Our man in Baghdad, 2003
It took just five weeks to liberate Iraq from Saddam’s brutal dictatorship. Fourteen months on, the fragile peace has killed more Iraqis and Coalition troops than Operation Endurlng Freedom itself, while the battle for hearts and mind’s is being lost at home and abroad. For this exclusive GQ report, Sean Langan travels to US-controlled Iraq and witnesses the united Sunni and Shia resistanceto the Coalition Provisional Authority as it prepares the country for the handover of sovereignty on 30 June
I had heard the sounds before; the hollow thud of mortar fire and the rolling thunder of heavy machine guns echoing in the night. It was just another night in Baghdad, another US base coming under attack. I sat in the car, trying to keep a low profile and trying not to think about the increasing likelihood of death. US soldiers, Iraqi insurgents and innocent civilians were all about to die. But most of all, as I stared into the darkness, I tried not to think about my own death. I was less than a mile away from a US base. Cars were pulling in all around me, loading up and then heading out again. Two Iraqi men were standing in the shadows directing this deadly flow of traffic, while others were piling rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) into their cars before driving off into the night.
This went on for almost an hour, a co-ordinated ballet of men and munitions going into battle. These wererit the so called “dead-enders” or the “desperate remnants of the former regime,” as the USA likes to call the Iraqi insurgents. This was a well-oiled army operating quite openly in the middle of Baghdad – ten months after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Any moment now, I thought, I would be told to leave. I had just interviewed some of the insurgents, but this was something else. An overweight, middle-aged man wearing the traditional Arab dress-shirt, or dishdash, got into the back of my car and told us to drive. Our destination was a US convoy ofHumvees and trucks that had just been spotted trundling down a main street in Baghdad. I didn’t need to ask why we were heading towards the convoy; I already knew. I was about to witness an attack on US forces whether I liked it or not. Others might have weighed up the moral, ethical and practical implications of what was about to unfold. But I was too busy preparing my own obituary: “British journalist murdered by Iraqi resistance/killed by angry US soldiers/ vilified by press…” I took out a photograph of my pregnant wife and child and asked for forgiveness.
As we drove through the unlit and deserted streets of Baghdad -even now, a year after its liberation, the city is plunged into darkness every night by power cuts – the man in the back went through the mission. His Iraqi spies working on the US base had given advance warning of the convoy, and his scouts had worked out a likely route. The plan was to hit the front and back vehicles with RPGs, and then open up on those in the middle with small-arms fire. Other men would wait in reserve, to ambush the inevitable arrival of a US support team. Our car pulled up beside a Toyota. The driver had some important information. The area had been flooded by US back-up patrols and Iraqi police units. Any attack would have been suicidal, and these particular Iraqi insurgents were anything but suicidal. They were all professional soldiers, part of a once-proud Iraqi army that the USA- in perhaps its greatest strategic blunder to date- had disbanded.
The operation was cancelled. We could all go home. I thanked Christ that no deaths had occurred, and slumped back in my seat. It was just another night in Baghdad. The man in the back swore in Arabic, and as he got out of the car I noticed tears of frustration trickling down his cheek.
President Bush proudly declared victory in Iraq back in May 2003, after a lightning five-week military campaign ended Saddarn’s regime, but as of 29 April this year, 735 US soldiers had been killed- 593 of them after the war ended-and more than 3,8oo had been wounded. And that’s just for starters. The Iraqi resistance is in its infancy, its tendrils still growing and forming ever-stronger links. US forces will have to remain in Iraq for years to come.
Islam is split into two sects: Sunni and Shia. In Iraq, 6o per cent of the population is Sunni, 30 per cent is Shia. The mainly Sunni insurgency was already in full swing when I arrived in Baghdad last November. US soldiers were being hit every day by RPGs, roadside bombs, missiles, mortars and machine-gun fire. By Christmas, a Black Hawk down wasrit even considered news any more, let alone material for a Hollywood film. The situation was far worse than I had expected. But that didn’t stop US generals claiming the insurgents were on the run. In fact, according to the official line, the resistance didrit even exist. The number of attacks was played down and blamed on a small bunch of Saddamist die-hards.
Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, even likened the insurgency to a gnat-bite on an elephant hide. But after his own convoy came under attack, and as casualties continued to climb, the finger was pointed at “foreign terrorists” linked to Al Qaeda. The US Government also tried to paper over the cracks by bringing its wounded back to the USA under the cover of darkness, banning media coverage of funerals. But like its WMD claims before the war, the White House was either misinformed about the level of the insurgency, or was concealing the truth from the US public. That all changed in April after locals hung two US corpses from a bridge for the world to see.
What had been a simmering, predominantly Sunni insurgency up until then exploded onto the streets and became a popular uprising overnight. Around 400 Iraqis were killed in the town of Fallujah alone, as insurgents and US Marines fought pitched battles for over a week. At the same time, a Shia-backed insurgency emerged on the streets of Baghdad and full-scale battles quickly spread across the entire country. US forces were now fighting a guerrilla war on two fronts. President Bush may have declared victory a year ago, but the real war, it seemed had only just begun.
Diary 20 November 2003
Arrive in Baghdad after a 12-hour road trip from Amman, Jordan. Things have changed since my last visit here four years ago. All the statues of Saddam have come down. The US forces have moved into Saddanis palaces and prisons, and the former propaganda TV network is now showing US propaganda. So much for change.
Some things have changed, of course. Baghdad now looks like a bunker, as more buildings have disappeared behind concrete walls, sand bags and barbed wire. Fences have been erected on every overpass and bridge to prevent grenades being thrown onto US convoys travelling below. And behind every wall there’s a tank or an armoured vehicle, and behind every checkpoint there’s a phalanx of armed guards. Private security is a booming business in Baghdad today, mainly because of all the bombs. I woke up on my first morning to the sound of the Sheraton and Palestine hotels coming under attack, and went to sleep that night to the sound of mortars landing in the “protected” Green Zone where the US authorities are based. But at my first press conference that afternoon, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the US military spokesperson in Iraq, stood up and said everything was fine: the US forces were cracking down and the insurgents were almost defeated.
The next day, two police stations were blown up and a cargo plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile over Baghdad airport. The following day brought more of the same: one US soldier was killed in Baghdad, and two more were dragged from their vehicle in the city ofMosul, shot in the head and mutilated. In fact, November turned out to be the bloodiest month in the first year of the intervention, with 82 US soldiers killed.
But that didn’t stop Brig Gen Kimmitt, who was beginning to sound suspiciously like Saddams former spokesman, “Comical Ali”, from delivering his daily “good news” bulletins: “Ladies and gentlemen… coalition forces carried out r6 offensive operations yesterday… eight raids… 20 patrols… constructed two schools… built a new sanitation plant… detained 40 insurgents… attacks on US forces down… we’re winning.”
I stopped going to the daily press briefings, mainly because they were full of bullshit, but also because I was too busy sitting and waiting for someone, who knew someone, to show up. I spent the next month in the back of a car, or in the back of some teahouse, or in a house in the back-end ofbeyond, all to no avail. However hard I tried, and however many contacts I made, I just couldrit get anyone to talk. Getting inside the Iraqi resistance, not surprisingly, was going to be harder than I thought.
The US counter-insurgency tactics, on the other hand, were all too easy to see. US soldiers were on every street comer, raising their rifles at passers-by and shouting: “Back off motherfucker!” and “Fucking stop or I’ll shoot!” to any car that came too close. I witnessed a US patrol on traffic duty open fire on a car for some minor traffic infringement. They had already arrested ten locals, who were sitting handcuffed and hooded in the back of their truck, and were now cruising around town blaring out instructions over a Tannoy: “Warning. Warning. Drive carefully. Do not break the law.”
At the same time, adding to the confusion and air of menace, a mullahs voice could be heard over another tannoy from a nearby mosque. His words reverberated around the streets, calling on Iraqis to rise up and kill the occupiers. The soldiers didrit appear to understand – but the next week the mullah was arrested and put in jail. Hundreds of mullahs have been arrested, and thousands oflraqis are now languishing in jails all over Iraq. all over Iraq. But after only a few days in Baghdad, I could already see that Operation Iraqi Freedom wasn’t going according to plan.
Diary 30 November
Got stopped again by US soldiers today. A GI ran up to me, put his gun to my head and demanded my tape. I politely declined and he immediately backed down: “Er, OK. Just rewind the tape and wipe the last bit then.” I agreed, obviously, but said I didrit understand why. He looked me in the eye, turned to his Iraqi translator and, in carefully pronounced English, explained: “Tell him he carit film because there’s an American base behind that bridge over there.” The Iraqi translator turned to me, and in a slightly embarrassed English voice, told me: “He says it’s because they have a base over there.” I thanked the GI, in English, and went on my way.Who says we’re divided by a common language?
Saddam’s repressive regime has gone, but it’s been replaced by widespread fear and frustration. There are curfews in towns all over Iraq, but no security, no electricity and no jobs. There’s even a shortage of fuel, and Iraq is the world’s second largest producer of oil. The USA has failed to deliver on almost everything, including democracy. And every time they raise a gun, or shout abuse, or haul someone off in a hood, they lose another heart and mind. Last December, in just one operation, they lost thousands. Operation Bulldog Mammoth was supposed to root out insurgents. But it just trampled shit all over the carpet and annoyed the neighbours. An entire neighbourhood in Baghdad was sealed off and more than 2,000 homes were searched. More than r,ooo soldiers were involved in the operation, but in the end they only managed to detain 40 suspects.
But the US soldiers aren’t really to blame. They are increasingly frustrated by a situation they can’t control, and have to live in constant fear of attack. They have no choice but to consider every local as a potential enemy. It’s a vicious cycle, and a classic insurgency tactic: to isolate the enemy who then alienate the people who then support the insurgents. The recent use of “overwhelming force” in towns like Fallujah has helped tum the insurgency into a popular revolt. But when I was in Iraq, the resentment in some towns was already bordering on open resistance.
Note – This article was first published in GQ/UK in July 2004.