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Many Surprises Await Reporters in Iraq

LYNN NEARY, host:

NPR's Philip Reeves has just left Iraq after his latest assignment there. He sends us this postcard.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Anyone still willing to go to Iraq to report the war knows they'll likely be some nasty surprises. Yet there are some surprises for which you do not plan.

It's very late at night. We're standing outside, ankle-deep in dust in an American military base. There's no light at all apart from that shed from above by a half-hearted moon. This is not enough to illuminate the deep gloom that's engulfed the surrounding landscape, into which we are about to plunge.

By we I mean my convoy. We are the occupants of a collection of American military vehicles about to venture out of the gates and into the province of Anbar, in western Iraq. This is, for Westerners, some of the most dangerous terrain in the country.

I'm trying to travel to another U.S. base in the area to catch a military flight back to NPR's bureau in Baghdad. No one told me about this journey when I agreed a few days earlier to be imbedded with American forces in Ramadi.

Before we set off, we gather in a huddle in the darkness. No one says much. We all know the risk. We all know American convoys around here are regularly attacked, particularly by roadside bombs.

A young officer reads out instructions about what to do if this happens. Then, head bowed, he leads our group in prayer.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: We're finally rolling. The rap music helps the soldiers manning the Humvee take their minds off the dangers. It's now so dark and dusty, that as we lumber along a long line of armored monoliths, we can hardly see the Army truck in front. Through the window, I watch Anbar slide by. We pass some dimly lit villas and a mansion or two, the sort of edifices you'd expect of Saddam's old Baathist cronies. It's impossible not to wonder who might be hiding in the shadows.

There are several nerve-shredding delays to allow U.S. forces to check out suspected bombs, spotted alongside the road ahead. Eventually we arrive safely at our destination. The journey was a measure of how wary the American military has become after persistent attacks.

This is my seventh trip to Iraq since the fall of Saddam. With every visit, I've watched Iraq become an increasingly fearful and heavily guarded place. And with every visit I faced more and more obstacles in reporting the story, bureaucratic obstacles which stem from the anxiety percolating through the American presence here.

A week or two before setting out on that trip, I went to collect my press credentials from a U.S. organization called the Combined Press Information Center. You cannot embed without them. These also allow journalists access to Baghdad's Green Zone, the fortress containing the legions of American diplomats, advisors, contractors, soldiers, and spies trying to consolidate Iraq's new government.

In the past, getting accreditation has usually been a 15-minute task. Not this time. This time, as a non-American traveling on a New Zealand passport, I was subjected to what was described as a biometric test. The military has photographed me on my previous visits. But this time a camera stared deeply into my eyes, scanning the retinas. A polite young woman soldier took fingerprints from all of my fingers and thumbs. I posed for mug shots, just as you would if you'd been caught shoplifting in New York, though they didn't make me hold up a number.

Trust is draining away here. And with every visit I make, there seems to be less and less.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.