So much has happened since that it's a shock to go back and remember. The smell of confusion on that first day of the ground war, when we rose in the middle of the night and drove our rental cars from the Kuwait City airport through the blowing sands until we found an obliging British unit that didn't mind letting a pack of anxious, unauthorized reporters into Iraq. When we found ourselves facing gunfire -- not parades -- and little boys throwing stones, and mines placed along the side of Highway 8, the main road to Baghdad, the one that U.S. troops were even then pounding north on.
This was during the period that President George W. Bush so memorably, and incorrectly, referred to as "major combat operations" in his ill-advised victory speech a few months later. Of course, with nine years of hindsight, it's fair to say it was most likely the safest time for an American to be driving around southern Iraq in a rental car, Motown music blaring, accompanied only by a few friends and a single shared interpreter whose Beirut dialect of Arabic was hardly any help at all in Basra as it turned out.
We did not see what we expected. But then again, who did? Could anyone have imagined where we would be nine years later, as another president and another era finally bring to a close the chaos unleashed that night in the warm air of southern Iraq?
We drove into Basra, the downtrodden center of what Shiite resistance there had been to Saddam Hussein's regime, soon after the British seized it, on an April morning in 2003. Angry crowds on street corners demanded water and electricity. There was no food and little celebration. All the stores were closed -- except for those still being looted. Later, as we toured the city in our rented four-wheel-drives, we ran right into a mob of looters at the central bank; I was on the Thuraya satellite phone at the time, talking to NPR while my friend Ed cursed robustly.
On the way into the city we made two stops. The first was to investigate a crowd by the side of the road. It turned out to be a jail, known bitterly by its former occupants as the Jail for Adult Re-Education because it occupied the facility of a former school for adults. Saddam's jailers had fled two days earlier, and the raucous crowd was composed mostly of bewildered, frantic prisoners, newly liberated and not quite sure what to do. Astonished to find Western journalists in their midst, they grabbed our hands and dragged us into a room they said had been used as a torture chamber.