Iraqis gather at the site of a car bombing this week near Baghdad's… (Muhannad Fala'ah / Getty…)
America met Baghdad at the outset of the 1991 Gulf War with CNN correspondent Peter Arnett's live coverage from atop the Al Rasheed Hotel. A dozen years later, the beginning of another American war in Iraq came to us largely from reporters broadcasting live from another hotel, the Palestine.
Those hotels -- complete with correspondents in the eerie light of antiaircraft fire -- have become landmarks in our collective memory.
But the hotel that captured, or at least housed, the collective soul of a generation of correspondents in Iraq's wars was a stubbier, scruffier cousin, the Al Hamra.
For at least a decade, the Al Hamra -- an inelegant, 10-story wedge of concrete and glass across the Tigris River from the U.S.-dominated Green Zone -- has been the enduring hub of journalism in Iraq.
As the walled and heavily guarded headquarters for many news outlets, it has amounted to both a prison and a haven, a place of endless fatigue and stress, yet also camaraderie and occasional joy.
No more. After an attack by a suicide bomber Monday afternoon, the Hamra and surrounding buildings that housed many journalists have all but emptied.
Reporters who have lived in the compound for years have scattered around the city. It's hard to dwell over the loss of a single home/workplace in a place like Baghdad. So many thousands of people have died. So many more have been displaced, never to return.
More than three dozen more lost their lives Monday in a string of bombings targeting three hotels, the last being the Al Hamra.
Yet no one who has lived or worked there, as I did for a month in 2006, could view the loss of the hotel as insignificant. The Al Hamra had been filled with too much life, came to symbolize too much persistence, to be allowed to fade away.
Its owners have already begun to repair scores of shattered windows and to clear mounds of debris. They plan to come back. The receptionist, Salam, told me Thursday morning: "I will always keep coming back."
But many journalists I talked to doubted that the Western press would ever feel comfortable again congregating at a landmark that now has been the target of deadly attacks twice in just five years.
"I think the Hamra finally closing down is going to leave a real hole," said Lourdes Garcia-Navarro of National Public Radio, who lived in one of the houses across the street. "Where is the hub? Where will people go?"
Iraqi reporters, interpreters, bodyguards and drivers loved to share stories of better days at the Hamra. They described the once-tony clientele -- ambassadors, attaches and businesspeople.
Even shortly after the 2003 invasion, journalists recall their comrades sunning in bikinis and waging impromptu water polo games in the pool. Barbecues could stretch long into the sultry nights.
But when security began to unravel around Baghdad, the bombings, kidnappings and beheadings began. A towering blast wall went up around the Hamra. Over time, NBC News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers, the Times of London, NPR and others made their home in the hotel and surrounding compound. Reporters left only with armed escorts.
Many of those journalists who spent time in Baghdad in recent years persisted, despite the considerable danger, in getting out into the city. They wrote and spoke vividly about the feel of living in close proximity to a civil war.
The Hamra itself offered large rooms and reasonable comfort for a war zone, even if it had settled into a dreary midlife -- with a bucking, defiant elevator, worn carpets and sometimes balky water supply. The constantly groaning generators would have been more maddening, but everyone understood they were all that stood between the hotel residents and Baghdad's punishing heat.
Reporters looked from their rooms over a cityscape of endless beige. But the large, rectangular hotel pool below their windows somehow always glimmered like a sapphire.
For journalists working 18-hour days, the Hamra's bane and blessing was the presence of a brigade of other journalists. Everyone longed for the company of outsiders, but when they rotated out of the war zone, they quickly missed its sense of heightened reality.
At 3 in the morning, you often could find another reporter pacing the hallway, also waiting to hear from his or her editor.
"I found myself grateful almost every day for the friendship and nearness of the other reporters," said Megan Stack, a Times colleague who spent considerable time in the bureau.
Stack and her now-husband, McClatchy correspondent Tom Lasseter, found romance at the hotel. So did another of my colleagues, Kimi Yoshino, and one of The Times' translators, Saif Hameed. The two later married, and Saif recently left Baghdad and came to L.A. to live with his American wife.