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Excerpt: A Fist in the Hornet's Nest

While most journalists during the Iraq war embedded with U.S. troops, this young correspondent forged his own path, working as a freelancer for ABC News. A new book vividly details his experience inside the action in the Middle East before, during, and after the war.

- April 2, 2004

The tank shell that smashed into the Palestine Hotel sent bits of concrete pouring down onto the roof of a tent, where I'd been sitting, urgently discussing with my friend Ismail how we could stay safe on this, the heaviest day of the fighting we'd seen in Baghdad.

"We've been hit," I thought when I heard the explosion above me. It was so loud that I instinctively bent over and covered my head with my hands. I had no idea who had fired on us, or with what. More important, I didn't know if there was more of it on the way.

I ran out of the tent onto the grassy lawn in the shadow of the Palestine, craning my neck to see what had slammed into the upper floors of the hotel. I struggled to snap on my black helmet as I ran to record what was going on around me with my handheld digital video (DV) camera. The video was very shaky. I was breathing hard.

When I first saw the destruction, I was sure it had been caused by a relatively small weapon, perhaps a rocket-propelled grenade. The explosive had hit the tower of the hotel where the guest rooms were located. The Palestine consisted of a large rectangular base, which housed the lobby, the restaurant, a coffee shop, several conference rooms, and a boutique that sold Iraqi souvenirs, including Bedouin clothing, checkered headscarves, and stuffed camels. The 18-story tower grew out of the middle of the base. The tank shell had shorn off the corner of the tower's 14th and 15th floors. The damage also appeared to have been made by something fired from the ground and not by the many fighter jets and helicopters that had been ferociously attacking Baghdad all morning. I noted these observations in my head as I ran around the hotel holding my little DV camera—my flak jacket thumping against me with each stride and my helmet slipping off my head—trying to figure out if the time had finally come to flee the hotel for one of the safe houses I had established.

From where I stood staring up at the building, I could hear a female journalist screaming in panic. She was one floor above me, standing on the roof over the hotel's lobby and conference rooms. It was effectively a balcony where most of the broadcast journalists did our transmissions. She was yelling, "We're all going to die! We're all going to die!" She'd snapped. The strike on the Palestine was the critical moment of what had already been a harrowing day.

I'd woken that morning to the sound of U.S. fighter jets tearing through the sky over the hotel. It sounded like a giant zipper. The jets were buzzing so low that the glass balcony door in my room trembled like the top of a snare drum. I rolled out of my bed, belly to the floor, and inched over to the balcony, where I watched the jets swoop over Baghdad like birds of prey, releasing bombs from their talons. I saw those bombs crumple the buildings they hit, turning the concrete and glass structures into what looked like heaps of freshly tilled topsoil out of which sprouted mushroom clouds of pure white smoke.

A journalist had already been killed that day in Baghdad. American forces had destroyed the office of the Arab television network al-Jazeera in the early-morning hours, killing a reporter. Al-Jazeera's office—along with the bureau of the rival Arabic-language satellite television network Abu Dhabi—was across the Tigris River from the Palestine in a much more dangerous part of the city. Thus far, Baghdad's western bank had been attacked by U.S. forces every day of the war. It was clearly the best place in the city to take pictures—some of the images the two Arab networks broadcast were nothing less than extraordinary—but the location was far too risky. They were killing themselves to compete with each other. I'd offered the Abu Dhabi team a chance to stay with me at the Palestine. I told them that I thought the two networks had been pushing their luck too far throughout the war. "You're too close," I said.

This is not to justify what happened. I've been told that both al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi had given the Pentagon the global positioning system (GPS) coordinates of their bureaus in Baghdad. The Americans, therefore, should have known where they were. The U.S. military's attitude, however, was that anyone who wasn't embedded with them was in Iraq at his or her own risk.

That day—April 8, 2003—I also witnessed what was for me the most terrifying air attack carried out by what I suspect may be the most frightening plane in the U.S. arsenal: the A-10 Thunderbolt II, more commonly called the A-10 Warthog because of its stubby, inelegant shape and the grunting noise it makes when it fires its anti-tank machine gun. From my balcony I'd watched the stocky little plane fly low and slow over the city, dropping rows of flares to divert heat-seeking anti-aircraft rockets fired at it; none were. The pilot also performed acrobatics to protect the plane, swooping up and down and from side to side as if in an air show. The A-10 Warthog is armed with a Gatling gun in its nose that fires huge 30mm bullets hardened with depleted uranium that penetrate tank armor. The spinning gun fires bullets so quickly that it's impossible to distinguish the sound of the individual shots, and the rapid firing blends together to make a low-pitch grinding sound like an upstairs neighbor dragging a heavy sofa across the floor. I watched the plane unleash its Gatling gun on the Iraqi ministry of planning, which, like all ministries at this stage in the war, was empty. The barrage of bullets made it look as if someone were cutting the ministry in half with a giant chain saw. I wondered at the time why a plane designed to destroy tanks was firing on an empty building. I cynically suspected the pilot of testing out the Warthog's capabilities, "letting her rip," so to speak.

The Warthog wasn't the only American hunter prowling the sky and providing close air support to the advancing troops that day. I also watched a pair of U.S. attack helicopters in action a few miles to the south of the Palestine. I'd filmed them circling each other like bees over a flower, their noses pointing down toward the streets. They were occasionally firing into the city, destroying anyone and anything that threatened the tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) filled with marines advancing below them.

Throughout the day, I'd heard gunfire crackling around the hotel and Iraqi artillery being launched from behind a row of nearby buildings. The artillery shells had been whizzing overhead on their way to the western bank, where the U.S. Army had taken up position one day earlier. I suspected many of the artillery shells were probably landing on Iraqi homes in the area.

Earlier, I'd still had the feeling that the Palestine was in the calm eye of the hurricane, albeit an eye that was shrinking by the minute. That changed when the hotel itself was shelled.

I rushed back to the tent to see what Ismail thought about the attack on the Palestine. Ismail—a stocky Turk in his forties with a crew cut, a thick neck, and round sensitive eyes—was in charge of the Turkish satellite uplink service I'd been using for my live shots, a company called IHA. The tent we were in was IHA's makeshift office, equipped with a television set, a satellite telephone, a bed, a small refrigerator, and an area with a carpet for Ismail and his team of five cameramen and satellite-uplink engineers to pray; they were all Muslims. All of his equipment was powered by several generators that Ismail had rigged with auxiliary gas tanks so they could run 24 hours a day. Ismail had once been an officer in the Turkish military and still acted the part. He was firm, always spoke his mind, and thought of his team before himself. His crew ate together and relied on Ismail to settle all disputes. If the team had only three pieces of bread, they were given to Ismail to divide equally.

I told Ismail that I suspected Iraqi fedayeen, officially known as Fedayeen Saddam or the Saddam Commandos, had fired a shoulder-launched rocket at the hotel from one of the nearby buildings, but I wasn't satisfied with this explanation. I couldn't understand why they'd bother to shoot at a hotel full mostly of Western reporters. We weren't a threat to them. "Could it be an eye for an eye for killing the al-Jazeera reporter?" I wondered.

Ismail had another, more ominous theory. He suspected that the director general of the Iraqi Information Ministry and press center, Uday al-Ta'e, was responsible for the attack. Ismail had seen Uday lingering below the part of the hotel that had been hit a few minutes before the attack. Uday had been searching for a camera that had been providing pictures to the Fox cable news network. Uday had kicked Fox out of Iraq before the start of the war, apparently for being too supportive of U.S. military action, and had specifically ordered journalists not to film from their hotel rooms. But Fox had managed to continue broadcasting live pictures from Baghdad, even though the network didn't have a correspondent in the city. There had been a camera on the balcony of one of the rooms that had been hit. Ismail believed that if Uday suspected the camera on the balcony belonged to Fox, he was capable of ordering the attack to shut it down and send a message to other journalists to follow his dictates or else. It was a chilling thought. Even though I'd always had an amiable relationship with Uday and he didn't seem to be a sinister combination of evil and lazy, like some other Iraqi government officials, Ismail's theory did seem plausible. Since the start of the war, I'd been haunted by thoughts of what Iraqi officials might do to Western reporters during the final stages of the war when it became clear that the Saddam regime was fighting for its life. Now that we had clearly arrived at that critical stage, I was especially concerned, as one of less than a dozen American reporters still in Baghdad. I'd also noticed Uday looking despondent over the last twenty-four hours, sitting alone at night in his office in the lobby of the Palestine. I feared that Uday had realized that soon he would be an outlaw. I worried Uday might have become a desperate man.

Shouts from the hotel lobby interrupted my discussion with Ismail. Journalists were bringing down our colleagues who'd been injured by the shelling. I saw a cameraman rushed out of the hotel and loaded into a waiting car. He was wrapped in a bloody bedsheet. His eyes were expressionless and his face was blank. Other reporters came out, several splattered with blood. It was hard to tell who was injured and who was offering relief. This was the image I had in my mind when I walked in front of the live camera to do a report for Good Morning America. The editors told me in my earpiece that General Buford Blount of the Army's Third Infantry Division had announced that one of his tanks had fired the shell at the Palestine Hotel in response to shots coming from there.

"But that's not true," I said.

"That's what the general is saying," I was told. "He said the tank crew responded to sniper and RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] fire from the hotel.

"After the tank fired," they told me the general said, "the shooting stopped."

I hadn't heard a single shot come from the hotel. None of the journalists had. That's what I said on air.

After the broadcast I climbed the stairs to the 14th floor to see the damage. The power had been out for several days and emergency generators were operating the elevators, but I didn't want to risk getting stuck. I walked into the damaged room and onto the balcony, where I saw my colleagues' blood amid the shattered glass and broken concrete. From the balcony I could also see the tank that had fired at us.

That night we held a candlelight vigil on the lawn for our colleagues who died of their wounds. Many of the journalists were crying. An Iraqi man stood up to make a speech during the vigil. Everyone fell silent. He started shouting, banging his fists on the table we'd set up for the candles and calling us mercenaries who were only interested in making money off the blood of the Iraqi people. I went upstairs to my room bitter at the world and wrote in my journal:

April 8:

I watched U.S. tanks and APCs rolling on the other side of the river today. They were moving back and forth, kicking up dust and smoke. Then I saw two tanks take up positions on the bridge.

Then I heard about the al-Jazeera reporter. I'd just spoken yesterday to the Abu Dhabi correspondent, telling him that I thought his office was no longer safe. He said, "but al-Jazeera is there."

That poor reporter, he'd just gotten here a few days ago.

Then the hotel itself was hit. I was down in the IHA tent. I ran outside. There didn't seem to be too much damage. I thought it was probably an RPG fired by the Iraqis. Ismail suspected foul play from Uday.

I went up to the room on the 14th floor. The glass balcony door was shattered. The balcony itself was crumbling. There was a pool of blood and blood on the shards of glass. There were long sweeping tracks of bloodstains on the carpet where the injured reporter had evidently been dragged. It was the blood of a Spanish guy from Telecinco. His blood was also on the sheets that the others had used to help him. His leg had nearly been blown off. His bone was broken, his leg hanging on by a piece of flesh. The Reuters guy in the room on the 15th floor was wounded in the belly. His guts were hanging out. He died after that.

U.S. General Blount said there was sniper and RPG fire coming from the hotel. This is nothing less than total bullshit. There was no fire and I've been here all day. Then a general at the [U.S. Central Command] briefing in Doha said there had been "hostile intent" from the hotel and that the army does not "target" journalists. If it was not "targeted" then why was the army taking "wild shots" at a hotel full of journalists? The tank commander probably thought the camera was a Stinger missile or some type of shoulder-launched rocket. The stinger has a lens similar to a TV Betacam. But didn't he know this hotel is full of reporters with TV cameras?

War, life, and death are too important to be put in the hands of some 19-year-old who has never left the States. It's too important to be left to children. The soldier who fired the shell probably isn't old enough to have a beer in a bar, but he can fire a tank!

I put down my pen and tried to catch a few hours of sleep. I thought about the reporters who had died. They were not my friends, though I'd seen them around. But I did know that I could just as easily have been one of the casualties. I wondered how I'd come to be in Iraq and how we as a country had arrived here too.

This is excerpted from A Fist in the Hornet's Nest, by Richard Engel. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Engel and published by Hyperion. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy A Fist in the Hornet's Nest at Amazon.com.

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