- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

On to Baghdad

“How do you feel?” our correspondent Willis Witter was asked just before getting into a car in Jordan for his first trip to Baghdad.

“A little bit like being at an amusement park and getting in line to ride the giant roller coaster,” Mr. Witter replied.

Mr. Witter showed both courage and enterprise during his three months in Pakistan and Afghanistan covering the Afghan war in 2002.

But every foreign assignment creates its own sense of anxiety and anticipation, especially when traveling to a country where the violence is as random and plentiful as in Iraq.

Mr. Witter is luckier than many first-time visitors to the Iraqi capital in that he has a first-rate guide. Washington Times photographer Maya Alleruzzo, who with reporter Betsy Pisik was among the first journalists to get into Iraq from Kuwait at the start of the war, is back with Mr. Witter for a second tour.

Miss Alleruzzo, I am told, had hardly set foot outside the United States before she went to the Middle East 13 months ago, but within weeks had established herself as a masterful “fixer.”

It was on Miss Alleruzzo’s advice that they entered Iraq this time from Jordan rather than Kuwait; either way it’s about a 12-hour drive across the desert, but there is less potential for trouble in the mostly barren western desert near Jordan.

“How do the trips across the desert work?” Mr. Witter says he asked Miss Alleruzzo.

He says she replied that she hadn’t actually done it from Jordan, “but it was her understanding that cars join up in convoys and drive fast and nobody stops anywhere.”

“Are there armed guards?” Mr. Witter wanted to know.

“No, the cars just drive real fast,” he was told.

“What if you have to urinate,” Mr. Witter says he asked.

“Use a bottle,” came the reply.

Like an Interstate

From Amman to the Iraqi border was an uneventful five-hour drive in the white Chevrolet Suburban with a driver hired for the trip by Miss Alleruzzo.

At the border, Mr. Witter says, “I remember going into a bunch of crowded offices with shouting people, following Maya with my passport in my hands. Things just started happening — our driver told me where to go and it seemed like I was ushered to the front of the line.

“The next thing I knew, we were in the car heading across the Iraqi desert toward Baghdad.”

As it turned out, there was no convoy, but there were other cars on the road — and they all were going very fast. The road, once notorious for its bumps and potholes, is now “really good, U.S. Interstate quality, and I was kind of hypnotized by the desert,” Mr. Witter said.

And the bottle was unnecessary; the car did make stops at places with usable if primitive toilets.

Once in Baghdad, it didn’t take long for our reporting team to find their feet.

Two days after their arrival, the Iraqi Governing Council agreed on an interim constitution and Mr. Witter swung into action preparing an analysis of the document and what it means for Iraq’s future. Three days later he was writing about the collapse of the constitutional agreement.

And in between, a series of bombs tore through the crowds marking Shi’ite Islam’s most sacred day in Baghdad and Karbala, producing the biggest one-day death toll since the end of the war.

Both Mr. Witter and Miss Alleruzzo were on the scene of the Baghdad bombings within minutes, and Mr. Witter’s account on our front page Wednesday neatly combined his own description of the scene with a well-crafted retelling of the facts.

Mr. Witter will stay in Iraq at least until the end of March, in part because it is the one place in the world where we can count on finding a story almost any day of the week.

The other reason is that we believe Iraq will be a top story for years to come, and we want as many of our people as possible to see the country first-hand. Mr. Witter is the third foreign desk staffer to get to Baghdad; I don’t believe he will be the last.

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

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