It was over 110 degrees that afternoon and I was thankful to be back in the hotel, relaxing in the air-conditioned lobby and sipping a cold drink. I was trying to cool down after a hot morning of filming when a translator for National Public Radio dashed into the room. He breathlessly told me that two American Humvees were burning in the middle of the street in Baghdad's business district, Karada, five blocks from the hotel. I grabbed my camera and ran out the door.
As Ehab, my driver, wheeled out onto the main street in Karada, we could see thick, black smoke in the distance. Cars jammed the road in front of us, forcing us to jump over the concrete center divide and drive against oncoming traffic. People were pouring out of the shops and into the street, crowding it so badly that Ehab had to stop the car more than a block from the burning vehicles.
American soldiers were running around yelling and pointing, but I was too far away to understand what they were saying. I quickly set the camera on the tripod and started recording. Within seconds, soldiers carrying a limp body on a stretcher came into my viewfinder. They struggled frantically to push the body into a Humvee. Once in, they sped away. I was reframing my camera on the burning vehicles when I heard the first shots through my earphones.
Through the shimmering heat waves down the block, I could see U.S. soldiers firing at the top floors of a nearby building. At first it was small arms and hand-held weapons. Then a soldier in the turret of a Humvee began firing a .50 caliber machine gun up at the building. A Bradley fighting vehicle quickly rolled into view and began firing explosive shells. Rounds from the weapons riddled the building's upper reaches, blasting out chips of concrete with every strike.
Crowds cautiously ducked but continued to gather and watch as the firing intensified down the block. Vehicles continued driving by as people yelled in Arabic to head off drivers of cars unknowingly heading towards the firefight ahead.
I was crouched between a row of new refrigerators stacked on the sidewalk and a beat up Toyota pickup parked in front of a shop. The heat was unreal. Sweat dripped on my camera and into my viewfinder. People crowded forward, pushing up to get a better view. Tempers flared and an argument broke out on the crowded sidewalk. Two men began screaming at each other in Arabic. I glanced over in time to see one take a swing at the other, who was standing between the refrigerators and some washing machines. When I turned back, someone had stepped in front of my camera blocking my view. I stopped recording, stood up, and heard a very loud burst of gunfire.
A split second later, there was the sound of cardboard boxes being hit with sticks. At this point, I realized we were being shot at and that I was hearing bullets strike the appliance boxes next to me.
My reaction was to run. I grabbed the camera, which was still attached to the tripod, and turned around. When I did, I saw a man's head next to me jerk back as bits of hair and blood exploded into the air. The crowd, in complete unison, turned and started running. People screamed and pushed. I saw another person fall as I ran as fast as I could toward the corner of the nearest building.
By the time I got around the corner, the shooting in my direction was finished. Firing could still be heard further down the block.
I peeked around the corner of the building and saw a large pool of blood near where I had been. Someone had dragged the wounded man into the appliance shop. American soldiers, crouching behind their vehicles, still pointed guns in our direction. It was clear that they were the ones who had opened fire on the crowd.
People screamed in Arabic and motioned towards the shop. A Western journalist waved a white piece of cloth and walked out into the middle of the street yelling to the soldiers to not fire. As he did, a group of men ran down to the shop, picked up the wounded man and ran out looking for a car willing to take him to a hospital. His eyes were rolled back and he was not breathing.
More than an hour after the shooting, a squad of American soldiers walked to where a young boy was washing away the blood stains between the refrigerator boxes on the sidewalk. I followed with my camera. Some men were gathered around, and the soldiers asked them about the people shot. The soldiers didn't have a translator and were asking the questions in English, not Arabic.
Since I witnessed the event, I decided to tell them what I saw. I explained the chain of events -- that there had been a fistfight -- and that at least two men were shot. I told the soldier in charge that the victims had been taken to the hospital and one of them looked deceased. I asked them why they fired into the crowd.
Without saying a word, the soldier turned away from me and asked the gathering group of Iraqi men if the "gunman" was shot. No one answered. I interrupted and said that as far as I knew -- and I was standing next to the man who was shot -- there was no gunman in the crowd. (Four other journalists in the crowd at the time told me later that the only shots fired were from the American soldiers.) Apparently satisfied, the Americans walked away.
I never found out what the fistfight was about or why a man died on that hot sidewalk in Baghdad. I can understand the American soldiers being hot, tired and probably scared. But they overreacted. To compound the mistake, they incorrectly claimed that there had been a gunman in the crowd to justify their actions.
During my nearly 20 years as a working journalist, I've been shot at on three other occasions. Each time, I've made a vow to never get into a similar situation again.