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Gregg Ramshaw’s Dispatches from Qatar: March 20

BY Gregg Ramshaw  March 20, 2003 at 4:04 PM EDT

The Ritz Carlton in Doha, Qatar, has gone to war.  Airport screeners for people and luggage have been set up in the elegant marble foyer. The move was the most visible sign of stepped-up security in this pillar of paradise overlooking the Persian Gulf. 

Last night the security equipment was rolled into place as the skies darkened and a stiff on-shore breeze picked up. It seemed ominous. We assembled our protective gear and practiced putting on our gas masks with our eyes closed and our breath held. It’s a clumsy procedure that experts say needs to be accomplished in nine seconds. 

As the NewsHour team went through the routines and then posed for pictures, we looked like something out of “Revenge of the Grasshoppers.”

We’d had training from a so-called “risk assessment” firm — former members of the Royal Marines — who taught us how to use the respirators and also the chemical suits we brought along. 

Peter Boyer of The New Yorker joined our merry band; he’d carried a gas mask to Qatar but hadn’t had training, so we tried to pass along what we remembered. Our instruction came with no warranty. 

There have been many lively discussions about whether Iraq can reach Qatar with weapons requiring us to suit up quickly. The general and hoped-for conclusion is no. 

Thursday dawned bright and glorious over the desert here in Doha. We watched President Bush at 6:15 a.m.

The media promptly mounted up and headed for the CENTCOM command at Camp As Sayliyah outside Doha.

Members of the press and broadcast technicians flooded into the elaborate press center where briefings are to be held.

They milled around watching six television monitors and waiting for something to happen. 

But the first strike — that cruise missile decapitation effort — was followed by very little… and certainly very little information from the military command center. 

“What if someone gave a war and nobody briefed,” wagged one veteran news person.

Others took advantage of a Green Beans coffee bar set up to sell espressos and cappuccinos to the 21st century Starbucks generation of journalists. In another corner, the folks who run the military’s post exchanges were selling Oodles of Noodles microwave soup and tee shirts. 

The lack of news did not stop the all-news, all-the-time TV reporters who stood in front of the cameras in the otherwise empty briefing room and filled air time with poise and smooth authority.

Outside on a baking pavement and in glaring sun, smaller broadcast news organizations taped off little plots of concrete. The techs will no doubt dub it “As Sayliyah beach” or something similar before their tour of duty here ends.

Floppy hats and sunscreen required; beach chairs optional.