“That man is going to shoot us … but what an elegant looking divil he is.” There really is no accounting for the way your mind works in stressful situations.
He strode out into the middle of the road clad from head to foot in black. Jalabiya; turban wrapped around his face; military boots; all were pristine. He took very deliberate aim, the stock of the rifle pressed into his shoulder distinguishing him as someone who knew what he was doing. A point he underlined by firing only once and not emptying his magazine.
We shuddered to a halt, but before Mustafa could think about putting the jeep into reverse a man with a rocket launche slung over his shoulder appeared from a ditch and stood in the road behind us. We were beckoned forward, and it struck me again, he really was an impressive looking bastard. No dusty farah slacks and sweat stained, drip-dry shirt for this Jihadi.
Then, Ramin, the photographer who was travelling with me pointed out the bodies. Two, that I remember, though Ramin recalled more. They were wearing the baggy trousers of the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga. They were a long way out of their comfort zone this far south. Looting, perhaps? Thrill seekers most likely, because there was no military reason for them to be there. Not with several thousand Americans having just taken control of Tikrit, three or four miles back down the road.
The statue of Saddam had been torn down in Firdos square just a few days earlier. US troops had just entered Tikrit, the last major city to fall. The war was over, “Hell, yeah!” as one Marine had said to me not thirty minutes earlier. Yet here were a half dozen men armed with AK’s and RPG’s staking out their territory, and killing other Iraqis.
And that is the legacy of the ten year old invasion. For all the direct taking of life the coalition troops did, since March 2003 far more Iraqis have been killed by other Iraqis. Tribe and locality are of much greater importance than nationality in Iraq. The vacuum that was created when Saddam was swept from power was filled by violent groups trying to create ethnically and tribally homogeneous areas.
That is something I can only report with the benefit of hindsight, but it was apparent very early on. Donald Rumsfeld’s lo-carb, lo-cal, regime change on a shoestring budget left plenty of scope for the murderous to indulge themselves.
We had seen it in Kirkuk almost as soon as the Americans moved out of the city they had liberated minutes earlier to concentrate their troop presence on the oil facilities. As night fell the tone of the gunshots changed from “happy fire” sprayed wildly into the air to shots fired in anger. We had heard unconfirmed reports of similar sectarian and revenge killings in Mosul.
And there just a few miles outside the city where Saddam Hussein had grown up we watched it for ourselves. Two more petrified and tearful Kurdish lads were sitting with their hands tied behind their backs and nooses around their necks. The other end of the rope was tied onto the hitch of a pick-up truck. The condition of one of the dead men suggested that he had met his end by being dragged around the desert.
The men who were doing this made it clear that they were not interested in debating the rights and wrongs of US imperialism. They were only interested in letting it be known that Tikrit was for the al-Tikritis’, and all Kurds, Shiites, Turcoman and Assyrians should take note. The invasion and deposition of Saddam had unleashed and raised the hackles of barbaric forces.
But I did not report any of this. Not a single word. Get it right, get it in on time and get out of the way of the story – is what any course in journalism can be distilled down to. Reporting your own scrapes and bits of bother would be a little bit more self aware than any journalist should be. But we may have missed the story as a consequence.
Greater insight was achieved in subsequent years, but by then the reporting of Iraq had become a cataloguing of sectarian atrocity punctuated by the odd hostage drama. In 2003 when the world was paying very close attention we got it wrong.
That is not to say that incorrect facts were knowingly broadcast and left uncorrected. The mistake was one of emphasis. As “Shock and Awe” began detailed lists of the targets were reproduced. When ground troops moved out of Kuwait their mile by mile progress was painstakingly reported.
As a “unilateral” reporter (not embedded with the troops) I was cut off from official sources of information. I could only honestly and accurately report what I saw in front of me which a lot of the time was vast stretches of desert with nothing happening.
So I and many others in similar situations reported the invasion as an almost orderly progression of American troops in a northerly direction.
I didn’t report the chaos. I didn’t report the utter aimlessness of US troop movements. We overlooked the silent sectarian blood letting as a sign of what was to come. I made no mention of US troops ignoring conventional weapons caches in the race to discover a non-existent WMD treasure trove.
My motives were the right ones, I believed, and still do. To report what I was seeing, all the dramas I was getting embroiled in would have been to put myself at the centre of the story at the expense of reporting the invasion in its totality. The irony that the intervening ten years has revealed is there was a great deal more truth in relating what was happening to me and other reporters than in trying to provide some kind of strategic overview.
On a lonely stretch of desert road we were flagged down by a man and his camel. He directed us to a spot a few miles over the horizon. There in a natural depression formed by seasonal rains was an enormous cache of Surface to Air missiles and up to 600 artillery shells. Abandoned by the retreating Iraqi troops they had literally dumped the missiles off the back of their transporters onto baking sands.
Later that same day we were sprinting back along the same stretch of road to try and make an expensive satellite broadcast booking. The driver of a tractor had lashed ropes around one of the missiles and loaded up the cab of his ageing vehicle with artillery shells. He was dragging the missile along the road with sparks flying out from its underside. His son was sitting on the back of the tractor. Any concerns I had previously had about reporting the location of the missiles to the Americans evaporated as I realised the potential scale of death and injury if I didn’t do something.
I needn’t have tortured myself so much. None of the American officers I attempted to pass the coordinates to were interested. “Leave em there, ain’t no one who’s got any use for them”. The term IED or Improvised Explosive device had yet to become popular.
The hunt for WMD and the group of old men whose faces appeared on those decks of playing cards blinded the Americans to the more real dangers in front of their faces. Back then I felt I couldn’t report the extent of their stupidity because it was speculative until somebody actually started planting bombs on the side of the road. Now? Now, stupidity is such a small word and these are such small incidents with which to try and illustrate the most ill advised foreign war America has ever fought. But they happened and now they seem worth reporting.