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For a Decade, the Al Hamra Hotel Had Been the Hub of News
 Outlets in Baghad; Its Large Swimming Pool
 Glimmered Like a Sapphire

Los Angeles Times James Rainey column (Los Angeles Times)
By James Rainey, Los Angeles TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

January 29, 2010--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.

Such sweet comfort has been the exception in Baghdad. The relentless menace became inescapable on a Friday morning in November 2005, when a pair of truck bombers attacked the Hamra. Eight Iraqis in the surrounding neighborhood died in the attack. Friends of the dead furiously protested the continuing presence of so many Westerners. They worried the Hamra would remain a magnet for attacks.

Late Monday afternoon, those misgivings proved all too legitimate. After bombings just minutes before at a couple of other hotels, gunmen helped the suicide driver fight past the Hamra's security guards. The defenders wounded the driver severely enough that he unleashed his explosives just short of the hotel--probably saving many lives.

Still, 16 Iraqis died. One, named Yasser, was a father and longtime driver for journalists.

He had been hopeful enough that conditions would improve in Baghdad that in 2006 he and his wife decided to have a second child. The baby was a girl, and Yasser told friends that when he looked in her eyes, the future still held promise.

Now the neighbors who lost loved ones have again become disconsolate, or angry.

"Our houses are destroyed, people have perished, more blood is spilled because of the foreigners," one of them said this week. "They are safe and our people are dead."

Reporters who have worked there find it hard to respond to such words. There is a perverse kind of solace, at best, in knowing that violence can erupt anywhere in Baghdad.

Just moments before the attack, Ned Parker, The Times' Baghdad bureau chief who had rotated out of Iraq for a brief break in New York, had been on the phone with a colleague in Baghdad. The two discussed a recent security upgrade -- increasing the number of guards around the hotel and improving their pay.

"We tried to make it safer," Parker told me.

"We tried. But it wasn't enough."

james.rainey@latimes.com

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Copyright (c) 2010, Los Angeles Times

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