Cover

WAR AND ROSES

When U.S. forces arrived in the Iraqi capital, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU was already there. exclusive account

April 21 2003
Cover

WAR AND ROSES

When U.S. forces arrived in the Iraqi capital, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU was already there. exclusive account

April 21 2003

WAR AND ROSES

Cover

When U.S. forces arrived in the Iraqi capital, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU was already there. exclusive account

ROSES ARE IN BLOOM in Baghdad. In a little walled garden, I sit and rock in an old two-seater swing. From here, the war is an auditory experience: a missile hits another palace, bombers circle overhead, and Iraqis respond with anti-aircraft guns. American tanks advance into the western part of the city, where they are met with a barrage of small-arms fire at a highway junction. An Apache helicopter opens up on Iraqi positions; the prayer beckoning the faithful is called again. And sometimes the war is olfactory: the acrid, sulphurous smell of spent gunpowder, or the aromatic smoke of fragrant shrubs set on fire during combat, or the stench of burning petrol.

With the power cut, Baghdad is as black as oil at night. The sky is filled with stars as I listen to this war of blood and fire, surrounded by roses.

ON APRIL 1, with the ground war raging closer to Baghdad, a frenzied confusion descends upon the angry swarms of Iraqi intelligence agents whose job it is to keep close watch over foreigners in the city. Their noose has been tightening, and most outsiders have been corralled in the monolithic Hotel Palestine. I arrived in Iraq in early March to make a film about the war, and I know it is only a matter of time before I am found and routed out of my own small hotel. I have to make my break. So I find refuge with my friend Omar and his family at his home in the southwest of the city. I am completely and precariously unofficial, but in the company of warm, wonderful people. “You know there is a risk with me staying with you,” I tell Omar. “No risk,” he resolutely answers.

A few days later, the next chapter of the war, the part we’ve all been waiting for and dreading, begins. First, news breaks that American troops have seized the airport. And Baghdad is thrown into darkness when the power is permanently ruptured. Iraqi officials claim the airport will be recaptured immediately with “surprise” methods.

In addition to soldiers dug in everywhere, Baghdad witnesses a new sight: the sinister movements of the Fedayeen Saddam troops. They are a paramilitary unit created by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday and are reputed to be the most fanatical fighters. They are dressed all in black, sometimes masked. They operate with so-called technicals: light and fast pickup trucks with heavy machine

guns mounted in the back. They speed toward the airport.

After this, a relatively calm day passes, but it ends with an official Iraqi announcement that the airport is surrounded and only five Americans remain alive. The Iraqi anti-aircraft gunners lower their cannons from the sky and begin pounding the airport. This carries on through the night. The next morning, the first racket of machine-gun fire is heard in Baghdad proper. I’m drawn to see what spectacle is assaulting my ears. I creep out of the house, and through the empty streets toward the airport highway.

I reach a pedestrian overpass, under cover of which I take position to begin filming. The battle lies out of sight, a few kilometres to the south, but it is coming my way. A couple of nervous soldiers who have seen me storm onto the road. They beckon me, anxiously and angrily. It is a moment of sheer panic: there’s no way for me to explain myself—I might as well be a spy. But the soldiers are 100 m away. I slowly back toward a small side street and, once out of sight, bolt like a madman and sprint back to Omar’s house. I vault over the front gate and hide. Luckily, all the while, the battle draws nearer, otherwise occupying the soldiers.

The fighting passes by the neighbourhood like a tempest. Omar and I drive out to see what has happened. Shooting continues, but it is the celebratory gunfire of Iraqis firing into the air. Apparently (and at great cost), they have won this fight. American tanks made an incursion into the south of the city in an effort to reach the airport or to take position on the access road to the airport. But they were overwhelmed by hundreds of Iraqi foot soldiers, some armed with rocket-propelled grenades. A grenade hitting a state-of-the-art American tank won’t do much damage. But repeated hits will eventually destroy it, which on this occasion is what the Iraqis managed to do. The Americans probably decided to pull back under cover of their Apache helicopters, whose devastating firepower left the scene littered with destroyed Iraqi vehicles. So ended the first American attack on Baghdad.

As Omar and I survey the mess, his only comment is to point to the smoking wrecks. “You see those American vehicles and those Iraqi ones?” he says. “Young men paid for

The writer on the streets of Baghdad, where his presence is ‘precariously unofficial’

this with their lives. For what? For Bush? For Saddam? For oil and for power? Crazy! ” As I film the smouldering American tank from our car, a pickup truck swerves to a stop in front of us and an Iraqi secret-police agent jumps angrily out. Omar leaps into action, rushing out enthusiastically to greet him. “Wow! Look at that,” he gushes. “We got an American tank! Amazing! Can you believe it!? And that destroyed artillery gun, is that American too? We are winning the war!” His ploy works. He bowls over the agent with his gumption. The agent begins to excitedly answer his questions. Only as an afterthought, he points to me and asks, “But who is that?” Omar replies, “Oh him—he is a Canadian journalist. But don’t worry, he has all his papers.” Now in a good mood, the officer asks, “Do you swear?” To which Omar

grins, “Of course.” The agent then turns to me and proclaims in Arabic: “You see how we squash Bush like an ant when he tries to invade our city!”

BUT U.S. FORCES learned a lesson on the way to Baghdad. Iraqi resistance, although disorganized and limited to relatively small arms, was potentially heavy. So, when fighting their way up from the south, the Americans decided that an exhaustive advance toward the capital, completely neutralizing all resistance along the way, would be slow and costly. With their fast and powerful armoured divisions, they blitzkrieged their way straight to Baghdad, past many cities not yet won, calculating that if they brought the fight to the capital and decisively took it, other places would surely fall.

Now, after the first skirmish, they apply the same lesson to Baghdad. Realizing it would be pointless to try and advance slowly through the city, they speed to its heart, rushing their tanks straight to Saddam’s palaces. The effect is demoralizing and devastating for Iraqi soldiers. Out of a mix of fear and loyalty, they fight better (if at all) if they know Saddam is standing strong behind them. They fight when Saddam’s holy ground is unassailed. With the Americans in Saddam’s palaces, in the centre of Baghdad, they begin to break.

DURING A MOMENTARY lull in the fighting, Omar goes out for bread. He comes back with an interesting tale. “I was driving along, the streets deserted,” he recounts. “A lone Fedayeen soldier waves to me, ask-

ing for a ride. He is quite young. He wants me to take him to the bus station. He is a

mess. ‘Look at my hands,’ he laments—they are shaking. ‘They crossed the gates of the north,’ he says. ‘So many! We will fight their soldiers, we will fight their tanks. But we are defenceless against their Apaches. It is

lost. I’m going home.’ ”

The young soldier was almost in tears, Omar tells me, continuing his story. “I ask him, ‘Do you need money?’ ‘No’ he replies. ‘Just take me to the station. But could I have a cigarette, maybe?’ ” Omar says he gave the soldier a whole pack, but adds that as they approached the bus station, he heard someone yelling his name. It was Farouk, Omar’s old friend and a soldier of Saddam’s Baath party. “Farouk is not wearing his uniform and doesn’t have his gun,” says Omar. “I drop off

‘Young men paid for this with their lives,’ Omar says. ‘For what? For Bush? For Saddam? For oil and power? Crazy!’

the Fedayeen and pick him up. Farouk tells me I shouldn’t have picked the soldier up because he is a deserter. So I ask Farouk, why is he running around like this? He answers, laughing, ‘I’m a deserter. I came to my post, but it was locked up and no one was there. So I am going home—to hell with this.’ ” Later, Omar’s family and I sit around the kitchen table, gunfire crackling outside. “I don’t know how the Americans are going to make this work,” Omar’s mother says. “Even

if they win, they will never be safe in Iraq.” Miriam, Omar’s wife, adds: “This is not the end, but the beginning. The real war starts after the war. The Fedayeen will earn their name. And it won’t stop until the Americans leave Iraq.”

Omar’s father then offers the Americans some advice: “I hope at least that they will have the wisdom to let the Iraqis rule Iraq.” Omar agrees. “We will not be governed by outsiders,” he says, “not even Iraqis who haven’t lived with us through the last 25 years of troubles. This is who we are now.” On the radio, in the background, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gloats: “Now the Iraqi people are beginning to imagine life without Saddam.” Omar smiles and sighs. “I hate to agree,” he says. “But I do. And I am.”