“0900: Link up with 2-4 IN patrol at Cross Sabers in IZ,” read the message from the press center of the Multi-National Force–Iraq. That meant that at nine the next morning I should show up at the crossed-sabers monument— the giant pair of arched swords erected by Saddam Hussein on his military parade ground—in the International Zone (aka the Green Zone) to meet a convoy from the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division. The convoy was to take me to a neighborhood in southern Baghdad, where I was to spend the day embedded with the US military.
The embed had proved surprisingly easy to arrange. No one had objected to the three New York Review articles I had sent in as samples of my work. On the application form, I had written that I wanted to visit a typical Baghdad neighborhood to see how the surge was working and to get a sense of what more had to be done before the US could begin to draw down its forces in any significant number.
Though I didn’t say it, I also wanted to see what the embedding process itself was like. This was introduced by the Pentagon at the start of the war to allow journalists to attach themselves to invading military units and see the fighting up close. As Iraq grew steadily more violent, embedding became one of the main ways journalists could get out into the field. Baghdad continues to be a very dangerous place for journalists, with kidnapping an ever-present concern. (Whenever I traveled outside the CBS News compound where I stayed, I had to go in three cars, two of them armored, accompanied by eight armed guards.) Embedding thus remains an important means of seeing the country.
The neighborhood I was going to see was Dora. Once a solidly middle-class district full of ex-Baathists, Dora had gradually been taken over by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had imposed an Islamic reign of terror. Fighting back, Shiite militiamen had waged their own bloody war on the population, with mutilated bodies regularly turning up on the street. More than two hundred US soldiers had died there in the first half of 2007 alone.1 But with the Sunni backlash against al-Qaeda and the parallel adoption of counterinsurgency tactics by the US military, the neighborhood had lately become pacified, and it was now a showcase for visiting journalists and pundits.
At precisely nine o’clock, a convoy of four US military vehicles pulled into the asphalt lot near the crossed sabers. From one of them emerged a trim, fair-haired man in camouflage fatigues who introduced himself as Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Watson, the commanding officer of the unit I was joining. “We’re going in an MRAP, OK?” he said, gesturing toward a bulky, bristling Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. A sort of armored truck with heavy metal plates along its bottom, the MRAP was designed to provide extra protection against roadside bombs, but since being…
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