NBC's Williams: Iraq is the 'story of our time'


NEW YORK -- Back from a five-day stint in Iraq, "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams said one of the things that he discovered is that there's nothing black or white about the war.

The trip -- from which he reported extensively from around Iraq for "NBC Nightly News" and other shows -- gave him the perspective he needed to report what he calls "the story of our time." It's even more so since President Bush announced a radical shift in war strategy this year, and Williams saw elements of the plan that are working.

He traveled with an Army general via Blackhawk helicopter to the towns of Ramadi and Hit in the troubled Anbar province to see neighborhoods that were too dangerous to go to even a few weeks ago. He visited mobile police stations where U.S. and Iraqi troops are living and working together to provide security, another key element of the new strategy. Near the end of the trip, he sat down with Gen. David Petraeus, the Army's new commander in Iraq.

But as safe as some places in Iraq have recently become, there also are plenty of signs that there still is more work to be done. More U.S. soldiers have been killed and every day there are more suicide bombings in and around Baghdad. Williams and his crew were reminded of that on their way out of Iraq when the Baghdad airport was hit by five rockets while they were waiting for their plane to leave.

"This story is a living, breathing dichotomy," Williams said. "If you go to Iraq looking for good news, I can take you right to it. If you're looking for bad news, I can take you right to it. If anything, the trip left my head spinning because the story lines are all over the place."

But he said the experience was crucial for him to be able to understand the story as it often leads the nightly newscast. He won't say whether it changes whether it's a civil war, as NBC News announced last November it would call the conflict.

"I've never made a big deal of that phrase. We've used that on 'Nightly News' when it's appropriate," Williams said. "The important thing isn't so much what we call it but how we cover it."

It isn't the first time Williams has been in Iraq since the war began; his last trip was in 2005 when the Iraqi elections took place. But it is his first visit -- and the first by any Big Three anchor -- since ABC's Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were gravely wounded in an IED attack in January 2006. Williams said the attack on Woodruff -- and a car bomb that killed two CBS News journalists and seriously wounded correspondent Kimberly Dozier -- weighed heavily on his mind before deciding to go to Iraq.

"I'm certain it was harder on my wife and children because of our friendship with the Woodruffs," he said. Williams postponed his trip by one week so as not to interfere with Woodruff's ABC News documentary "To Iraq and Back." Williams saw Woodruff twice in the past few weeks and saw Dozier the Thursday before he left for Iraq.

He had pledged that he would do everything to make sure that safety was at the forefront. One entry on the "Daily Nightly" blog focused on the U.S soldiers who risked their lives to protect the anchor and his crew in Iraq.

"It's a humbling experience to be so indebted to them," Williams said. "In some very dangerous neighborhoods they surrounded me and took very good care of me."

Williams said he encountered troops who were positive about their role in Iraq and others who had had enough and wanted to go home. He said most were aware of the controversy the war is creating back home and the recent Walter Reed Army Hospital scandal. But he said one thing about the soldiers is clear.

"People have to understand how mission-focused they are. They are just so focused on the job, most of them don't view an alternative," Williams said. "That's really what strikes you when you're there."

While Williams was in Iraq, more changes happened in the evening-newscast race that NBC News until recently has been winning in a walk. His own broadcast has a new executive producer, Alexandra Wallace, named a week ago. And the "CBS Evening News" fired its executive producer, Rome Hartman, and replaced him with Rick Kaplan.

Williams didn't seem worried about losing the February sweep to ABC's "World News With Charles Gibson." Already the weekly demo race has swung back to NBC and in viewership it was a close second to ABC. The NBC newscast remains in first place in both measures season-to-date.

"If everyone goes back through their notes, I am quite confident that they will find that I have warned everyone how cyclical a business this is," Williams said. "I have never acted or believed that our lead was something that belonged to us or was at all permanent. We go up against two really good network newscasts every night and well it should be that way."

Williams added: "This (the ratings war) is going to go back and forth. The viewer really is victor here, because it's good that all this attention is being focused on these broadcasts."