Saturday, September 22, 2007

Paul William Roberts: An eye witness account of the Iraqi War

In his memoirs released today, former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan says that the US invasion of Iraq was largely motivated by oil. In the book “The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World” he wrote: "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” While Greenspan acknowledges what “everyone knows”, the link with oil was always denied by the Bush administration and the topic was largely ignored by the US media.

One of the few media publications in the US that did not toe the government line on the Iraq war was Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s is the US’s oldest general interest monthly. It was started in 1850 by the New York book-publishing firm Harper & Brothers. The magazine was instrumental in providing a platform for new American writing from the likes of Horace Greeley, Stephen A. Douglas, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, and Jack London. In the 1970s, Harper’s Magazine broke Seymour Hersh's account of the My Lai massacre and it remains an idiosyncratic voice of criticism on politics, society, the environment, and culture.

Paul William Roberts is a British-Canadian author and journalist who has covered the 1991 and 2003 Iraqi wars for Harper’s. In 1997, he was also one of the last western journalists to interview Saddam Hussein. In 2004, he published his experiences of the second war in “A War against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq”. Williams was in Baghdad at the time of the invasion and the book is a fly-on-the-wall view of the war laced with his scathing condemnations of the war’s rationale and the conduct of the American invaders.

On 12 March 2003 as the threat of war closed in, Williams left Canada and made his way to Athens via London. There he took one of the few remaining flights into the Jordanian capital Amman. While nervous airlines cancelled services, everyone he met in Europe condemned the approaching war and expressed their loathing of George W Bush. The war, according to Williams’s vox populi, was inevitable for one reason only: because the US Government wanted it. Jordan was not looking forward to the war either. Not only were the planes not coming but Iraq was its biggest trading partner and supplier of oil. When Williams arrived in Amman, he sought out a powerful friend from a previous visit: Crown Prince Hassan. Known as Sidi, he was the brother of the late King Hussein and uncle to the current King Abdullah. Hassan’s own uncle Faisal II was the last Iraqi monarch. Faisal was killed in a coup in 1958 and his death set in motion the eventual Ba'athist take-over of Iraq.

Williams met Siddi Hassan over dinner with the ambassadors from France and Spain. Hassan told his dinner guests he had met Saddam Hussein many times. He did not like him but respected him for qualities never mentioned in western media. Hassan told Williams that Saddam truly loved his country. “He is not a learned man but there is no aspect of his country’s history he is not familiar with”, he said. Saddam always believed in his country’s best interest but he was also a “dreadful tyrant and brute”. Williams asked him what he thought of the impending war. “It is going to be a mess,” replied Hassan prophetically. “I really think the Americans have put us all on the slippery slope".

Williams asked about visas into Iraq but none of the diplomats present at the meeting knew who would might be issuing them. The whole concept of Iraq was looking notional in these times. Hassan said the Iraqi embassy in Amman was heavily guarded. “All the staff [there are] inside, presumably trying to get information from Baghdad”. When Williams returned to his hotel, he found no tourists but instead the place was packed with the world’s media getting ready for “the biggest story of the decade”. On hotel cable TV, Williams could watch the progress of the invasion. British troops had taken Basra and US forces were closing in on Baghdad. The Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Iraqi regime it faced “certain death”.

Williams’ visa for Iraq had expired so he went to the embassy in Amman for a renewal. The embassy was crowded and chaotic mostly with Iraqis trying to get home. Williams was the only westerner there. After a lengthy wait an official told him he could not be issued a visa. The embassy needed approval from Baghdad but the phones weren’t working. Williams continued to plead his case but was not successful until offered a bribe of a hundred US dollars to the bureaucrat. The bureaucrat issued him a dodgy stamp there and then. Williams returned to his hotel to figure out how to solve his next problem: how to get into Iraq.

He wasn’t the only journalist with a travel problem. Michelle Clifford from Sky TV lamented that her employers wouldn’t let her cross the border because it was too dangerous. This didn’t mean they were concerned for her safety (Sky already had two reporters in Baghdad), it just mean the insurance premium to send another crew into a war zone was too high. But through the press grapevine Williams eventually found a press convoy leaving for the 800km overnight trip into Iraq. He would hitch a lift with the Sunday Telegraph’s Philip Sherwell in a Toyota landcruiser. The convoy left Amman before midnight and arranged to meet up at the “Baghdad Café”, a makeshift eatery near Ruweished, the last Jordanian town before the Iraqi border.

Williams was under no illusions how dangerous the trip was. The US central command was told about the media convoy coming from Jordan but could provide no guarantees of safety. If an American pilot so happened to mistake them for Syrian mercenaries, then that would just be too bad. And even if they got to Baghdad, the situation there was no easier. The Palestine Hotel, the main journalist compound in the capital, was considered a legitimate military target. Two journalists were killed there in a US attack on 8 April. In short freelancers were fair game; only embedded journalists were afforded the protection of the US armed forces.

Williams and Sherwell's Landcruiser arrived at the “Baghdad Café” just before dawn the following morning. The café was packed with media personnel. The news was that the Americans had entered the outskirts of Baghdad and there was no sign of resistance from Saddam’s troops. The other news was that the border was due to open at dawn. But no-one knew what to expect on the other side. Earlier, Iraqi soldiers had fired a few farewell rounds of ammunition into Jordan before disappearing to leave their side unattended. An anxious Williams headed immediately to the border post. As he did so, he passed a tent city of mostly Palestinian refugees attempting to leave Iraq. The refugees were hemmed in by barbed wire while Jordan assessed their refugee status. The border itself was closed and the Iraqi side was still abandoned.

Nevertheless, the Jordanians were checking visa status. While Williams’s visa was dodgy, Sherwell’s cameraman Paul Hackett had no visa at all and he hid on the floor of the car as it approached the border. The Iraqi driver gave the soldier the passports. But he mistakenly gave three of them. The quizzical guard could only see Williams and Sherwell. They kicked the covered Hackett to let him know the game was up. Hackett improvised and pretend he was asleep and had just woken up. But his acting skills werent enough to get him across the border. The Jordanian guard refused to let him into Iraq without a visa. The men complained it was none of Jordan’s business and anyway there were “40,000 Brits and 300,000 Americans in Iraq right now without a visa”. The guard was unmoved. Then he turned to Williams’ handwritten visa and decided that was invalid too. Only Sherwell and the driver could get across the border. They promised to meet up in Iraq and he left Williams and Hackett stranded to their fate at the border.

While waiting around trying to unsuccessfully convince Jordanian soldiers to let them into a Iraq. a huge Chevy Suburban rolled up, as Williams put it, “bulging with Big Media”. Among them was CBS’s Dan Rather. After a flurry of bureaucratic activity, Rather’s car was left through as were all the other vehicles behind it. Williams and Hackett scrambled before hitching a lift across the border. There was one last step to cross. This was the Customs area and it was packed with a thousand journalists and media staffers. All their bags and gear were painstakingly searched. Here there paid a departure tax, and finally signed an indemnity absolving Jordan of "any responsibility for your safety" after crossing the border. The day was over by the time Williams crossed the empty border into Iraq.

The entire convoy was parked on the Iraqi side of the border. It would soon be dark and unsafe for travel. The 500km route to Baghdad was not safe at the best of times. With no police about, rich westerners would be an easy target for thieves known as “sand pirates”. Williams camped with the others near a concrete customs shed. Stealth bombers skimmed overhead and the skies to the north-east glowed an ominous red. The silence was punctuated by the occasional piece to camera bouncing towards a satellite: “I’m coming to you live at the Iraqi border…”

The following morning, the media were surprised to find military personnel at the Iraqi customs area. But they weren't Iraqis. A soldier introduced himself. “I am United States Special Forces” he said. He was from the fearsome Psyops. Special ops had been rumoured to be in Iraq well before the war had officially started. The soldier announced that they were now in control of the border. He said they would let them through but said the road was not safe.

The car detoured to the gas station just outside the border post. The soldiers told them to take what they needed and continue on their way. There was no-one to pay for the fuel. They wisely filled two spare cans as well – it would be the last gas station to Baghdad. The road itself was mostly a five lane straight road blacktop. It was empty apart from the media convoy. They contacted Sherwell who was still on the road ahead. He was searching for a safe entrance to Baghdad and had stopped for the night at a US checkpoint near Ramadi.

The convoy stopped to take photos of a burnt-out coach which blocked the oncoming side of the road. US forces bombed it claiming it was a busload of Syrian mercenaries heading to the war. Syria meanwhile said it was a regular bus carrying ordinary people between Iraq and Syria. Williams thought it looked like a normal bus but could not tell either way as there were no survivors or bodies left at the scene.

Several times the convoy had to veer over to the other side of the road to avoid debris or fallen bridges. Some of these had the spilled remains of Iraqi trucks attacked by American aeroplanes.

There was no sign of any local human life along the highway. The few gas stations and truck stops along the route were all closed. Cafés were locked, Doors swung in the breeze and garbage blew in the dust. The only people they met along the way were US soldiers. Nothing changed until they reached the Euphrates and the desert suddenly gave way to palm jungles. Here they could see the occasional man (but never a women or child) who fearfully attended their crops and animals but would not look at the road.

When the convoy reached Ramadi, 100kms west of Baghdad, they stopped to consider their options. Those that had them, put on their flak jackets. Williams went without – he did not think to ask Harper’s for armour. A security expert working for the BBC gathered the drivers together for an impromptu meeting. An ex-army man himself, he had contacts in the British military, and he was struggling to find a safe route into the city. Suddenly there was an explosion about a kilometre away following by a black column of smoke. The ground shook beneath their feet. Then more gunfire erupted. It was clear this was not a safe way forward.

The crew got in touch with journalists at the Palestine Hotel and devised a route into Baghdad via one of the smaller roads. They were warned that Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes were firing rocket-propelled grenades at any foreigners they saw. Williams said the news made every Iraqi they saw look sinister. Occasionally an Iraqi car would drive along side them usually full of four to six men. Rarely would they give the convoy the thumbs-up. As they approached Baghdad, they began to see looters in the slums of the Shia district known as Saddam City (now Sadr City). Some pushed wheelbarrows and handcarts laden with goods while one man led two frightened prize racehorses along the road.

They then passed through the wealthy suburb of Mansur where the full scale of Baghdad’s destruction became apparent. US forces sent a Tomahawk missile into a crowded restaurant here in the mistaken belief that Saddam was holding a meeting there. The city was smouldering. Here Williams finally saw women and children but they invariably shrieking with fear and grief. Saddam’s palaces had all been hit. The Telecommunications Ministry still stood but was gutted and its floors a mass of wires and melted steel girders.

Williams had made it to Baghdad. He was aghast at the damage and senseless waste. He decried “precision bombing” and said there was nothing precise about hurling enormous bombs into a city full of people. Baghdad was devastated. Williams found it ironic that the only government targets not hit were the Interior Ministry and the Oil Ministry. He wondered if American taxpayers providing the Pentagon’s annual $431 billion would find this money well spent if they could see the carnage it caused in Baghdad. More Americans ought to go to Iraq, he said, to behold what has been done in their name.


Anonymous said...

Hello Derek,

My name is Tamara Walsh and for my major artwork this year my core focus is 'War and its Impacts' and as one of my works i am collaborating a collection of photographs of people who have been impacted by the destruction of war and the military.

In your blog there are some fantastic photographs which capture this and i was hoping that i could get your permission to use those photographs as part of my artwork.

I assure that i will only use it in my artwork and no further use of it will be made and full acknowledgments would be given to you as the photographer.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours Sincerely,
Tamara Walsh

Anonymous said...

Good Article