Shock and awe, Hiroshima-style

Lindsey Hilsum in Baghdad awaits 3,000 cruise missiles and the latest invention, microwave bombs

The other day, we went to the souk and bought a clockwork camera. It's our secret weapon. Here in Baghdad, we are waiting for a high-tech, 21st-century assault of laser-guided missiles, remote-controlled attack drones and possibly the latest addition to the American arsenal, high-power microwave weapons.

E-bombs, as they're becoming known, are not as yet approved for use, but the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said that this would not necessarily prevent their deployment. Like a bolt of lightning or the electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear explosion, they fry computers and any other equipment that involves circuitry. Aiming to disable Iraqi military communication systems and computer-guided weaponry, the microwaves would also put our television equipment "beyond use", as the military jargon goes. Hence, the Bolex 16mm film camera.

Afghanistan was the first digital war. Instead of using film, which needs to be processed, stills photographers recorded digital images they could download straight to computer before beaming them by satellite phone to editors on the other side of the world. TV news outfits started to edit video footage on computer. However, if the Americans use microwave weapons on Baghdad, we will be pitched back in time to Vietnam, the first major TV war and the last war on film. We will be unable to operate our cameras, make satellite phone calls, write on our computers, in fact use any of the equipment that has transformed news-gathering in the past few decades.

Images will not be broadcast to your living room in real time; in fact, we will be unable to tell you what is happening at all. Print journalists will scribble in their notebooks, write their stories by hand, and find themselves unable to communicate with the desk back home.

So Channel 4 News will, if possible, wind up the Bolex, shoot for 30 seconds, wind it up again and so on, for the three minutes 20 seconds that each 100-foot roll of 16mm film lasts.

The tricky bit is transferring the film from the camera into sealed tins with your hands in a black bag, using only the sense of touch. The next tricky bit will be to send it by courier across the desert to Jordan, from there to be relayed on to London to be developed. That is assuming anyone can get to Jordan, which is by no means certain because if the Americans don't block the roads, the Iraqis probably will. Maybe, like Scoop, we'll have to resort to collapsible canoes and runners with cleft sticks. The war may possibly, with a bit of luck, come to a TV screen near you shortly after it's over.

Such are the fantasies we indulge in, as we sit in Baghdad and wait to be bombed. We're buying stocks of food and water, drums of fuel and generators, anything we think we might need when the lights go out. In Iraq - as in Britain - everything depends on electricity. We hear stories of Iraqi families digging wells in their back gardens, because they know the water-treatment plants will stop working if the power stations are hit, as they were during the Gulf war in 1991.

Saddam Hussein has also suggested that they dig slit-trenches in which to take cover, but a university professor I know scoffed at that idea. Most Iraqis, it seems, think they will just sit at home and wait until it's over. We have chosen a hotel we feel is far enough from the main target area to be safe, and we plan to remain there.

I wonder if any of us can really imagine what it is going to be like. Journalists who were here in 1991 and 1998 talk of doing "lives" from the roof of the Ministry of Information press centre during the bombing, and filming cruise missiles coming up the street. But this is going to be 24-hour saturation bombing, and I don't think that any of us will be venturing outside. In 1991, the Americans launched 325 cruise missiles on the first day - now, they're talking about 3,000 in 48 hours.

According to Harlan Ullman, a former US navy pilot who co-wrote the book Shock and Awe: achieving rapid dominance, the idea is to replicate the "shock and awe" created by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but using conventional weapons.

We don't have to stay. There are more than 200 journalists in Baghdad now, and more arrive every day. The Iraqi government may yet force us to leave, or our editors may decide we must all pull out. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a breakfast in Washington that the war "is not going to be antiseptic". But I still want to stay. Obviously the Pentagon would like us out, because they do not want witnesses to "collateral damage", nor reporting by journalists who are not "embedded" with US troops. The British don't want us here either, just as they didn't want us in Belgrade during the Nato air campaign.

But I lived through that, and although I know this will be worse, I am prepared to take the risk. I feel it is important to chronicle what happens to this regime, and to report what the Iraqi people undergo in America's first colonial war of the new century.

All this talk of microwave weapons is partly displacement activity. Underneath, we're worried that we - rather than our gear - will be fried. Anxious Iraqis frequently ask us what we think. Will it really happen? When? Should I send my family to the village? We have very few answers. We expect to hunker down, and wait until it is safe to surface. It the meantime, we've bought two microwave ovens to protect the small camera and the sat phone. You never know, it might work.

Lindsey Hilsum is diplomatic correspondent for Channel 4 News

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