COVER

THE ‘DESERT CATS’

JOHN BIERMAN January 28 1991
COVER

THE ‘DESERT CATS’

JOHN BIERMAN January 28 1991

UNDER ATTACK

EXPERIENCING THE BATTLE OF BAGHDAD

COVER

As bombs and missiles rained down on Baghdad last week and ignited the Gulf war, Maclean’s Correspondent John Holland was among the handful of foreign journalists who experienced firsthand the might of the U.S.-led coalition. Holland, 29, who is normally based in Berlin but who has been reporting from the Iraqi capital since Dec. 15, began a harrowing overland escape to Jordan about 13 hours after the aerial attacks started. His report:

When the first bombs dropped on Baghdad in the early hours of Jan. 17, it caught the foreign journalists at the Al Rashid Hotel by surprise. In a split second, when the first bursts of tracer bullets lit the sky, we knew that diplomacy had truly run its course and that there would be no turning back. It was 2:28 a.m. We knew that, several hours earlier, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater had advised all journalists to leave Baghdad immediately. By then, it was better to sit tight and hope for a delay. But there was none.

I was on the telephone when the war started with the sound of tracers going up some 500 m to the west. It sounded like the Fourth of July, but a hundred times as loud. I stared in fascination for several seconds, then grabbed my personal gear from the room and headed for the hotel’s bomb shelter. Behind and ahead of

me on the stairs were many of my colleagues from print and TV. In the shelter a short while later, I saw Bernard Shaw, CNN’s chief anchorman in Baghdad. Shaw, whose colleagues Peter Arnett and John Holliman remained in their ninth-floor room broadcasting audio reports to viewers around the world, looked distressed. “This is not what anyone expected,” he said, his voice shaking. “This is really bad.”

A few hours earlier, as the UN deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait passed without incident, he had told CNN viewers: “Personally, I don’t think there will be a war.” Shaw spoke for many journalists who were convinced that the United States would give Saddam Hussein another day to weigh the consequences of his stubbornness—and that, in any case, Baghdad would not be targeted in the first raids.

Fear: The lights in the hotel went off numerous times, as did the air-filtration system. We could hear the dull thud of bombs hitting close to the hotel, and the chatter of anti-aircraft fire. After several fear-filled hours in the shelter, a 1,250-square-foot room that accommodated about 85 people, some disturbing thoughts ran through my mind: Has Israel been dragged into the war? Will it go chemical or nuclear? Will I die not seeing the sunlight again?

We finally managed to get one of the shortwave radios working, and crowded around to hear President George Bush say that the war

had begun and that America would not fail. “Bloody well hope he fails to hit this hotel,” one British journalist said with a chuckle. At that moment, another bomb hit nearby, the lights went off briefly and everyone gasped.

Iraqi security officials carrying rifles blocked the exits until dawn, when we climbed the stairs to the upper floors to inspect the damage. The hotel itself appeared to be undamaged. But all the lights were off and phone lines were down, and an acrid smell and smoke hung over the city. Peering out into the hazy dawn light from my fifth-floor window, I guessed— correctly, I later learned—that some structure to the east had been badly hit. It turned out to be the building that houses the post office and telecommunications centre.

Later that morning, the air raids resumed while journalists were outside in the hotel gardens. At about 8 a.m., the anti-aircraft fire went up, and we saw and heard explosions on the city’s outskirts, near a petrochemical factory. Oddly, no air-raid siren had sounded, and we did not hear the planes. “Just practising for the next raid,” a journalist said nervously about the anti-aircraft fire. He was wrong. Minutes later, the ground shook as three cruise missiles slammed into the Iraqi defence ministry.

Destroyed: The telecommunications building had also been hit by a cruise missile. We learned about that later from Françoise Dumulder, a French photojoumalist. Dumulder said that she saw the strangest sight: a hightech missile whizzing down a Baghdad street at tremendous speed, weaving over, around and past cars and other obstacles towards its preprogrammed target.

Security guards prevented us from leaving the hotel. But at about 10 a.m., a few of us sneaked out when colleagues diverted one of the guards’ attention. From a 15-minute drive around the capital, it was clear that the coalition forces had done their best to destroy only military and government targets, sparing the civilian population as much as possible. Bridges still stood, as did apartment blocks. The defence ministry was almost completely destroyed. So was the telecommunications building, which had a gaping hole through its fifth and sixth floors. Few cars were moving. There were shards of glass on the street near the officers’ club, in front of which stood a statue of a heroic-looking Iraqi pilot, his foot planted on the wreckage of a real Iranian plane downed during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

Back at the hotel at about 11 a.m., Sadoun alJanabi, the chief of public relations for the Iraqi information ministry, offered exit papers to several journalists, myself included. But we would have to go overland, because the airport had been bombed out of action. “You may leave today or tomorrow,” Sadoun said. We chose the first option, partly because the air attacks were intensifying, but also because there was no longer a realistic chance of filing to the outside world.

Ten of my colleagues and I organized a convoy of cars to go to Amman, a 900-km drive

that usually takes 12 hours. One Iraqi driver refused to take us, even after we offered him a substantial sum of money. “Too many military out there,” he whispered. “Big target for Americans there.” But we saw no other option, and succeeded in finding three willing Iraqi drivers. So off we went: CBS producer Larry Doyle, ABC correspondent Gary Shepherd and I in one car, and the other journalists in two others. We had to pay our driver $3,000 (U.S.) in cash to take us to the Jordanian border.

As we drove out of Baghdad at about 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 17, about 13 hours after the first missiles had been fired, the three-lane modern highway was largely empty of traffic except for occasional military vehicles. A deep blue sky with some high scattered clouds framed the view to the west. It looked curiously peaceful,

as if nothing horrible could ever fall from such a majestic sky. All went smoothly until about 5:30 p.m., soon after we crossed the Euphrates River. It was then, to the west, that we caught the glint of sunlight off the wings of two Iraqi Mirage fighter jets.

Dogfight: From our vantage point, they appeared to dance and weave in tandem, like two carefree swallows. Suddenly, a burst of flame came from the tail of one of the Mirages. It flipped sideways and bolted into the sky at a 45-degree angle. Seconds later, a huge explosion erupted on the ground below it. Sitting behind me in the car, Doyle pointed to two thin jet contrails much higher in the sky. A pilot from the anti-Iraq coalition had clearly fired at one of the Mirages with an air-to-air missile that missed and exploded on the ground. We drove on towards the dogfight, and soon afterward the planes disappeared.

About an hour later, we passed a convoy of three Iraqi military trucks with canvas wrapped tightly over all but the warheads of what looked like 20-foot-long missiles. Only

later did we learn, again through a BBC shortwave broadcast, that the coalition forces in Saudi Arabia had shot down a missile fired from Iraq, and that several others had landed in Tel Aviv and Haifa. The missiles we spotted could have been among them.

Fire: As dusk fell, our convoy, down to two cars because we had become separated from one of the others earlier, pulled into a run-down gas station in the western Iraqi city of Rutba. Suddenly, all the city lights went out and drivers turned off their headlights. The sky glowed with tracers that moved fanlike in our direction. We went to a retaining wall of the gas station, looking for shelter. A direct hit where we stood would have blown up the entire neighborhood. Then, Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners began shooting at planes that we could neither see nor hear.

Within about 10 seconds, a rhythmic pounding began a distance away. It was the kind of sound that a squadron of B-52s would make while carpet bombing. In this case, the mission was against the Walid airbase, the largest in western Iraq and a possible staging site for missile attacks on Israel. Doyle remarked, “Damned if that isn’t the direction we’re heading.” The roar of bombs and ack-ack guns lasted at least 25 minutes, and then fell silent. Soon, the all-clear sounded, and within the hour, with a full tank of gas, we headed in the direction of the bombing we had just witnessed. But we were now alone. During the confusion of the bombing, we had lost sight of the second car in the convoy.

We hit a good stretch of road, speeding up in the hope of getting to the Jordanian border before midnight. Only about 100 km from the line, the grey night turned orange as tracers went up again, not more than eight kilometres ahead. Our driver slammed on the brakes and refused to go further, but started up about five minutes later. Again the tracers rose, sur-

rounding us with a halo of red-and-white fight. “I think,” one of my companions said, “this time we are really in the middle of it.”

We knew that the Walid base was off to our left and that the H-3 oil-pumping station was on the right—both of them vital to Iraq’s war effort. Bone-jarring pounding from ack-ack guns and high-explosive bombs began all around us. Up ahead, a huge orange ball of fire erupted, and it appeared from the silhouette that a storage facility had been struck.

Suddenly, there was a loud thump, followed by a concussion wave that forced our jaws wide open, partly from shock and partly from the pressure. “Better to keep your mouths open, in case the next one comes in real close,” Doyle, a veteran war correspondent, advised from the backseat, “lí your mouth is shut when a big one lands nearby, it could blow your eardrums out.” At that moment, a huge chunk of glowing flak landed scarcely 15 m from our car. We took shelter under a bridge—and soon all turned silent again.

Ruins: We finally made it to the border around 1 a.m. on Jan. 18. We later learned that the other two cars in our original convoy had arrived earlier and missed the bombardment. We slept in our cars and, at 8 a.m., the Iraqi border barriers went up. We said goodbye to our Iraqi drivers, and three of us hired a Jordanian taxi, which 2 charged us $450 (U.S.) for E the 350-km trip to Amman.

Ï As we drove through the ^ last barbed-wire fence into I Jordan, we took one final look 5 back at the plain 50 km east s where Walid and H-3 probably sat in smoking ruins—and noticed that the bombings had begun again. It was day and night bombing now.

Driving through the 70-km-long no man’s land on Jordan’s border, we passed a number of Red Cross tents, erected the day before to deal with a potential new influx of refugees from Iraq. They were empty, except for a few dozen Iraqis and Egyptian guest workers. At the Jordanian checkpoint, guards asked us about the situation in Baghdad. “Is there a lot of bombing?” they asked. We nodded grimly, knowing that their sympathies leaned towards Iraq.

At about 3:30 p.m., 24 hours after our ordeal began, we arrived at Amman’s Intercontinental Hotel, which had just received the news of a missile attack on Israel. Half of the foreign TV crews there were either in or climbing into their chemical suits, taking no chances even though the attack was a hundred kilometres away. Having just sat in a darkened car in the middle of an Iraqi desert highway, with B-52s dropping bombs all around and not a flak jacket in sight, I had to laugh. □