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GANNETT NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT | E-mail your thoughts on the continuing conflict in Iraq


Journals from a war-torn land

Browse March 13 and March 14 photo journals | Interactive: Leonard Fischer, GNS


Franko, left, and Yaukey stand at the site in Baghdad where U.S. troops helped Iraqis topple a statue of Saddam Hussein last April.

About GNS' team in Iraq

Gannett News Service national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko are traveling in Iraq this month to chronicle the countryís tumultuous move toward democracy

Yaukey and Franko will visit Baghdad, Karbala and other parts of Iraq to get an intimate look at the struggles of the Iraqi people. During their trip, they are writing and photographing journals about their experiences and their interaction with Iraqis.

Yaukey, 43, is an award-winning reporter who has been covering national security and terrorism issues since May 2002. Last year, he wrote a special report on weapons of mass destruction. He has been with GNS since 1998. Franko, 44, is a veteran photographer and head of the GNS photo department. Before joining GNS four years ago, he worked at the Associated Press and USA TODAY.

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Recent headlines

Grenade victim looks back, keeps walking

March 17, 2004

What a difference a day makes

March 17, 2004

Nation divided on success of war

March 16, 2004

Bush urges allies' troops remain in Iraq

March 16, 2004

Iraq caught between pull of violence, push for peace

March 16, 2004

Back from war's abyss

March 14, 2004

Kyl says White House did not mislead country before Iraq war

March 12, 2004

Sons of Saddam had fled to Syria

March 11, 2004

Air Force to probe charges Guardsmen brought souvenir rifles from Iraq

March 10, 2004

Group urges release of details on Piestewa's last hours

March 9, 2004

Soldier accused of grenade attack gets trial date

March 9, 2004

Iraqi women juggle freedom and 'duty'

March 7, 2004

Wounded soldiers face challenging transition

March 7, 2004

Adjustment difficult for returning soldiers

March 7, 2004


Also on the Web

Dispatches from Iraq

Special coverage and photo galleries of American troops serving in Iraq from The Honolulu Advertiser.

Iraq In-Depth

Take an interactive tour of Saddam's hide-out and capture at's Iraq home page.


GNS Archive

Click here to browse more than 1,000 Iraq war news stories from the front lines and the home front.



Friday, March 19, About 6:04 p.m. Iraq time

By John Yaukey

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Saddam Hussein hated bananas.

So he put a large tariff on the fruit and essentially killed the banana trade in Iraq.

But Saddam is gone now and Iraqís ubiquitous fruit stands all proudly display their banana clusters out front. Itís as if they are taunting the former dictator.

Weíve also seen the head of Saddam. Actually, itís the one the Marines and Iraqis tore off the green metal statue covered with pigeon droppings in a Baghdad square, the day after Saddamís regime fell on April 9, 2003.

You remember it. The Iraqis dragged the head of the statue through the streets of Baghdad during their glee, and the image was replayed over and over on television.

We could tell you where we saw Saddamís head, but itís top secret.


Friday, March 19, 5:57 p.m. Iraq time

By Jeff Franko

BAGHDAD, Iraq - It is happy hour, as they say over here. The sound of gunfire battles for your attention with the evening call to prayer.

Itís windy and chilly here on the roof of our hotel-turned-news bureau. The sun is turning that Florida orange color and the flatlands of Baghdad are like Disney World with a few monument-type architectural feats protruding above the palm trees.

Driving here has reminded me of New York - without using a horn, you donít stand a chance. But itís not often in New York that you see vehicles going against the flow of traffic.

Horns and hand signals, that's it. No functioning traffic lights. Barely a stop sign. And probably Iím the only one who notices.

As I sat waiting for our driver this morning, I realized it was hard to hear the gunfire over the cooing of the doves.

Damn birds.


Thursday, March 18, 3:22 p.m. Iraq time

By John Yaukey and Jeff Franko

BAGHDAD ó Life returns to normal here faster than it seems like it should.

Today we returned with little trouble to the site of a suicide car bombing at the small Mount Lebanon Hotel the night before that took the lives of contract workers, many of them Egyptian.

En route, we saw workmen joking with each other as they tossed sandwich-sized glass shards into trashcans on wheels, just blocks away from the blast.

When we got to ground zero, there was a shoulder-deep, swirling green puddle opened by the explosion. Getting there was simply a matter of parking and walking: no scene protection, no security.

We found a pack of journalists scavenging the site for day-after stories. Some exchanged cards while others impatiently arranged people for background scene shots.

The damaged restaurants nearby were open again ó smoke from kabobs cooking mixed with the smell of burnt insulation.

The tension of the morning commute had supplanted the nightís rage at the violence.

The sun was out again, brilliant blue.

By four oíclock, the dayís automatic weapons fire had started.

It was happy hour again in Baghdad.


Wednesday, March 17, 3:45 p.m. Iraq time

By John Yaukey

BAGHDAD, Iraq - For lunch, the sheik served us roasted chicken, pickled vegetables, hummus, flatbread, rice and a wash of Miranda orange soda.

We ate out in the sun on the immaculate lawn of his understated mosque with its one minaret and talked about when the Americans should leave.

Thank you for getting rid of Saddam, but please feel free to de-occupy anytime, he told us through our interpreter, Abdul.

The sheik was quite gracious about it all, actually, and wished Americans the best of luck. We'd love to see you again, he said, but only as tourists.

We had a long day in Karbala yesterday, dodging puddles of diesel fuel and chicken blood. So, it was relaxing to spend a day with some of Iraq's intellectual elite.

You know they're of this class because they're shuttled about in gleaming white, bullet-proof SUVs that scream to the thieves and looters known as Ali Babas, ``I dare you to RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) me.''

Our first meeting today was with a Shiite political theorist who swore up and down that the majority Shiite population of Iraq was not out to hijack the self-rule process.

He must have been very important. His fleet of white SUVs did not fit in the driveway.

The really telling status indicator came when photographer Jeff Franko asked to open the curtains of the largest window in his living room for better light - and was politely denied.

``Too many tall buildings across the street,'' the chief of a six-man security detail said, explaining the potential risk of a sniper from that direction.


Wednesday, March 17, 3:30 p.m. Iraq time

By Jeff Franko

BAGHDAD - We pull off the main drag onto a side street where our usually smiling hotel lobby clerk offers us the key for our room - now unofficially the Gannett News Service Baghdad bureau. Typically, his greeting is one sentence: "Here you go, mister," though sometimes he will tack my first name onto this.

Earlier, hired guns stopped us on our way back to the al-Hamra hotel at a security gate with painted tire rims for counterweights. I've been told the barrier has been paid for by NBC and other media organizations, whose journalists stay at this hotel.

The men with guns open the hood and trunk, shine the mirror below the car and off we go to zigzag down the barricaded, 50-yard road. We pull up to the 10-foot cement barricades in front of the building and navigate our way past the mute beggar woman and her child.

Ah, into the dark, pleasant 60's style hotel lobby.

On the way in I saw a picture I wanted to make, just around the corner. Lightening my camera load cost me the moment - when I got back the people I was looking for were gone. It is always easier to walk out of the security perimeter and walk back in again, as the guards tend to remember you this way.

When I walked out, I had noticed a four-soldier American foot patrol at the entrance that I hadn't seen before. I kept my eye on them since they do not like cameras of any type.

On my way back in, I saw the soldiers checking an entry a few feet away. The security folks, who speak only Arabic, asked me if I was a writer. When I showed them the camera they understood. I was tempted to ask the soldiers what they were up to and if I could make their picture, but didn't.

As I was walking back to the hotel, I turned around to see if I could make a photo of the Iraqi security folks. Through a passing translator, I told them I felt more comfortable talking with them - Iraqis carrying automatic weapons who did not speak a language I could understand - than to my American brothers.

The interpreter tells me "no pictures." So I went walking outside, past the barricade, snapping a couple of pictures for the record of the street and hotel. This time the security dudes had to yell "no picture" since I was almost back to the hotel.

The photos were meant as personal mementos, to be filed away. Then I realized that the United States had invaded a country to create democracy and freedom - when we can't even get it straight ourselves.

The call to afternoon prayer for Muslims (one of five per day) has begun here. As it sweeps across the city via loudspeakers, it may be the only calming moment left today for me.

Whoops - there goes the afternoon gunfire and "arty," artillery fire as my Marine brother-in-law called it, in an e-mail from Fallujah he sent me the other night.


Wednesday, March 17, 9:24 a.m. Iraq time

By Jeff Franko

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Choppers are buzzing low and setting off car alarms again. It reminds me of the "bump and park" technique used in New York.

We had a couple of power outages last night. They don't last long because the al-Hamra Hotel where we're staying has big generators that kick in shortly after. It reminds me of the TV show "This Old House" when the power comes back on. Usually, a circuit breaker shorts out in our room. After a couple of these outages and a lesson from the maintenance folks on where to find the breakers, we have the Gannett News Service Baghdad bureau back up and running again.

Last night, we could hear a series of good-sized explosions in the distance, followed by many rounds from what we think are .50-caliber weapons. The flyboys are having a heyday. You can hear them coming, but they are flying with night-vision equipment. It's probably like trying to find a small black crow flying at night.

Our car got a full-body search yesterday at the checkpoint on the way out of town. Turns out the squad leader was from Ohio, where Gannett has a lot of newspapers, but we couldn't get a photo. People with weapons do not like cameras unless they are resting on the ground.

It's been hard to break through to get people comfortable with the cameras so images can be made.


Tuesday, March 16, 4:20 p.m. Iraq time

By John Yaukey

KARBALA, Iraq - Today we rose early and rode the dodgy highway south of Baghdad through Iskandariyah, where the thieves and looters known as Ali Babas do much of their carjacking. Our destination was this shrine city.

Karbala is visible from almost 10 miles away with the brassy minarets of its towering mosques shining like a constellation of suns.

When we get to downtown Karbala, it is a perpetual jam of cars, trucks, donkey carts, bicycles and women wearing black shawls who walk in huddled groups and stop traffic.

But this congestion was a comforting sign to us.

It meant the long-oppressed Shiite Muslims of Iraq, who make two annual pilgrimages to this holy city, are rebounding after Saddam Husseinís brutal attempts to extinguish their way of life.

During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam bombed Karbalaís mosques, fearing Shiite solidarity and religious conviction threatened his regime.

It did.

But with the dictator gone now, Karbala and the other Shiite cities in the south are regaining their vigor.

Their hotels are full, and theyíre building dozens more.

The red, green and black flags that Saddam ordered torn from the Shiite mosques once again flap in the wind.

Everywhere, the banners recalling the innumerable Shiite martyrs hang from fences and balconies.

If living well is the best revenge, the Shiites are getting theirs now in Karbala.


Monday, March 15, 2:15 p.m. Iraq time

By John Yaukey

BAGHDAD - We seem to be blending in well with the Iraqis.

Jeff Franko and I very rarely get the negative response you'd think a pair of white American men would in this city.

Today we hiked the sprawling fruit markets in northern Baghdad and were greeted everywhere by Iraqis offering fistfuls of pistachios and cold Pepsis to quench our thirst.

Before we arrived, we were told Americans weren't welcome. But if you make the journey here, apparently you're no longer considered an American.

I bring this up because only two weeks ago, the locals were attacking American journalists after suicide bombers hit the capital city's Kazimiya shrine, killing scores of Shiites from Iraq and Iran. The shrine is considered one of the holiest in Shiite Islam.

The bombing, most likely by Islamic radicals, was an attempt to spark a civil war to destroy Iraq's plans for democracy.

After the bombing, enraged Shiites stoned American journalists and smashed their cameras, claiming U.S. troops had failed to protect them.

But today, under a piercing blue Arabian sky, the Iraqis were mugging for our cameras: school boys playing street soccer, produce vendors posing behind stacks of dates and pomegranates, veiled women shyly giggling at the Westerners.

It was all very fragile, but it lasted for our time there.


Sunday, March 14, 10:45 p.m. Iraq time

By John Yaukey

BAGHDAD - It's a sign of the times here: Many leading clerics are surrounded by as many as a dozen guards wielding AK-47s.

In the past several months, violence against religious figures and shrines has escalated as insurgents have tried to foment a civil war along religious lines. The insurgents want to build on the already simmering tensions between the majority Shiites, brutally oppressed under Saddam Hussein, and the Sunni Arabs, who staffed the dictator's regime.

Earlier this month, insurgents struck in Karbala, a Shiite holy city, and Baghdad. More than 180 people were killed in a series of orchestrated suicide bombings clearly meant to enrage Shiites.

So far, the bad elements have failed to spark the civil war they so desperately want. But they've got opportunities to change that.

In a little more than a month, more than 1 million Shiites are expected to make their annual end-of-April pilgrimage to Karbala, some 60 miles south of Baghdad.

For a week, Shiite pilgrims from across the Muslim world will be scattered along the highways leading to Karbala, far from any protection beyond their unshakable faith.

Perhaps some caution is in order here.

After all, even the clerics are packing.


Saturday, March 13, evening in Iraq

By John Yaukey

BAGHDAD - Day and night in Iraq are, well, night and day.

The cool spring afternoons are deceivingly pleasant as school children play with goats and cabbies hustle for fares.

But not long after the call to evening prayers has sounded, the cool air of dusk fills with the crackling sounds of automatic weapons fire. The bursts were so frequent that I started timing them and found barely a minute could pass without someone ripping off several rounds in the distance.

This is standard for Baghdad.

Itís not the gunshots I worry about. Itís the massive explosions - the reason guests here at the al-Hamra Hotel, less than a mile from the Tigris River, put duct tape over their windows.

So far tonight - itís Saturday, March 13 - I have heard only one large blast. It was followed by the buzzing of chopper blades and a long burst of what sounded like machine gun fire.

You never know if itís just some cowboys out shooting up the night or the smoldering remains of the war.


Saturday, March 13, morning in Iraq

By John Yaukey

AMMAN, Jordan - The mustachioed German man wearing heavy brown suede broke into a nervous sweat as the Jordanian police officer ordered him to produce his passport.

Where had he tucked it?

A painfully forced grin of gray, gapped teeth did little to appease the officer. After several tense minutes and blunt dialogue in the clammy cabin of the Royal Jordanian Airlines commuter jet, the issue was resolved when the man produced a passport.

Still, the German was told he could depart for Baghdad, but not return to Jordan for whatever reason. Pale with panic, he repacked his duty-free Marlboros and Johnnie Walker Red. We taxied out, pointed toward Baghdad and raced down the runway.

This was a fitting start to our journey into Iraq: a 500-mile flight packed with squeaky clean, ex-military contract workers and other characters.

Everyone on this flight wanted something badly enough to go into Baghdad to get it. GNS photo director Jeff Franko and I were after several good stories that would take us south of Baghdad into the ancient shrine cities of the Shiites.

This long-oppressed majority in Iraq will inherit much of the power when the United States returns self-rule to Iraq this summer. Weíre here to find out who the Shiites are.


Bookmark this page and return tomorrow to read another journal entry.