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.
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.
That night across the city, small groups of fighters were in position, ready for battle with shoulder-held rocket launchers and small arms. Trucks full of armed men raced through the streets and one could see their artillery pieces. Soldiers with supply trucks and other military vehicles took shelter from the bombers under the raised highways.
American troops arrived in the center of town the next morning, April 7. From my window at the Palestine Hotel I could see a couple of their armored vehicles across the Tigris just outside Saddam’s Republican Palace. All night there had been the noise of fighting, but it was of a different order from what we had heard before. For the first time I could hear heavy machine-gun fire from the US forces. It was constant and by daybreak it was creeping closer. Suddenly there were fires by the river. Flames swirled hundreds of feet into the air. Clouds of smoke were blowing across the river in the direction of the hotel.
At this point Mr. al-Sahaf popped up once more at the Palestine Hotel. With explosions continuing from about seven hundred meters away, he simply said that there were no American troops in Baghdad. But what about the battle that was going on so close to us? Mr. al-Sahaf adopted a tone implying, “Oh that.” “They pushed a few of their armored vehicles and tanks [forward],” he said, “and we besieged them and killed most of them. We will slaughter them all.” Warming to his theme, he declared, “They are committing suicide on the defense of Baghdad. The Americans swallowed poison last night.” Then he said that Washington had thrown its soldiers “into the fire. Their tombs will be here in Baghdad.”
I could watch the battle when I looked south from my balcony, but when I looked north, I could see red, British-style double-decker buses making their way through the city as if nothing unusual was happening. They drove around the big traffic circle, which was dominated by a statue of Saddam Hussein. And, indeed, when I went out to talk to the people on the street they told me that, in fact, nothing much was happening. I passed a restaurant where, ten days earlier, the owner swore that he would not shut down whatever happened and that he had laid in a stock of five tons of chicken. “Yes, five tons,” he said. His restaurant was open and I could see some samples of his five tons on the grill. A number of grocery shops were open, a bakery, and other shops, too. At a tea shop, with benches arranged out on the sidewalk, men with little to do but gossip, now that most work had ground to a halt since the beginning of the war, were sipping little glasses of tea as if this was just an ordinary day.
One man became angry. Trembling with emotion, Mohammed Ali, a teacher of English, demanded to know what Americans would think if the Iraqi armed forces were to attack Washington. Still, he went on to say that he did not believe there were American troops in the city center. “We don’t believe that,” he said, “because everything they say is false.” He said he thought that there had been Americans in the southern suburbs but that “they were defeated and their bodies are there.” Najah Sa’ada, a businessman, said that he, too, did not believe that Americans were in the center of the city. He added, however, that friends had told him that “there was an airdrop, they were confronted, and now they are not at the palace.” Sadiq al-Hamoud, a barber, said, “There are hundreds of corpses at the airport, thank Allah! Our forces control the airport.”
That evening I noticed that there were fewer armed men about than there had been for days. I wondered whether the defenders of Baghdad were beginning to melt away.
The next day, April 8, I went to Baghdad’s al-Kindi hospital, which I had been visiting for the last couple of days. Each time I had seen small groups of men, most of them between eighteen and thirty, being rushed in every few minutes; they were hauled out of ambulances or off the back seats of cars, sometimes covered in blood and rushed inside on equally bloody hospital trolleys; flies swarmed overhead. I had seen a few old people, a few children, and a few women, but very few. The wounded were mainly men in uniform, brought in by their comrades. But when I asked the head of the emergency unit, however, how many civilians and how many fighters he had received, Dr. Osama Saleh said that his patients were all civilians—victims, he said, of the American “salopards.”
Clearly the doctors had been given an order to lie to journalists. I met a young doctor who had grown up in England. “Doctor, I understand your position,” I said, “but can I see real civilians?” We walked out of the emergency room to another building and he spoke to a colleague. He said that some children had died of their wounds in the morning, but their bodies had already gone. He had no women patients either.
For a few moments we stood around wondering what to do. Then an ambulance pulled in and a woman wearing traditional black robes burst out of the back, screaming. The doors of the ambulance were open for perhaps thirty seconds but I could see three dead children who looked to be between six and ten. “Oh Saddam,” she yelled, “I have lost three children! Saddam I have lost three children!” A minute later a pickup truck arrived with the rest of the family, including an injured elderly man. A young man, perhaps an elder brother, leaped from the truck and hurled himself at a French photographer and hit her. It was not the moment to ask names and ages and exactly what had happened. It was just another brutal episode on a brutal day. What soon became clear was that while doctors were giving out different stories about the numbers of civilians, other hospitals were badly overstrained trying to treat both wounded soldiers and civilians. (By April 12, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced in Geneva that the medical system in Baghdad had “virtually collapsed” and that of the forty hospitals in the city thirty-nine had been looted or closed.)
The morning I visited the hospital a correspondent from the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera had been killed by an American missile. For some inexplicable reason members of al-Jazeera’s TV crew were still working out of an office in the middle of a battlefield, although it had been clear for weeks that their building would become an acutely dangerous place because of the many potential targets all around it. A few hours later an American tank fired a shell at the Palestine Hotel and killed one journalist from Ukraine and another from Spain.
I was in my room on the fourth floor. After the crash of the shell I could hear glass tumbling down from the upper floors. Ten minutes later injured journalists were being carried into cars on stretchers made of blankets. Later that day the American command said their forces had been fired on from the building. It was not a believable statement, since it would seem unlikely that 150-odd journalists would fail to hear or notice this. No one had done so. Perhaps what had happened was that the members of the tank crew, who probably did not know that journalists were staying at the Palestine Hotel, saw a television camera pointing in their direction and the silhouette of the cameraman, and thought he was holding a rocket launcher. They may have decided to fire first and ask questions, and make up excuses, later.
At dawn on the same day one could hear the noise of battle from across the Tigris. And then came the unearthly sound of guns blasting from an American A-10 “tankbuster” plane. It swooped and whirled and then attacked. Not much can have survived a blast from the A-10 as its deadly rounds splattered the Ministry of Planning. The battle continued all morning. Late that afternoon, on a side street swirling with gray, billowing smoke from oil fires the Iraqis had lit to disorient incoming missiles, I saw small groups peering into the sky and pointing at the warplanes soaring in and out of the clouds above. A man offered to open his shop for something I wanted to buy. “Where are the Americans?” I asked. He said, “On the Jumhuriya Bridge,” one of many that span the Tigris.
Only the day before, many Iraqis, and not only officials, had been telling me that there were no Americans in town; how come this man and others now appeared to know exactly where they were? He said, “It just happened all of a sudden, so now people certainly know where they are.” In fact what had happened was this. At the beginning of the campaign the Americans and the British had made all sorts of overblown claims—about, for instance, having pacified towns on the way to Baghdad and neutralized Basra—which had later proven to be altogether untrue or vastly exaggerated. By contrast, Mr. al-Sahaf’s statements during the first ten days or so of war had given him a measure of credibility, so people came to believe what he was saying. Reality then overtook him. His claims became ever more fantastical, but ordinary Baghdadis did not realize this—until they saw the tanks for themselves.
That night they asked, “Where is the fighting?” They meant that they could not see how the heroic resistance they had been promised was “crushing” the enemy at every turn. On the same day an American military spokesman claimed that the US might have killed Saddam Hussein with a bomb in the Mansur district. While Westerners were asking “Where is Saddam?” ordinary Iraqis were asking “Where has the government gone?” A week before, Ministry of Information officials were constantly hustling journalists from one ministerial press conference to another. The officials implied that if one didn’t attend the conferences one might risk being expelled. But by now the conferences were petering out. At the very moment that cars took the dying journalists out of the Palestine Hotel, Mr. al-Sahaf stood outside the hotel and demanded that the Americans surrender or be “burned in their tanks.” That was his last performance.
Why did he keep on lying, which only made him a joke to the Western press? In retrospect, he and his bosses probably thought they had to keep up the fiction that they were winning against the odds. Once it became clear that they were overwhelmed, the resistance, they feared, would quickly collapse, as in fact it did. Iraqi leaders made it clear, moreover, that they were hoping for popular uprisings against governments in the Arab world. As long as they could claim that they were holding back the Americans while suffering from their attacks, revolts among the Arab masses might still be possible.
The next day, April 10, the Americans crossed the Tigris and spread through much of the rest of the city. The huge statue of Saddam next to the Palestine Hotel was toppled. At first the crowd, which was only a few hundred strong, got a rope from a tank crew, but then, when they realized that this would not be enough, an American armored vehicle was brought in to topple Saddam for them—a telling moment of dependency, it seemed, but the people seemed too excited to realize this.
Throughout that morning the city had been in a state of flux. Three Portuguese journalists and a Bulgarian ventured out only to be trapped and beaten by a mob set on looting. They barely escaped with their lives. Later, I ventured out and drove half a mile down the road. From there I began to walk gingerly to the line of American tanks and armored cars in the distance. I waved a white pillowcase and my notebook. I did not want a jumpy Marine to mistake me for a suicide bomber.
Small groups of people stood outside their apartments and peered down the street. “Are you happy?” I asked Mohammed, a hospital technician, aged twenty-six. “It is a good day because the fighting has stopped,” he said. “But are you happy that Saddam is gone?” I asked. He replied, “I can’t tell you because the situation is very unstable.” The Americans were still four hundred yards away. He was smiling; but the Americans had not passed him, so, clearly, he did not feel safe enough, yet, to tell me what he really thought.
The first impression that you get on seeing the Abrams tanks and the Bradley armored fighting vehicles—particularly after weeks at the Palestine Hotel—is their sheer, intimidating size. Each of the larger armored vehicles carries some twenty men and all their equipment. You think: “How could I have believed that the Iraqis could have resisted this army for long?”
The Americans were nervous, but slowly people were coming out to greet them. Some gave them flowers and cigarettes and some wanted to trade souvenirs. Some young men began to chant: “Saddam! Saddam! Down! Down! Down!” At a military building some started destroying the portrait of Saddam outside, and then someone hit on a novel idea. Adapting the chant that Iraqis have been forced to shout for decades, they all began to yell in unison—and roar with laughter—“With our blood, with our soul—we’ll defend you, Bush, Bush, Bush!”
“This is freedom, it is the dream of all Iraqis,” said one man. “But I hope this army will not harm the people.” An old man called Baba Shemsun Baba stepped forward and, speaking English, said, “If you said anything he would just cut off your head and not just that of the man who said something against him but of all the family, either by killing them or with a car accident.” Then he said: “Now we will get jobs and money, the two things we really need.” But was the war really necessary? Mr. Baba did not pause to think about it: “With this fellow, yes.” A dentist, who was still too frightened to give his name, said that local Baath Party and police officials had left two days ago. Where had they gone? “They just put on civilian clothes and went home to their wives and went to sleep,” he said. “Some are good and some are bad. You know that not all the fingers of a hand are the same.” But would there be revenge killings? “Everyone who hurt people in the past will pay,” he said bluntly.
By no means everyone was happy to see the Marines. An eighteen-year-old girl said bitterly, “They destroyed our country. We have no electricity and no water. Is this freedom?” Many people, she said, had lost sons, brothers, and husbands who had been fighters during the war. Not long after I spoke to her, many more fires broke out, apparently set by small groups whose identity remains mysterious. Some undoubtedly were set by looters, but others may have been set by former members of the regime, who wanted to destroy incriminating documents and archives.
A little way up the street a woman called Mey said, “This is not the finish, it is just the beginning.” She said that she was not only terrified of looting and a collapse of law and order, but that she and the small group she belonged to had another fear as well. They were Iraqi Christians. Although Saddam Hussein’s regime had payed lip service over the last few years to Islamism, its roots were secular. But Christians were afforded some little measure of protection because Saddam knew that, as a group, they could pose no threat. Now, Baghdad’s Christians await with trepidation to see if Islamists, and especially Shiite Islamists from the Saddam City part of town, decide that this is the time to settle some scores with “the crusaders,” as Christians are sometimes called.
One man called Sadiq Jafar, who has three young daughters, said he was delighted by what had happened because it meant that the Marines had “brought freedom for my children.” He made me promise to send a message, which turned out to be the message many others have heard. “My message is for Bush, Blair, and [Jack] Straw,” he said. “You have come to make the Iraqi people free, but then, when we have made a government with a free vote, you must go.”
When, during the first week of fighting, the war seemed to be going well for them, Iraqi officials gloated that they had learned from the 1991 Gulf War that there was no point, without air cover, in trying to fight a huge modern army with their own comparatively weak conventional army. Thus they would take on the Americans using guerrilla war, urban warfare, street fighting, and suicide bombers. They built hundreds and probably thousands of small bunkers and sandbagged positions across Baghdad. Assuming that the Americans would not want to risk very high civilian casualties, they hoped to lure US forces into fighting them here in Baghdad. Meanwhile, on the BBC, I could hear pundits and armchair generals claiming that the Americans were fighting the 1991 war over again, and had not realized that things had changed.
In fact, the US military planners were not as stupid as the Iraqis and some of the pundits thought. They decided to take the war to the Iraqis, particularly in parts of Baghdad with few civilians. That is one reason why they started with the airport and then went on to the extensive Republican Palace complex, which was practically empty of civilians. When the Iraqis tried to resist them, the Americans attacked with all of their huge firepower, including their A-10 “tankbusters.” To the Iraqi soldiers, armed with Kalashnikovs or rocket launchers, sitting in their foxholes in the open space of the park outside the palace, or in otherwise empty ministry buildings, it very quickly became clear what their choices were. They could die, martyrs to the cause of Saddam, Islam, and Arabism, or they could run. Most chose the latter. The fear of American firepower quickly spread to fighters in the other parts of the city.
The evening after Saddam’s statue fell, I had tea with a group of middle-class men who were playing dominoes at a small outdoor tea shop. Ahmed, a retired air force pilot, told me that in his opinion one of Saddam’s fatal mistakes had been to rely on various militias, such as the Fedayeen of Saddam, the Jerusalem Army, and the militia of the Baath Party. The problem with them, he said, was that they were not real professionally trained soldiers; it was not therefore surprising that most of the resistance had collapsed. “A civilian is not able to fight like a military man,” he said.
In fact, I had met Ahmed ten days before at another tea shop and we had had a guarded conversation then about the numbers of bombs dropped on the nearby Air Force Ministry. Now some of Ahmed’s friends were surrounding us and giving their opinions on what was going on, about the future, and about what they thought of various exiled politicians, including Baqir al-Hakim, who is in Tehran, and Ahmed Chalabi, who has US backing, and was about to arrive with a number of his fellow exiles in Nasiriya. There were, unsurprisingly, many conflicting opinions. Hakim was a good man, some thought; Chalabi was, or was not, a crook, others thought; the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was a traitor for making a deal with the Americans, and so on. Ahmed said he hoped the Americans would set up a transitional government without these men, and with technocrats instead. “For example the minister of health should have experience in his field.” It struck me that it was a stunning event that this discussion, which already seemed quite normal, was now taking place in Baghdad. “When was the last time we could have talked openly like this?” I asked Ahmed. He took a while to reply. “When I was student in 1967,” he said.
I then asked Ahmed, “Do you feel as if your country has been occupied?” His reply was, “Definitely.” I said, “But you just told me you could not have talked openly like this since 1967, so don’t you feel that this is also a liberation?” He replied, “Well, yes.” “So perhaps there is an odd contradiction. Occupation and liberation both at the same time?” He and his friends argued about this. “Yes,” he said, “that is true.” “What next?” I asked, and he pointed across the street to where a house had been leveled, not by bombs but because someone had cleared away an old house. “That is where we are now. We need a shovel to build something new.”
—April 16, 2003
May 15, 2003