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Surviving a brush with death on the road Add to ...

The sound of bullets rang out loud and clear. But it wasn't until the pickup truck passed us from the side, its bed filled with scowling, wild-eyed young men who were shooting at our windshield, that I realized that I was also hearing ammunition hammering the side of our armoured car.

A large open-bed truck passed next, carrying more armed men wearing checkered kaffiyeh scarves and mismatched clothes, all of them with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s that they were firing at our vehicle.

"No, no! We're journalists," I yelled in Arabic. No one could have heard me through the sealed bulletproof windows; even if they could, they didn't look like they would have cared.

This was the kind of violence that I was in Iraq to report, not to experience firsthand. Less than 24 hours before, I had left Jerusalem with Times of London reporter Steve Farrell in his company's car and travelled across Jordan into Iraq, heading for Baghdad.

Five minutes before the attack, the trip was proceeding uneventfully. But near Fallujah, on the main highway to Baghdad, we stopped before a roadblock where U.S. soldiers said we couldn't continue because the marines were conducting an operation. So we followed our hired Iraqi taxi driver to a side road, which led us straight into a hotbed of insurgents who were engaged in one of their largest running battles since the end of last year's war.

Pelted by our attackers' gunfire, Steve made a U-turn in the dirt, but one of the tires blew and we stopped. Three young men appeared, pointing their weapons at us. Steve later told me he feared we would be burnt alive by the RPGs if we had stayed inside.

I was hauled out of the vehicle by a black-clad young man carrying an AK-47. "We are journalists, journalists," I repeated clearly in Arabic. He slapped me as he shrieked orders at the dozens of others surrounding us on the road.

Two gangs tried to separate us, but Steve forced his way over to me and grabbed my arm. I was thrown into a taxi and Steve pushed himself in, too, and was head-butted by the man in black who screamed that we were intelligence agents. Because they were Muslims and I was a woman, I would not be killed, he said. But Steve was going to die.

We drove at high speed through village streets -- no police, no marines, just swarms of men with AK-47s and RPGs. The car came to a screeching halt in front of some homes.

Dozens of men quickly jumped out of other vehicles and surrounded us. As we insisted that we were journalists, a tall man with greying hair, a kaffiyeh and a long tunic punched me twice in the face.

Suddenly a black sedan screeched to a halt and another young man holding a walkie-talkie jumped out of the car. He saw Steve's press badge and yelled at the others to free us. "What are you doing?" he said frantically. "They're press." We had our reprieve.

"We are the mujahedeen," the young man said after we were transferred to his custody. "Don't worry, we won't hurt you."

We were dropped off again, at the home of the village leader, the mukhtar, and led to a guest room where a 60-year-old mujahedeen leader entered in a flurry, followed by armed flunkies. We had an interview sitting on the floor of that room: an American, a Briton and an Iraqi resistance leader.

"I need for you to tell the news," began the man, who called himself Abu Mujahed, in halting English. "I need to know why the American army is killing the people of Iraq." Then he answered his own question: "The petrol."

"I ask Bush or Blair: Why do you need to kill people for the petrol? Today, Americans killed three children, ages 5, 3, and 4. Why? Americans are all around Fallujah now. Democracy is [about]killing the people? This is the lie of America. The American people -- no problem. The American army -- problem."

He apologized for our previous treatment and told us that the first people who stopped us were criminals, not real mujahedeen.

The interview was punctuated by loud explosions outside, and Abu Mujahed said he had already been launching rocket attacks against the Americans that day. As he stood up to go, he said: "I am now [going to fire]maybe 10 rockets."

After he left, the mukhtar's family took care of our needs. Lunch and tea were served and our belongings arrived. But night was falling, and the mukhtar's family refused to let us return to Baghdad alone, insisting we be led by another car.

"God willing, you will leave here happy," the mukhtar said. "We will make sure you get to Baghdad safely. It's too dangerous to go alone."

Orly Halpern is a freelance journalist who has covered Iraq for The Globe and Mail since 2003.

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