- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 11, 2004

Our man in Fallujah

A week ago I wrote that travel in Iraq had become so hazardous that our correspondent Willis Witter hesitated to rush off to Fallujah when four American contractors were murdered there, and that I was glad he hadn’t tried.

But it’s hard to keep a good reporter away from a story. So I was less than astonished to pick up the phone on Wednesday and hear Mr. Witter’s voice saying faintly over a crackly line, “I’m in Fallujah.”

With U.S. forces mounting their biggest operation in Iraq since the official end of the war, he had decided that was the place to be — even though his partner, photographer Maya Alleruzzo, was off in another part of the country working on a feature about a Washington-area National Guard unit.

The details are sketchy, as Mr. Witter and I have not had much time to talk. He left his computer behind and went to Fallujah with only a Thuraya satellite phone. He has been writing his stories in longhand and then dictating them over the phone.

But it seems that Mr. Witter simply covered himself from head to foot in a hooded Arab robe and slouched down in the front seat of a car alongside his Iraqi driver-translator for the 30-mile drive from Baghdad to Fallujah.

Once in the city, they navigated through coalition roadblocks and made their way to the command post from which Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne was directing the battle and joined up with a handful of Western reporters already embedded with the unit. Mr. Witter then sent the driver home to Baghdad.

Getting back to the capital is another issue altogether. Mr. Witter had hoped to return to Baghdad on Friday but he wisely thought better of it. Conditions on the road have deteriorated even in the few days since he drove to Fallujah; it was on Friday that insurgents kidnapped several people along that road and ambushed an American fuel convoy, creating a huge blaze that made for spectacular footage on U.S. television newscasts.

Bombing a mosque

His latest plan was to return yesterday with a U.S. military convoy — far safer than traveling alone but still no guarantee of safety. At this writing, we are still awaiting word of his safe arrival. It’s fair to ask whether the trip to Fallujah served any purpose other than to put a splashy dateline on our stories for a couple of days; this is a question we must ask ourselves whenever our people put themselves at risk, and in this case I would say it did.

Reports had begun appearing on the wire agencies earlier on Wednesday saying coalition forces had bombed a mosque in Fallujah as residents gathered for afternoon prayers and that as many as 40 worshippers had been killed in the strike.

The reports, based largely on telephone interviews with hospital officials in Fallujah, had the obvious potential to infuriate ordinary Iraqis and further inflame the situation both in the city and across the country. But by being in Fallujah, Mr. Witter was able to get an alternative account of what had happened from Col. Byrne.

According to the colonel, the Americans had been coming under heavy fire from the mosque and the compound in which it sat, beginning when a rocket-propelled grenade struck a Marine vehicle and wounded five men.

Strikes with a Hellfire missile and then with a 500-pound laser-guided bomb were called in only when the fighting persisted for hours, and even then the bomb had been dropped in such a way that the mosque itself suffered little damage, Mr. Witter reported.

When Marines entered the mosque a half-hour after the bomb ended the fighting, they found the building empty and its floor littered with shell casings. How many people were killed or injured in the mosque could not be determined, but it seems reasonable to assume that few of them were innocent worshippers.

Mr. Witter’s ability to get balanced information about the incident into the public arena may have, in some small way, helped to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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