Sunday, February 19, 2006
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, I have been to Iraq twice. The first time was the best experience I have had in my entire life. Off all the different places I have been to on holiday, nothing compared to Iraq. The last time my eyes saw Iraqi soil was in 1991, during the middle of a bloody uprising. During the fighting I still remember running out of the house with cousins collecting bullets from the floor. That is what we kids did for fun, no playstation, no toys, no computer games...Instead walk out of the house and see who can collect the most bullets.
It was fantastic to see the Iraqi flag flying high just near the Jordanian border. As soon as we drove to the Iraqi side of the border, we were taken into the Passport control. The cars from Jordan turned back, and we got into cars that had come from Baghdad to pick us up.
The Iraqi official immediately recognized me, looked at my British passport, smiled, stamped it and said "Welcome". After a nice chat with some of the American soldiers we headed out for Baghdad. Hours and hours of nothing but peaceful desert. Al-Anbar is the biggest province in Iraq, mainly Sunni, and is practically empty. We passed through cities like Fallujah and Ramadi to get to Baghdad. From Baghdad, it was south to my home town of Najaf. Although the streets were dirty and so many of the buildings looked abandoned it was nice to back in Najaf after 14 years of nothing but vague memories and stories I had heard from family and friends.
I spent the next few weeks in between Najaf, Kerbala and Baghdad. I had a great time. In Baghdad we stayed at the Sheraton Hotel, a.k.a Ishtar Hotel (pic). It was right behind Firdos Square where Saddam's famous statue (which has been replaced by a small green statue) fell in April 2003. As we approached the hotel, an American soldier went through my bags. I told him that he was taking the piss, but at the same time I knew it was something that had to be done. He smiled and said "Im glad you realise".
I looked outside the hotel room window, an American tank, dozens of soldiers, and the Palestine hotel (Where all the journalists stay) right infront us. Nice view I thought, it beats the beach in Dubai. After only one night, we were leaving the hotel, our driver had put on BBC news..."Breaking news, insurgents have just attacked the Ishtar hotel in Firdos Square, rocket propelled grenades were fired at the second floor of the hotel". I immediately remembered the American tank and soldiers outside the hotel. I hope they deal with them.
One thing worth noting, is how everything has changed from before the invasion, every time we were stopped by the Iraqi army, the soldier's would ask "Where did you come from?" As soon as you reply with "Najaf", they smile, and say "Allah Wiyakum" ('May God be with you') and let you pass. If i was in Iraq two years ago, and said "Najaf" that would mean instant detention. Now its completely the opposite, if you say "Fallujah" "Tikrit" the Iraqi soldiers immediately start asking questions, but say "Kerbala" "Najaf" "Hilla" and all you get is a smile.
The second time I went to Iraq was much more eventful then the first, and I will never forget what happened. Like the first time, we came from Jordan, by car towards Baghdad. When we were in Baghdad we heard terrible news that the Mehdi Army in Najaf had started firing at Iraqi police and coalition forces in the holy city. We couldn't believe this was happening...Why now!? I thought to myself. Naturally, the American army were firing back at the Mehdi Army positions in the holy city. People were being killed in Najaf right now, and we were on our way to the city.
As we reached Najaf, we saw an illegal checkpoint set up by the Mehdi Army right infront of us. Dozens of them, all dressed in black and armed. We were stopped by them at the "Abbasi" Bridge.
"You cannot go into the city!!" one of them shouted at our driver.
"Its too dangerous, you can't pass this bridge" a boy who must have been younger than me said, clutching a pistol in his right hand.
I immediately knew what he was talking about. Only a few hundred yards infront of us, men were in between the palm trees firing mortar rounds towards what I must have assumed were American positions.
After a few minutes, the Mahdi Army militia men moved out of the way and let us through. We sped towards Hay il Sa'ad and finally reached home. As I got out of the car I heard the deafening sound of a jet engine, then the unmistakable sound of a bomb landing on its target. I wondered how many people just got incinerated.
The Mahdi Army militia men checked our passports at the checkpoint, they knew who we were, and the news must definitely have spread because after we got a phone call from a friend in Najaf
"They know you are here, its too dangerous".
We slept one day in our house, then the next day in a hotel. After two nights, the bombings were getting worse, our windows shook every time a bomb hit its target. I went to the lobby of the hotel to see what was happening. I asked one of the bodyguards at the door "Whats going on?".
He replied "The animals have taken over a building at the end of this street". I learned afterwards that this was the tactics the Mehdi Army were using, take over a building, fire at American positions, then flee the building only for it to be mercilessly leveled to the floor by an American bomb. My home city was being destroyed by them and there was nothing any one could do about it.
Ive always watched in movies how its like to be in a town being blitzed by planes flying miles overhead, but ive never actually been in one before. The shockwaves from the explosions were immense, the very ground we were on shook when a nearby target was being hit. You can always tell where it came from. The Mehdi Army militia men only have small arms fire and RPG's, when they fired them, all you can hear is a small thud, but when an American F-18 drops its load onto a building, its a different ball game all together.
This is what Bremer called the "Anaconda" operation, pressure Moqtada's Army long enough for him to feel it. If we cant hit the head of the snake, atleast we can squeeze the rest of the body.
I spent that night with two of the bodyguards who were at the door of the hotel, their shift was finished, so as other men took their place, they came in and we were smoking sheesha till about 4am in the morning. Jasim, the taller one was very friendly, and had an AK-47 on his lap as he was smoking, the other one Mehdi, was quite short, and was carrying an Iraqi sniper Tabuk rifle. They were both in the Iraqi army in Saddam's time. They took apart the AK-47 and reassembled it in a matter of a seconds. I was too sleepy, but made them promise to teach me how to do that the next night.
In the morning, there was sporadic gun fire across the city, the American's were bombing from the sky, but on the ground, the Mehdi Army were controlling nearly every single street. They set up checkpoints were ever they wanted, and there was no sign of any Iraqi police or army. Complete anorchy in Najaf. During the day, the militia men over ran a police center and stole a few patrol cars, worse still, they took all the weapons.
After smoking sheesha again, and getting familiar with the AK-47 we got another phone call in the night "You have to leave Najaf, you cannot stay here any longer".
This time it sounded serious, my cousin called and told us to pack our bags now and that cars where on their way to pick us up. Pack our bags!? But its 4am in the morning.
At 5am, two white GMC 4x4's stood outside the hotel and I was saying goodbye to all the nice people I had met in those three nights. It was still dark, and I just remembered that during the few days i was in Najaf, I didn't even go to the holy shrine once.
We headed for the Kuwaiti border, and as we left Najaf I felt sad and annoyed at the fact that I couldn't enjoy my time there and was almost crying about the fact that my city was being destroyed by a bunch of idiots.
On the way to Kuwait, we passed through Basra, as soon as we got into the city, our driver said "Huthola jama'tek" ('These are your people'). I looked to the left and knew what he was talking about, a convoy of British vehicles at a stand-still, with soldiers on foot securing it. They look so different from the American soldiers, they wear floppy hats and berets (as opposed to helmets the Americans wear) and they drive around in armoured Land Rovers (much more friendly than the armourd Humvees the American's use).
As we drove into the Kuwaiti side of the border, i turned back to see the Iraq, the last thing i saw was an Iraqi flag. The flag was dirty and was ripped apart from one side, something which reminded me of the situation of the country, but still, it was an Iraqi flag.