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

Falluja was almost dark when the door to my cell swung open again. Standing there, I was amazed to see Khalil, the Palestinian interpreter. He had spent the last hour, he told me, begging, pleading, arguing for our lives. "I think I have convinced them to let you go," he said. I wanted to hug him. "But we must move fast."

As I walked out of my cell, King emerged from another. Khalil explained that foreign Islamic extremists – Zarqawi's men – had heard rumors of two Americans being held in Jolan. They were looking for us. "Gather your belongings," he said. "You will have to lie on the floor of my car. Do not lift your head up for any reason. Your life depends on it."

"Now!" he said. "Go!" King and I dashed through the courtyard, dove into Khalil's Nissan, and huddled together on the floor in the back as we screeched through the streets. I was curled into the fetal position, head resting on the rear seat, elbows tightly hugging my knees. Khalil swung the car left, then right, then left again. I heard shouts and gunfire; the mujahideen had poured into Falluja's streets at dusk to commemorate the anniversary of the prophet Mohammed's death. I stared down at the dusty carpeting as I jolted back and forth, too scared to look up. The vehicle smelled of stale cigarette smoke and acrid sweating bodies. Oh God, please get us out of here. Please, please get us out of here. I will never do anything stupid like this again.

We roared up to the gate of a mosque, where Sheikh Dhafer greeted us and produced our Iraqi staffers. As we pieced together later, all four of them had been imprisoned in a nearby house, where they had been told to bathe and prepare to die. Terrified, sobbing, the Iraqis poured out vital information to their captors: the location of the 'Newsweek' bureau, the security arrangements around the building, their own home addresses. The magazine's security was so compromised that the bureau would ultimately have to relocate for two months to the Sheraton Hotel – the grim, fortified high-rise overlooking the Tigris River.

Khalil drove us out of Falluja in the darkness, and as I sat in the front seat, smoking one cigarette after another, the story of our near death and rescue came tumbling out of him. While we were meeting Dhafer, the fighters' suspicions had indeed been aroused by my notebooks and our armored vehicle – as well as rumors of an imminent marine assault on Falluja and probably other reasons that we would never know. After recapturing us beside the toppled minaret, they had driven us to the sheikh's mosque and left us in the car while they asked for a fatwa to kill us. Instead, Dhafer had decided to give us one more chance. By a lucky coincidence, Khalil, who was a trusted figure because he had ferried mujahideen and civilians to Falluja's hospital during the siege, had been working in town that afternoon with an Iranian-British journalist from London. The sheikh had summoned Khalil to his mosque and requested that he visit us to verify our bona fides.

As Khalil drove through the night, pinpricks of light emanating from surrounding Iraqi villages, I felt an overpowering sense of gratitude toward this man sitting beside me, this figure I barely knew who had saved my life. Khalil saw us as a couple of journalistic rubes – well-meaning but hopelessly naive reporters who had ventured into a complex, dangerous place we'd known too little about. He clearly knew that we were as good as dead without his intervention, and, out of his own sense of duty, laid his credibility on the line with the mujahideen to rescue us. I was euphoric – but also jittery, guilt-ridden, no longer sure of my war-reporter instincts. I obsessively rehashed the mistakes we had made, pondering how I could have been so blind.

The next day, when I learned about Nick Berg's beheading and saw the footage on the Internet, I felt a terrible shock of self-recognition. Clearly, I thought, there was some of Berg in me. From what I read about his life in both Iraq and Africa, Berg seemed to be constantly testing himself – drawn to anarchic places, sure that his gregarious personality and harmless intentions would keep him safe. And so he had traveled around Iraq on his own, barely speaking Arabic, carrying a U.S. passport with entry and exit stamps from Israel. Had I been testing myself as well, unconsciously seeing how close I could come to death? How much of my "sense of duty" was actually a selfish addiction to the adrenaline rush of being close to combat? One thing I knew: It was only a matter of luck – pure accident – that had saved me from the same ghastly end as Berg.

I realized suddenly that I needed to leave Iraq as soon as possible, to see my family, to hold my son. I didn't know when, if ever, I would return. I had just received a nine-month Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, and now the opportunity seemed especially fortuitous. The last four years had been so intense – two kidnappings, meltdown in the Middle East, constant travel, tension, death – that it was time to take a breather, to take stock of my career and the choices I had made. I'll make Nadja happy, I told myself. When the fellowship is over, we'll move somewhere nice – maybe upstate New York. I can still work for 'Newsweek' in the States. I can teach at a college, write books. At the same time I knew already, deep down, that I was built a certain way. I might learn to balance Third World conflict reporting with other work, but I would always be compelled to return, to face that next challenge.

Khalil, King, and I sped down the highway past the Abu Ghraib prison, and I saw that my IraqNet cell phone had a signal again. I called my office in Baghdad and gave a rushed account of the day's ordeal before the reception cut out. Then Khalil took a deep drag off his Marlboro and told me that the fighters in the last house had discovered a crumpled Allenby Bridge border receipt at the bottom of my backpack – evidence of my having just been in Israel. "You don't know how close you came, habibi," he said.