Dispatch From Baghdad -
'A Catastrophe Here'

From Anita

Scott Fleming, my good friend and attorney for the Angola Three, is in Baghdad with a crew of journalists. He has been sending dispatches from Baghdad that make it sound like hell on earth. I'll be publishing his emails to me here as they come in.
Sunday, 3 August I'm in Baghdad and it's Sunday night. Today was perhaps the most bizarre, terrifying (although my traveling companions and I were never in any immediate danger), and mind-blowing day of my life. We left lovely Amman at 4 a.m. and were in Baghdad by about 3 p.m. The landscape, physical, climatological, and cultural, changed so much that the night bore no resemblance to the morning. I can't possibly catalog it all, but I can give some impressions.
We crossed the border and headed into Iraq at about 10 a.m. A GMC Suburban, the choice of foreign travelers, at $500 cash for the trip. perhaps 100km into the western desert, and burned out cars appear by the roadside. A scorched Ferrari said to have belonged to Uday Hussein, missiled to oblivion as one of his lieutenants tried to escape. Saddam's majestic 6-lane highway from Jordan to Baghdad, probably better than any U.S. desert interstate, marked by scores of burn marks. A highway overpass with a gaping hole caused by a bomb, which we are told was aimed at a passenger bus. A few hundred yards later, the bus itself, utterly destroyed, the only visual comparison to one suicide-bombed in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
A highway rest stop sells water and chocolate bars. Truck drivers stand in 110-degree heat working on their huge, super-heavy-duty overland trucks, which are late 60s models but look like they were (and may have been) just built brand new at some Iranian factory that hasn't been retooled in 35 years. Among the buildings at the rest stop is a pile of rubble, next to it the twisted frames of a tractor-trailer and a Chevy van. We're told the first death of the war took place here, a Jordanian truck driver who was talking on his satellite phone at the wrong rest stop at the wrong time. One of our driver's friends said he had his Suburban shot up by the U.S., and they paid him and his passenger $8,000 to keep quiet about it.
There is heavy truck traffic on the Baghdad-Amman highway. The trucks headed to Baghdad are loaded with supplies, food, and a good number of used cars. The trucks headed to Amman are almost universally empty, as if Iraq has nothing worth exporting except the oil that barely flows.
Miles and miles of downed high-voltage power lines. Cable tower after cable tower broken in exactly the same place. Too precise for airplanes or copters. Special forces or somebody must have systematically placed explosives on all of them. Is this why the lights are out in Baghdad? I don't know.
We cross the Euphrates into Ramadi and Fallujah, where everyone says the highway is beset by Bedouin bandits. Our local drivers definitely fear this stretch, although the bandits don't have a reputation for violence; they just pull guns and demand money. The white GMCs speed up and drive in a convoy for safety. Along this stretch (and at earlier points when they got nervous) they form into a tight defensive driving formation, a squadron of heavy-duty SUVs doing 150 kmh all together. The driver next to us flashes his .45-caliber pistol and a smile to make us (and himself) feel safer.
And then it's the outskirts of Baghdad. Increasingly frequent U.S. Army convoys of Humvees, fuel trucks, heavy trucks with .50-caliber machine guns, and even some street sweepers, which will seem in retrospect futile when we see the condition of the city. Our driver asks me not to photograph the soldiers, because they are "crazy" and he doesn't want me to get us all shot.
The guardrails in the middle of the divided highway have frequently been flattened by us tanks, done to create places for them to make U-turns without exiting the superhighway. Sometimes the guardrails have been pulled out across a full lane of traffic, very dangerous when everyone is traveling at high speed to avoid the bandits.
We pass a huge, terrifying Saddam prison, buildings all sand-colored and surrounded by a tall wall topped with numerous machine gun nests.
As we enter the city itself, it is total chaos. Nothing could have prepared us for this. No traffic lights working anywhere. Traffic going both ways on all one-way streets. Horse carts, motorcycles, SUVs, tanks, Humvees, and pedestrians. Hundreds and hundreds of men lined up in the sun, using newspaper hats and umbrellas, to apply for jobs in the new Iraqi army, whatever that means.
Baghdad is barely smaller than New York, with few tall buildings, meaning lots of sprawl. It's huge. And everywhere there are piles of rubble and bricks. Buildings that have been bombed, shelled, or burned by looters. Huge buildings blackened and broken in every direction. The fairgrounds demolished, and the telephone exchange. Everywhere. Thousands of people going every way on the streets. And smoke. Some buildings are still burning. Trash is burning all over. Every hotel and lots of people have diesel generators, since the U.S. can't seem to get the electricity on. And lots of cars with dirty exhaust.
We get reports that many more us soldiers are dying than the Pentagon admits. Perhaps 5 a day. One of my traveling companions sees four guys drive past our hotel brandishing a gun. Shortly after, the soldiers show up in their Bradley Fighting Vehicle and do a sweep of the neighborhood. Darryl Gates couldn't have dreamed of this kind of aggressive policing. Everyone says to make sure not to dress anything like a GI, and never to talk to soldiers on the street. I don't know whether I'd less want to be an Iraqi civilian or an American Soldier.
Our sort-of air-conditioned hotel suite is $35 a night. Our balcony looks down on a parking lot filled with identical UN vehicles. The streets are full of desperately poor people. They have that look in their eyes. There is nothing for them to do in their own society. A lot of these people probably have university degrees.
We dine at the al-Hamra across the street, the finest hotel in the city since the U.S. shelled the Palestine. A steak is US$5. The generator, and the lights, cut out once during dinner, but nobody seems to notice. Four Australian special forces-looking guys escort some kind of Aussie officials to a table near us, leaving their rifles on the floor of the dining room as they drink Diet Pepsis and wait for their wards to eat. A civilian-looking white guy stands in the lobby with a folding-stock Kalashnikov casually hanging over his shoulder.
And, finally, the sun. I think I can deal with the 115 (or more) degree heat, but the sun is piercing through the dry air. I'm OK, but 20 minutes of it makes me somewhat sunburned. I've never felt anything like it. It adds so much tension to the air.
George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair and Dick Cheney are insane. I don't know what they think they are doing here, but if it involves order and sanity they have failed miserably and indefinitely. It's obvious enough from the newspaper accounts but you have to see it for yourself. They have caused a catastrophe here. The events of the past year have moved so quickly we tend to forget about the effect of 12 years of economic sanctions. "The price is worth it?" I don't know what they're going to do, and the masters of war themselves must be terrified.
We're OK for now. We'll probably be here about nine days. Have lots of good contacts for information and guidance. There is a 24-hour Internet cafe across the street. $3 an hour and very slow, but it works. No phones except satellite phones, which everyone in the Middle East calls by the brand name "Thuraya." All the self-important international journalists have them. We don't.
That's it for now. I've been up for 37 hours straight, and I'm going to bed.
Scott Fleming
Dispatch From Baghdad, Part II
Here is the second of my friend Scott Fleming's dispatches from Baghdad:
Thursday, 7 August
We spent the better part of this afternoon in the middle of a firefight. We left our hotel at around 1 pm, headed for the Jordanian embassy, which was hit by a car bomb early this morning. As we drove out, we saw a tall column of thick black smoke rising straight up into the windless sky just a mile or two away. We told our driver to turn around and we sped to the scene. We were the first journalists there.
We found the smoke coming from the flattened skeleton of a U.S. Humvee, burning pathetically in the street. There were two other vehicles in the convoy, another Humvee and a 2-1/2-ton truck. The soldiers in those vehicles were taking cover behind their rides and waiting for reinforcements. We hustled up just behind them and took cover on the sidewalk. An al-Jazeera cameraman and a couple of others came in behind us.
The assault took place on al-Karada street, which has a lot of shops selling electronic equipment such as refrigerators and air conditioners. We later learned that U.S. troops, to their misfortune, are fond of stopping their patrols there and going shopping for porn DVDs sold by street vendors.
As we laid on the sidewalk, all the ammo in the burning Humvee exploded. It sounded like a very intense 30-second gunfight. When it stopped, we ran across the street and took refuge in an air-conditioner shop. The proprietors offered us water and some cement columns to stand behind.
All the while the U.S. soldiers, perhaps 6 of them, were standing by their vehicles. A good sniper could have hit any of them, and their vehicles would have been easy targets for anyone with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), which are abundant in this city. For awhile, however, there was no shooting.
After a while, the reinforcements showed up. Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the 1st Armored Division and infantry from, I believe, the 101st Airborne. The U.S. decided that the perpetrators of the attack were holed up in a 3-story building housing, apparently, a number of electronics shops and offices. We were about 150 meters back from the building, and the formerly barren street was quickly filled with soldiers ahead and behind us. A local guy told us 150 people worked in the building.
The Bradleys unleashed their 25mm cannons on the building. Simultaneously, there was a lot of M16 and possibly .50-caliber fire targeted on the building. The Bradleys were firing, we confirmed later, high explosive rounds, not the depleted uranium they are notorious for. These guns, cannons essentially, are really fucking loud. If they're aimed at you, the sound alone must be terrifying. As they hit the building, flashes of light and clouds of dust rose out of the walls. I thought the building was going to go down, but it didn't. After a number of these volleys, the stone building caught fire and increasingly large flames shot up the sides.
As these assaults took place, foot soldiers advanced on the building. I could not see what they were doing, but I assume they used the cannons as cover fire to enter and sweep the building. There was some, but not a lot, of return fire, and we could hear what were probably Kalashnikov bullets whizzing down the street in front of us. I tried to stand behind good cover while still taking as many pictures as possible. Our cameraman, Garrett, and our translator/guide, a 25-year-old kid who was once drafted into Saddam's Fedayeen against his will, took great risk to advance upon the scene and film.
A good while after these assaults, and well after the building caught fire, several groups of civilians, looking absolutely terrified, ran from the building with their hands up. I would estimate there were at least 30 of them, and I have no idea how many didn't make it out.
At a certain point, the Americans seemed to decide that the situation was over and it all just petered out. I don't know about casualties. We saw one American soldier evacuated, and we heard his leg had been shot. The U.S. delayed his evacuation so that they could line up Bradleys in front of the photojournalists to prevent pictures from being taken of him. I hear the Americans don't even want to talk about the situation, and won't admit to any casualties. [Anita: Actually, the U.S. media is reporting one dead, one injured U.S. soldier.]
A young Iraqi guy who worked in the building was standing next to me on the sidewalk, and he broke down crying. I put my arm around him while he composed himself, and then he went off to try to fight the fire.
The driver of one of the Bradleys asked me to grab him a soft drink out of an abandoned sidewalk stand. It didn't seem like a good time to argue that stealing sodas was bad for winning hearts and minds, so I took out a drink, vainly looked for someone to pay, and gave it to the soldier. I asked him whether the Americans had been firing depleted uranium, but he didn't know what that was (even though it is the primary weapon of the vehicle he was driving). He told me to ask the gunner, who said they had been firing high explosive rounds, which comported with my observations, and the situation (DU would probably not be used to blow up a building).
As we left the scene, an old shopowner told us that he knew this was going happen at some point. The Americans it seemed, were always stopping here to buy porn DVDs, which they take back to their bases to watch on laptops. Even though Muslims don't like this, poverty is so bad that there is always someone willing to make the sale. These discs are sold in the open in front of women and children, and it makes the locals very angry. Whatever the propriety of porn, or Muslim conceptions of women and sex, I can't believe the Americans would be stupid enough to do this. Or maybe I can believe it.
We left, and returned to the scene a couple hours later. The Americans were gone (probably a good idea for their own self-preservation), and they had taken the Humvee skeleton with them. A big crowd was milling about, uniformly happy about the U.S. casualties and angry about the attack on their neighborhood. I don't understand Arabic, but I heard a lot of people, especially kids, enthusiastically saying, "Saddam."
Lots of young people were dancing on the ashen hole in the ground where the Humvee had been, and many young kids wanted me to take their picture holding pieces of U.S. debris. The word on the street was that someone had planted a remote-controlled bomb in the dirt in the median strip of the road, in a place the Americans routinely stopped. One man said the Humvee's gunner, standing out of the vehicle,s roof, had been cut in half, and the driver, standing nearby, had been vaporized. We also heard, variously, that two to four Iraqi civilians had been killed. I've never been to a place as rife with improbable rumors as Baghdad, so I have no idea whether any of this was true. I doubt however, that anyone would have detonated a bomb underneath an unoccupied Humvee.
Up to now, the Iraqis I have met on the street have been uniformly friendly and inviting. Here, it was different. People were angry, and we didn't belong here. Many people smiled and greeted us with "salaam" (peace), but others had angry looks on their faces and I wanted to get out of there. After one of my traveling companions finished talking to the people who lived next door to the building the US attacked (they said they hid in the basement and were angry that their house had been damaged), we took off. I will say that my guess is that if there had been large civilian casualties today, people would have been much angrier than they were, so perhaps it wasn't as bad as one might fear.
The past couple days had been pretty quiet in Baghdad, and the US, I think, was about to start talking about trends towards order. Today, with the Jordanian embassy bombing (there are rumors circulating that the Jordanians sent ambulances and surgeons to pick up their consul, who lost a leg or two, but I don't know if they're true) and the firefight, things aren't looking so good. We started the day by attending a demonstration by the unemployed workers, union, a front for the Workers' Communist Party (Trotskyists), but some of the only people doing secular organizing in the city. The group, about 150 strong, sat down in the street and blocked the entrance to the Republican Palace, the U.S. headquarters. The U.S. just ignored them until it petered out. Paul Bremer was supposed to give a press briefing today but it was, coincidentally, cancelled.
Tomorrow we're "embedding" with the Florida National Guard. After today, we're not too interested in riding around in Humvees, so we'll probably just hang out behind the wire and see what the troops have to say. We'll try to be careful.
Scott Fleming
Date posted: Aug 7, 2003




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