Embedded in Najaf

Tent C-5, a Dorm Room in the Desert
Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 1 2004 1:59 PM

Embedded in Najaf

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Life in Iraq is a hotter version of the movie Groundhog Day, an endless loop where time seems to have stopped. The sky is always blue, the air is always dry, and rain is as unimaginable as peace. A weatherman would die of boredom. (Just after Saddam was ousted, an English-language newspaper popped up in Baghdad, a cheery tabloid produced by American reporters hoping to profit from the reconstruction boom. I remember a forecast from September 2003: "Monday: Sunny, 42 C/108 F; Tuesday: Sunny and hot, 43 C/110 F." The newspaper—I can't remember its name—is gone now, like the reconstruction boom and so much else.)

I like hot weather, which is lucky for me since I spent August in Najaf, an Iraqi city that is home to the shrine of Imam Ali. The Shiites believe that Ali is the rightful heir to the prophet Mohammed, and they revere the shrine, which supposedly holds Ali's remains. I was there as a guest of the U.S. Marine Corps, as an embedded journalist.

The battle for Najaf started in early August, when a Marine unit new to the area confronted guerrillas loyal to Muqtada Sadr. A fierce battle ensued, and the Marine press office arranged for reporters and photographers to fly down to the Marine camp in Najaf, Forward Operating Base Hotel.

Despite the military's love of red tape, embedding is surprisingly casual, especially at the front lines, where commanders worry mostly about keeping their troops alive. We didn't have minders to watch our movements; in fact, the officers at Hotel seemed surprised when we told them we planned to stay a while. They found us a spare tent, C-5, in a cluster a quarter-mile north of their squat concrete headquarters building. The tents slept about 15 Marines each and were identical except for their colors—some khaki, others pale gray. Even the Marines occasionally mistook one for another. We distinguished ours with a water bottle at the entrance.

For the rest of the battle, C-5 was home. We had no running water, though we did have electricity for our laptops and satellite phones. After a couple days, the place looked like a dorm room, strewn with extension cords and jury-rigged electrical outlets. We also had a 6-foot-tall air-conditioning unit. Still, C-5 wasn't about to be confused with the Ritz. During the day, the air conditioning hardly mattered, and when the wind kicked up, the flapping of the tent's walls made me long for Dramamine. I soon discovered that I preferred being outside. Better 120 degrees in the sun than 100 in a canvas-walled oven.

As more reporters arrived and the tent filled up, I wondered whether we would get along. I hadn't shared a room with a stranger since my freshman year of college, and I hadn't lived in a tent since camp. But the situation worked out more smoothly than I expected. The rules were mostly unspoken: We're here to work, not sleep, so anyone working has the right to keep the lights on, although if you can write in the dark, you'll be greatly appreciated. Keep your voice down when you're on the phone (I'll plead guilty to violating that one). Smoke your cigars outside. Pick up your trash—the Marines aren't providing maid service. Don't try to eavesdrop on other people's feature stories. Don't wander around in your underwear. Basically, don't be a jerk, and respect everyone else's privacy as much as possible. I wouldn't say we became best friends, but considering that we lived and worked within arm's length, we got along reasonably well.

After a few days, more embeds arrived, including crews from CNN and Fox, about a dozen people in all. I wondered what we would do if more cable outlets or the networks arrived with their mountains of gear. I needn't have worried. No one else bothered to come. The average Paris Hilton book signing gets more coverage.

The light turnout highlighted just how weak U.S. coverage of the war has become. Part of the problem, of course, is that working in Iraq is so dangerous. I had a close call in Najaf at the hands of a Shiite mob—microscopically close, as a Marine major put it—and I am hardly the only American reporter in that category. In a country where every Westerner is a walking ransom, even driving the streets in daylight is dangerous. So the war is fading off front pages and TV screens, leaving a vacuum filled with rumors, spin, and misinformation.

Alex Berenson is an author and journalist. From 2000 to 2010, he worked as a business and investigative reporter for the New York Times. His seventh novel, The Night Ranger, will be published in February.