Two Baghdads seen in fall of the capital
By Paul Eedle in Baghdad, FT.com site
Published: Apr 09, 2003
The morning and the afternoon of Wednesday, April 9th, 2003 represented two different worlds in Baghdad. The morning brought fear, empty streets, looting and the terror of mystery gunmen. In the afternoon came joy and relief, with some difficult unanswered questions - but freedom for the first time in 35 years to talk about them openly.
A blast of artillery fire woke me at dawn in the emergency ward of Baghdad's specialist neurosurgery hospital. Surgeons had operated after midnight on a friend injured by a shell from a US tank to remove fragments of bone from her brain.
In the next bed, a terribly wounded boy of 10 or 11 lay unconscious, probably dying, brought in by people who said his entire family had been killed by US shellfire. Nobody at the hospital even knew his name.
On the mile drive from the hospital to the Palestine hotel overlooking the Tigris, I saw only two armed men. Trenches and sandbagged emplacements outside government buildings stood empty. The defenders of Baghdad, the motley array of soldiers, Baath party militiamen and plainclothes members of the intelligence services, had melted away.
At the hotel, I was amazed to find a man selling the day's newspapers. I bought all four national dailies, all with Saddam Hussein's photo on the front page, in case they were the last.
When I drove with colleagues to a shopping street, we found plenty of people on the streets and vegetable stalls and bakers open. But people had heard about looting and shooting and they were frightened. "There's no security," said a man by a greengrocer's shop. "Are the Americans going to bring security? Are they going to stop the robbing and looting?" Asked what she would do when US forces arrived, a 17-year-old girl said: "If I see them, I want to kill them. I hate them. They came to steal our oil." Her father added: "Nobody wants to be occupied by another country. Everyone would rather be occupied by his own country. They are going to be worse than anything we have seen before."
We found the looters a mile away, carrying away everything they could from two United Nations buildings. One man was dragging a desk with two computers and a leather chair piled on top along the road. Others in a tattered white truck were trying to haul away a half-ton orange generator.
We drove on, edging up streets where we could see cars moving and people walking, stopping to ask what was happening when we saw the road ahead empty. At a big road junction, we found the charred skeletons of two civilian cars and a truck and the street strewn with rubble. White tape tied between lamp posts blocked the road southeast. The Iraqis don't use tape. The Americans were here.
Further on, a flyover led up from a roundabout. Nothing moved on the raised road. We circled the roundabout and decided to go back, but a group of men at the door of a mosque shouted at us to stop. A thin man in civilian clothes lay on the pavement, pale, sweating, moaning; blood from a deep wound in his thigh soaked his left trouser leg. My colleague Tim Lambon, who is a trained paramedic, splinted his leg and we carried him into our van.
While we raced through deserted streets to hospital, the man murmured his story. He had visited his sister in hospital, and taken a taxi to go back home. On the flyover, armed men in a minibus had stopped them, forced him out and shot him in the leg without any explanation. The terrified taxi driver had taken him back to the roundabout and dumped him outside the mosque.
At the Palestine hotel, we found that some television crews had met and filmed American troops. But Iraqi colleagues were swapping stories of young men from the poor suburb of Saddam city on the rampage, surrounding frightened Baath party militiamen near the interior ministry, and random shootings.
A Portuguese television crew said armed men in civilian clothes had dragged them out of their car, taken their money and cameras and beaten them up; they were rescued by Baath party officers.
In the afternoon, we drove out with real nervousness to look for the Americans. As we turned a roundabout in the van, my colleague Craig Nelson shouted that he had seen a tank coming down the street ahead. We debated what to do and then turned back, parked and got out. We walked slowly up to the roundabout and suddenly the tank roared out of the road to our left. We put our hands up and kept walking slowly forward, our driver Yousef al-Taie holding a white scarf on a stick.
The tank's flat turret swivelled, pointing its gun at us, then at our car, then back at us. Another tank and then two Amtraks, vast amphibious troop carriers, clanked into sight, then three Humvee jeeps. I saw troops in desert camouflage walking along the side of the road and a small group of Iraqis on the far side of the roundabout waving and cheering.