LOS ANGELES — Since 2003, NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel has provided viewers with the unvarnished, if sometimes unpalatable, truth about the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Here is an excerpt of his book, “War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq.”
“Conceal thy travels, thy tenets, and thy treasures.” — Arab proverb
December 15, 2003
No one was to come in or out.
Dozens of American soldiers formed a defensive circle around the palm grove, silently keeping watch. Gunners in the turrets of Humvees parked next to the troops turned hand cranks at their waists to pan .50 caliber machine guns left and right, training the long gun barrels on the dense trees around the edges of the grove.
“Got to keep your eyes moving.
“Got to look out for snipers.
“Got to protect the circle.
“Nothing can go wrong today,
“Not in front of all these reporters.”
It was a big day, and we all knew it. I was at the center of this defensive ring of American muscle and machines along with about a dozen other journalists. We probably looked ridiculous to the troops. They had their uniforms: khaki combat boots, M4 rifles, Kevlar helmets, and Wiley X ballistic sunglasses. We had our uniforms: brightly colored flak jackets (mine was sky blue), cameras, tripods, notebooks, khakis, and quick-dry synthetic shirts. The army had choppered us into this clearing on two Black Hawks to see what didn’t look like much from the outside: a tiny cinder block farmhouse with a garden filled with sunflowers, oranges, and pomegranate trees. The fruit looked almost ripe on the cool bright December morning. But no one would be picking it. Not from this house. Not anymore.
“We have a cordon around the area, but it is still dangerous. Don’t wander off,” an army officer warned. My canvas hiking boots stuck in the soft black soil as I walked to the farmhouse and through its thatch gate.
But what I saw inside didn’t make any sense to me. Military officials said Saddam Hussein was captured hiding in a hole. I didn’t see any hole, but only a typical one-room Iraqi farmhouse with a cement patio in front where laundry and basterma (Arab pastrami) were drying on a line.
“But where’s the hole?” I asked the officer. “Didn’t you find Saddam in a hole?”
He led me back outside to the cement patio with the laundry line.
“At first we didn’t see it either. A soldier was standing right here and didn’t notice the hole until he kicked aside this mat,” the officer said, pulling back a plastic tarp on the ground. Underneath was a Styrofoam cork in the cement about the size of a big fishing tackle box.
“When the soldier removed this Styrofoam cover,” he said, “Saddam was inside. Saddam put his hands up and said, ‘I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, and I am ready to negotiate.’ “
Saddam apparently lived in the farmhouse most of the time, and took refuge in the hole only when danger was close. Saddam also had a pistol, but didn’t use it, and traveled in a beat-up white and orange taxi discovered nearby.
The soldiers were relaxed and joking with journalists. It was a “good news” day and this was the military’s chance to play show-and-tell.
“And what did the soldiers say to Saddam?” one of us asked.
“President Bush sends his regards,” an officer said.
We all laughed.
The scribblers among us frantically scratched notes into pads. Cameramen marked time codes so they could easily find the sound bite again, and the snappers took pictures of every angle, their big black cameras clicking like crickets.
The troops were playing it up. The soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were the “landowners” here, in charge of the entire Tikrit area. Their commander, Major General Raymond Odierno, an ogre of a man with a bald head and a no-nonsense personality, said, “Saddam was caught like a rat.”
But in reality the elite U.S. Special Operations Forces code-named Task Force 121 did most of the work. U.S. officials said Saddam was located after the “hostile interrogations” of several of his relatives and bodyguards. Odierno said “five or ten” of them were arrested about ten days before Saddam’s capture. On the day of the predawn raid, roughly six hundred soldiers from the 4th ID provided perimeter security to ensure no one escaped as members of Task Force 121 moved in, raided the farmhouse, grabbed Saddam, and choppered him south to a prison at the Baghdad airport, where he was identified by former aides, among them soft-spoken, gray-haired former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz. But members of Task Force 121 don’t give interviews, so to the 4th ID went the glory. Sorry, Task Force 121.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why so many people, including me, were generally optimistic back then. Saddam was in custody. U.S. forces had killed his hated sons, Uday and Qusay, five months earlier. President George W. Bush had just stopped by Baghdad for a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to the troops. U.S. military officials said at the time there were only about five hundred to seven hundred insurgents, many of them former Iraqi intelligence officers or members of Uday’s paramilitary force, the Fedayeen, operating in about a dozen cells in the Baghdad area.
But even then, violence was starting to pick up. Two days before Saddam was captured, militants threw a grenade at a U.S. patrol in Baghdad carrying Time magazine writer Michael Weisskopf and photographer James Nachtwey. The grenade landed between the two journalists as they were stopped in traffic. Weisskopf reached down and threw the grenade out of the vehicle. It exploded in the air, blowing off his hand. Nachtwey was also wounded, but the veteran war photographer was able to keep taking pictures throughout the ordeal. Tough guy.
That’s one of the reasons we liked Odd Job.
I had driven to Tikrit to cover Saddam’s capture in Odd Job, the affectionate nickname for our homemade satellite truck. It’s what Iraqis call a “bongo truck,” a pickup with a rear cab covered in a canvas tarpaulin. Our engineers — the unsung heroes of the news business, our Task Force 121 — fit it with a portable satellite dish, generators, tanks of diesel fuel, and enough cables to make it into a self-contained TV uplink. But it was Iraqi style. Unlike the white TV vans with telescopic dishes emblazoned with company logos that rush to crime scenes in the United States, Odd Job was rusted and painted to look like any other truck in Baghdad transporting onions or sheep. We liked it that way. Even back in December 2003, you didn’t want to be seen. But stealth and discretion were our only defense at the time. Less than a year later, Iraq had become so dangerous we were forced to develop the most complex, expensive, and often inhibiting security procedures in the history of combat journalism.
The soldiers from the 4th ID gave us an hour to explore Saddam’s hideout before heading back to their HQ, ironically in one of Saddam’s most lavish palaces just a few miles away. The soldiers lived on green folding cots in the palace’s huge rooms of green and white marble. Although the palaces looked impressive, like giant wedding cakes, the construction was shoddy. The crystals in the giant chandeliers were plastic. The toilets often didn’t flush. The sinks with gold-plated faucets leaked. Hundreds of soldiers packed the building, nearly all of them young men away from their wives and girlfriends. You could almost smell the testosterone. A soldier told me that a few months earlier a visiting female reporter was sleeping topless on a cot, just covered with a white sheet.
“And it kept falling off!” he said.
It can reach over 120 degrees in the summer in Tikrit, so I can sympathize with the journalist trying to sleep. But she was such a distraction the military ordered her to leave the base.
I was in no rush to get back to the palace. I wanted to go in Saddam’s hole. I was excited and must admit I was having fun. The entrance was smaller than a manhole cover, too small for me to fit through wearing my bulky blue flak jacket lined with ceramic strike plates. I ripped back the Velcro straps, put my hands on either side of the hole, and lowered myself inside.
When my feet landed on the floor, I switched on a flashlight and painted the walls with dim yellow light. The subterranean chamber was like a tomb: rectangular, about ten feet long, four feet high, and three feet wide. The walls were covered in rough concrete. The floor was lined with boards. A naked lightbulb and fan hung from the ceiling. The fan was attached to a plastic hose that ran through a hole drilled in the wall and led outside. It was a ventilation system and let Saddam breathe when the tomb was plugged with the Styrofoam cork.
It seemed odd to many people in the States that most Iraqis didn’t celebrate the news of Saddam’s capture. A few in Baghdad fired guns in the air, a dangerous celebratory tradition in the Arab world. (It was banned in Gaza after a gun-toting guest at a wedding accidentally gunned down both the bride and groom; but Gazans never stopped.)
The most common reaction in Iraq to the news of Saddam’s capture was disbelief. Iraqi after Iraqi I interviewed insisted that the capture was a fake, a put-on by Saddam and the Americans to confuse them. I understood their skepticism. I also found the news hard to believe.
When I arrived in Baghdad in February 2003 about a month before the invasion, Saddam seemed in total control, ruling what I naively thought was in “the Iraqi way”: the tradition of the ancient caliphs Haroun al-Rashid and Shahryar of the fabled Arabian Nights.
While working for a small newspaper in Cairo in the 1990s, I bought a paperback copy of the Nights at a used bookstore in Athens. I often traveled to Greece carrying transparencies of the weekly Middle East Times. We printed the paper abroad to avoid Egyptian censorship laws. The Nights I bought was a translation by Sir Richard Burton, the nineteenth-century British explorer, poet, adventurer, diplomat, soldier, archaeologist, swordsman, and writer reputed to be fluent in twenty-nine languages. He became one of my early idols, writer of some of my favorite lines, among them:
Do what thy manhood bids thee do,
from none but self expect applause;
He noblest lives and noblest dies
who makes and keeps his self-made laws.
In Burton’s Nights, the caliph Shahryar murders his bride after discovering her infidelity. Unable to trust another woman, the caliph then marries a series of virgins only to have them executed the next day. The caliph’s rampage stops when he meets the legendary storyteller Scheherazade, who keeps herself alive by enthralling him for 1001 straight nights with fantastic stories of jinn, giants, and flying carpets, each one ending with the same phrase: “If you let me live tonight I will tell you an even more fantastic tale tomorrow.” So he does.
It was through this romantic haze that I saw Saddam, who I believe also fancied himself a natural heir to Iraq’s grandiose rulers. He rebuilt the ruins of Babylon and stamped his initials on every brick. He commissioned a Koran handwritten in his own blood. Saddam’s word was law. If you crossed him you died. If you pleased him you were rewarded with cars and villas. It was simple. Saddam pardoned prisoners on his birthday, and sentenced men and women to hang for insulting him. Blasphemy — publicly defaming God or the Muslim Prophet Mohammed — was punishable by five years in prison. Defaming Saddam carried a death sentence. Iraqis said of their president, “If you raised your head, he cut it off.”
Like his forebears, and many Iraqis today, Saddam was also an ardent believer in fortune-tellers, oracles, and mystics. In August 2003, I met a jeweler from Baghdad’s small Mandaean community, a dwindling religious order that follows John the Baptist. He sold Saddam polished stones to protect him from evil. He told me Saddam also took the advice of a twelve-year-old clairvoyant boy who allegedly knew if a man was lying. After I drank several tiny, hourglass-shaped cups of strong, sweet tea in the jeweler’s shop, which was filled with silver rings with red and green stones, I bought a lucky charm, a folded parchment inscribed with a handwritten Mandaean prayer wrapped in a stag’s scrotum. I kept it in my shirt pocket for a year until I lost it. Fingers crossed.
Before the war there were giant photographs of Saddam on government buildings carrying bowls of rice (Saddam the Provider), brandishing rocket-propelled grenades (Saddam the Protector), eating bread with poor villagers (Saddam the Man of the People), and surrounded by adoring schoolchildren (Saddam the Father). All that was missing to complete the image was Saddam dressed in a caliph’s robes and turban.
The caliph was now in American hands. Iraqis couldn’t believe it.
This should have been a turning point. U.S. troops were still mostly greeted as liberators in December 2003. Despite much of the postwar rewriting of history, U.S. troops were welcomed when they first arrived. I saw Iraqis give flowers and bottles of whiskey to American soldiers in Baghdad in April 2003.
I ended my book A Fist in the Hornet’s Nest with Saddam’s capture. At the time I wrote that I didn’t understand why the Bush administration wanted to invade Iraq. No one I spoke to in the Middle East was focused on Iraq in 2003. People in the region worried about Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Iraq was a nonissue. Nonetheless, I wrote that I supported the invasion, believing it had the potential to be the start of a radical plan to redesign and improve the modern Middle East, unstable since it was cobbled together by self-serving European powers from the debris of the Ottoman Empire defeated in World War I. But by late 2003, I was having serious doubts that creating a stable, democratic Middle East was possible — or being seriously pursued. President Bush invaded Iraq after having declared support for an independent Palestinian state. He called it Palestine, the first U.S. president to use the term. But then the Bush administration dropped diplomacy altogether.
Copyright © 2008 by Richard Engel
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