Reporter's Notebook: The Sweet Taste of Freedom

E-mail Reena Ninan

September 12, 2006

The 4-year-old Iraqi girl stood on her tiptoes watching as the baggage handler put her "Kiddie Kitchen" play set onto the check-in luggage conveyor belt at Baghdad International Airport.

So many Iraqis have decided to leave the country. For most of the families, the unpredictability of the violence has just become too overwhelming to remain in Iraq.

The girl's father is taking her, her mother and sister to Egypt. He's saved up enough money so he won't have to work for six months. He is a Shiite man, and his wife is a Sunni woman. The couple agrees that under the reign of Saddam Hussein their religiously-mixed union wouldn't have made a difference. But today it's different.

"I'm not sure if my friend will kill me," the father said, as we waited for our flights. “I'll go to Egypt and see if the country gets better in six months."

He later went on to say that he didn't expect security to improve for another 10 years. Many Iraqis feel that the next few months will be critical in determining which direction the country goes.

Our flights were several hours late, which is typical in Baghdad. Security is tight, as you might expect, but I couldn't help but notice that there were no signs banning "liquids, gels, cosmetics" from being carried onto the plane. (Days later, I discovered that those restrictions were adopted at Amman, Heathrow Airport in London, and in the U.S.)

We made our way to the tarmac. Cameraman Rudden and I knew the tarmac drill well.

We identified our luggage. A baggage handler put a yellow sticker on it, which signified that it was approved to be loaded onto the plane. A dog was then brought by for a second round of luggage-sniffing.

As we waited in the 120-degree August heat, we were all given one final body search / pat down by security. I was the only female passenger, so one of the female airline attendants had to do the search.

We settled into the red plush airline seats. It was hard not to notice that our plane was much bigger than the ones typically used in the past. Each row had six seats instead of two on each side.

The airline attendant brought around plastic cups with orange juice, apple juice, and water. I could taste freedom in that cup of apple juice. I thought, "I'm only one hour and 10 minutes away from being liberated from the war zone."

As our plane started circling around the airport gaining altitude, I put my head on the window. There was still something majestic about the Baghdad skyline. I couldn't help but wonder what this place would look like next time I returned.

August 22, 2006 with the 4th ID, Bravo Company in Eskan, Iraq
Video: Iraqis Take On Militias

There was only one question after U.S. Army Capt. Brooks briefed the Iraqi Army about tonight's raid to capture or kill a wanted local militiaman.

"Why can't we wear our masks?" asked Lt. Hussein Nasser, Iraqi Army.

"We've told the people that terrorists wear masks and that Iraqi security forces do not, " Capt. Brooks said. "The only way we can win their trust and confidence is if you show them your face."

Lt. Nasser and the eight other senior Iraqi army members seated around the table nodded in approval. The meeting ended and they left to brief their Iraqi soldiers.

Not long after the meeting broke up, I put on my flak jacket (which felt like it weighed half my body weight), helmet, and protective eyewear. I crawled inside of the Bradley fighting vehicle. I was slightly uneasy. We could be hit by an IED. We could come upon insurgent fire. We took all the precautions we could. Producer Dragan, cameraman Rudden, and myself would each be in separate vehicles.

I asked the ten other U.S. soldiers I'd be traveling with if they feared an IED attack. I was looking for some comforting words.

"No. When we first started we were really worried about an attack. Now you just don't think about it anymore," said one U.S. soldier part of the 4th ID's Bravo Company.

I tried not to think about it. It didn't work.

We were packed tighter than sardines inside the Bradley. There was a computer monitor showing video of the road ahead of us. The heat was overwhelming — close to 135 degrees. I grabbed cold bottled water and put it against my neck. Then came the musical tribute to Kenny Rogers courtesy of the soldiers I was riding with...

"You gotta know when to fold 'em. Know when to hold 'em. Know when to walk away..."

I was glad they had a good sense of humor. Ten minutes later we had arrived. The door opened and the U.S. soldiers raced out of the vehicle and stormed the apartment building.

It goes so quickly from 0 to 100 here.

I raced up the stairs. The front door had already been kicked down. Three Iraqi young men were seated on the floor with their hands on the walls. We do a quick piece to camera.

They find their man, a local militia leader nicknamed "Fatboy." He's believed to have killed an Iraqi doctor and is likely funneling money from a mosque to the insurgency.

It was at that moment we heard a .... "Swooooooooooooooosh." A rocket aimed for our apartment. Dragan and I hit the floor.

"No. That's us. That's us, " Capt. Brooks reassures us.

It wasn't a rocket, but an F-16 suddenly swooping down low over the rooftops. It was used as a show of force.

I spot an Iraqi woman who is likely "Fatboy's" wife. She's pretty large herself, and keeps holding her stomach. They're looking for a specific semi-automatic weapon that was used to kill the Iraqi doctor. There's a good chance this woman may have it up her dress, but unfortunately, she goes unchecked.

The one female soldier that was traveling with us was hit by an IED. The humvee was totaled, but she and the three others make it out with just a few lacerations.

In total, U.S. and Iraqi forces find a gun holster, grenades, sniper ammunition, and wires for making IEDS. In addition, they find plenty of cash flooding the apartment.

The Iraqi Lieutenant who asked why they couldn't wear masks had his mask on. When I asked him why he chose to wear it he said, "We worry about being attacked by the local militia."

Fear. It's still very much a part of life even for these Iraqi forces that are trained and equipped to fight militias and the insurgency. They haven't yet reached that level of confidence where the masks come off for good.

August 20, 2006Video: Training the Iraqi Troops

Imagine being hit by an IED. Now imagine getting hit with another IED within just a few months. I spoke with several soldiers today who have had this experience. Some very badly burned have now returned to Iraq — some after just a few weeks, others after many months.

What advice do these soldiers have for anyone who finds him or herself in an IED attack?

"Just stay calm."

IEDs are one of the deadliest threats to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. As the military sharpens their response and determines ways to prevent or avoid IED attacks, the insurgents refine their tactics to get around the new technology.

We watched military training exercises on how to deal with IEDs — the idea is to train U.S. soldiers so responding to this kind of attack becomes second nature. They use exploding yellow and green smoke grenades to simulate an attack.

August 19, 2006

There’s a certain level of discipline and respect within the U.S. military. It’s most apparent as the lower-ranked soldiers salute their officers as they pass them in the dusty gravel-paved roads of the base. That discipline was made clear to me as I entered the cafeteria in flip-flops today.

I was pulled aside twice, by two separate soldiers overseeing the dining hall, both of whom informed me that flip-flops were not appropriate attire for the dining facility. I told them I was only here to pick up food for my colleagues. They granted me two minutes to put the food in styrofoam containers.

If you’ve ever wondered what life on a U.S. military base in Iraq is like — the food (at this base) is pretty good. It’s catered by KBR, who subcontracts it to a company called Tamini. There’s a large salad bar with fresh veggies. There are also a few warm entrees to choose from at every meal. Tonight, it’s turkey and gravy, or oven roasted chicken. There are also pizza and hamburgers, and for dessert, an assortment of pies or Baskin Robbins ice cream.

There’s a chapel for services, a nice gym, a rec room with a large screen TV, (where people can watch DVDs), and a ping pong table.

The closest thing they have to a market is the green, plastic-enclosed outdoor area where locals, who are screened by the military before they enter, sell everything from comforters to sunglasses, pirated DVDs, and PlayStation games.

There is also what’s known as the PX (which stands for post exchange). It’s a military store where one can get some of the comforts of home — Starbucks Frappuccinos, shower gel, and DVDs, among other things. But supplies go very, very quickly. One major waited two months for flip-flops that his wife mailed to him. Sometimes, it’s hard to get the most mundane things. We are in the middle of Iraq, after all.

August 17, 2006

They call it River City.

When a member of the military dies, for roughly 24 to 48 hours no one is allowed to use the telephones or Internet until the next of kin is notified. They don’t want word to reach the family before the military makes the formal notification.

"It’s sad when you can use the Internet again, because you know that now the family knows about the death," said Cpl. Molinaro.

For the past 48 hours, we had next to no Internet and very limited calling abilities. I decided to abide by the River City status for 24 hours and not use the commercial Internet line available for guests at the base.

August 16, 2006

They looked like a group of trick-or-treaters on Halloween night.

Members of the Iraqi army and Iraqi police were going door-to-door trying to find a wanted local militiaman. It’s 2 a.m. here. We're accompanying them as they conduct this night patrol. It could very likely turn into a raid at any moment, but the Iraqi source with intel on this suspected insurgent's home can't seem to find the house.

How can he not know the location of the home? He lives around here.

Instead of kicking the front door down at each house, Iraqi security forces take a different approach. They knock first...with the hope that someone will know this guy's house.

Maybe it was out of nervousness, or maybe it was just the realization we'd go hungry if we didn't, but Dragan, Pete, and I pounded a cheese ravioli MRE just minutes before going out. It was pretty good, but the heartburn was kicking in.

Just then, a bright light flickers in the sky. There was no sound. I look up, and there are U.S. helicopters shooting flares to illuminate the area.

My humvee suddenly takes off.

"Where are we going?" I shouted to the U.S. soldier in the driver's seat.

"We've located the home," he yells back.

The Iraqi forces race to a home. A few minutes later, the soldier driving the vehicle tells me I'm free to get out and see what's happened.

We're in the middle of a residential community thirty miles south of Baghdad. The area has become fertile ground for parts of the festering Shiite militias.

So when this U.S. soldier asked me if I wanted to get out of the humvee, my initial reaction was to say, “No thanks.” It was dark, and an ambush could take place any moment.

Quite chivalrously, he opens the humvee door (I haven't mastered opening these heavy doors just yet). I step out on faith.

He hands me his night vision binoculars. There, in the distance, sitting on the grass are seven detained Iraqi men, all in white dishdashas, seated Indian style.

"Ma'am, you've been cleared to enter the home," the U.S. soldier tells me.

I race down the street. I'm still wearing my flak jacket, helmet, and clear protective goggles.

Cameraman Pete Rudden, in his typical fashion, is already at the scene filming. Producer Dragan and I put the stick microphone into the camera, and we nail out a quick piece to camera explaining that Iraqi forces entered this home looking for an insurgent and end up finding a treasure chest of grenades, RPG launchers, and rifles. The entire raid took three to four minutes. The Iraqis are proud of their work.

Then comes the colorful Sgt. Swanson — he’s received special training on how to search and uncover weapons. Four hours pass, and he helps uncover four times more weapons than the Iraqis found alone.

With U.S. support, the Iraqis find five hand grenades, 32 hand grenade fusers, three illegal AK-47s, 15 AK-47 magazines, one stolen flak jacket, and nine fake IDs. They also find another Iraqi man in a dishdasha hiding in the back of the house.

They didn't end up getting the guy they were looking for, but they did uncover an incredible amount of weapons.

Before we went out on this raid, I asked Cpt. Cook of the U.S. Army, who was overseeing this particular operation tonight, what people back at home may not know about training Iraqi soldiers. "Probably that we're not here to train Iraqi soldiers to look like American soldiers," he said. "They have a different enemy and even tactical differences exist."

As more weapons and more weapons were uncovered, the Iraqis charged with watching the detainees left their posts. They were eager to see what else was uncovered.

"You've gotta be watching your posts, not the weapons, " one U.S. soldier firmly shouted into the night. I wondered if the Iraqis understood what he was saying.

The Iraqis don't have the discipline U.S. soldiers have — many of them were antsy for the raid to be over. They forgot to separate some of the men from women. And they also failed to document their findings by taking pictures to show the weapons were located inside the home. They need that kind of proof to continue holding these detainees or to keep them in jail for good.

Suddenly, an older Iraqi woman, who lived inside the raided home and who was supposed to be sitting quietly with the other detained women, came over to me. She grabbed my arm.

Okay, now I'm nervous.

She starts speaking Arabic to me. All I can think about is, "Could she be wearing an explosives vest?" The whole ride here I was worried about an IED attack, and then I'm thinking, now I'm going to get blown up by this woman.

She didn't go BOOM. In fact I grabbed Pete and Dragan, and we got an interesting interview with her. She claimed they needed the weapons for self-defense. You're only allowed one rifle to defend yourself.

A female U.S. interrogator is questioning a blind Iraqi man who was inside the home. He was one of two men sitting with the women instead of being placed with the other men. The female U.S. soldier shouts to him to tell the truth. There is an Iraqi translator present.

The old blind man physically lashes out toward her, saying she is a disgrace to her family. The man is wrestled to the ground and slapped down by Iraqi forces. They're not afraid to rough up their detainees.

We will later end up packaging the piece for Special Report.

Watch Reena Ninan's Report

Sometimes, when you're with the U.S. military, there's a great deal of waiting. And then the action kicks in. It's a pretty big adrenaline rush.

It's now 5:30 a.m. The call to prayer is ending, and the excitement is pretty much over.

Pete, Dragan, and I lay down on the cement sidewalk in front of the house. Our thick flak jackets and helmets prop us up an inch off the ground. It's actually pretty comfortable. We're tired.

The night sky is so clear that you can see the stars surrounding the half moon. The temperature is perfect. This experience is pretty out-of-body.

The Iraqis pull out a wooden box full of weapons. As they carry the box out to their truck, they walk no more than five steps from the front of the house to the street before the wooden box completely gives out.

All the confiscated weapons — the grenades, RPG launchers, magazines, and rifles lie scattered on the floor. They fumble to collect the weapons. The sun has completely risen.

What a night…

Aug 14, 2006

Steve Harrigan walked off the Black Hawk helicopter. The wind was kicking the sand all around us. He headed for the concrete block I was sitting on. The sound of the helicopters made it too loud to hear anyone.

He hadn't removed his yellow earplugs yet. Another Black Hawk takes off. The sand and dust swirl around us.

Steve has just returned from an embed, during which he followed around the Stryker Brigade in Baghdad. Roughly 3,700 U.S. soldiers will be heading to Baghdad to help secure the area. I'm heading off to embed with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. As we wait on the landing strip in the Green Zone, I'm grateful the weather isn't too hot.

Forty-five minutes later, my helicopter arrives. Harrigan helps cameraman Peter Rudden (who's spent the past few weeks embedded with him) and producer Dragan Petrovic load our gear onto the helicopter.

Our chopper takes off. There are no side doors on a Black Hawk. Instead, two gunners are positioned to shoot down anything that comes our way. My flak jacket is fastened so tightly it feels like an 1880s corset, and the warm, dry, heat (likely close to 120 degrees) is overwhelming.

I can't breathe, but somehow I adjust. Finally, we land.

August 13, 2006

"Oh, bloody hell," British Bob said as he jumped off the couch to the DVD player.

It's the fourth time the power has gone out in 15 minutes. Each time we have to readjust the TV, turn the DVD player back on, and find the scene.

"I could understand if the power went out in the middle of the day, but it's past midnight," said an unhappy British Bob.

Determined, we somehow make it through "Memoirs of a Geisha."

We're the lucky ones. Every time our power goes off, a generator kicks in 30 seconds later. But many people here aren't that fortunate.

Aziz Sultan, the Ministry of Electricity spokesman, says that power lines in Dora, Saidiya, and northern parts of Iraq have been targets of terrorist attacks. This means a reduction in the power supply. He also blamed the problem on decreased benzene production, which is an issue that the refineries are facing. Also worsening the situation is that some of these refineries haven't been properly maintained under Saddam Hussein's regime.

August 12, 2006

I asked for cocoa powder. We wanted to bake a chocolate cake. Our Iraqi fixer brings back from the store a yellow and red jar labeled "Cola Cao."

"High Energy Chocolate Drink Instant With Vitamins."

That same line is repeated in French and Arabic. My eyes pan further down the bottle. Expiration: Feb 2006. It's six months past expiration. I imagine the jar sitting in a dusty, incredibly hot storeroom. Engineer Ali, the resident chef, and I decide to hold off on the cake.

There are a few grocery stores in Baghdad where you can buy things like boxed Shop Rite Mac and Cheese, mozzarella, Special K cereal, and even peanut butter. They clearly cater to the western audience living here. One of the market owners was kidnapped. His family had to pay $70,000 for his release. He also had to promise that he wouldn't open up his store. I imagine the owner makes a pretty good profit from his market. I guess the money was too good to let go. The store hasn't closed, but they no longer sell any wine or beer. Perhaps it's a compromise, but the store is still open for business.

For dinner, I reach for the box of Smacks cereal. I check the expiration date: 02/22/2007.

August 1, 2006

"Our bags aren't going to make it," I told Bob, the security guy who was traveling with me into Baghdad.

It's only been three months since I last made this journey into Iraq, but so many procedures have changed for getting into the country. We used to kick our bags at the tarmac before we boarded the plane. The porters would then load them on. Now, they load them directly. I couldn't see any of our luggage from the hot tarmac.

Bob leans over and says in his thick British accent, “You should always tip the young Jordanian porters a few bucks more when they're loading your bags on the plane."

Some of these new procedures don't make much sense. You also need an AIDS test. You can enter the country without one, but when you try to get an exit visa they'll ask for your results. The tests used to be required under Saddam's regime. Back then, most journalists would bribe their way out of it. This was right around the Iraq war.

Another new requirement — head to the Iraqi embassy in Amman and meet with officials there who sign off on visas. The entire process only takes a matter of minutes.

The visa room at the embassy was completely packed. It was loud and noisy. Suddenly, people started scrambling, yelling, and banging on the visa counter, which was made of Plexiglas and looked like a bank-teller counter. It felt as though the last food rations were being handed out before a war, but it turned out the visa hours were over. The rest of the folks would have to return tomorrow.

My Jordanian producer Raed and I try to flag down a cab. We end up sharing one with another man. Before we take off, a policeman stops us. He yells at the taxi driver in Arabic. Raed and I exit the car.

Raed explains to me that almost a decade ago, a Jordanian law banned taxi drivers from taking two separate groups of people in one car. He says the rule was implemented to prevent kidnappings. Our taxi driver will now have to pay a ticket roughly $15 to $25.

Back in Baghdad the bags miraculously make it. We strap on our flak jackets and then head down the notorious airport road. The month-long journey begins.

E-mail Reena Ninan

Hi Reena,

Thanks for your column. We know some Iraqis and our nephew (in the Army) is slated for a second tour there, so I read it with great interest.

For what it's worth, you might want to look into, and maybe even pick up, a cheap UPS (computer battery backup). In the U.S., it would cost about $30, and they provide constant power for when your electricity hiccups.

For sweets and such, perhaps might have Ali search for some German and Swedish recipes. You might find something closer to your tastes using the cardamom and cinnamon that should be common there.

Far from any sort of expert on anything culinary, but only from past research, it seems a sour cream substitute can be had by draining plain yogurt (if you can get it) in cheesecloth, or similar. While yogurt seems common in Mideast recipes, our Iraqi friends don't seem familiar with it. I have tried straining it and it does take away the sourness, making it very close in my opinion to sour cream used in tons of recipes.

Thank you again and good luck.


Reena, nice job on Iraq reported on Stay safe!

Kind regards,


Reena Ninan joined the NYC bureau of FOX News Channel as an on-air correspondent in March 2006.