All bodes well for this assignment. The flight arrives four hours late into Jordan and the taxi to Amman takes forever. The driver has never heard of passive smoking.
Once in Amman I meet the man from the Ministry of Information and sign the customs documents for a dozen pieces of equipment that have come out of Iraq.
An hour later I am on my way back to Queen Alia Airport. The usual battle with porters over who should carry my bags leads to a tug of war between myself and two men in dirty uniforms.
The road from Amman to Baghdad has been deemed too dangerous to drive, so I have to fly to Kuwait to drive to Baghdad at dawn. Six hours later I am at the Sheraton in Kuwait City.
Wake in Kuwait. Savour the last decent shower I will have for sometime. The convoy of two jeeps leaves at 5am and two hours later we arrive at the Iraqi border.
US military vehicles are everywhere. We get stuck in an army convoy behind dozens of Bradley tanks on their transporters. After a quick look at the passports, the border guards wave us through and we are in Iraq.
Our driver points out the road taken by the ITN team, who were killed at the start of the invasion. Past the infamous road of death with the burnt out vehicles still lying there from 1991. We watch children playing on the wrecks of the tanks. After eight hours we approach the skyline of Baghdad. All looks calm as we enter the city.
We arrive at the BBC bureau, which is no longer in the Palestine Hotel. It is now situated on Abu Nowas Street, in a tumbled down old villa. Shown to my lodgings. Yes I think I am going to miss my few hours at the Sheraton.
It’s 112 degrees and there is no air conditioning, no power and no water. Over a bottle of warm Iraqi mineral water Stephen Sackur and I discuss the rumours that an Imman has been arrested in Baghdad by the Americans for harbouring Saddam and his sons the day before.
An hour later I am driving around the city trying to stand this up. Nobody knows about the Imman. Return to the office to be greeted by Mohammed, the translator, who has worked for us since 1997. Everything is quiet for the rest of the day.
Look forward to dinner and a shower, though I shouldn’t have. It’s rice and there is no water.
Stephen and Xavier, our cameraman, head out of Baghdad to the southern city of Najaf. It’s 7am and we’re heading off to look at the influence of the Shiite, as the majority population in Iraq. Pleasant temperature, 118 degrees. Arrive at the mosque. The golden dome of Najaf is beautiful. Nobody pays much attention to the three Westerners filming on the street.
After much schmoozing we manage to gain an interview with Ayatollah Mohammad Baker al Hakem, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, who has just returned from 23 years in exile to Iraq. It’s his first BBC interview and by the time we have finished filming it’s getting late. We need to get back to Baghdad by nightfall and we manage it with a few minutes to spare as the darkness falls at 8pm and the streets are empty.
Positively freezing: 110 degrees. By now I feel there can be no more sweat left in me. I meet the team from the Arabic World Service, who are setting up an office in the basement of the house, which is now our bureau. We sit down and view the tapes from Najaf. The Ten O’Clock News is interested in two minutes and 30 seconds. Having shot the material Xavier now edits the pictures.
Everything goes smoothly. A quick call to London and we feed the packages in at 10pm Baghdad time (7pm BST). Stephen and Xavier are leaving at 6am for Kuwait. We say our goodbyes and my new team of Jeremy Bowen and cameraman Nick Wooley, who have just arrived, search for a cold drink in the building – no luck.
Jeremy and I reminisce over old times in Baghdad before the war. There is a morning off-the-record briefing given by the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance at the Saddam Palace. What a strange feeling to drive through the massive gates into the palace compound. For years if you just looked at it you would be frowned upon by the minders who accompanied you. The briefing is in a huge hall, which must have been a ballroom. Twenty journalists sit around a huge table in the middle of the hall. All around the hall US soldiers have set up their beds.
After the briefing we hear that one of our old haunts has reopened. So it’s straight to the Al Goata restaurant for my first bowl of Tapsci – eggplant and tomato stew – in two years.
We then head off in the afternoon to the Saddam Children’s Hospital. I have been here so many times, and the sight of the children on the wards is still upsetting. The mothers fan the sick. There is no air-conditioning. It’s 100 degrees inside, 124 on the streets.
The day ends as it began with Jeremy and I boring Nick about how Iraq was when Saddam was still here.
It’s 8am and we are outside the Medical Equipment and Supply Building (owned by the Iraqi Ministry of Health). It’s north west of Baghdad in the Khdimia District. I had heard of this place many years ago. Huge warehouses packed with every type of piece of medical equipment you can imagine. All held back from the Iraqi people by their own leader. One of the guards at the factory tells me that it could take up to a year to have one thing released to a hospital, but if one of the regime wanted something they would get it in an hour.
On the way back to the city we see some US soldiers raiding a house. We follow them in. It’s a raid to arrest some looters. Back at the house we talk to the Six and Ten O’Clock News. Both want a package. We edit and feed the first. An hour later the second package is fed. It’s 11pm in Baghdad and still the temperature has not dipped below 100.