Iraqi Sunni Muslim insurgents celebrate in front of a burning US convoy they have attacked earlier April 8, 2004 in Abu Gharib, on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Fallujah.
Iraqi Sunni Muslim insurgents celebrate in front of a burning US convoy they attacked April 8, 2004 in Abu Gharib, on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Fallujah.
Credit: Karim Sahib / AFP / Getty Images
Where are the cars?" King asked. We were finished with our work now. Stubble Face had left with both cars to pick up our Iraqi colleagues, and as the minutes ticked by without them, we began to worry. We had no other way out, and shebab – teenagers and young men on the street – were collecting around us. I shifted my feet self-consciously under their gaze, kicked at the rocks, craned my neck to see if the two-car convoy was just around the corner. More kids appeared, maybe 30 of them now, most of them watching us in a not-too-friendly way. In an effort to seem nonchalant, I talked one of the boys into handing me his homemade slingshot – just like the ones I'd watched shebab use to hurl stones at Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza – and fired off a few missiles across an empty lot. Still no cars.

The euphoria had given way to deepening funk. Where are our guys? Then, finally, we heard the sound of an engine. We looked down the road. The longhaired jihadi – the same man with the green eyes who'd captured us that morning, the one I'd thought looked like Al Qaeda – was at the wheel of the BMW. The orange taxi followed, carrying a load of heavily armed militants – not our staff. Both Stubble Face and Mohammed had disappeared.

"What the fuck is going on?" I asked King.

He studied the car. "Shit," he said. "It's over. We're dead." The gunmen shoved King, Samir, and me in the backseat of the BMW, and Long Hair drove us to a nearby mosque, where he left us to sit with the car windows closed in the suffocating heat.

The whole mood had shifted so dramatically, so quickly that I struggled to make sense of it. Either Mohammed and Stubble Face had sold us out to a more xenophobic faction or members of their own group had disagreed with the order to release us. Whatever the case, the message was clear: Sheikh Dhafer's authority was tentative at best. In the chaotic streets of Jolan, the men and boys with guns were in charge. A dozen worshipers from the mosque gathered around the car and stared inside. A few pressed their faces against the window, holding their hands above their eyes to shut out the reflection and get a good look. I nodded to them and smiled desperately. They looked back, faces blank. What is this mosque? Where's Mohammed? Sheikh Dhafer? I wanted to roll down the window to explain to the crowd that I understood their anger. I had nothing to do with this. I didn't support this war.

Two blue-uniformed traffic cops drifted over to the vehicle, glanced inside, then moved on.

"What the hell is going on, Samir?" I asked.

"I don't know," he choked out. "I don't know."

The long-haired jihadi came back and peered into the window. He barked in Arabic to King, and Samir translated. "Have you ever taken photographs of Mullah Omar?"

"Never. It's not allowed," King replied. Long Hair seemed satisfied with that answer, and he walked off.

Inside the car, discomfort was turning into agony. I squirmed in the dead, hot air and wiped the sweat off my face and neck. My bladder felt as if it were going to burst. Outside, dozens of gunmen prowled around the mosque, some holding rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortar tubes. Then, at a moment of total desperation, I spotted a familiar figure passing by, a hulking, bearded, hard-to-miss Palestinian interpreter named Khalil who worked with Western reporters and whom I had seen at press conferences in Baghdad. King knew him far better than I did: They had lived down the hall from each other the previous winter at the al Fanar Hotel, a down-at-the-heels journalists' hangout in Baghdad. We have to let him know we're here – he's our only hope. King saw him, too, and started banging on the window. "Khalil!" he shouted. "Khalil!" No response. "Khalil!"

We watched as he walked past the crowd of mujahideen and into the courtyard of the mosque. King sank back in his seat. "Shit," he said. "He's gone." Now a grizzled fighter in a filthy white dishdasha climbed in behind the wheel. A cigarette dangled from his lips.

"American?" he said.

King nodded.

He whirled around and stared at me. "American?"

I nodded, too.

The man sucked on his cigarette and shook his head. His pockmarked face was red with hostility. "American," he muttered. "Big problem." He started the car and wordlessly drove us back through Jolan. It's starting all over again. We were lucky the first time, but you don't get lucky twice in Falluja. We stopped at the house where the resistance had first held us, six hours earlier.

King and I waited in separate cells, under guard, forbidden to speak, while the fighters again argued about our fate. Shut up in the semidarkened room with my 16-year-old guard, I tried several times to speak with him in Arabic; he cut me off, insisting I was mukhabarat. When he drew his finger across his throat and threatened my life, I sank into depression, suddenly understanding that I was at least partly responsible for this situation. Convinced that my identity as a journalist would protect me, I simply hadn't thought things through. It had been my idea – in retrospect, a foolish one – to visit Camp Falluja just before entering the insurgents' territory. A network of operatives positioned on the roads outside the marine base had placed our little convoy under surveillance, Mohammed had told me, and watched us leave the parking lot and cross the checkpoint into town. The armored BMW, the body armor and helmets we carried in our trunk, my American passport – all raised suspicions that we were CIA agents. Most damaging of all were the two notebooks I carried that were filled with hand-drawn maps of Jolan that I had sketched out over the previous week, when King and I had been embedded with a company of marines. If I'd only taken a few minutes before starting out today to take an inventory. . . . If only I hadn't just bombed ahead. A 'Newsweek' colleague had recently called me "impulsive" and now I saw he was right.