Looking back in shock and awe on five years of war

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 March, 2008, 12:00am

I felt the first bomb explode - and I knew the war had started

Memory plays tricks and the details get hazy, but that morning five years ago when I watched war break out always burns brightly in my mind. I only saw it happen because I could not sleep.

Back then, in the days leading up to Day 1, foreboding kept you awake, day after day. Things were getting tense in Baghdad, where I had been for almost a month. A dreadful expectation grew as diplomats came and went, asking Saddam Hussein to step down and take his sons with him. Washington's deadlines had expired, but there was still hope war would not happen.

In the preceding weeks, George W. Bush, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld had been insisting on the right to invade, under the authority of the UN Security Council's Resolution 1441. Mr Rumsfeld threatened 'shock and awe', not to intimidate Saddam into submission and surrender, as we now know, but to sell the war to the world's media. The Pentagon was going to put on a show and, Mr Rumsfeld told us, make sure you had a vantage point.

Mine was room 1305 in the Palestine Hotel. It was built by a French company about 15 years previously but two of its upper storeys had still to be completed. The hotel filled rapidly with journalists a week or so before the invasion, but on that morning it was deserted - few people seemed to be awake. After going down to the lobby in search of dawn coffee, the only people I saw were the Sudanese doorman, some concierges and a group of Algerian volunteers waiting for a bus to take them to join the Iraqi army. It was quiet and I caught the slow lift back upstairs just as it was getting light outside.

Shortly before 5.30am, with the sun still to rise or break through the clouds, the air-raid sirens began their mournful wailing as I got back to my room. Was this just an exercise? Then there was anti-aircraft fire, from the gun emplacements along the banks of the Tigris. From my small balcony, it looked and sounded like a fireworks display, the shells bursting in silvery flames and grey puffs high above the hotel, nowhere near high enough to threaten any aircraft.

A powerful explosion followed. The first bomb of the war. I remember feeling the blast, a profound yet subtle sensation, but maybe I am confusing this with the many blasts that were to follow in the weeks ahead, much closer to the Palestine Hotel.

On this, the first occasion, my balcony was facing in the right direction. If the first bomb of the war had fallen north of the Palestine Hotel, I might have missed this glimpse of history: but about 20km to the southeast, a column of black smoke curled towards the grey sky. War had broken out, I realised - a sensation that spread from the pit of my stomach.

My immediate feeling was one of relief. Weeks of anxious hoping were now at an end: we would have our war after all. Even as the anti-aircraft guns fell silent and their shrapnel fell to earth, any panic evaporated and was replaced by calm and certainty. Down on the streets, people were rushing out to see what had happened, rather than heading for the improvised bomb shelters, one of which was in the basement of the hotel. A couple of years later, I read an account by a British journalist of his abduction in Baghdad. He described a similar transformation, from fear to calm, as gunmen bundled him into a car. When I read that, I wondered - is that just what it feels like when you go into shock?

Anyway, Day 1 gave me my first insight into the war - thanks to Hekmet, my unofficial guide and driver, who normally worked in Baghdad's Dutch embassy. The embassy, about 3km east of the Palestine, had been evacuated of all but its local staff. From The Hague the ambassador had advised me to use the embassy's facilities as and when needed, and his staff - the gardener, the cook and Hekmet - were happy with my company, which included the use of my satellite phone, our only link to the outside world.

Hekmet, a Kurd, was well informed. Later that morning, he told me why the bomb had fallen on that part of Baghdad. It was an area called Dora Farms, and it was where Saddam Hussein and his sons, Uday and Qusay, stayed when in Baghdad, rather than in their ostentatious palaces on the right bank of the Tigris, opposite the Palestine Hotel.

But Hekmet said the Americans had been wasting their ammunition; the Husseins had long ago stopped going to Dora Farms, and were hiding somewhere in Tikrit, about 100km north of Baghdad. Everyone knew that.

This information was gold for a journalist - none of my newfound colleagues at the Palestine seemed to know this yet. Before the Pentagon explained to the world that it had attacked 'a target of opportunity', I knew at whom it had been aimed, and why it had failed.

I wanted to drive out to Dora Farms immediately, to confirm what Hekmet had told me, but he advised against it. The Baathists were still in charge of the journalists in Baghdad, particularly at the Ministry of Information, where we had to report every day. Setting off on your own mission, like going off to Dora Farms, would be foolish and dangerous, maybe even suicidal. At that time, Baghdad traffic was full of unmarked cars carrying men in plain clothes and electronic equipment. They were looking for western spies identifying targets for bombing, and you did not want to look like a dodgy westerner to people such as these.

Over the years, I have remained curious about that attack on Dora Farms, partly because I never saw the aircraft that carried it out. For all I knew, it had been a cruise missile. Then, only a few months ago, I found some answers, thanks to a documentary, Why We Fight, directed and written by Eugene Jarecki.

According to this documentary, the attack had been carried out by two stealth fighter-bombers, and Jarecki had interviewed both pilots. Their names were not disclosed, but they spoke openly on camera about the attack.

One pilot told Jarecki: 'If we did our job, this whole thing will be over tomorrow.' The other, the more gung-ho one, asked, 'How many times does an individual get an opportunity to take the opening shots in a conflict that will liberate a people?' The first pilot admitted to some misgivings about taking part in an assassination attempt, and having to explain this to his daughter when asked if he had killed Saddam Hussein.

At the time of their attack, neither pilot was sure whether their attack had succeeded, but Mr Rumsfeld was: 'There is no question that the strike was successful,' he told a news conference at the Pentagon. As we now know, the only people killed at Dora Farms were some farmers and their children. The Husseins had long left the place. If Mr Rumsfeld had only asked the Dutch ambassador's driver, he might have known that.

From that day on, some kind of structure entered the day-to-day lives of the foreign press corps in Baghdad, thanks to the nightly bombing raids that began soon after. The night they began (another vivid memory), I was standing in the room of a correspondent for a British tabloid, a nervous man who was in Baghdad because, as he said, it was his turn for a foreign assignment.

Suddenly, while we were talking about sat-phones and family back home, a building on the opposite side of the Tigris from the Palestine erupted in a vast ball of flame. We rushed to the balcony and watched the show unfold. Half a dozen edifices of the Baath Party were destroyed within minutes, in a part of Baghdad now called the Green Zone.

As I watched that, I wanted to burst out laughing. In that moment, the absurdity was far more powerful than the menace.

Another attack two nights later I saw coming when I went to the embassy, hoping to watch the final of the Cricket World Cup tournament. But the only live coverage I could find was that on the BBC, of B-52 bombers taking off from an airbase in England. Watching them take off, I realised that they would soon be over Baghdad. Six hours later, shock-and-awe was in full swing once more.

The days from then on went something like this: the Americans would bomb the city at night, and the next day we would gather at the Ministry of Information, to board two buses for a tour of the previous night's destruction.

We were not allowed to see anything other than civilian casualties, and I nearly had my camera confiscated after trying to sneak a picture of the damage to one of Saddam's palaces, the one with preposterous busts of the man on every corner. The visits to the hospitals were awful: crying children, bereaved parents, corpses, people with missing limbs.

Still, it was hard not to get a good story. One night, the bombs were falling particularly close to the Palestine, and to the Firdos Mosque, on the opposite side of the square where Saddam's statue was to fall a few weeks later. The bombing, as usual, began after midnight, provoking the muezzin to switch on the mosque's loudspeakers that normally called the faithful to prayer. 'Allahu akbar,' he would shout every time an explosion boomed across the city, louder and louder with every bomb until it sounded as if his PA system would crack. It was, I thought at the time, like listening to a debate between God and Satan.

Unfortunately, my stay in Baghdad was interrupted, so I missed one of the defining moments of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when US troops entered the city. A loathsome man called Uday al-Thay, the director general of the Ministry of Information, had caught me and an Australian journalist, Ian McPhedran, snooping around the ministry building after it had been pancaked by US bombs the night before. The sight of this destruction of his empire was humiliating to Mr Thay, and he reacted furiously to our intrusion. It was as if, as I wrote at the time, he had caught me spying on his wife bathing naked in the Tigris.

He ordered McPhedran and me to leave Baghdad within 24 hours, or be sent to prison, probably Abu Ghraib. We had no way of knowing how long it would take the Americans to get to Baghdad, so hiding in the embassy, as I considered doing, seemed unwise. Hekmet also advised against it. In the end, the Americans reached the bridges of the Tigris four days later. I returned immediately from Amman to find a city filled with American soldiers and tanks.

After a few weeks of stories about the new occupiers, Easter in Baghdad, and one about how finding Baghdad's last surviving synagogue nearly got me killed, my newspaper felt that the Iraq story was over, and I was summoned home.

Despite sleeping fitfully for almost the entire first week back in Cape Town, it was difficult to fit back in at work. The restlessness of the morning of March 20 had not gone away.