BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The trip to Baghdad begins before dawn, hours after the first missiles fall on Iraq.
An orange-and-white GMC Suburban carries three journalists and an Iraqi businessman named Yusef, a portly fellow with an anxious family awaiting his return. Bilal, the lanky driver, packs the jeep with basics -- cartons of bottled drinking water, orange juice, instant soup, apples, tangerines, carrots, coffee, tea, canned milk. Then, bags of whiskey, cigarettes, aspirin and cheap perfume to help negotiate the Iraqi border and beyond -- if need be.
The two-lane road leads from the hilltops of Amman eastward through a barren landscape and several checkpoints, including Rueshet, the last place in Jordan where one can buy a clean, packaged syringe -- for the AIDS test on the other side.
In the last 90 miles to the border, Bedouin tents and herds of sheep flash by. Tankers ferry Iraqi oil to the Jordanian kingdom. Then, at the end of a winding asphalt road appears an archway and the smiling visage of Saddam Hussein, in Arab headdress and tribal robe.
Welcome to Iraq.
A VIP letter from the Iraqi embassy in Amman wins access to a spacious lounge, decorated with wall-size paintings of the Iraqi president, and a modest Arab-style bathroom -- a porcelain hole in the floor and a water pitcher.
More pressing matters lie ahead. Will the laptop computer make it through customs with its modem? What about a colleague's satellite phone?
And that AIDS test with the $50 price tag? The last time a CNN personality came through here, even she had to take the test.
In the VIP lounge the television is tuned to the government station. Amid the Arabic comes the name, "Clinton." An Iraqi border official hisses, "Son of bitch."
A Jordanian woman, Holul Abdelat, is returning with her husband and infant son from Baghdad, their stay cut short by the American missile strike early this morning. Learning that the journalists are Americans, the woman retorts angrily: "Being brave is not bombing from the air. It's fighting face to face, soldier to soldier, enemy to enemy. If it wasn't for this baby we would stay in Baghdad because we are like the Iraqi people. We are no different.
"What's the use of this?" she asks, referring to the military campaign. "Nothing!"
The paperwork is finished. The VIP letters stamped in Amman have smoothed the way -- without a drop of blood being drawn for the dreaded AIDS test.
Five hours down, 500 miles to go. The desert stretches forlornly to the horizon -- flat, featureless, forever. The hulking GMC races down the six-lane highway, passing anyone in its way.
Yusef the businessman is headed home because he fears for his family. As for Saddam Hussein, he says, "We like him for the time being. He is a good man for now. We are 14 minorities [in Iraq]. Only Saddam Hussein can control these many."
We pass concrete picnic tables with metal umbrellas. Who would picnic here? A truck stop with a blue-domed mosque appears next. Antenna towers dot the monotonous landscape. There is time to sleep. But who can sleep?
At last the desert gives way to the green banks of the Euphrates River, a village of mud houses shaded by date palms, women in purple robes crossing a field, the foreboding walls of an infamous prison, and then a sign:
Baghdad, 21 miles.
The van pulls into the gated driveway of the Al Rasheed Hotel as the sky is turning the dusty rose of dusk. Baghdad, a city of Soviet-style buildings and blue-tiled mosques, is preparing for evening prayers and another night of strikes. The hotel clerks, however, offer a hearty welcome. Santa Claus decorates the marble lobby walls.
The journalists report to the government press center, a dingy warren of cubicles overrun by television crews, satellite dishes and swarms of reporters. Functionaries unlock computers and phones that had been wired shut at the border. Reporters who want to see the destruction from the first volley of missiles are assigned a government translator -- or "minder."
Casualties from the first American airstrike are being tallied. On a busy street, bulldozers claw through concrete and rubble to repair a crater-sized hole made by a cruise missile.
Six hours to deadline. With the minder in tow, reporters hurry to query local people before the next wave of strikes.
A groom on his wedding night asks, "You are American? Aren't you afraid?"
There is little time to be afraid. The rhythm of this high-tech war stretches workdays into long, heavy-lidded nights capped by nightly condemnations of the U.S. and Britain by Iraqi officials. Then comes the cacophony of whistling missiles and popping artillery fire.
Traveling in the city late at night might mean getting caught in a missile attack. One evening the missiles fall early, about 6: 30 p.m., and a diplomat offers overnight sanctuary. But getting stuck at an embassy across town isn't an option for a daily newspaper reporter. During a lag in the bombing, the journalist jumps into a taxi and rushes to the hotel.
From the 13th floor of the Al Rasheed, the big screen of the night sky projects special effects rivaling George Lucas' "Star Wars." The missiles unnerve even the stout-hearted. A distant rumbling gives way to a sonic boom. Flickering red lights of artillery fire pale against the fireball tunneling through a nearby building.
A tip: Keep the windows open. When the missiles hit their targets with a roar, buildings shake and closed windows shatter.
A watching poet might choose to count stars. Or mistake the artillery fire for a sweep of red-tailed comets. Or wait wide-eyed for dawn and the crowing of a cock.
By day, the skies fall silent and Iraqis carry on with the business of living.
As angry as they are, Iraqis also are friendly and gracious. Even in the middle of punishing airstrikes, they epitomize the hospitality Arab people pride themselves on.
The days bring an invitation to join a wedding party, a climb up a mosque minaret in search of the crescent moon of Ramadan, impoverished children in Basra mugging for the cameras, a late-night dinner of homemade lentil soup and chicken kebab.
At a money changer's counter, eyebrows rise as the merchant, Maher, realizes his customer is an American. The journalist tries to be soothing: the Iraqi and American people have no quarrel, she says; it is their governments who are fighting.
"Yes," says Maher. "Our two governments have problems, but why they shoot us? So many missiles. So many bombs."
The customer offers an embarrassed apology and prepares to leave. The money changer proffers a complimentary copy of a Ramadan calendar.
"Welcome," he says. "You are most welcome."
Pub Date: 12/28/98