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Gregg Ramshaw’s Dispatches from Qatar: March 13

“The weapons of war,” laughed ABC News cameraman Russell Marhull, holding up his knife and fork. He was about to tuck into the complimentary buffet luncheon on the 23rd floor of the the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Doha, Qatar.

Marhull was a formerly a cameraman at WNET in New York where he worked for The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour until Robert MacNeil retired nearly eight years ago.

Eating was among the principal occupations today for the dozens of American and European broadcast journalists housed here waiting for war. A dust storm enveloped the city in a thick fog, leaving outdoor work precarious at best. This is the kind of swirling grit that scratches camera lenses and freezes the delicate zoom mechanisms. The doorman said it could last for several days like a Nor’easter in New England.

The four-person crew from The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS has already gone to war with the Qatari bureaucracy. Its television equipment has been detained by Customs at the airport for four full days. A paper chase of faxes from the Ministry of Information to the Foreign Information Service to Q-Tel, the country’s telecommunications regulator, led back to the two-man Customs station at the airport. They said they had not received the fax yet. 

The equipment is in plain sight at the airport. Even within reach. But the scowling police would never approve of its being removed without the right paperwork. Thursday and Friday here are the weekend; very little happens, so it may be five full days before the gear is retrieved. If it is retrieved at all…

There is a relaxed air in the lobby of the Ritz. Men in traditional attire, thobes and kaffiahs sip coffee and smoke. Tanned and lanky young men in golf outfits can be overheard describing holes at the Doha Golf Club. The Qatar Masters tournament is this weekend, despite the dust. The roster is mostly European; Americans stayed away for safety concerns.

On Thursday afternoon there was a lovely tea for American and European expatriate women in the Ritz lobby. Models strolled from table to table wearing jewelry for sale at a discreet table off to the side. A trio of female musicians played light classics in the background. The sound of the flute drifts up the giant atrium to the rooms above.

On the third floor are two American broadcast command centers. ABC and CBS are even sharing work space in a huge corner suite. It’s balcony has been turned into an anchor position, with the twinkling lights of Doha serving as the nighttime background for the main evening newscasts. The buzz has Peter Jennings on the way to anchor World News Tonight. Will George Stephanopoulos perform his Sunday chores from Doha? Nightline is a daytime program here as its cameraman Marhull watches how the dawn’s early light affects his shot.

But the biggest celebrity of all just arrived: General Tommy Franks, the man who will command the U.S. attack on Iraq from his post at a 262-acre industrial park about 20 miles from Doha.

In a telephone conversation yesterday with the NewsHour, Army Major Randi Steffy didn’t mention his arrival. “But did you ask?” said another military spokesman later. “No, but…” was the reporter’s lame reply.

The media/military game of cat and mouse has begun.

Major Steffy was quoted in the English language The Peninsula newspaper as saying she didn’t expect Franks to stay for very long. “I wouldn’t read anything into it because General Franks can command and control his headquarters from wherever he is.”

Good for him. Meanwhile the hotel buffet beckons.

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