Thrust Into Baghdad Had Neither Humility nor Honour
Fisk in Baghdad
08 April 2003
It started with a series of massive vibrations, a great "stomping"
sound that shook my room. "Stomp, stomp, stomp," it went.
I lay in bed trying to fathom the cause. It was like the moment in Jurassic
Park when the tourists first hear footfalls of the dinosaur, an ever
increasing, ever more frightening thunder of a regular, monstrous heartbeat.
From my window on the east
bank of the Tigris, I saw an Iraqi anti-aircraft gun firing from the
roof of a building half a mile away, shooting across the river at something.
"Stomp, stomp," it went again, the sound so enormous it set
off alarms in cars along the bank.
And it was only when I stood
on the road at dawn that I knew what had happened. Not since the war
in 1991 had I heard the sound of American artillery. And there, only
a few hundred metres away on the far bank of the Tigris, I saw them.
At first they looked like tiny, armoured centipedes, stopping and starting,
dappled brown and grey, weird little creatures that had come to inspect
an alien land and search for water.
You had to keep your eye
on the centipedes to interpret reality, to realise each creature was
a Bradley fighting vehicle, its tail was a cluster of US Marines hiding
behind the armour, moving forward together each time their protection
revved its engines and manoeuvred closer to the Tigris. There was a
burst of gunfire from the Americans and a smart clatter of rocket-propelled
grenades and puffs of white smoke from the Iraqi soldiers and militiamen
dug into their foxholes and trenches on the same river bank further
south. It was that quick and that simple and that awesome.
Indeed, the sight was so
extraordinary, so unexpected despite all the Pentagon boasts
and Bush promises that one somehow forgot the precedents that
it was setting for the future history of the Middle East.
Amid the crack of gunfire
and the tracer streaking across the river, and the huge oil fires that
the Iraqis lit to give them cover to retreat, one had to look away
to the great river bridges further north, into the pale green waters
of that most ancient of rivers to realise that a Western army
on a moral crusade had broken through to the heart of an Arab city for
the first time since General Allenby marched into Jerusalem in 1918.
But Allenby walked into Jerusalem on foot, in reverence for Christ's
birthplace and yesterday's American thrust into Baghdad had neither
humility nor honour about it.
The US Marines and special
forces who spread out along the west bank of the river broke into Saddam
Hussein's largest palace, filmed its lavatories and bathrooms and lay
resting on its lawns before moving down towards the Rashid Hotel and
sniping at soldiers and civilians. Hundreds of Iraqi men, women and
children were brought to Baghdad's hospitals in the hours that followed
victims of bullets, shrapnel and cluster bombs. We could actually
see the twin-engined American A-10s firing their depleted uranium rounds
into the far shore of the river.
From the eastern bank, I
watched the marines run towards a ditch with their rifles to their shoulders
and search for Iraqi troops. But their enemies went on firing from the
mudflats to the south until, one after another, I saw them running for
their lives. The Iraqis clambered out of foxholes amid the American
shellfire and began an Olympic sprint of terror along the waterside;
most kept their weapons, some fell back to an exhausted walk, others
splashed right into the waters of the Tigris, up to their knees, even
their necks. Three climbed from a trench with hands in the air, in front
of a group of marines. But others fought on. The "stomp, stomp,
stomp" went on for more than an hour. Then the A-10s came back,
and an F/A-18 sent a ripple of fire along the trenches after which the
shooting died away. It seemed as if Baghdad would fall within hours.
But the day was to be characterised
with that most curious of war's attributes, a crazed mixture of normality,
death and high farce. For even as the Americans were fighting their
way up the river and the F/A-18s were returning to bombard the bank,
the Iraqi Minister of Information gave a press conference on the roof
of the Palestine Hotel, scarcely half a mile from the battle.
As shells exploded to his
left and the air was shredded by the power-diving American jets, Mohammed
Saeed al-Sahaf announced to perhaps 100 journalists that the whole thing
was a propaganda exercise, the Americans were no longer in possession
of Baghdad airport, that reporters must "check their facts and
re-check their facts that's all I ask you to do." Mercifully,
the oil fires, bomb explosions and cordite smoke now obscured the western
bank of the river, so fact-checking could no longer be accomplished
by looking behind Mr Sahaf's back.
What the world wanted to
know, of course, was the Question of All Questions where was
President Saddam? But Mr Sahaf used his time to condemn the Arabic television
channel al-Jazeera for its bias towards the US and to excoriate the
Americans for using "the lounges and halls" of Saddam Hussein
to make "cheap propaganda". The Americans "will be buried
here," he shouted above the battle. "Don't believe these invaders.
They will be defeated."
And the more he spoke, the
more one wanted to interrupt Mr Sahaf, to say: "But hang on, Mr
Minister, take a look over your right shoulder." But, of course,
that's not the way things happen. Why didn't we all take a drive around
town, he suggested defiantly.
So I did. The corporation's
double-decker buses were running and, if the shops were shut, stallholders
were open, men had gathered in tea houses to discuss the war. I went
off to buy fruit when a low-flying American jet crossed the street and
dropped its payload 1,000 metres away in an explosion that changed the
air pressure in our ears. But every street corner had its clutch of
militiamen and, when I reached the side of the Foreign Ministry, upstream
from the US Marines, an Iraqi artillery crew was firing a 120mm gun
at the Americans from the middle of a dual carriageway, its tongue of
fire bright against the grey-black fog drifting over Baghdad.
Within an hour and a half,
the Americans had moved up the southern waterfront and were in danger
of over-running the old ministry of information. Outside the Rashid
Hotel, the marines opened fire on civilians and militiamen, blasting
a passing motorcyclist onto the road and shooting at a Reuters photographer
who managed to escape with bullet holes in his car.
All across Baghdad, hospitals
were inundated with wounded, many of them women and children hit by
fragments of cluster bombs. By dusk, the Americans were flying F/A-18s
in close air support to the US Marines, so confident of their destruction
of Iraq's anti-aircraft gunners that they could clearly be seen cruising
the brown and grey skies in pairs.
Was this what they call "rich
in history"? General Stanley Maude invaded Iraq in 1917 and occupied
Baghdad. We repeated the performance in 1941 when the former prime minister
Rashid Ali decided to back Nazi Germany. The British, Australians and
Arabs "liberated" Damascus from the Turks in 1918. The Israelis
occupied Beirut in 1982 and lived not all of them to regret
it. Now the armies of America and, far behind them, the British
a pale ghost of Maude's army are moving steadily into this most
north-eastern of Arab capitals to dominate a land that borders Iran,
Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
As night fell, I came across
three Iraqi defenders at the eastern end of the great Rashid Bridge.These
three two Baathist militiamen and a policeman were ready
to defend the eastern shore from the greatest army known to man.
That in itself, I thought,
said something about both the courage and the hopelessness of the Arabs.