A Kidnapping in Falluja

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.
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. Karim Sahib / AFP / Getty Images

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.Nearly three years earlier, in late October 2001, my wife-to-be, Nadja, and I stood glaring at each other in the living room of our home in Jerusalem, having the first major fight of our 15-month-old relationship. An army of journalists was on its way to Afghanistan in preparation for the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The chief of correspondents at ‘Newsweek’ had called me earlier that evening, asking if I wanted to join the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley for their assault on Kabul. It was one of those opportunities that few war correspondents would turn down, yet there was a catch: The high mountain passes surrounding the valley were freezing over, and journalists who made it in ran the risk of being trapped there for months.

“You’re not going to Afghanistan,” Nadja said definitively. In the next room, our three-month-old son Max stirred in his sleep. “You’ve got a child now. You’ve got responsibilities.”

“What do you mean? Of course I’m going.”

“No way,” she said, her voice rising. “You think you can just walk out of here and leave me alone with Max for two or three months? Are you crazy?”

“I explained the deal when we started this relationship. This is what I do. This is my work.”

She slammed a book down on our dining room table. A violinist from the former East Germany whom I had met at a ‘Los Angeles Times’ party in Berlin in July 2000, Nadja has an assertive personality and a sometimes fearsome temper. “That’s bullshit!” she shouted at me. “You told me you were going to give up this life, remember? You said you wanted to settle down, write books, have three children. Was that all a lie?”

“It wasn’t a lie, but . . .”

“But what?”

“But I – I didn’t mean I was going to give it up immediately. I’ve got this stuff in my blood, and I can’t just stop overnight.”

“Oh, kvatch,” she replied, using German slang for bullshit. She was in my face now. “Look, you lured me out to this shithole with the understanding that you weren’t going to run off every two months to cover wars. That’s one of the reasons I gave up my life in Berlin for you.”

“But this is an extraordinary situation. Al Qaeda just destroyed the fucking World Trade Center! You want me to sit on my ass and watch this from here? There’s going to be a major war.”

“You want war?” she said, crossing the room and flinging open the front door. She stood on the landing above our garden, a fecund explosion of grapevines and citrus trees. “Look out there. You’ve got a war going on right outside your house.” The Palestinian intifada, now in its second year, had entered a deadly new phase: Suicide bombings of Israeli cafes and buses were happening almost every week, and Israeli jets were making retaliatory missile strikes against the Palestinian Authority. Often we could hear the roar of F-16s over our house as they headed off to bomb police stations in the West Bank and Gaza. “Go to the territories. Go downtown to the Sbarro pizzeria. Get all the blood you want. But you are not abandoning me here with Max. If you do, I will walk out on you. I promise.”

“Honey, who knows how long it’s going to be? It could just be a few weeks…”

“That’s bullshit,” she said. “You and I both know that if you leave now, you’re not coming back until after Christmas. Who knows if you’ll come back at all? You’d better make your choice: a family, or Bush’s war.”

In the end, Nadja won a partial victory: I turned down the offer to join the Northern Alliance, settling instead for shorter trips to Pakistan, Indian Kashmir, and Saddam’s Iraq. But each trip reconfirmed what I already knew: The rush that came from parachuting into Third World conflict zones, from observing and writing about violent human dramas, was as strong for me as the pleasures of domestic life. Nadja and I fought about it – constantly. She accused me of misleading her, called me an overage adolescent who was playing with his life. “Do you want Max to grow up without a father?” she asked me on more than one occasion.

Those words came back to me as I fidgeted on the couch in Falluja, listening to my captors argue about what to do with me. I thought about all the other times I’d run into serious trouble in my 12-year career as a foreign correspondent: the time an RPG slammed into a wall 20 feet above my head in Rwanda; the time drugged-up Liberian child soldiers threatened me at gunpoint on a country road outside Monrovia; the time I huddled under a truck for 45 minutes in the rebel-held hills near Tetovo, Macedonia, while government soldiers fired mortar rounds at ethnic Albanian guerrillas. I’d even been kidnapped once: In May 2001, I had been seized at gunpoint by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and held for five hours in an airless room much like this one.

Each narrow escape had bolstered my confidence, led me to believe that I could venture farther and farther out on the edge and come back safely – with an amazing story to tell. Each narrow escape had convinced me that I had a special talent for this kind of work – and thus a responsibility to remind comfortable Americans what it’s like “out there.” It was my duty to be here – just as it had been my father’s duty when he worked as a roving newspaper reporter, investigating the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi, choppering into the jungle to observe the Vietcong.

King, with our Iraqi staff, came in as I sat there thinking about my father and my son. He sat down and looked at me tight-lipped, forlorn. I thought I could sense resentment in his expression, the unspoken message: Hey, this was all your idea.

“What is your country?” the young mujahid who had ridden beside me in the BMW asked King. The fighter’s name was Mohammed. He appeared to be in his early 20s, with intelligent eyes, an athletic build, and a self-confident, polite manner. King hesitated, and I knew he was wondering whether he should lie.

“Be straight with them,” I advised.

King sighed. “I’m from Memphis, Tennessee,” he drawled, and sank deeper into his chair.

The insurgents separated King and me from our Iraqi drivers and guards, leaving us with only our interpreter, Samir. One fighter confiscated King’s cameras and began flipping through the digital images, studying them. We were given bottled water and asked some routine questions about our work in Iraq. After about an hour, Stubble Face and Mohammed ordered King, Samir, and me back into the BMW. We turned down a deserted street and seemed to be heading toward a vacant, rubble-strewn lot. King and I exchanged terrified glances. 

I pictured a lonely walk through the lot at gunpoint, the cocking of the gun, the shots in the back of the skull. Will I feel the bullets? Will pain come before the blackness? I thought about other journalists I had known who died on the job: Danny Pearl, whom I had met at a rooftop party in Paris with his wife-to-be, Marianne, just before they left for Pearl’s ill-fated ‘Wall Street Journal’ assignment in Bombay; Dan Eldon, a 22-year-old Reuters photographer who was beaten and stoned to death on assignment in Mogadishu in July 1993.

We parked in front of another house. The gunmen led us inside, and I looked around in surprise. Our luxurious new detention facility had high ceilings decorated with plaster moldings of ferns and daisies, layers of russet-and-blue Persian carpets, a stereo and television, a cupboard display of porcelain tea sets. It was a comfortable, tasteful place that bespoke it’s owner’s affluence – a Middle Eastern version of a suburban home in Santa Monica or Larchmont. Whoever owned this house was clearly a member of Falluja’s upper middle class: a businessman, maybe a former military officer.

We were invited to sit on the carpet, and Mohammed sat down across from us. Stubble Face, who now introduced himself as Mohammed’s brother, lifted up his shirt to reveal a thick white belt – packed, he said, with explosives. He pulled playfully at two triggers dangling from the belt. “Irhabi,” he said. Terrorist. Then he disappeared into a backroom, leaving us with his brother. What now?

I tried to start a conversation with Mohammed, careful not to step out of bounds. I knew I had an opportunity to get some great insight into the resistance, maybe even establish a rapport, but I also knew that pushing too far could get us killed.

Slowly, tentatively, he began to talk about his life. Twenty-three years old, from a well-to-do Jolan family, he had been studying French at Baghdad University when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003. (By coincidence, Samir had also studied French in Baghdad, and the two of them launched into a brief, surreal conversation about Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and French instructors they had shared.) Mohammed told us that he had supported Saddam’s overthrow but that “the Americans should have left immediately afterward.” He said he had picked up his Kalashnikov after Sheikh Dhafer al-Obeidi – one of a half-dozen influential clerics in Falluja who have some authority over the Iraqi insurgents – put out a call to arms from the city’s mosques in early April. Getting by on “bread and Pepsi” for days on end, he had fought the marines from rooftops and alleys. “How would you feel if French, Germans, Arabs invaded New York?” he asked me. “Would you sit there and do nothing?”

As Mohammed opened up, I switched fully back into journalist mode. I probed him for more details about his weeks fighting the marines. Would he mind, I asked, if we took a few pictures of him and his brother – they could wear masks to disguise their appearance – for the article we were working on? King looked at me in disbelief; he hadn’t yet managed the transition back to work mode. Mohammed politely said no.

Then, after a meal of hummus, kebab, pita bread, yogurt, and sweetened tea, the illusion of normality faded. The young guerrilla grew somber. He reached behind his back and pulled a semiautomatic pistol from his belt. He stared at the floor. “I am filled with grief,” he muttered. He began to fidget with the gun, sliding it across the carpet, barrel pointing at King. Releasing the magazine, he slapped it back into the gun with a menacing click. King and I looked at each other. “My mother was killed by an American sniper,” Mohammed said, his eyes unfocused. “My brother was shot by an American sniper.” I swallowed hard. Click, click. Put away the gun. Please, just put away the gun. “The Americans are beasts,” Mohammed said. Fifteen minutes passed. Abruptly, Mohammed placed the gun back in his belt and stood up. “Now we will visit the sheikh,” he said.

Stubble Face ushered us all out the door and back into the BMW, and a few minutes later we pulled up beside yet another house. We were led inside to meet Sheikh Dhafer. Draped in a white dishdasha, with a white skullcap on his head, the sheikh had a gray-flecked beard, a kindly face, and an air of quiet authority. Six other Falluja elders sat on plastic chairs arranged in a semicircle around him.

One man in his sixties, whose crisp gray business suit and neatly coiffed appearance set him apart from the others, motioned for us to sit beside him on a blue sofa. He turned out to be a fluent English speaker, and he served as Dhafer’s interpreter. “You must understand the situation here,” Dhafer explained. “There are infiltrators who want to destroy the ceasefire we have achieved with the U.S. Marines. I have given orders to our young men to detain and interrogate every foreigner who enters the city without permission.” While Dhafer left the room briefly to take a telephone call, the well-dressed gentleman leaned toward me and whispered, “I heard that two Americans had been kidnapped, so I rushed here to negotiate for your release.” He paused for a moment, then leaned even closer. “I am General Abdul-Latif.” I couldn’t believe it: Abdul-Latif, I knew, was a former Ba’athist army officer who had fled to exile in London and returned to Iraq after the U.S. invasion. He had been a key negotiator between the marines and the Falluja insurgents and was now commander of the Falluja Brigade – the 1,500-man force that had replaced the Americans on the streets. Dhafer returned to the room, smiling warmly. We were now free to leave Falluja, he said, but first he wanted to invite us to take photographs of the destruction in Jolan.

We shook hands with everyone, then Stubble Face drove us a few blocks to a minaret that had been destroyed by U.S. missiles. His brother Mohammed joined us, along with Samir, our interpreter. Inside the car Mohammed treated me like an old friend, chatting in Arabic, patting my shoulder reassuringly, all traces of his brooding, volatile side gone. You’ve fucking done it, Hammer, I congratulated myself. It’s over. You found your way out of another cul-de-sac.

At the mosque, King snapped pictures while I wandered through the debris with Mohammed at my side. We were bonding now: I murmured in sympathy as the fighter condemned the “desecration.” I was scribbling notes furiously, back in correspondent mode. An energizing sense of well-being washed over me, almost like a cocaine rush. It was similar to the way I had felt after being released by the Fatah kidnappers in Gaza three years before.

That day, British photographer Gary Knight and I had gone to Rafah, the epicenter of the Palestinian resistance. Eight black-masked fighters had taken us captive at gunpoint, seized our mobile phones and cameras, and imprisoned us in a stuffy little room. At first I was terrified, but then the leader assured us that we would be held for only four or five hours, a symbolic kidnapping to protest U.S. and British policy in the Middle East. Once CNN received the group’s press release and reported our kidnapping on international television, the mujahideen served lunch, then freed us, with handshakes and apologies all around.

Now, as I looked around the ruined mosque, I could hardly believe my good fortune that this day was turning out so much like that one. But in the back of my mind a nagging thought was taking root: It almost seems too easy.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.

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.