May 30, 1991 12:00 PM

In August 1965 Peter Arnett, then a 30-year-old New Zealander on the brink of winning the Pulitzer for his Vietnam reportage, hitched a ride with U.S. Airborne choppering up to the Central Highlands to relieve a firebase that had been under siege. When the Vietcong were driven off, the Associated Press correspondent began photographing the survivors—who were led by a 30-year-old Army Major named H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

It was not pure coincidence that a quarter century later, the two would find themselves center stage in the first major war theater of the ’90s. Post Vietnam, Schwarzkopf went on to earn his fourth star, which led to Saudi Arabia and command of allied forces against Iraq. And Arnett continued to roam battlefields (surely no human alive has witnessed more wars than his 16) en route to a front-row seat at the Mother of All Air Campaigns.

For 10 harrowing days, he was the sole accredited Western newsman in Baghdad, satellite-dishing CNN scoops like a 90-minute interview with Saddam Hussein and tapes of the devastation wrought by Desert Stormers. “Pure Arnett,” says CBS’s Terence Smith, a friend since Vietnam. “He is drawn literally like the moth to the flame by combat.”

But Arnett, now relaxing stateside, rejects the notion that he’s a war junkie: “During the gulf war there was fighting in Somalia and in Liberia. I would not have gone to cover them. I am drawn to stories that are significant to my editors and my audience, which often involve combat. But I have never volunteered for a combat situation—the only reason I went to Baghdad was to relieve another CNN correspondent, who had been there since early August [when Iraq overran Kuwait].”

He arrived Jan. 12. Four days later, Arnett and colleagues Bernard Shaw and John Holliman were in their ninth-floor rooms in the Al Rasheed Hotel when all hell broke loose. “We talked on-air for 17 hours straight.” he says of reporting the coalition’s initial raids. Two days later Iraq expelled all newsmen except CNN’s. Rival networks hinted at some unholy deal, but Arnett points out that Baghdad had been importing CNN’s signal since 1989, and “from their vantage point we were the premier communicators in the world.” Shaw and Holliman decided to leave. Not Arnett: “I couldn’t think of a better place to report live from than the capital of a country under attack. I mean, if I have to go, isn’t this better than a traffic accident or cancer or old age?”

Conditions fast worsened at the hotel, recalls Arnett. “There was no electricity and no water. Many people did not wash—the odor from rooms was frightening. I chose to be clean, so every morning I went into the ice-cold bathroom, where I kept bottles of mineral water. I’d soap myself, then scream and yell like I was being tortured as I poured the water over me. I had to wash my clothes with hand soap in mineral water. Of course there was no way to iron, so I could not maintain this image of the glamorous foreign correspondent. I looked like—what can I say?—like crap.”

Reporting was no easier. “Just to go outside the hotel without a guard meant to be arrested,” Arnett says. And when he was taken to some bomb-damaged site Iraq wanted the world to see, his script had to be okayed by an information ministry minder. CNN prominently labeled Arnett’s reports as censored, and ABC anchor Peter Jennings scoffs, “Anyone who didn’t realize Peter was being censored had to be functionally blind.”

Still, a Jan. 23 visit to a bomb-gutted factory set off sparks. An infant-formula plant, protested Iraq; the Pentagon insisted it produced biological weapons. “I saw nothing to convince me it was anything other than a baby-milk factory,’ ” Arnett says; in fact, on seeing other Al Rasheed guests bringing back powder from the site to feed babies and to use as coffee lightener, he scooped up a plastic bagful, one of his few gulf war souvenirs.

Five days later Arnett was unexpectedly granted access to an unnamed official who proved very high-ranking indeed. Before the interview, security men ordered the reporter to strip, swept his garments with metal detectors and confiscated all personal effects. “Then they poured disinfectant over my hands and warned me not to touch anything or anyone until I arrived at my destination.” At a one-story house in a suburb of Baghdad. Saddam Hussein was waiting. Says Arnett: “I decided to be as aggressive as possible—not call him ‘Sir” or “Mr. President’—because I couldn’t afford to appear sympathetic.”

It didn’t help. The Hussein interview, coming on top of the baby-milk flap, sent some politicians ballistic. Chief among them: Sen. Alan Simpson. The Wyoming Republican had junketed to Baghdad to praise Saddam Hussein just four months before the invasion of Kuwait, yet now he accused Arnett of being “a sympathizer” who “won a Pulitzer prize largely because of his antigovernment material [and who] was married to a Vietnamese whose brother was active in the Vietcong.”

Arnett’s estranged wife is Vietnamese, but neither of her two brothers fought in the war; on its editorial page, the New York Times dismissed Simpson’s other charges as “too snide even for Bart Simpson.” In Baghdad, Arnett had little inkling of the furor. Yet, he concedes, “I knew full well I would be accused of being an Iraqi stooge. But since Vietnam, the American press has peeked behind both sides of the barricade. During the Turkish invasion of Cyprus I went back and forth between the Greeks and the Turks. In Angola and Afghanistan, in Salvador and Guatemala. I covered both sides.”

In fact, nowhere is Arnett’s impartiality more evident than the far-flung enemies lists his name has graced: He was expelled from neutralist Laos (1960), and leftist Indonesia (1962), investigated by Lyndon Johnson’s FBI for his dispatches from Vietnam (1965), and roughed up by the KGB for his reports on protesting Soviet Jews in Moscow (1987).

Arnett has always stuck his nose in awkward places—like the 1952 rugby scrum that recontoured his schnozz. Born in Riverton, New Zealand, the second child of builder Eric Arnett and his wife, Jane, Peter headed up to Southeast Asia in 1959 to make his mark as a journalist. In 1962, when the U.S. stepped up its presence in Vietnam, he joined AP and quickly won a reputation for enterprise. One fellow reporter braved enemy fire to reach a Green Beret post—only to hear a familiar Kiwi drawl: “Well, pal, good on you, you finally made it.” And it was Arnett who recorded the remark, by an American adviser after an operation in the Mekong Delta, that for many defined the tragic conflict: “It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

During his 13 years in country. Arnett met and married Nina Nguyen. (The couple, who are the parents of Andrew, 26, a musician, and Elsa, 23, a Boston Globe reporter, separated in 1983 after 19 years of marriage.) He finally left Vietnam in May 1975, a month after the fall of Saigon.

In 1981, Arnett stunned print colleagues by joining the fledgling CNN. After an unhappy stint as White House correspondent, he returned to his beloved international news. Two years ago, he began dating Florida-born Kimberly Moore, a CNN intern in Washington, D.C. Arnett was posted to Jerusalem in early 1990; Moore, now 23, followed, landing a job as a reporter for the Israel Broadcasting Authority. The two were sharing an apartment, filled with some of his 400 books on Southeast Asia and with artworks collected there and in Russia, when he was called to Baghdad.

The war did not slow their romance. Despite constant surveillance by the Iraqis, every few days Arnett aimed the CNN microwave dish at a telephone satellite and linked up with Kimberly in Israel. When she fretted that bombs were falling too near the Al Rasheed, he quipped. “I’ve known Schwarzkopf for 25 years—he wouldn’t do that to me.” During one covert call. Arnett proposed and Kimberly promptly accepted. Shortly after the Allies’ crushing 100-hour ground campaign ended. so did his duties in Iraq.

For now, Arnett is happy to be free of the sights and sounds of war. “I will return to CNN as a correspondent.” he promises. But not this year: he and Moore, who will wed when his “amicable divorce” from Nina is final, are looking for a place to live in the Washington area. The reason: Arnett has just signed a seven-figure contract for his memoirs. And if the writing goes well, he’ll deliver it just about the time the Emmys for best telereporting of 1991 are announced.

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