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Documentary : On to Kuwait, Past the Saudis and the Censors : Enterprising journalists combined skill and savvy, begging and bluster, to make sure they wouldn't miss the story of the emirate's liberation.

March 05, 1991|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUWAIT CITY — It was Kuwait city or bust. After seven months of Iraqi occupation, the Kuwaiti capital had been liberated--and nearly 1,000 restless journalists already bored with war and intrigued by peace prepared to slingshot themselves into Kuwait any way they could.

It wasn't going to be easy. Military officials in Saudi Arabia had a formidable checkpoint set up at the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, and reporters huddled in a hotel coffee shop in Dhahran and compared notes on how best to storm, wheedle, beg, bluster or fake their way past the guards.

There was a certain urgency to these conversations, conducted over tea until all hours of the morning. A CBS News crew had already made it straight to the Kuwaiti capital, and Cable News Network wasn't far behind.

Unfortunately, editors in places like Los Angeles, New York and Washington tended to tune into CBS and CNN, and then to telephone Saudi Arabia, wondering why we were still in Dhahran when the story was in Kuwait.

So. We would go to Kuwait.

The chemical-weapons-suit approach was tried and true. It involved donning your massive camouflage-colored protection suit and gas mask and waving an ID card at the Saudi guard as you drove through a checkpoint, screaming something inaudibly through your mask. Often, the guard allowed you to pass as he rushed to find his own gas mask.

But the Saudis were getting savvy and had issued new restrictions threatening deportation to anyone caught wearing his or her chemical suit except during a gas attack. Deportation was a reasonable risk at this point, but the guards probably were done buying that old gambit anyway.

Other options included jumping into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and storming across the desert miles away from the border checkpoint. This would most certainly work. But some wimps in the coffee shop kept fretting about things like mines and getting lost in the desert or getting caught in the middle of a tank battle or some silly thing like that.

So I simply opted to join 11 other reporters from major American news organizations and demand a military escort into Kuwait. We went up to the ranking army officer, Col. Bill Diehl, and submitted our demand. He countered with an offer to take six journalists. We said no, it had to be 12. He said no, it was going to be six. He had a gun, and a badge. We regrouped.

An hour or so later, while I was madly assembling sleeping bag, batteries, food, notebooks, tapes and gas mask for the impending trip, a soft-spoken reporter with a cooing Southern accent and an Old-World style of courtliness slipped by my hotel room and informed me that some of the journalists had gotten together, and I was on a list of six that was going on the convoy to Kuwait the next morning.

"How did the list get down to six?" I asked.

"A small, nasty cabal decided these were the six who would go, and the other ones were the six who wouldn't be able to do anything about it," he said politely.

And so it was that the select half-dozen rose at 6 the next morning for our convoy to Kuwait. Outside was madness. Sure enough, jeeps for the six of us were lined neatly in a row, being packed. But behind them were arrayed a veritable parade of other vehicles, packed with enough food for the entire population of Kuwait city, spare cans of gasoline and virtually every reporter in the Persian Gulf. There was the exotic Brazilian woman who worked for Monte Carlo TV. There was Dan Rather. There was Tom Brokaw. There was ABC reporter Sam Donaldson in an entire bus , complete with entourage.

Col. Diehl was beside himself, but what was he going to do? Somebody had said there was a convoy going to Kuwait, and by God, it was going to be a convoy; 54 vehicles stretched out of the parking lot, around the corner and down the block.

What the hell, Diehl said, and we set off on the northbound highway.

I could say that the trouble started at the military refueling station at Abu Hadriya, halfway to the border, when 54 vehicles tried to pull into the desert and get gas, all at once. But that wasn't nearly as troublesome as when the entire convoy pulled up to the border, hours later, only to find that the Saudis weren't about to let 54 mad journalists loose into a war zone.

Diehl patiently explained that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander, had approved the trip, or at least OKd it for some of the journalists. The Saudi commander looked at him blankly. Phone calls were made. We fumed. Journalists got out of their vehicles and walked up and down the line, debating strategies.

Finally, at least in our vehicle, we settled on one. We bolted. We broke out of the convoy, hit the gas, shifted into fourth gear and screamed through the border station and into Kuwait. Free at last.

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