US Marines offer to arm British reporter as brutal street battles rage

Paul Wood in Fallujah

After arriving at Camp Fallujah on a 2am helicopter ride from the green zone in Baghdad, we had to sign a twelve page, closely-typed document on the rules of the embed. On the whole, these seemed pretty reasonable to me.

My favourite was number six: journalists shall carry no personal weapons. Most of the ordinary Marines were amazed we’d go into a place like Fallujah without a gun or at least a couple of grenades. Several, meaning it kindly, tried to press weapons on us. They mistook our explanations that journalists didn’t do that kind of thing for polite protests to be ignored, so it was useful to fall back on the official rules to firmly turn down these generous offers.

The rules were also extensive on the US forces’ operational security…understandable really.

Another large part of the embed rules concerned the reporting of casualties, the main concern of the Marines being to ensure that no family member should learn first from the media that a husband, son or father had been killed in Fallujah. This too is the BBC’s own policy.

There’s one public affairs officer for the entire battalion I’m with, so we’re expected to keep to the rules ourselves.

Problem at night was that any light source attracted sniper fire, so the Marines help us put up several layers of curtains to make the blackout good and we could use our editing machine.

The most frustrating aspect of being embedded is that you see only what your unit sees. If something happens half a mile down the road, tough luck. Of course everyone wants to know what is happening to the civilians of Fallujah. We are not allowed to go off independently and find them.

Not that you’d want to wandering around on your own in Fallujah.

We’ve had an astonishing degree of freedom within the unit to talk to people at all levels, getting access even into the eve of battle briefing given by the battalion colonel to his officers. It was full of slides with Top Secret stamps. This battalion took one third of the killed and injured for the entire Coalition forces. The colonel says his men had the most “contact”, as they call it, of any of the Marines, so we were in a position to see all of that. We got pictures of mosques being blown up which electrified the Arab world. Sometime we were a bit too close. One guy who was hit bled all over my only pair of trousers as I tried uselessly to stick a field dressing on him. A young officer I had got to know was killed on a roof where we were pinned down by sniper fire.

He had been incredibly brave, going onto the roof to get his men even after one bullet hit, and bounced off, his helmet. The second bullet got him in the back, just under his flak jacket, as he shepherded them down the stairwell.

He must have thought he was home free.

Paul Wood is BBC News Middle East correspondent

Paul Wood reports

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