By: Niko Price, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The sky was black, except for smoldering fires and distant explosions. Shot-up cars lined the highway. Craters pocked the bridges. Other than that, there was little sign of an invading army.
Suddenly, headlights illuminated our column — dozens of cars filled with journalists from around the world. They were coming straight at us, on the wrong side of the road. It was a pickup truck of Iraqi fighters, and they sped by toward the rear of our convoy.
Then there were gunshots.
We had traveled 300 miles across western Iraq to within 20 miles of Baghdad — tantalizingly close, yet separated by fierce fighting and uncertain lines of control.
And we had no clue what — or who — was between us and our destination.
The column formed Thursday morning in al-Ruweishid in eastern Jordan, planning to leave at 4 a.m. In it were television crews, photographers and writers — Japanese, Mexican, Norwegian, Australian, Malaysian, British, American, and many more.
After weeks of waiting for an entry into the biggest story in the world, many were frustrated and anxious to get into Baghdad. Several small groups had set out only to return to Jordan reporting heavy fighting; others, we heard, had made it safely to the Iraqi capital.
Jordanian officials said they had closed the border for our safety, but at 10 a.m. suddenly reversed themselves and said anyone with an Iraqi visa could cross. The line of cars, mostly white Chevrolet Suburbans, raced the 50 miles to the border.
We would drive to the first American checkpoint and camp for the night, so we could travel to Baghdad in daylight. We were told that checkpoint was 90 miles away.
Hundreds of journalists swarmed the Jordanian immigration checkpoint, handing over passports and clamoring to get them back with an exit seal. At 2:30 p.m., the convoy set out.
At the final Jordanian checkpoint, border guard Alla Adin looked over an American passport and smiled devilishly. His fingers formed a gun, and his mouth made the sound of a gun shooting as he tapped the journalist’s helmet.
There were no stops on the Iraqi side. The only people at the border office were looters hauling off tables and throwing sofa cushions out of windows. A lone dog wandered through the customs post.
And then flat, flat desert, melting into the horizon as it shimmered with heat. For hundreds of miles, there was only reddish, gravelly sand with patches of green moss.
Occasionally, the carcass of a bombed vehicle dotted the side of the road. Even more infrequently, a taxi would pass, racing toward Jordan. Some of the occupants waved. Some just stared.
Bedouin herded sheep by the roadside, but there was little sign of life, except for an old man at a closed resthouse, waving to the journalists from a lawn chair.
After passing the first town, Rutbah, we came to a bridge torn apart by bombs. We drove over it, the cars rocking. A white bus sat by the bridge, bombed and burned. “Fuorat Tours,” read the logo, bearing five stars. “Welcome with you.”
Farther along came the first sign of military action, a 14-car convoy of coalition troops driving in the other direction. One soldier smiled and gave a thumbs-up. Nobody stopped.
About 100 miles west of Baghdad, the convoy stopped at the first gas station to refuel. Four armored trucks drove by slowly, then moved on.
It was getting dark.
The convoy pulled over to the side of the highway and stopped. There had been no American checkpoint. Nobody knew who controlled the area — or if anyone did.
Huddled by the side of the highway, one journalist was delegated to place a call to the U.S. military attache in Jordan.
Should we press on toward Baghdad? she asked. No — you will get shot, she was told.
Should we head south toward Karbala? No — there is heavy fighting there.
Should we head back toward Jordan? Not at night.
Should we stay put by the side of the road?
Not if you want to live.
And so we pressed on, not because it seemed wise, but because none of the other options did either.
Suddenly, a huge fire appeared to the left of the road. The pickup truck filled with Iraqi fighters raced by. And gunshots stopped us cold.
For a few terrifying minutes, we considered our options. Then the desert camouflage of an American uniform came into sight. We had come to a coalition checkpoint.
The Americans — three Humvees with three soldiers each — lined us up at the side of the highway and offered us protection for the night.
“The bottom line is, this is a pretty hot area,” said Sgt. Corey Birchfield, 25, of Asheville, N.C. “But we’ll take care of you.”
Through the night, gunfire crackled around us. The thud of heavy outgoing fire echoed from a few hundred yards away and four tanks rumbled by to help in a nearby battle.
In the distance, the glow of fires from Baghdad lit up the sky.
At first light Friday we set out again. The soldiers had promised an escort, but it never materialized. We drove into the outskirts of Baghdad, passing signs of recent heavy fighting.
Shells of destroyed Iraqi tanks lined the road. Civilian cars, trucks, and buses lay scorched among them. Artillery shells littered the asphalt and one car’s tire set off a small explosive. Smoke snaked into the sky.
The next checkpoint was a group of tanks holding a cloverleaf intersection. Capt. David Waldron, 30, of Natick, Mass., peered at a map from atop his tank, its gun painted with the name “Mr. Bombastik.”
“It’s not safe,” he said. “We’re still taking heavy fire, but they probably won’t shoot at you.”
Roadblocks by Iraqis holding Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers waved the convoy through. Some American checkpoints turned us back to try other routes.
At one, next to Saddam Hussein’s military parade ground, the commander said we couldn’t get through. A journalist informed him that CBS anchorman Dan Rather was among us, and the soldier agreed to let us through if we produced Rather. Rather appeared; we drove on.
We drove past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, now a base for American forces. We drove past the toppled statue of Saddam atop a horse in front of the Military Industrial Ministry. We passed the body of an Iraqi sprawled next to the Al-Rashid Hotel.
We passed the Information Ministry, where looters made off with equipment many of us had used here only weeks earlier. We passed a flattened shopping center where many of us had shopped.
Finally we arrived at the Palestine Hotel, where many of us had stayed until just before the bombing began.
It had seemed like a dump at the time. Right now, it was heaven.