I write this from my hotel room, overlooking the Tigris. A mortar has just landed nearby, and caused some minor damage, and a major shakeup of morale for Iraqis here. They wonder out loud if this area was targeted, because there are foreigners here. In broken Arabic, I try to convince them it's obvious the militants were aiming at the Green Zone, just a short distance away.
But it's a losing argument when people are scared, and they know the militants don't like foreigners. I have never felt so foreign in my life.
I used to be immune to the whole anti-foreigner thing, because I'm a journalist. As reporters, our Western-ness was beside the point, almost overlooked. We could walk into the enemy camp unhindered - and frequently did - because the 'enemy' or whomever the 'other side' was, wanted and needed us to tell their story.
Now, especially after so many western reporters spent so much quality time embedding with the U.S. military, the insurgents see us as part of 'them' - their armed foes.
Our only value to the insurgents now is if they can dress us in orange, and put us on TV. Twenty-two journalists have been kidnapped in Iraq - most released - but the message is clear: We're no longer the playwrights and directors - we're just a walk-on part in a play they are directing.
The militants are journalist-editor-producer-broadcaster all in one. They video their own bombings and killings, and put it on their own websites, reaching both the young followers they're trying to recruit, and a wider audience when we international newsgatherers pick up their material, and re-broadcast to millions.
In a sense, by rebroadcasting their material, we've helped them make us irrelevant.
Their campaign of fear has also made it near impossible for us to reach ordinary Iraqis - the third party caught between the two combatants. Forced by our new status as targets, we have become ninja reporters, dashing into an area, talking to people, and getting out in under fifteen minutes, if possible. That's the amount of time the U.S. military estimates it takes militants to notice you are there, run back home, gather weapons, come back and get you.
It's not safe for those we speak to, either. Everyone seen speaking to foreigners puts themselves at risk. The newspaper reporters can still slip in and out, mostly unnoticed, but you can't hide the television footprint: a western woman (even veiled), a foreign camera crew, a producer, a translator, a couple foreign security guys in tow (their guns carefully hidden yes, but their military stance, bearing and haircuts giving them away) ahead and behind, all rolling up in two armored vehicles.
So what's left that we can really report on? Well…the safest thing are embeds with the U.S. military. So we go out with the military, whenever possible.
And that means while the militants are making their own home movies, we're mostly putting our troops on the air, ironically proving the militants' point that we mostly cover our own troops.
I would like to explain to them a simple fact: You can't give equal airtime to the guys who want to kill you. But they really aren't interested in truth or logic, or good camera work and snappy writing. Just fear. And they've proven they are very good at producing that.
So that mortar may not have been aimed at us, but it scared the locals and made them fear us. So once again, the militants scored a hit.