The Road From Baghdad

Last night my room at the Palestine, the hotel where journalists are staying in Baghdad, was ripped apart by Iraqi secret police. They found an illegal satellite phone and told me to be out of country by 7 a.m. today. Though I’ve been ordered out before, they made very clear that this time I would be arrested if I didn’t go.

To get out of Baghdad is not easy. Along with Marco DiLauro, an Italian photographer who was also being expelled, I managed to rent a GMC 4-wheel drive. A little after 7 a.m., we set off on the road that leads west toward both Jordan and Syria. We were going to make our decision about which border to head for depending on the military situation we encountered.

In Baghdad, nearly all the men on the streets are armed. But after passing Iraqi military positions on the way out of the city, we saw no Iraqi forces whatsoever. At first, we couldn’t tell who was in control of the highway. But less than 50 miles on, we ran into what looked like American forces. We stopped the car and got out, waving white handkerchiefs. We walked 100 yards to a position of what turned out to be Australian special forces, armed with artillery and about a dozen Humvee-type vehicles.

Despite the fact that they surrounded us, making us get down on our hands and knees as they searched us, we were delighted to see them. Once the Australians determined we were friendly, they were happy to see us too—and interested in how little military presence we’d seen exiting Baghdad. Then they sent us on our way toward Jordan.

The desert road was surreal, littered with the carcasses of dozens of burnt-out vehicles, including Iraqi armored personnel carriers with incinerated bodies inside. We saw ruined bridges and what looked like the skeleton of a Syrian tourist bus. Red Crescent vehicles passed in the other direction, ferrying medical supplies toward Baghdad. At one point a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter bore hovered above, but it left us alone after making out the letters “TV,” which we’d applied to the roof of our truck with black duct tape.

For 350 miles, we saw no Iraqi military presence at all. But at the border, Saddam loyalists were still in control of the Iraqi side—200 feet from our nominal allies the Jordanians. Customs officials elaborately searched our bags and stamped our passports. They checked to see that the serial numbers on our computers matched those indicated on our entry documents—as if we were leaving some normal country.