The 16-year-old Iraqi guerrilla just stared at me, his fingers clasped around a snub-nosed pistol. It was dusk, and the tiny room was nearly dark, the mujahid's baby face partly illuminated by a dull gray light that seeped in through a barred window high in the corner. Outside the cell a half-dozen members of the Iraqi resistance were rifling through my backpack, searching for evidence that I was an American spy.
As I sat stiffly on the edge of a cot, hands on my knees, my mind raced through an inventory of what I had brought with me into Falluja: 'Newsweek' business cards that identified me as the Middle East bureau chief based in Amman, a prop I used in Arab countries to disguise the fact that I actually lived in Jerusalem; a Jordanian residency card; my "clean" American passport, filled with Arab stamps and visas (the dirty one, with my State of Israel work permit, I had left behind in Baghdad). But what about the receipt I had gotten at the Allenby Bridge, proof that I'd come to Iraq from Israel? Had I remembered to toss it out?
Another fighter, this one carrying a Kalashnikov, came in and started rummaging around a pile of cardboard boxes in the corner. He pulled out a burlap sack – the type used by the U.S. military to cover the faces of Iraqi prisoners. Oh my God, I thought. Please don't put it on my head. "I'm a journalist," I pleaded in Arabic. "Only a journalist." My young guard shook his head. "Mukhabarat," he told me. Spy. Then he drew his finger across his throat and pointed at me. "You," he said, "dead."
At nine o'clock that morning 'Newsweek' photographer Robert King and I had set out from Baghdad in a two-car convoy bound for Falluja, a 45-minute drive across Iraq's main east-west highway. The blackened carcass of a military fuel truck, struck by rocket-propelled grenades the week before, was still smoldering beneath an overpass as we reached the Baghdad city limits. King and I rode in a red armor-plated BMW with our interpreter and a driver. The lead car, an orange taxi, carried another driver and a security guard armed with a .45 pistol.
It was six weeks after four American civilians from Blackwater Security Consulting had been ambushed and murdered in Falluja, their bodies burned, dismembered, and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Two battalions of US Marines had invaded Falluja days later, bombarding the city and inflicting hundreds of casualties. Now a 1,500-man Iraqi force known as the Falluja Brigade had reportedly taken control of the streets – offering, we thought, a chance to enter the city and make contact with the Iraqi resistance.
We knew the trip was risky: The handful of journalists who had been inside in recent days had warned us that the fighters there were jittery, paranoid, and hostile toward foreigners – especially Americans. There were rumors that foreign jihadis led by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were using Falluja as a base to seize Western hostages and prepare car bombs. And I didn't know it at the time, but Nicholas Berg, a 26-year-old freelance contractor from Pennsylvania whom King vaguely knew, had been held captive for more than a month by Zarqawi's men and, just the day before, had been beheaded with a long knife. But our security guard had contacted a cousin who lived in Falluja and recruited him for the day to guide us through the city; the guard had assured us that his cousin would know in which areas we'd be safe to travel. If I had really stopped to consider the situation, I would probably have asked more questions. But I was under deadline pressure, and I wasn't prepared to let any niggling doubts stop me. If everything went well, I figured, we'd be back in Baghdad by four o'clock, early enough for our afternoon 30 laps at the al-Hamra Hotel swimming pool.
We stopped first at Camp Falluja, the main marine base in the Sunni Triangle, located in an old Iraqi army compound about two miles from the city. While the Iraqi staff waited in the dusty parking lot I interviewed General James T. Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. A crisp, charismatic figure in desert fatigues, Conway was angry about being forced to invade Falluja on Washington's terms, then having to withdraw before wiping out the insurgents. Now, he said, like wounded animals, the Fallujans were bent on revenge. "The job isn't finished," he warned.
Leaving the base at 11:30 am, we passed through the last marine checkpoint and picked up our guide, a broad-faced man named Hassan (some names have been changed to protect identities), at a tea shop just inside town. Then we drove toward the Jolan neighborhood, an insurgent stronghold where the most intense fighting had taken place. We skirted the northern edge of Jolan. On one side of us were railroad tracks and an open area where the marines had encamped before invading. On the other side a long row of two- and three-story white stucco houses stood half hidden behind low cement walls. Most of these structures were bullet-pocked, a few reduced to heaps of rubble. There was no movement on the street. "Where are the fighters?" I asked Hassan. "Home sleeping," he said, and laughed.
The guide's nonchalance was all the reassurance I needed. I told our driver, Suleiman, a quiet 30-year-old father of an infant son with whom I'd worked many times over the past year, to turn down one of the dirt roads that led deeper into the warren of Jolan. He seemed reluctant, but Hassan told him, "No problem," and he complied. We drove down a long block and stopped to get out of the car at a wide intersection in front of a crumpled pink villa that had been hit by a U.S. missile. With three cameras dangling from his neck, King walked around to the side of the house. I stood in front of the half-destroyed structure with Samir, a skinny, mild-mannered Iraqi journalist we had hired to be our interpreter a few days earlier. We gaped at the pancaked roof and stopped to talk to an elderly man, who told us that several members of a single family were buried in the rubble here. Then we walked back to the cars.
That's when I saw him: Beside the orange taxi stood a bearded fighter with a red checkered kaffiyeh wrapped around his neck, brandishing a 9mm pistol. Our driver sat rigidly at the wheel, his hands in the air.
I stared at the guerrilla. Dark complexioned with shoulder-length black hair and glaring green eyes, he could have stepped out of an Al Qaeda training video. He held the gun in his right hand, tilted toward the sky. With his left, he made a casual flick of the wrist, motioning for me to get into the BMW. Obey, I told myself. Don't resist. It's going to be all right. I ducked into the back seat after Samir. He was staring ahead, eyes wide behind his wire-framed glasses, mouth tightly shut. I laid a hand on his shoulder in a pointless attempt to comfort him, and I watched through the windshield as King was put in the back of the orange taxi. Why are they separating us? A wave of adrenaline surged through me. Then a stubble-faced mujahid in his forties slid in behind the wheel. He sat there for a few moments, leaning out of the window, until a clean-shaven, handsome young fighter who smelled like Old Spice climbed in beside me. The orange taxi ahead of us pulled away from the curb. Stubble Face started the BMW and drove down the wide main avenue a few yards behind the first car.
Keep talking, I told myself. "As-Salaam Aleikum," I said. Neither responded. "Keef halkum?" How are you? The men ignored me.
The young fighter beside me asked sharply in Arabic, "What country are you from?" I wasn't sure what to say. Samir and I had been speaking French as a precaution since arriving in Falluja. Do I continue the ruse? "France," I lied. I knew instantly it was a dumb thing to say. The gunman demanded to see my passport. Despite warnings from colleagues, I had not left it behind in Baghdad, thinking I might need it at the marine base. I handed it to him.
"You are American," he said.
"My mother is French." Another lie.
"You are American," he said, slipping the passport in his jacket pocket.
Stubble Face steered the BMW through Falluja's midday traffic, passing walled compounds, vacant lots, and soaring minarets. Almost all the shops were closed, but the city seemed to be inching back to normality after weeks of violence and death. I looked back and forth between the driver and the gunman. Are these foreign fighters or local Iraqis? Did my lie hurt our chances for survival? I begged in broken Arabic: "We are journalists. We are here to tell the story of the invasion. We know that terrible things happened here. We want to show the world the truth."
The car turned down a rubble-strewn alley and continued past an ugly row of cinder-block houses, clumps of cactus, scraggly palm trees. We stopped before a concrete hovel, got out, passed through a small courtyard, and entered an airless living room filled with young mujahideen – an inner sanctum of the Iraqi resistance. I sat on a battered sofa in the midday heat and waited.