The Magazine

Under Fire in Baghdad

From the November 10, 2003 issue: Distinguishing foe from foe.

Nov 10, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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IT WAS 6:03 A.M. on my Timex Expedition watch, which I always keep four minutes fast. The phone in our room at the al Rashid Hotel rang and my roommate, James Kitfield of National Journal, thanked the person for the wake-up. Bleary-eyed, we exchanged incoherent small talk. When did you get back last night? Sleep well? Hear about the Black Hawk downed in Tikrit?

We spent a little extra time on that last one. We had both been in Tikrit the day before. I learned about the helicopter at the filing center for journalists set up near our Baghdad hotel. Jim had already gone back to the room and saw the news on CNN. The Black Hawk hadn't actually been shot down, as CNN initially reported, but had taken fire from a rocket-propelled grenade after landing. One soldier had been wounded. We joked a bit about how this wouldn't help us convince loved ones back home not to be worried as we zipped around Iraq for three days with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Because he'd gotten a couple more hours of sleep than I did, Kitfield volunteered to shower first. But I couldn't sleep. I stood in front of the picture window in Room 1136 of the al Rashid, looking at the small courtyard below and the vast public park beyond the concrete wall that enclosed the hotel grounds. In the distance on my left, I could see Saddam Hussein's old parade grounds. I've long been fascinated by the monuments that mark the beginning and end of the parade route--identical sets of arms holding two swords that cross over the street. The blades form arches, maybe 10 stories high. Processions of soldiers used to pass underneath these arches in celebrations that were not infrequent in the late 1980s, when Iraq was a military power.

More than almost anything else in Iraq, this display--the giant arms are said to be exact replicas of the former Iraqi dictator's, down to the hair follicles--captures the egomania and megalomania of the old regime. The ground beneath the arches is paved with the helmets of dead Iranian soldiers. I hadn't yet seen it up close, and I began to think through how I might propose a brief visit to one of Wolfowitz's top aides, Kevin Kellems.

As my eyes wandered, my gaze passed over a bright blue trailer just on the other side of a wall near the al Rashid. It was parked at the end of a cul-de-sac off a newly opened road just outside of the heavily fortified "green zone," maybe 200 yards from the hotel. That it was out of place--a small patch of color in a landscape that was otherwise desert brown to the horizon--seemed curious but not threatening.

A moment later, I watched as the first rocket left the trailer and whizzed over the wall toward the hotel. Then came another, and another, and another, and another, and another--flares of orange on a straight-line trajectory into the lower floors of the hotel. I suppose I expected them to stop, figuring whoever was shooting would have to pause and reload. So for probably 15 or 20 seconds, I stood at the window and watched. I looked in vain for the people firing at us. And the rockets just kept coming.

It finally occurred to me that standing in front of a window was not a good place to be, so I turned and ran out of the room. In the time it took for me to get from the window to the door--maybe two seconds--one of the rockets hit our floor. The hallway was filled with smoke, so, taking my cues from two soldiers crawling on their knees and elbows, I dropped to the floor. The door to my room shut behind me. Remembering that Kitfield was still in the shower, I pounded on the door to get his attention, but he was already on his way out. He joined me in the hallway and we waited until the concussive blasts had ended.

The hallway had already begun flooding. Six rooms down from ours, an internal wall had been blown into the hall by the rocket. The smoke seemed to be getting thicker, and there were shouted warnings of a "big fire," though I never saw one. I stopped in the room next door to ours, where NBC News cameraman Jim Long and veteran Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski were standing in front of the window. Long was shooting video of the smoke near the blue trailer.

I walked down the hall to survey the damage. It was restricted to one room, but extensive. Water on the 11th floor was more than ankle-deep. The man staying in the room that was hit, Lt. Col. Charles Buehring, was a top adviser to L. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator of Iraq. Buehring, described to me by several of his colleagues as a "true American hero," did not survive his injuries. In all, 16 al Rashid guests were injured.

As I walked down the 11 flights of stairs to the lobby, I noticed a small drop of blood near the fourth-floor landing. By the time I reached the ground floor, the white tiles were mostly covered with red footprints--some showing the treads of shoes, others the imprints of bare feet.