The Attack on Al Rasheed: A Reporter's Account
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 27, 2003 -- I had just brushed my teeth and was
wetting down my hair to make it look halfway presentable for a
6:30 a.m. working breakfast when I heard the first "boom" at the
Al Rasheed Hotel in central Baghdad.
It was just after 6 a.m. on Oct. 26, the fourth and final day
of my trip with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who was
traveling throughout Iraq to assess progress in the country's move
toward stability and democracy.
This trip represented a lot of "firsts" for me. It was my first
as an American Forces Press Service reporter covering a major Defense
Department official. It was my first experience traveling with
the Pentagon press corps - a highly experienced group that I admired
tremendously and fretted that I might not be able to keep pace
with. It was my first trip to Iraq since I'd covered the Kurdish
relief effort in the northwestern tip of the country in 1991 following
Operation Desert Storm.
And as it turned out, it also was my first time to experience
being in a hotel hit by a rocket attack.
Throughout the trip, I'd heard a lot about the massive piles
of munitions being discovered by U.S. and coalition troops or turned
in by the Iraqi people. Several members of our group had watched
an explosive ordnance disposal unit detonate a massive pile of
unexploded ordnance the day before, resulting in a huge, black
mushroom cloud that could be seen for miles away. I learned these
detonations have become everyday occurrences throughout the country,
so I didn't think much of that first boom.
Then a second boom followed - this one louder than the first.
It seemed awfully early for troops to be destroying explosives,
especially in the heart of Baghdad. The two other women I was sharing
a room with, a Reuters correspondent and a Defense Department press
escort, exchanged confused looks that said, "What was that?"
Then we heard another, even louder boom - this one making the
floor of our 12th-floor hotel room shake. Something was wrong.
Our press escort, Air Force Master Sgt. Rebecca Alexander, made
a telephone call, then told us to get dressed quickly. If something
was wrong, she told us, someone from security would be on the way.
We quickly threw on our clothes and grabbed essentials - in my
case, my reporter's notebook, camera, tape recorder and wedding
ring. I abandoned my suitcase, laptop computer, cosmetic bag and
25-year-old, comfortable-as-slippers Army boots.
An alarm went off outside our door, and we hurried into the hallway,
which was filled with smoke. Another boom sounded. Someone pointed
us toward the far end of the hallway, and we moved out at a brisk
pace. Nobody seemed to be panicked.
We hit the stairwell, filled with much more smoke, and followed
the procession downward, one floor at a time. Remembering things
I'd read about evacuations, I pulled part of my shirt up over my
nose to keep out some of the smoke.
Thoughts of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York's World Trade
Center filled my head. Why did we have to be staying on the 12th
floor? I watched the red numbers at each stairwell landing that
marked progress out of the building - 11, 10, 9 and so on.
Blood on the stairway somewhere around the sixth or seventh floor
suddenly made everything seem even more serious. I don't remember
hearing more impact explosions. Maybe we were insulated from them
inside the stairway. Maybe the shelling was over. Maybe my mind
was just blocking them out.
We finally reached the stairway's bottom, which opened into a
glass lobby. It didn't seem like a very good place to congregate
during an attack. Somebody told us not to go outside - that it
might put us at even more danger.
I watched someone help a man toward the door, his arm bleeding
heavily. Someone with a megaphone told the group to move back,
leaving room for medics to hurry toward the door with a litter
carrying someone who had been injured - then a second litter, then
The eight reporters traveling with the deputy secretary sprung
into action. Some used cell phones to try to contact their bureaus.
Some pulled out notepads. Our TV crew started running tape. I spun
into action photographing people congregating in the lobby.
We heard a lot of stories. Some people had seen shattered glass,
doors blown off their hinges, water pouring from the ceiling. One
group member had gotten drenched as he stopped to help someone
who'd been wounded, assuring him that everything would be all right.
Someone in authority told us to move again, this time to a small
courtyard away from all the glass. We stood waiting for further
directions, wondering if the shelling was over.
We were told to move yet again, being directed outside the hotel,
past the elaborate fountain at its entrance and across the street
to the Baghdad Convention Center.
Sirens started blaring, and medical evacuation helicopters were
As we stood in line waiting to show our credentials and get our
bags searched to get into the convention center, a man walked around
offering us doughnuts and fruit juice. I heard someone say he'd
gotten them from the cafeteria at the Al Rasheed Hotel. A doughnut
never tasted so good.
Inside the center, the reporters hurried toward the "C-PIC" - the
Coalition Press Information Center. We watched the TV monitors
reporting the attack and awaited a statement we were told Wolfowitz
was about to make.
I admit was a bit surprised. I'd wondered, while waiting in line
to get into the convention center, if his security detail hadn't
already whisked him off to the airport and put him on a flight
out of the country.
Like us, the deputy secretary had been staying on the 12th floor
of the hotel. One reporter in our group said he'd seen him in the
hallway unhurt, and commented to him about this being a heck of
a wakeup call.
At the press center, I hurried to the phone, and amazingly got
an immediate dial tone. I awakened my husband in the middle of
the night to relay what had happened and that I was fine. Then
I called my boss at the American Forces Press Service with the
same information - and that I would file a story on the attack
as soon as I could.
During his brief press statement, Wolfowitz - who looked amazingly
composed in light of what had just happened - told reporters that "this
terrorist act will not deter us from completing our mission."
After the press conference, reporters hurried to the press center
to file their stories. With my laptop computer back at the hotel,
U.S. Army Master Sgt. John Hodges from the 319th Mobile Public
Affairs Detachment graciously offered use of his. I wrote my story
faster than ever before, because any moment we might be pulled
Surely, I thought, security would cut Wolfowitz's schedule short.
I couldn't imagine that he'd continue the pace he'd followed for
the past two days, moving from town to town, meeting with one group
after another, allowing himself to be so exposed.
I was wrong. When the deputy secretary said the United States
and the coalition will not be deterred, he meant it. While we were
filing our stories, he was already back on schedule, meeting with
representatives of the Baghdad Citizens Advisory Councils, Iraq's
first step toward representative government.
From there, we followed him through the same fast-paced itinerary
he'd followed since we set foot in Iraq. We traveled with him to
the Baghdad al-Jazeeda Police Station to hear about progress in
recruiting and training the new Iraqi police force - and the need
for more resources to reach the goal of 75,000 police nationwide,
12,000 of them in Baghdad.
From there, it was on to the 1st Armored Division headquarters,
where we saw the launching device, disguised as a generator trailer,
used in the morning's attack. We followed Wolfowitz on a mounted,
then dismounted, patrol of the area with the 2nd Brigade Reconnaissance
Troop - something I'd also been convinced would be cut from the
schedule due to the morning's events.
Next was an unscheduled visit to the 28th Combat Support Hospital,
where Wolfowitz visited the five people critically injured in the
attack: one Army colonel, three U.S. government civilians and a
British government worker. The press was barred from the visits,
but afterward, the deputy secretary called their courage and commitment "extraordinary" and
said how proud they all told them they are of what they are helping
accomplish in Iraq.
From there, reporters went back to the press center to file stories.
Wolfowitz remained on-task, getting briefings, wrapping up meetings,
doing an interview with an Arab television station.
At 9:45 p.m., almost 16 hours after the attack and about three
hours later than originally scheduled, Wolfowitz and his group
were "wheels-up" at Baghdad International Airport, on an Air Force
C-17 transport for the return to Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
A few hours airborne, Wolfowitz talked with the press about his
impressions of the four days in Iraq. What stood out the most for
him, he told us, wasn't the attack; rather, it was the heroism
he'd witnessed throughout the trip among U.S. and coalition forces
and the Iraqis he'd met.
He said he was particularly inspired by the bravery of the people
he'd visited at the hospital earlier in the day. "They were risking
their lives and proud of what they are doing," he said. "They know
what the mission is about. They know they are helping to build
a new country. They know they are helping to make the world and
I've heard him say many times that the United States and coalition
must not be deterred by "bitter-enders" who think that their random
acts of violence will "scare us away."
But the deputy secretary's actions on Oct. 26 demonstrated to
me that he's personally not about to be scared away by terrorists,
either. His refusal to allow the attack on the Al Rasheed Hotel
to keep him from doing what he came to accomplish - getting out
among the Iraqi people and the U.S. forces to get firsthand, personal
accounts of the progress in Iraq -- speaks volumes. He meant it
when it says he won't allow the terrorists to win.