about six o’clock. And as we were patrolling on a darkened boulevard, in the distance, a car, maybe a hundred yards down at least, turned onto the boulevard and started coming toward us. And I already had a bad feeling, you know? Because these are camouflaged [soldiers]; they don’t patrol regularly, and they don’t call much attention to themselves, because if they have lights and sirens and things like that they’d be seen or easily attacked. So here’s a bunch of testy men with guns running around and a car coming towards them, and they don’t let cars come toward them.
I had a feeling the situation was going to end up badly. So I moved over to the side, because I feared at least some warning shots would be fired. The car kept coming. It was dark. Sure enough, somebody fired some warning shots, the car kept coming. And then they fired into the car. And it limped into the intersection, clearly no longer under its own power, just on momentum, and gently came to rest on a curb. I was kind of paralyzed, and then slowly walked to the car and, sure enough, I hear children’s voices inside the car, and I knew it was a family. The doors opened; the back doors opened, and kids just tumble out of the car, one after one after one — six in all. One was shot to the abdomen, though we didn’t realize he was shot at the time, though he was bleeding profusely and as soon as he dropped, there was blood in the street. The soldiers realized it was a civilian car. They ran and grabbed all the kids and ran them to the sidewalk. In the front seat, what ended up being the parents were killed, riddled with bullets, instantly dead. The children in the back were, incredibly enough, okay, except for the one kid who was winged in the abdomen.