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The Fall of Baghdad

1.

On the morning of April 10, the day after resistance collapsed in most of Baghdad, I talked to a small group of looters at a warehouse belonging to the Ministry of Finance who were carting off brand-new water coolers and air-conditioning units. Except when they scuffled with one another, they were friendly and unapologetic. A young man named Habib, who had two water coolers strapped to the top of a taxi, said, “Now we have freedom, this is our right. We’ve earned these things and we’re poor.” Sitting on top of an air-conditioning unit he had just taken, another man called Sami said, “I was in the army for eleven years and I don’t have an air conditioner. I have four children.”

I talked to some of the many other people crowded around and expressing their anger about the looting, and especially with the American soldiers for not stopping it. “I could have taken stuff but I didn’t,” said a man called Ahmed Yusuf. “It is forbidden by our religion. These people are ignorant and the Americans should make a checkpoint to take care of the institutions”—by which he meant such places as hospitals, banks, and public buildings. Across the city that morning many people told me the same thing: as the occupying power, the US had a duty to provide people with security.

While I was talking to the looters I met Staff Sergeant Nicholas Clark of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, who was making his way through the crowd, with his pistol drawn. He was smiling at them. I thought perhaps he would stop them, but he did not, and asked me to follow him so that he could show me why. Next to the Finance Ministry’s building was another warehouse, which a couple of Marines were guarding. Inside were crates of ammunition and mortar shells, tear gas, piles of rifles and other guns. Some of the boxes were marked in Arabic, some in English, and some with Cyrillic lettering. Some boxes were labeled “Jordan Armed Forces.”

Sergeant Clark then showed me another building that he said was crammed with ammunition, and then he took me to yet another warehouse a few minutes away, which was full of crates containing rocket launchers, hand grenades, and more than a dozen antiaircraft guns. To put it simply, he said, quite apart from the Marines’ not wanting to get into the “police business,” the problem was that local Iraqis had been asking the Marines to protect the many ammunition stores across the city. Fighting was still going on anyway, he said, and the Marines did not have the additional manpower to stop looters. They had to stop these guns from falling into people’s hands; otherwise the situation would get even uglier than it was already.

Surrounded by piles of weapons in one of the warehouses, I asked Sergeant Clark, who had grown up in Lansing, Michigan, and fought in the first Gulf War in 1991, if this war had been easier than he had expected. “Much,” he said. “He”—meaning Saddam Hussein—“promised us street fighting, but where we have encountered it, it has only lasted for twenty minutes or half an hour. I don’t think they are doing a very good job. For me, street fighting means holding this building, for example, until there is no more ammunition left.” Before I left, Clark took me through the neighboring Army Sports Club. At the bottom of the empty swimming pool was a sandbagged position from which weapons could be fired. In a small side room were trampolines, javelins, and ten white-finned missiles with red tips, each two yards long. Sergeant Clark told me he thought they were air-to-air missiles, but he said that it looked as though someone had been tampering with them, trying to adapt them for something else. He was waiting for the men from intelligence to come and inspect them. He laughed and said, “I don’t know if the UN reached this site.” (In the days immediately following there was no announcement that chemical weapons had been found in the sports club or anywhere else in Iraq.)

Inside Sergeant Clark’s Humvee armored vehicle I noticed a slip of paper which an Iraqi had obviously handed to him and his men. It was written in English. It said: “Welcome to Iraq. We are need you” [sic].

That day most people in Baghdad were stunned. For days the government had been trumpeting its glorious victories over the Americans in Baghdad and then, suddenly, the Americans were here and Iraqi forces had vanished. On the morning of April 9 you could not, one man told me, “even dream a bad dream” about Saddam Hussein without risking prison or worse, and then, by the afternoon, it was all over. For one minute, it seemed, there were people cheering the Americans; and by the next, they had become frightened and angry because the Americans were not stopping the looters, and they feared that their own houses would be the next to be robbed.

2.

On April 4, while the bombing campaign was still in full swing, hardly anyone in Baghdad was really confident about what was happening and what would happen next. Electric power had already been out for two days and the Americans were saying that they had seized Baghdad’s airport. How could this be possible when, only the day before, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Iraq’s minister of information, had told us that the “desert animals,” as he called them, were not even within “one hundred miles” of the airport?

On April 4 Mr. al-Sahaf said nothing, and rumors swirled around the city. Some thought that American commandos were already in the streets, and, on a few occasions, shots could be heard. Whether these were fired just by bored Iraqi soldiers shooting into the air or by American infiltrators, no one knew, but everyone seemed willing to guess and to spread the rumors.

It was a Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, and many people look to their imams not just for spiritual guidance but also, in such situations, for a clue about what is actually happening. I went to the Abu Hanifa an-Nu’man mosque in the al-Adhamiya district. It was crowded and armed men patrolled outside because, I was told, one of Saddam’s ministers was praying there. During the sermon the imam, Abdul Ghafour al-Qasi, told the faithful, “Like thieves they declared that they had come to Saddam Airport but our powerful Iraqi forces were able to defeat them.” Then he went on to urge his flock not to listen “to the aggressor’s media”:

They want to weaken the unity of the Iraqis. Rumor is part of this war but still we have been successful in defeating and unmasking their rumors. The one who disseminates false news is a sinner. The only truth comes from the media of Iraq.

By this time, of course, the Iraqi press and television had not even mentioned that anything unusual had happened at the airport, but some people had clearly decided not to wait to see. On roads out of town I saw several families crammed into their cars with bedding and bags.

Close to the Abu Hanifa an-Nu’man mosque I met a woman called Rukiya Majid, who lived nearby. While we talked she was close to tears. She told me that in 1986 her young husband was killed during the Iran–Iraq war. In 1991 her eldest son was killed in the Gulf War, and the day before, she said, her elderly uncle died of a heart attack. “It was shock because of the bombs,” she said. While we talked, relatives came in to take her to her uncle’s funeral but she refused. “I haven’t been out of the house since the bombing began,” she said. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I’m very surprised at all those people who go out.” Mrs. Majid earned her living and looked after her four children by cleaning people’s houses, but of course now she was no longer working. “I just sit here all day and read the holy Koran.”

A few hours after I talked with Mrs. Majid, Mr. al-Sahaf broke the official silence. Yes indeed, he said, there were some “desert animals” at the airport, but unless they surrendered forthwith they would be eliminated overnight with “unconventional means.”

The next morning, April 5, I woke to the sound of heavy fighting. According to the BBC the Americans were consolidating their control at the airport. Not so, said Mr. al-Sahaf, who wore a uniform and carried a pistol. In fact this was all a monstrous fabrication, and he was delighted to inform us that Iraqi forces had “crushed” the force which “had dared to come to the airport. They are smashed. The Republican Guard is now in full control.”

We were deep in never-never land now. Indeed from here, in the center of town, it seemed as though there were two Baghdads existing in parallel universes. There was one that the entire world, except Iraqis, could see on television, and there was another one, the Baghdad described by Mr. al-Sahaf. People coming from Dora, in the south of the city, said they had seen a tank on fire and other destroyed vehicles, but Mr. al-Sahaf said, No, nothing was happening there and journalists were free to go and see for themselves. In fact we were not: once he had left, other officials from the Ministry of Information made it clear that Dora was off-limits. At this point it was understood that anyone caught breaking the rules could be expelled or imprisoned—as five journalists including two from Newsday who had slipped in on tourist visas had found to their cost.

By the next day, Sunday, April 6, the rules had changed. Now the ministry desperately wanted us to go to Dora to see the remains of the destroyed American tank. When I got there I saw jubilant Iraqis dancing on top of it. The tank had formed part of an armored column, which had moved into the southern part of the city on Saturday morning. It lay disabled on the highway close to a major intersection, and an Iraqi armored recovery vehicle was attempting to haul it off the road. Close by lay the shattered and burned-out remains of several Iraqi military vehicles and one large artillery piece. One man, Sadiq Naim, who said he was an eyewitness, told me that the US tank had been hit by a team from a militia called the Fedayeen of Saddam. He said, “It was stopped with a rocket launcher fired by a man in a motorcycle sidecar.”

Around the tank were several destroyed Iraqi trucks. In one I could see a burned helmet, ammunition, gas mask filters, and tins of food which had popped open with the heat of the explosion or fire that had destroyed the vehicle. Angry local residents claimed that several civilians had died in the fighting, but it was unclear how many or in exactly what circumstances. One woman who began to explain was bluntly told to stop talking by a young Iraqi in civilian clothes. Around the destroyed tank were a number of armed men who claimed to be volunteer fighters from Lebanon.

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