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
Diary 3 December
I need a break from Baghdad. Not sure what’s worse, the traffic jams, the sound ofbombs or the hotel food. They’re all deadly, but not as dangerous as an Iraqi wedding by all accounts. Heard the father of a bride was injured last week when the guests fired into the air. One of the bullets landed on his head.Think I’ll head off to Ramadi tomorrow.
I arrived in Ramadi ten minutes after the loc police station came under rocket attack from the insurgents. Five Iraqi policemen were injured and the main street was still shrouded in black smoke. The town is only two hours west of the capital, but it’s a world away from the towering buildings and boulevards of Baghdad. Ramadi is a one-street town on the River Euphrates, with shabby, low-rise buildings made of crumbling cement and breeze block.
The surrounding countryside makes up for the town, though, with some of the most fertile land in Iraq. It’s a rural idyll, with date palms, orange groves and green patchwork fields. But it’s also a resistance stronghold. The minute I got out of the car I was surrounded by angry locals who followed me all over town. Outside every teahouse and shop, people gathered round to shout abuse and invective. Not at me, but at those who they saw as a brutal army of occupation.
When I asked the crowd who attacked the police station, one of them replied: “It doesrit matter. We are all part of the resistance. We are all ready to fight the Americans. Iraq has become another Palestine.” One after another, the people on the streets poured out their heartfelt complaints: “We live under curfew.” “They break down our doors, and kill us for no reason.” “We have no power, no lights.” “Is that what you call freedom?” I noticed a few of them had knives and handguns and so I tried to leave. Someone in the crowd stopped me, pulled out a grenade and offered to pull the pin in front of my face.
The crowd morphed into a mob and I was forced to take sanctuary in a shop. After that I was invited to a local house for a slap up lunch. But then Ramadi is that kind of town. As in Fallujah and other towns in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the people of Ramadi are bound together by tribal and family ties. It’s an intricate web soaked in blood-loyalty and pride, and if one member of a tribe or family is wronged, they all feel wronged. Needless to say, heavy-handed US tactics had managed to alienate almost everyone there. But I soon found myself welcomed into a world where hospitality, loyalty and friendship vie with the demand for retribution and bloody revenge. As a guest, I was treated well and invited to stay for the night by a sheikh.
Driving outside Baghdad is like playing Russian roulette, and the next morning, on my very first spin of the cylinder, I almost got it wrong. We had just reached the town ofKhaldiyah when a blinding flash flew into the air with a whoosh and a bang. I got out of the car and walked towards an US Bradley fighting vehicle parked by the side of a bridge. The soldier sitting on top shouted at me to stop, raise my arms and move forward slowly. “Journalist, British journalist,” I said, after a few steps. “I was just wondering whether it’s safe to continue.” He looked at me like I was crazy. “What are you doing here? And why the fuck aren’t you wearing any body armour?” I told him the last thing I wanted was to be confused with a soldier. “Have you just come under attack?” I asked.”I’m not at liberty to say,” he replied.
Another whoosh and a bang went off about 100 yards to our right. Two Humvees came screaming down the road and stopped right in front of me. Soldiers jumped out and secured the road. “Hey, what are you doing here?” one of them asked. I said I was press and asked if they’d just been attacked. “Puck yeah! We just got shot at coming round the comer. Hey, why aren’t you wearing any body armour?”
They were led by Lieutenant Brown, who eyed me suspiciously before spitting out a wad of chewing tobacco onto the road. “You don’t want to hang around for too long,” he suggested. “It’s hairy out here. Really hairy.” We said our goodbyes and I got back into my car. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was only the first of many encounters with Lt Brown and the guys from Bravo Company.
I would meet them under the bridge, and stop for a chat and a smoke. I could imagine them back in the USA, playing in the backyard with their kids or helping some old lady cross the road. Back home they were the good guys.
And yet circumstances had cast them as the bad guys. They would still stop to help a local old lady cross the road. But there was little else they could do, except kill and be killed. That shitty little bridge overlooking that shitty little dust bowl of a town had become their world, their place to live and die. And yet the press, and certainly the public back home, probably don’t even know they were there. They were getting shot at every day, blown up, maimed and killed. But in three months, I never once saw their unit mentioned by name. We used to joke about it and wonder what the fuck it was all for.
I returned to Ramadi a week after my first visit. Police were handing out leaflets on the street, warning people not to go out after curfew. Anyone found on the streets after ropm was liable to be shot, and the use of deadly force had been authorised by the US authorities. I could feel the tension in the air, but the official note ended by thanking the locals for their co-operation.
I went into a teahouse, and half the street came up to greet me. “Welcome, Mr Sean. Have a seat.” A few minutes later someone rushed in and told me to go to Fallujah, 20 minutes down the road. “An American helicopter has just been shot down by our people.” By the time I arrived a crowd had gathered and were clapping like mad. A man rode up to me on a motorbike, and said: “The helicopter was hit by two RPGs and caught fire when it crashed. I saw the whole thing.” He looked at me, as though he knew what I was about to ask. “Was it your RPG that shot it down?” He smiled, and rode back into town.
Other locals shouted in rage, vowing further vengeance. “My child was killed last month by American soldiers who opened fire on a crowd,” cried one. “Their patrol had been ambushed but they shot at anyone they saw… even children.” He looked me in the eye, his face contorted with pain and anger. “We will seek revenge for our martyred loved ones. In the name of Allah, we will murder all the Americans we find.” It was a chilling warning of what was to come in Fallujah.
The US soldiers, meanwhile, had fanned out across the fields from the burning wreckage and were threatening to shoot the locals if they didn’t move away. Helicopters were buzzing overhead, and in the distance, over by a US base, another RPG landed with an almost silent boom and puff of smoke. According to the daily press briefings, things were going to plan in Iraq. But out here in the fields of Fallujah, it felt more like a war zone.
Diary l6 December
Good news. After almost a month, someone in the insurgency contacted me, saying he’s ready to ta1k. I took a taxi to a small neighbourhood in the south of Baghdad. It was lunch time and children were playing on the street. I mentioned a name and one of them pointed out a house. I entered to find a tiny room with a row of chairs along one side and a small coffee table in the middle. An old, black-and-white TV was on and tuned in to the US propaganda channel. The curtains were drawn, and it was dark. Another child entered from the kitchen and served me a glass of sweet tea. I lit up a cigarette, and then another and another, and waited in silence. Finally two men walked into the room wearing scarves around their faces. They were both armed with AK47s. One of the men asked me to stand, frisked me, and then left the room and waited outside. The other man pulled up a chair and sat opposite me. No one had said a word up until this moment.
He was looking straight at me, his face completely covered. I could hear him breathing beneath the scarf, and wondered whether I should speak first. “You have five minutes,” he said in English. I set up my video camera and asked him the obvious. “Are you a Saddam loyalist? And will you stop fighting now that he’s been caught?”
The insurgent cleared his throat, and began talking: “The Iraqi resistance has nothing to do with Saddam. His capture has released the shackles from our movement. Now we are free to fight without shame and more people are joining us every day. This is a national liberation movement. It is not about Islam. We are fighting the enemy to liberate our land.” He paused for breath, and for effect. ‘ and I promise you this. Iraq will become America’s new Vietnam.”
The insurgent talked about some recent attacks his cell had carried out in Baghdad and in the nearby town of Baquba. I had been told that he was a former colonel in the Republican Guard. “Yes, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean I believed in the Ba’ath party.” He also confirmed that his group worked with other cells, and that the resistance was growing and becoming more organised. “So far it is mainly a Sunni resistance, but it’s spreading fast and our Shia brothers are joining our ranks. Watch and see.”
My time was up. He told me to remain in the room until after he had gone. My first meeting was over. I was haunted by the insurgent’s threat of a new Vietnam for some time. I just couldn’t get it out of my head. In terms of casualties, the wars in Iraq and Vietnam can’t be compared. But there was something about his calm voice, his stare. He was a family man, but also a professional soldier, a strategist and a ruthless killer. And he was part of an organised, disciplined structure that was gaining support among the people.
In December, the insurgents deployed a wave of car bombs. Hotels, restaurants, police stations and crowded streets were reduced to rubble and filled with screams. On New Year’s Eve, a restaurant in Baghdad partially collapsed after a car bomb went off outside. The car showered debris in all directions, and was now little more than a black hole in the road. When I got there, people were still trapped underneath the rubble, and others were stumbling about in blackened, blood-stained tatters. I stepped over shrapnel and broken glass and what felt like bits of bodies, and then went on to a party.
Counter-insurgency wars are notoriously complex and hard to win; TE Lawrence likened them to eating soup with a knife. It’s necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people, and at the same time defeat an invisible enemy on their own tur£ It takes political skill, subtlety and a highly selective use of military force. Or you can try the US approach in Iraq: send in the bulldozers and Bradleys and kick some ass.
The bombardment and siege of Fallujah by US Marines last April was the latest in a long line of operations employing heavy-handed tactics and heavy metal names. Operation Vigilant Resolve resulted in more than 500 dead in Fallujah, and in the same week in April, Operation Resolute Sword against Shia militias in the south resulted in hundreds more. But before them came last year’s operations: Iron Hammer, Ivy Blizzard, Iron Grip- and my own personal favourite- Ivy Cyclone parts I and II.
Fighter jets screech low overhead and drop 5oolb bombs. Apache helicopters launch Hellfire missiles and the massive AC I30 Spectre gunships rain down bombs and bullets. They are loud. They are big. And they do nothing but kill locals and any chance of US success. I got to see Operation Ivy Blizzard for mysel£ It was conducted in the town of Samarra, one hour north of Baghdad. The 4th Infantry Division set up roadblocks and helicopters hovered overhead. The town was sealed off and effectively under siege for an entire week. US forces searched every street and almost every house. There was no respite, only resentment and anger and a growing desire among the locals for revenge. “We weren’t trained for this kind of shit,” one of the US soldiers told me. “It’s fucking insane.”
Note – This article was first published in GQ/UK in July 2004.