BAGHDAD — Before the war, even Baghdad's weather was a secret. CNN didn't list the Iraqi capital in its Middle East weather forecast -- it didn't really matter so much, I suppose, to international viewers switching channels in their hotel rooms. But after a decade of trade sanctions, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was desperate to be recognized by the West and the Information Ministry officials let me know they considered CNN's omission a deliberate snub. A few months later, and for years after, Baghdad's forecast would be of intense daily interest to hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Pre-war Iraq was one of the ultimate journalistic challenges. It was difficult to get into and even more difficult to determine any truth beyond the most obvious one -- that it was a dark place, full of extraordinarily resilient people. You got used to being followed, having your hotel room or house bugged, and your phone tapped. It was harder to get used to how easily foreigners could unwittingly get Iraqis into trouble. And almost impossible to imagine that covering Iraq could become even stranger than it already was.
As CNN's bureau chief, I had been expelled from Iraq a few months before the war, for what the Information Ministry termed increasingly hostile reporting. "We're not expelling you -- we're just asking you to leave," the director had explained. I'd been covering the country and living there for more than four years.
When the war came, every journalist who covered Iraq automatically became a war correspondent. Those of us employed by big news organizations dutifully flew to Britain for courses on how to put on chemical and biological weapons suits and gas masks. We stuffed backpacks with what our employers hoped might be an antidote to anthrax. And some of us wondered what we were supposed to do when there weren't enough gas masks to go around.
When the route into northern Iraq through Turkey slammed shut just before the war started, my CNN team went in through Iran, crossing into Iraq through its eastern border. For the next few weeks, we roamed around the shifting front lines with a satellite truck. There was almost nowhere we couldn't go. We ran cables into caves beneath a long-destroyed Kurdish village to talk to families hiding out there. We huddled against hillsides while the Iraqi army mortared the positions of U.S. Special Forces, who were calling in air strikes.
In some places, we were there before U.S. forces arrived. In Mosul, hours after the Iraqi army left and long before U.S. and Kurdish forces came in, the northern city belonged to gunmen and looters. We took cover behind our vehicles as the central bank was set on fire and people rushed through a hail of bullets with armloads of cash.
There was no government and no rules. "If you keep driving down this road, I'll shoot you," an American officer told us at night, near a northern airfield where U.S. forces were about to parachute in. We didn't really believe him. But the lack of order also worked in our favor: When the generals finally arrived, you could show up in the morning and fly around with them -- without a press officer hovering, trying to make sure you cleared the quotes.