Sunday, March 05, 2006

Knight Ridder's Lasseter stays in Iraq: "Hell, I don't know."


Kristina Borjesson interviews Lasserter in "Feet to the Fire." Read near
the end of this story, the section about the gunner at Samarra. How does
it make you feel? What do you want to do about it?

-- bill

Why Tom Lasseter Stays Behind in Iraq

The longtime Knight Ridder correspondent in Baghdad was supposed to return
to the U.S. in January but he remains in harm's way in the war zone. Why?
"In looking at the year ahead," he tells me, "I realized that I am not
done reporting here."

By Greg Mitchell
Editor & Publisher

(March 02, 2006) -- Two weeks ago, I wrote a column alerting readers to a
report by Knight Ridder's longtime Baghdad correspondent Tom Lasseter. He
had returned from an embed mission to little-visited Samarra and, in his
usual way, offered a remarkably frank look at a city that was taken by the
U.S. last year but never really pacified.

Well, timing is everything. A few days later, insurgents blew the top off
the main mosque there and a near-civil war has raged since, with hundreds

Lasseter's mid-Februrary dispatch proved prescient, but what surprised me
most of all was that he was still out there risking his life. When last we
heard from him last autumn, he was planning to wind up his long,
award-winning stint in Iraq in January 2006, and move to Washington, D.C.,
to work for the KR bureau there.

So what was he doing in mid-February, still in Iraq, filing another
wrenching dispatch, embedded with U.S. troops in Samarra? What's with this
guy? And how does he manage to get all of these stories, and revealing
quotes, from military personnel when few others can?

E&P has covered Lasseter several times in the past two years. His
assignment in Samarra caused me to ask him how it came about.

From Baghdad, he replied that he had been curious about Samarra for quite
some time. Was it indeed pacified last year, as claimed by the U.S., or
more like still-boiling Ramadi? After expressing his interest to the
public affairs chief for the 101st Airborne, he got the OK to hitch a ride
in a helicopter to the city in January.

Lasseter wrote in this e-mail that he was "pretty surprised by the level
of destruction in the town." Its population of over 200,000 had been cut
in half. Despite being surrounded by a seven-mile-long security wall, it
was beset by an increasing number of explosions set off by insurgents.

An officer mentioned to him that a platoon of soldiers was living in an
abandoned schoolhouse in the middle of the city. Lasseter told him that's
where he wanted to go. "I always try to get as close to the ground as
possible; it gives me a feel for the place that is hard to get while
staying at larger, more comfortable bases," he told me.

After hitching a ride to the schoolhouse, or Patrol Base Uvanni, Lasseter
spent about a week and a half living with the guys "and going out with
them in Samarra on foot or in Humvee. I find it really helpful, especially
at the beginning of an embed, to accompany troops on every patrol mission
possible. I want to see what they're seeing as they see it and hear what
they have to say. It also shows them, in a quiet way, that I'm willing to
go wherever they go and not ask for any special accommodations.

"I eat what they eat," Lasseter continued, "sleep when they sleep and when
they wake up in the middle of the night, grab their flak vests and rush
out the door, I do the same. Sometimes that means sitting in a Humvee and
doing absolutely nothing and returning to pass out without getting much in
the way of notes. And sometimes that means a big gunfight or a soldier
saying something profound about his experience in Iraq.

"It's hard to tell the way things will work; big raids can produce very
little, and a walk down the street can lead you into something big. My
approach is to almost always just go out the door with the soldiers and
find out." He calls this "getting down in the dirt with them."

So what did he find out in his Samarra stay? "Bloodshed is destroying the
city and driving a wedge between the Iraqis who live there and the U.S.
troops who are trying to keep order," he reported. In one of those
brutally honest quotes Lasseter inevitably seems to gather, Maj. Curtis
Strange said, "It's apocalyptic out there. Life has definitely gotten
worse. You see Samarra and you almost want to build a new city and move
all these people there."

After much more in this vein, Lasseter described in vivid detail how a
.50-caliber machine gun, manned by a 21-year-old Texan name Michael Pena
on the roof of the schoolhouse, blasted an unarmed civilian on the street
into oblivion. Horrified soldiers rushed to the Iraqi, or what was left of
him--his organs were now slithering out--and watched him die, as he
praised God and muttered, "Why? Why?"

"Haji, I don't know," an American soldier replied, with Lasseter right
there. A few days later, Lasseter found the gunner, Pena, still manning
the machine gun on the same roof. "No one told me why I'm putting my life
on the line in Samarra, and you know why they didn't?" Pena asked.
"Because there is no f------ reason."

So we now know how Lasseter got that story. But how much longer will he
continue to risk life, limb, and sanity in the war zone?

"I'm not sure," he wrote to me. "I was supposed to leave late last year,
but in looking at the year ahead I realized that I am not done reporting
here. I would like to devote some time to embedding with U.S. units as the
debate continues about troop drawdown in Iraq. This has been true the
whole time I've been here, but it really does feel like a critical moment
in the American experience in Iraq."

He added, "I think that you have to be there to know it."

Greg Mitchell ( is editor of E&P.


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