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On The Scene: Goodbye Baghdad

CBS News Radio Reporter Charles D'Agata was stationed in Baghdad for the past six months and filed this "On The Scene" report for CBSNews.com as he left Iraq.

The most worrying aspect of covering news in Iraq is the fundamental and absolute reliance on the Iraqi government.

And when the government of a losing side knows where you are and what you're doing and what you're saying, you have totally surrendered all control.

In the six months that I have lived in and worked in Iraq, I've never witnessed the tightening of government control as I have in the past week.

It is no secret that journalists are assigned government-appointed officials. They call them "guides," we call them "minders." But calling them "minders" in news reports is deeply frowned upon. Anywhere you want to go, even public places like markets and teahouses, must be done in the company of these minders.

Under a brutal totalitarian regime like Iraq, nobody would dare talk ill of Saddam Hussein with a minder in earshot. To do so is not only illegal, it's foolhardy and reckless. So getting a "feel" for what Iraqis truly think is impossible. You get whispers, here and there, at times when you are alone with Iraqis: elevators, taxis.

Censorship is one thing; what's happened this week is far more foreboding.

The Ministry of Information (nicknamed the "Ministry of Fear" by journalists) called us all together and "suggested" that, in the event of an attack, we continue to operate out of the Ministry of Information offices, where all the foreign press is held.

In recent days the seven-story building - in which many Iraqi government offices are based - has become a fortress. Sandbagged bunkers surround the building, dozens of troops patrol the perimeter, and they put armed guards outside the entrance of the office to check our government-issued ID cards.

Suggesting that we continue to broadcast from there shows that the Iraqi leadership is simply deluded that the office will be unharmed (one official said "the bombs will only hit the roof. It will not be dangerous"), or, more worrying, they think that America will not bomb the building knowing that there are western journalists inside.

They also wanted to know if we planned to go anywhere else, as in moving hotels or finding another place from which to operate, as if journalists would be able to go anywhere without the government knowing about it. The concierge at any hotel would contact the government immediately if a bunch of journalists were to check in.

They told us that the al Rasheed - the hotel where the majority of journalists stay - had a large underground bunker, and that it would be safe to stay there. It will not be safe to stay there, if only for the fact that it will be a "lock-in" by the Iraqis as soon as the bombing begins.

Journalists, of course, have made contingency plans; safe-houses within and outside of Baghdad. Exit routes, escape plans.

And, obviously, for any of these to be truly safe, journalists need to get there without the knowledge of the Iraqi government. And once you do that, once you take that leap, once you depart from the very people on whose support you rely on entirely, you venture into very dangerous waters.

Getting out of Iraq is fraught at the best of times. Now it is almost impossible.

Driving out of Baghdad, ironically, afforded one of the best views of the place that Baghdad has become. Journalists are kept well away from any military buildup. This time I had no minder with me.

About 10 miles from downtown - in a massive city of 2,000 square miles - you see the last line of defense; roadblocks, troops, anti-aircraft artillery. But it is at the second place, maybe 20 miles outside of central Baghdad - the fabled "ring around Baghdad" that you become aware of the "hornet's nest" that surrounds the city.

Field artillery as far as the eye can see. Anti-aircraft, surface to air missiles. Tank battalions dotted in a straight line. Foxholes and bunkers teeming with Iraqi troops. I saw a trench, stretching for miles, deep and wide - whether it was filled with oil to be ignited, which U.S. intelligence suggests - I could not see.

I have made the trip from Iraq to Jordan several times. This time was the toughest by a long way. Interrogation, exhaustive searches of my truck and myself. Four hours stuck at the border.

Never hostility, though. As one official remarked, "I'm sorry. I'm just following my orders."

The mood on the streets of Baghdad when I left?

Up until this week, Iraqi citizens would tell you that they're expecting an attack similar to ones they witnessed during the Gulf War and the air attacks of 1993 and 1998.

Now, somehow, in a place where the government strictly controls all newspapers, TV and radio, they're starting to understand this time may be different. "Getting rid" of Saddam Hussein is such a no-go area that I was severely scolded this week when I suggested to a man I was interviewing that America may seek to capture or kill the Iraqi president.

Still, they are going to lay low, protect themselves as best they can. They've got plenty of food and water to last for weeks, perhaps months.

Anybody with money left long ago. But few have money.

They place a lot of trust in religion. They're fatalistic, and many feel they have no choice anyway. "Insh'Allah," with recurring frequency. Whatever is God's will.

Quietly, most, if not all, Iraqis would like to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But they all fear and object to American rule, however brief, and a great many fear the chaos that may follow Saddam's collapse.

The Iraqis, I sensed, will see a fine line between liberation and occupation.

I told one man that some believe that U.S. troops will be met with "flowers and music."

"You will see," he deadpanned.

By Charles D'Agata