Photojournalist Seamus Conlan of World Picture News has been in Baghdad since weeks before the war began.For the past two months he has sent us his journals telling us what it was like living in the "bull's eye." In this concluding segment, he writes about the arrival of U.S. forces in the city.
April 4 (Day 1 of the Battle for Baghdad)
Walking around the hotel lobby this morning, I see lots of smiles and happy faces. I'm greeted by the most miserable member of the Ministry of Information, who shakes my hand and puts his arm around me. "Morning, my friend, a good day today," he says. Oh dear, I'm in for the chop today: expelled maybe from the country, or do I have to walk home for his pleasure? He is a pleased-at-your-misfortune type of guy. I wonder what he's all about. Over coffee I hear from other journalists that US troops are at the Saddam International Airport, only 10 km from the hotel. So that was what the hug and friendship was all about: making friends now, eh? Later at the press center, I see they are changing the press passes and charging about $150 each. Another surcharge to stay here and breathe this oil-polluted air that's now blocking out the sun. I try to air out my room, but when I open the windows I just let in another wave of burned oil and gunpowder smoke. Ministry of Information minders are still taking us on tours of bombed-out buildings the occasional hospital filled with injured patients. It seems strange that many of the patients come from places 20 km away or more, and we wonder whether from hospitals and to visit the injured patients from Allied bombing that somehow live 20 Km away from each other. Could all the war wounded be at one hospital?
After an AP report about US troops at the airport, the Ministry of Information offers to take us there. A crowd of journalists rushes the promised bus to the airport. This means one of two things, we figure: Either the AP report is wrong, and they are taking us to see that the airport is empty, or the gig is up. We never get on the bus, however. A ministry spokesman makes a quick speech about American lies that they're at the airport, and end of game plan. This could be the beginning of the end, we suspect.
As a beautiful Greek correspondent said to me as she raced past in the hotel lobby, "A BBC embedded reporter emailed me that I shouldn't stand on the balcony tonight, even if I wear my body armor!" So maybe tonight the US troops will take this place. Maybe it'll be Starbucks coffee served tomorrow morning -- a double latte please, the American troops have arrived.
But the Ministry of Information minders are in full denial mode. "You shouldn't look so happy yet," I tell a minder who is chuckling at the news -- bogus, he believes -- that Americans have taken the airport. Others are more realistic. My minder, a reasonably pleasant man, says, "Can you take my address and come for me, my family is frightened of what the US will do to us," "Don't worry about them, you'll be fine, my friend," "No really," he says, "We are worried -- you Irish, Mr. Shams, and they keep their word. I seen Braveheart. Help us!" Well, he got the Celtic part right anyway, and he's right, I won't let him down if it comes to it and he needs me. Mr. Shams as I'm known here, means "Mr. Sun" in Arabic.
The surface-to-surface shelling starts. As the blasts shake the hotel, a freaked out journalist in the elevator blurts out, "I had to leave the restaurant -- I'm getting out of here!" How, I wonder. A missile in midair near the hotel was intercepted in a great clash of fireworks that would make the 4th of July look like a cheap children's show. Everything is shaking. Not a broken window in my room yet, luckily. I just moved the last of my food and water supplies into the safe room I have in the suite. I have also dismantled the handle and locks of the two fire doors, to give me a little extra time if Iraqi militants turn on the journalists and begin going room to room shooting us. I could hardly hear the bombs drop tonight because of all the generators running below my window, on the second night in a row without electricity. The smell of gunpower and sulfur is now mixed with unleaded petrol fumes.
It strikes me that now that the power is out, the battle for Baghdad must be under way. Once the lights are out the Americans' night vision goggles give them an advantage. Now that we are in darkness they can see for miles under the cover of darkness free to move and advance on the city.
April 5 (day 2 of the battle for Baghdad)
Life has changed quickly on the streets of Baghdad. Everyone, including the military, is praying to Allah to protect them from the invaders. Most are indoors, and the streets are almost empty after last night's news that the US troops have taken Saddam International Airport. Baath party faithful line the streets on the way to the airport, hoping to hold the city with a few hundred spread-out volunteers and coerced soldiers -- many are in their teens or elderly. Commerce is shut down completely, even for the essential items of war like water containers Water is shut off. Power is out. People are fearful of going out. The hospitals are filling up with soldiers after the battle has continued through the night into the day.
At 7.00 p.m.a truck full of Iraqi soldiers tours by the hotel twice, waving guns victoriously in the air. A huge machine gun is mounted on the back. Victory is all I have seen today -- over what, may I ask. A couple more pickup trucks circle the 14th of July roundabout within view from my window, the soldiers swinging their guns for joy as if the war has ended. They obviously have won, by the sounds of it. A typical Saddam head trip. Even after the Iran-Iraq war, where they won nothing and lost hundreds of thousands of men, they announced a glorious victory. They brought their little state-sponsored display right up to the hotel, shooting in the air like cowboys at the OK Corral and waving the V of victory sign for all to see. Bullets flew in all directions, and I was lucky to avoid them.
The press center brought every journalist they could find to a press conference by Ministry of Information officials dressed in full military uniform."We allowed the Americans to take the airport, and we circled them cutting off their island. We now have control over the airport … We will use any means we can to defeat our invading enemy, including martyrs," they said, referring to the suicide bombers that killed some American troops only days ago in Basra. A Spanish journalist asked if we could visit the airport to see for ourselves. "Of course you can go and see for yourself". This later proved very difficult indeed. Instead, the ministry provided another bus trip to the hospital, where journalists couldn't even walk around to see the injured as soldiers were being loaded in by the truck full. Another few hours of your day wasted. I opted to miss the bus trip and went to visit a mosque that happened to be close to the airport. As my translator went off on a fruitless fact-finding tour of the mosque, I had time to observe the local population being rallied up with gunfire. What seemed to be the military was shooting out in the back lanes and alleyways. The effect was great. People drove past, honking their horns and waving guns of all descriptions. Old men ran into their homes, and reappeared with gunsin hand and went racing down the street. I was witnessing a sign of what might mean a difficult fight of the Americans entering Baghdad. Not quite the expected pushover. Today somehow there is a spirit of resistance. Yesterday, only 30 minutes after I left the same area, which I guess is technically the front line in Baghdad, Saddam Hussen visited the area. Thousands of cheering people rallied as though he were a new presidential canididate out wooing voters. Clearly the mood had changed, and the theme was clear: get support and don't show defeat.
By 6 p.m., after three bus tours, there is still no airport visit. It's out of bounds to any journalist, which would mean trying to visit would bring jail, or if you are lucky your driver gets beaten. Early, some Iraqi soldiers had beaten one driver outside the hotel lobby as a message to the other drivers.
Tonight the earth shakes with pounding explosions. As I open the window, the air is thick with smoke you can taste on the tip of your tongue and a small burning in your nose. No flames to be seen anywhere. The Minister of Information said today in Arabic that the US troops are dropping sound bombs intended to scare the population rather than kill them. The last one definitely scared me. It landed very close to the hotel and shook everything like an earthquake. It's amazing that below my window a few people are still driving around, trying to make a living to feed their families under these crazy circumstances. I wonder what is going to be the outcome here on the streets, but most importantly the effect it is going to have on the world for a long time to come. I don't think that was really thought about before all this began. The last thing anyone wants is for this to spread and continue. Arabs have a long memory. I can't stop thinking about today, people running into their homes and collecting their guns to help join the fight. It was a glimpse of the mass hysteria that could come with this. If the US troops want to show the people here that they care, then they will have to change the way they are doing things because on the ground the reality is very different. I didn't take any pictures as the fathers and sons ran toward the gunfire to fight. I knew that I would probably be shot the moment I was seen, and I would never know that moment. I figured there was time for better pictures to tell the story elsewhere today. I can't forget that in a war zone situations can escalate very quickly, and at any time can change into a mass hysteria that can kill you. I have very often thought that I wouldn't get out of this place alive anyway, so why worry. Doing this kind of work you have to rely on the fact that there does come an end, either you leave and live in a different parallel world or you continue living a different reality for what you believe in.
April 6, (day 3 of the battle for Baghdad)
Show me your trophy. Today began with waiting around for a press trip somewhere, anywhere. It's about 90 degrees F and the wind is blowing from the west, from the Saudi direction. After two hours of sweating in the heat we rush for bus positions, but then are told that we can take our own cars and translators. We nearly crush each other dashing out. No one really knows where to go, but there's a rumor of a destroyed US tank on a Baghdad highway somewhere. Everyone races to get to the scene first there, in order to get pictures without other journalists in the frame. The battle for Baghdad has also been the battle for a press-free picture, with everyone racing around like some wacky cartoon. Arriving off a slip road, I saw the carnage that must have been some battle with burned out cars in several directions with a bus shot to bits and a US tank in mid frame of the battle field on a highway. I'm pleased I wasn't there at the time this went down. I can't help thinking of my colleague, Kurt Pitzer, who is traveling with the US troops. The Iraqis leading us are very proud of their trophy of the war that so far has resulted in many civilians casualties. I quickly check to see if there are any bodies in the tank. There aren't, but there are some burned bones in what was a US-type pickup truck. I hope Kurt is okay.
Yesterday the body count was 150 in a three-hour period. Going to a hospital later today, police car after police car comes steaming up to the front of the ER with medical doctors at the waiting to lift them, from pickup trucks and family sedans into the operating theater. It is heart breaking to see a little child that survived a bombing only to be orphaned, with a facial scar across his mouth that will not only disfigure him for life but forever remind him of this terrible day. He was in a vehicle fleeing the fighting when a missile killed everyone in the two-vehicle convoy but threw him to safety. That's all I can find out from him He is after all only three years old. I think of my own home and my beautiful daughter, and imagining her living through this, in the place of the child in front of me, brings tears to my eyes and a pain in my heart.
Members of a family injured from a bomb blast to their apartment building are waiting nearby to have their injures looked at. All of them, from the toddler to the two beautiful girls, are silent. Each of them has bits of metal sticking into them. The little girl with blood stained night dress is not old enough to know why she was almost killed. The whole family doesn't want to speak to me, even though I tried explaining why I was here risking my life to show theirs. That's not enough, considering what they have gone through in the last few hours. I asked where the other family members were, but only got a solemn look. Car after car arrived with a few even I with no medical knowledge can instantly spot as dead on arrival.
US planes seem to be bombing by the minute. The whole compound of the hospital shakes. Hearing the whistle of a falling bomb, we hug the walls. It gets louder and closer until it passes overhead. Patients lay staring up at the ceiling in the middle of the corridor, helpless on trolleys and in fear even in the hospital. An earthshaking crack shakes the building. It must have been close, but far enough away not to damage us. No one was blown across the floor, and no windows blown out. In fact, bracing the walls was pretty pointless,considering if we were hit it would have blown every window and every stick of furniture flying in all directions at a murderous speed As I look up,patients are again being wheeled down the corridor as medics get on with the business.
As soon as I think I'm getting used to the bombing, the pounding, the shaking, one heads towards me and I confront fear all over again. But I'm lucky. I can leave at any point It would be very dangerous and very difficult, but I can leave. These people can't go anywhere. This is there home, their children in the hospital and their blood running down their arms. Nowhere to go and nowhere to hide.
April 7 (day 4 of the battle for Baghdad)
As dawn broke over Baghdad, the air was especially thick with sulfur smoke. The battle is now taking place just 300 yards across the river bank facing me. One of the main presidential palaces was being attacked by US troops in what could have been a suicide mission. A hard fight for this big prize in the middle of a heavily protected Iraqi area. How they got in and how they will get out is only guesswork from where I stand. Gun fights from large personnel carriers rattle across the city for hours, without a moment's quiet.
The ground fight for Baghdad has begun for real. Across the Tigris a few hundred yards away an ammunition pile is exploding. By 10 a.m. US troops control two presidential palaces. Tanks pound away in the heart of the city. How can you get dozens of 40-ton tanks into the center of the city without anyone seeing them? Yesterday we saw one tank totally exposed on the highway, blown to bits. So how did they get in here? The gun powder smoke has created a foul-smelling fog so thick you can no longer see across the other side of the river, where the battle continues. The defiant Minster of Information in full military uniform has just announced that the pounding behind him only a few hundred yards away is not in fact happening, "There are no US troops in the area. I don't know what he's seeing but it looks like WWII outside my window. The Minster is asking for a different reality: "I walked down the street from the ministry to the Al- Rasheed Hotel and saw normal life around me. Soon I will organize a tour for you to see for yourselves". His denial is a true performance in front of the hard-bitten international press corps. He claims that all of Baghdad is armed and ready for when the Americans come.
Surprisingly, the ministry did provide a bus tour. Crossing the Tigris on the Rasheed Bridge towards the Ministry of Information and directly into the front line. The ministry was reported to have been taken but clearly has not, as we drove by a red double-decker bus still operating. A man with his family climbs aboard, carrying a yellow plastic shopping bag in one hand an a AK47 in the other. These are scary moments for the people of Baghdad. Many are not only fearful of the Iraqi troops and the US troops, but also the uprising that could of occur at any moment now as the city grips itself for this chaos.
Soldiers walk out from clouds of sulfur smoke. Thunderous pounding continues to roll across the city. Clearly the battle is drawing towards us at the hotel. No one I have come across seems any different in terms of fear, as the front is now only a few hundred yards away. A Baath party group arrives in a minibus, fresh from the front, for a victory wave at the journalists. We love Saddam, Americans go home!" In Arabic, it's rhymes very well.
April 8 (day 5 in the battle for Baghdad)
Just as I finished writing the date, I jump out of my seat when two very loud explosions shake the building. Tank fire? Have we been hit again? Only a few hours ago, at 11.30 a.m. a US tank blew a hole in the hotel four floors above my room, killing a Reuters camera man and critically injuring a Spanish journalist. He lost both his leg and half of his face, and the Red Cross are trying to get him over the front right now before he dies. The other injuries, I don't know. My colleagues who were in the room were too unsettled to tell me about them. A very somber mood has filled the air. Seeing journalist weep like children is like seeing a doctor cry. These are people who risk everything, sleeping rough in very difficult situations and countries. There very often isn't water or electricity, and sometimes no food. It's not a very glamorous life, but yet we do it so the world can be more informed and maybe a better place because of it. Now two of us in this hotel have paid the ultimate price for doing their jobs.
A colleague came running up and threw his arms around me. "I thought it was you, he looked just like you!" What? Who? "The Polish guy killed when they hit the hotel". This was the first I had heard of it. I had been in the hotel parking lot getting into a car to visit the hospital and to look around town, now that the big battle has really began. Then "whoosh!" and we drove to take cover in the dirt by the car. I saw the damage around the side of the hotel and thought it was a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fired from the street. It was very worrying to think that the Iraqis are now targeting us. As I arrived back at the hotel, journalists were hanging white bed sheets outside their windows to say we are here please don't kill any more of us. It seemed inconceivable that the US was deliberately firing on our hotel. Orders from the Pentagon. In one way it was a small comfort knowing that the Iraqis, who still controlled the area around the hotel, weren't attacking us. But that doesn't help my colleagues one little bit now.
The US military said they thought there were snipers shooting from the hotel, so they fired on it with a tank. They must have thought the same thing this morning when they shot at me several times when I was on the roof of the hotel. They were still firing as I scrambled from the ledge, scaled a wall and ran out of the line of fire. Clearly it was a good position for a sniper but as the battle broke this morning before dawn at 4.45 a.m. I was the only foolish person there.
The US military broke free from the Presidential Palace on the other side of the river, with two tanks that I could see blasting their way through the Iraqi defenses, lighting up the streets ahead of them and mowing down anything in their path. Loud short bursts of fire continued as they moved forward. By 9 a.m. two Abrams tanks could be seen sitting on the Jumhiriya Bridge on the west side of the river. Jets flew low providing air support. The eyes and ears of the Iraqi military must now be gone, if these planes are now used as fire power. Bullets thundered down, razing Iraqi defenses. Later, US helicopters circled on the east side of the river. Look any direction and you see explosions in Baghdad. By 10 a.m., the Ministry of Information press center at the hotel is empty. As the jets fly over the hotel, I look around for places to take cover to avoid the fate of my poor colleagues four floors above me.
April 9 (day 5 of the battle for Baghdad)
They cut off the head of the president and rode it through the center of Baghdad. This happened right outside my hotel, the Palestine, where a crowd formed around the decapitated statue of Saddam in Firdos Square. I couldn't believe it. Less than two hours earlier I had been pleading with every American soldier I encountered in the chaos in the surrounding streets to come and protect the international media at the hotel. We figured it was the least they could do after killing three of us the day before. I was sure that today was going to be the day that we got killed by Saddam's enraged and retreating militiamen. I'd asked a few Iraqi friends about the 30 Arabs sitting outside the hotel, and they'd said, "Workers, maybe?" I didn't think so. So I'd sounded desperate when talking to the U.S. soldiers down the road, pretending to joke around: "You guy have to get to the Palestine tonight before we are raped and shot, and I don't know in which order." A U.S. Marines officer assured me that every journalist in Baghdad was telling him the same thing. I asked if he was doing anything about it. "Yes sir, I have made a phone call every time," he said.
I guess he had. At about 4:30 p.m., 30 U.S. vehicles, tanks, personnel carriers and jeeps armed to the teeth rolled in between the two parallel hotels the Sheraton and the Palestine to make a clean swipe and secure the area. I had just stepped into my hotel room, needing to drink water for 30 minutes after wearing my body armor for hours in the 90-degree heat, when I heard them. It was a sound not unlike a large helicopter, clattering up from my balcony window. I ran over to the balcony still downing a bottle of warm water and opened the door. When I saw the vehicles I dropped the bottle and started racing around the room, looking for everything I needed to head out again. My sweat-filled flak jacket and a camera would do for now. I flicked the off switch on the generator and ran down the eight flights of stairs and out into the square to see Iraqi finally able to show their hatred of Saddam. More than 20 years of suppression had come to an end.
Once the U.S. soldiers had run through the hotel checking for snipers, they turned their attention to making their presence final: Let's pull down the main Saddam statue in the capital! Only one hundred yards from live television feeds to the rest of the world, dozens of Iraqis were already heartily chipping away at the base of the statue with large sledge hammers. Enter the U.S. Marine Corps. After tying a rope around his neck, a U.S. personnel carrier came to the aid of locals trying to get rid of a larger-than-life Saddam that had cast a long shadow over this famous Baghdad square for years. Just for fun, the marines tied a Pentagon flag around the face of Saddam in a personal gesture.
Finally, after a few attempts, the statue creaked like an old ship leaving the harbor. As it toppled it seemed to hang in midair for seconds, during which hundreds of people rushed it, some hanging off it, others throwing stones, to celebrate the death of their dictator. The crowd made way for a final pull of the statue to the ground. No sooner had it hit earth than hundreds of jubilant Iraqis rushed it, jumping on it's head. It's a scene that I have seen in different versions in capitals falling in wartime. Soon the head will be off, and after some determined metal pounding it was dragged through the streets and ridden on in celebration.
What a PR campaign this one turned out to be. But we know that the people are happy and we are safe tonight. This is the first night without thinking we'd get bombed or shot after 21 days of earth shaking bombardment. In the evening, coming down the lift for something to eat after two days without food, I find a few Iraqi friends in the lift. They're a little tearful after the day's events, and all things considered. "OK my friend" "No, Mr. Shams, I don't think that this will work, if the Americans leave this place it will go up in flames." "They left in '91 and look what happened." He doesn't trust the American way of doing business. Safaris, an Information Ministry minder still left in the hotel, remains in his seat in the coffee shop from early morning. Now his has his shoes off and is also tearful. "My family is in the north, and I can't get to them," he says. Maybe he is also thinking that he is no longer the big man he once was since he gave his life to th e party in exchange for family comfort and a small amount of power, now gone. Now he's the same as everyone else: unsure of his future in Iraq. As the jets fly overhead tonight I feel OK knowing U.S. troops are outside my window, securing us from attack with several tanks in the area. I look forward to a peaceful night's sleep and maybe a good drink.
April 10 (day 6 of the battle for Baghdad)
After a jubilant day yesterday, the evidence of sudden freedom's chaos could clearly be seen, as the headless statue of Saddam Hussein lay on the ground in the morning sun surrounded by US troops. With no law and order in the city, many buildings are being looted of every stick of furniture before being set alight. A horse and cart overflows with two fridges, about a dozen computer monitors and hard drives from the Ministry of Trade. As the upstairs offices were ransacked, thousands of sheets paper fell like snow, as the horse cart slowly trotted off through the city unnoticed among the cars, vans and even a folk lift truck loaded with loot. Pedestrians helped themselves to the parked cars on the side of the road. I told my driver to keep the car doors locked and the engine running as I got out and raced around the streets on foot, quickening my pace as one group began to point to my watch. It was a trophy I had purchased here on my last visit to Baghdad in September, a Tag Heuer given to the Iraqi Navy divers by Saddam. I took the watch off and moved down the street to a bank being opened by great popular demand and a little help from a large truck. As the truck pulled off the doors, hundreds of would-be looters rushed in and were disappointed to find that the bank managers weren't foolish enough to leave any money behind. But they still managed to take everything that wasn't nailed down including the bank counter. With the amount of loot taken, they might open their own bank as soon as they finished running riot through the city. Anarchy had broken out in what was yesterday a tightly controlled city under one of history's most repressive regimes.
Clearly, the act of removing the statue of Saddam had
an immediate effect
April 11 (day 7 of the battle for Baghdad)
No sooner has the smoke cleared from the bombing of the city than it is replaced by black clouds from the fires started by looters burning the capital. Peace has not yet arrived in Baghdad, and the end of the battle for the center has brought the war home to ordinary non-combatants. Looters were now killing for their goodies. Road blocks are being set up by civilians, to protect their neighborhoods from the out-of-town looters taking advantage of the situation in which they can get away even with murder.
April 12 (day 8 of the battle for Baghdad)
"The People's Palace", they called it, and today the people arrived to collect their things. "This belongs to me, habibi" says a grinning toothless old man wearing a Gha'ttra on his head and struggling to drag one of Saddam's chandeliers behind him. This palace was one of the first things to be hit during the bombing campaign. What damage the bomb made to its luxurious grounds was no match for what the people are doing. They began with the front door, stripping it inch by inch. Little old ladies wrestled with the crowds to drag strips of gold-colored tin from the doors. After clutching at her treasure and examining it carefully in disbelief, one spat on it and threw it to the ground realizing it was worthless. "He's cheap, it's tin, not gold," she shouted to everyone at the top of her lungs. Then she smiled at me and giggled,before running off into the darkened palace entrance which was filled with clouds of smoke. Hundreds of people inside pulled everything apart in a joyous display of destruction. As people ran by me in the darkness, I was slipping on the marble floor covered in rubble. The looters had been here for hours, I guess, since all the furniture was gone from the inside and the salvaging work was reaching the final stages. The marble floor tiles were bring lifted, the window frames skillfully removed with large rocks. After striping the walls of electric switches and sockets, one guy looked as if he ready wanted the wires to come with it. I worked my way through the maze of destruction floor by floor, and finally arrived on the fourth and final floor of the palace. There was a man who seemed peaceful and happy, sitting on the window ledge, smiling as he enjoyed the view from one of the bedrooms. A Kalnashnikov rifle rested at his side as the light streamed in on his face. "Welcome, mister" he said, as I slowly approached, taking pictures. "My boy is getting married in one month, so we all came down here and took a roomful of furniture for his new home. It belongs to us, and we are taking it back now"
April 13 (day 9 of the battle for Baghdad)
Looking out from the balcony this morning, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the Manhattan-style traffic jam on the 14th of July roundabout. Named for the revolution that finally got rid of the British in the 1920s, it seems an ironic that this is where three days ago Americans helped the people of Iraq drag the Saddam statue to the ground. The traffic jam, stretching down two roads as far as the eye can see, is three or four cars wide. Down the road, teenagers are changing money with huge wads of dinars in their hands. Where is all the money coming from? Entering a lawless ghetto of Baghdad, we know we have arrived at an answer as a street fight begins. It turns nasty. Six youths run in six different directions clutching bundles of money, as someone with a handgun shouts and chases two of them through the busy streets. Nobody pays much attention. There's too much else going on.
© Seamus Conlan