It’s ten years since a huge US-led ground force stormed into Iraq. It was the beginning of a war that would make Iraq one of the most dangerous places on earth. A decade on, Justin Huggler, a reporter who lived through the genocide, murder, kidnapping, and mass slaughter, tells us what it was like to live in the killing zone.
I nearly got myself killed on my first day in Iraq. I’d gone to interview people in Sadr City, the sprawling slum in north-east Baghdad. I thought we were doing fine, a small crowd had gathered around me, but they seemed friendly enough. They’d even brought me a chair to sit on, and I could hear two young men joking and laughing together behind me, while an older man answered my questions.
“We have to get out of here,” my translator suddenly hissed under his breath.
“Why?” I asked, but he hurried me back to the car. It was only once we were several blocks clear he explained.
“Those two men behind you were discussing whether to stone you to death,” he said.
In Iraq, there were no killing fields. They did it in the streets, in your home, anywhere. The whole country was the killing zone, and no one was immune. It was the summer of 2003, and I’d been sent to Iraq as a reporter. The invasion was over, the war was won. The statue of Saddam Hussein had been pulled down to scenes of jubilation, and President George W Bush had made his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech. Officially, but for a few attacks by diehards, the country was under control. As I was to discover, it was anything but.
You could tell something was wrong from the moment you crossed the border. There were no US forces on the road to Baghdad, only armed bandits who preyed on travelers. We slipped in under cover of dark to try to avoid them, but we ran into them just after dawn. A bus was slewed across the motorway. One of them was gesturing the passengers off with a Kalashnikov. We were lucky: they were too busy with the bus to bother with us.
We found the military on the edge of the city. A tank was blocking the other side of the road, firing its machine gun into the streets opposite. We passed so close you could see the spent cartridge-cases glinting in the sun as they arced out of the gun. Welcome to Baghdad. It was already a city of fear, the streets teeming with danger. If you forgot to lock your car doors, a carjacker would get in next to you at a red light. They didn’t give you a chance in Baghdad, they just shot you dead and pushed your body out on the street. But it was nothing compared to the killing that was to come. When I asked a shopkeeper how he protected his wares in the lawlessness and looting that had engulfed the city, he disappeared into the back room. He returned with a machine-gun, complete with tripod stand and a belt of ammunition draped over his shoulder. “This is how,” he said with a grin.
The journalists stayed at the al-Hamra Hotel, a concrete tower surrounded with blast walls, its windows taped up so they didn’t shatter from explosions. In those early days there were long nights of drinking round the pool, while the sound of gunfire echoed over the city, and helicopters flew low overhead, drowning the conversation. At times it felt like being in a movie: there was even a hotel pianist who’d been a famous musician before the war.
In those early days, the military could be relaxed at times. I remember joking with a soldier who told me “Only thing I’m fighting here is this heat” - Baghdad was very hot even by its own standards that summer, with daily temperatures over 50C (120F), and the troops had to wear full battle armor. But all too soon, the insurgent attacks on patrols started up, and conversations like that stopped. Within a few weeks we learned to stay away from the patrols, because they came under fire so often. The insurgents used to wait on overpasses and fire rocket-propelled grenades down on the US forces as they passed. For the troops, most of whom traveled the city in unarmored Humvees with only their body armor to protect them, life was becoming very dangerous.
Across the river, the civilians running the occupation were inside the heavily fortified Green Zone. But the rest of us, journalists, military, and Iraqis, were in the killing zone. An entire society was disintegrating around us. Baghdad was fast becoming the world capital of murder and kidnapping. The West didn’t take much notice of the kidnapping at first - it wouldn’t make the headlines till Westerners started being taken hostage. In the beginning, it was Iraqis who were kidnapped by criminal gangs for profit. I heard of one case where a child was taken hostage. His father couldn’t afford the ransom, and sent a message begging the kidnappers to reduce it. They sent back his child’s severed fingers.
Amid the lawlessness, the insurgency easily took root. The first major suicide bombing was at the Jordanian Embassy: a car was blown onto the roof of the next building, and someone found a human head in the street. It was the next suicide bombing, at the United Nations office in Baghdad, that grabbed the headlines. But the assassination of a prominent Shia cleric a few weeks later would prove more significant: the insurgency wasn’t just targeting foreigners, they were killing Iraqis. The country was beginning to tear itself apart.
When I returned to Baghdad in early 2004, the change was frightening. I couldn’t go to the places I used to. In a cafe where I used to hang out to talk to locals, I was warned it wasn’t safe for me any more, told to leave and not come back. The mood among the troops had changed, too. Months of attacks had taken their toll. When Mohammed, my driver, got too close to a convoy, the soldier on the last vehicle pointed his gun right at us and gestured for us to get back. He wasn’t smiling. By then, the insurgents were using improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which they’d hide by the roadside, often in the carcass of a dead dog, and detonate as a patrol passed.
I went to meet a doctor in a town south of Baghdad. The hospital told me he was out and would be back in an hour. We waited outside in the car. Mohammed got nervous when another car drove past us twice, and we left. When we went back, the doctor’s face turned pale.
“You’ve got to leave,” he told me. “It’s not safe for you. And it’s not safe for me to be seen with you. They’re hunting you.” Islamic extremists from outside Iraq had set up in the area, looking for foreigners to kidnap. Just before we left, the doctor told us to be wary of a particular car. The car he described was the one Mohammed had noticed earlier.
They’re hunting you: his words echoed with me around Iraq. A few weeks later, I was returning to Baghdad from a trip south, working on my computer in the back of the car, when I felt Mohammed accelerate hard. I asked what was up. “Someone is following us,” the translator, Haider, said. Looking out of the back I saw a BMW flashing its lights, the driver waving at us to stop. He and the front passenger both had their faces hidden in headscarves. No one stopped on that road - not if they wanted to stay alive. As we sped up, the other car accelerated after us. Mohammed started weaving in and out of traffic, and they still followed us. Looking over Mohammed’s shoulder, I saw 120mph on the speedometer. They were still keeping up. Mohammed’s Mercedes was old and battered, but it had a powerful engine. Eventually we lost them.
If it was getting frightening for journalists, it was worse for Iraqis. There were hardly any jobs, but the insurgents were killing anyone who worked for the US, even as cleaners. Suicide bombers drove cars packed with explosives into people lining up for work. Members of Iraq’s small Christian minority got letters shoved under their doors at night warning them to leave the country. But the real clash was coming, between the country’s two main communities. I remember Haider and Mohammed reassuring me there could be no civil war between Sunni and Shia, because they were Iraqis first - then came Karbala.
The Shia were holding their pilgrimage to the holy city, which had been banned under Saddam, for the first time in years. More than a million people were out on the streets. I was in the midst of it when I suddenly got unnerved by the crowd, and ducked into a side street. It was a lucky attack of nerves: moments later there was an explosion where I had been, and then the sound of people screaming and panicking. The Sunni extremists attacked the pilgrims with mortars and suicide bombs, killing more than 170. Iraq was lurching towards civil war: Sunni was turning against Shia, Muslim against Christian, Arab against Kurd, Iraqi against Iraqi. This was no Vietnam, with the US pitted against an organized, ruthless enemy - Iraq was turning on itself, and what would fatally undermine the occupation was the nightmare of killing that had been unleashed.
We were the hunted. Western security contractors were lured into Fallujah, dragged from their car and kicked to death. Westerners started to be kidnapped. One day came rumors that a headless body had been found hanging from a bridge in Baghdad. Within hours, a video emerged of Nick Berg, a young American civilian who’d come to Iraq to work on reconstruction, held down while his throat was cut and his head hacked off. There were more beheadings, more videos, until it became familiar. I lay awake at night wondering what I’d do if they captured me, what I’d say before the knife came down. Iraq had become the most dangerous place in the world. Leaving the hotel was taking your life in your hands. We never made appointments, for fear the kidnappers would hear of it and be waiting for us. We never stayed anywhere for longer than a few minutes at a time. Staying in was dangerous, too: the suicide bomb attacks had become a daily occurrence, and everyone knew that sooner or later the al-Hamra would be hit. For some reason, suicide bombings always happened around 9am. At first, I used to be ready to run; after a while, I grew fatalistic and slept in deliberately. Eventually the al-Hamra was hit, after I’d left.
Some of the better-funded news organizations got themselves protection, hiring security contractors as bodyguards. But I wasn’t sure it didn’t do more harm than good. Armed guards announced your presence, and they only had handguns, which were very light weaponry in Iraq, where every family had a Kalashnikov and the insurgents had RPGs.
The army put up signs next to their positions in Baghdad, warning that anyone who approached would be met with “lethal force.” By then, US forces were facing more than insurgent attacks: They were fighting battles street-to-street on two fronts, with the Sunnis in Fallujah, and the Shia Mahdi Army in the south. In the holy city of Najaf, they were fighting in the largest cemetery in the world, the Madhi Army fighters ducking for shelter amid the tombs. It seemed an apt metaphor for a country that had become obsessed with death. Distracted by all this, we were missing the big picture, the looming civil war. By now, both Sunni and Shia were heavily armed, battle-hardened, and spoiling for a fight with each other. The country was dividing into Sunni and Shia areas. Baghdad, which had always been mixed, was dividing neighborhood by neighborhood. It became very dangerous indeed to live in the wrong place.
Insurgents set up their own checkpoints in the city, hauling Westerners out of cars when they found them. By then I’d decided I had to get out of Iraq. It was too dangerous. I’d always believed it was possible to control the risk in a war zone by taking the right precautions, but in Iraq it didn’t matter what precautions you took. The moment you arrived, you were in the killing zone. But we could leave. Even the military would leave, eventually. The Iraqis could not. They were trapped, their country moving inexorably towards civil war.
Now, ten years on, the fall of the statue of Saddam and the cheering crowds are forgotten. The civil war is over, but the divisions are not. Today, Iraqi Sunnis and Shia live apart, and mistrustful. Four million people were displaced from their homes in the civil war. Estimates of the death toll since 2003 vary from 100,000 to over a million. And the contagion is not over. While a fragile peace holds in Iraq, neighboring Syria is plunged in a civil war of its own. And there are familiar signs: it’s not just the Assad government versus rebels, there are reports of Sunni extremists streaming in from across the Arab world to fight the Shia. The same disaster that befell Iraq is happening in Syria, the Sunni, Shia and Christians who lived side by side are dividing. The killing zone is spreading.
Burden Of The Desert, Justin Huggler’s debut novel set in Iraq, is available now.
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