Mosul General Teaching Hospital sits on a hill in the western sector of the Iraq city. It was April 15, 2003, four days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and when I arrived there at around 9 a.m., the hospital’s high steel gates were still closed, having been locked a few days earlier against the looters who had rampaged their way through the city. The hospital authorities had been a little late to introduce such security measures and had lost quite a large quantity of medicines and equipment. Few people were about, but the evidence of gunshot and other wounds was in the blood that lay in pools on the floor of the emergency wards. Nurses in soiled uniforms worked in darkened wards, as the electricity was constantly cutting out and fuel for the generators was starting to run low. The place felt dirty, miserable and unsafe.
On an upper floor, senior doctors and heads of department were gathered for their morning meeting. It was here, in the president’s large and airy office, that I hoped to be able to get at least part of the picture of what had happened. I had been back in Mosul [back from where?] just a couple of hours and it was clear that all authority had dissolved. There were ominous signs that the American military was horribly ill equipped to handle a city in revolt. All Iraqi troops and much of their weaponry had disappeared, and fears began bubbling under that a well-armed Ba’athist-led guerrilla movement was already taking shape here.
U.S. Marines had been in and out of the city over the past couple of days, checking on buildings to occupy as their regional headquarters, taking over the airport and bringing in jets and helicopters. Sniper fire on troops in the centre of town on April 11, the first day of Mosul’s freedom from Ba’athism, had seen the Americans jump back in their Jeeps just minutes after finally turning up and speed back to their bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. It had been an ominous taste of the violent quagmire into which the city, and the rest of the country, was about to descend, as well as a stark example of how the American military reacts to hostility—by retreating to its bunker to regroup and come out firing with both barrels. It was clear the Americans had no idea, if they ever had the will, how to win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people whose country they were now occupying.
I had followed along in the wake of a senior Marines officer as he had stomped through the looted building that had been the Mosul governor’s office on an inspection tour to assess its suitability as Occupation HQ, crunching along behind him and his entourage through the broken glass and rubble that carpeted the floor. Bored, I went back outside to where his convoy of military Jeeps were parked in a neat row outside the building, and where young Marines were standing guard with their legs planted wide and their weapons held high across their chests. A huge crowd, thousands strong and tens deep, was pressing in on a wide perimeter around the quadrangle in front of the governorate building and the intersections to the left and right where sandbags still stood
in wedding-cake stacks. The crowd was silent, the people facing the building, watching the Marines and the Jeeps, waiting for a sign of authority, for something to celebrate, for some reason to be relieved that Saddam was gone and the Americans had arrived. The atmosphere was tense, expectant, and fraught with a jangling unease.
There was a distant crack, and an American reporter standing 10 metres from me ducked. I looked at the heavily armed twenty-something soldier standing closest to the position I’d taken up behind a Jeep and by the small brick wall around the former governor’s garden. He was unperturbed and for a minute I felt reassured by his calm, reasoning that if it had been gunfire, he of all people would have known and would have ducked, too. There was another crack. I dropped down into a squat by the wall and glanced at the Marine, who glanced at me, then at the other Marines, then around at the building. We nodded at each other — it was gunfire all right. There were a couple more cracks.
I looked around for my driver Neruddin, as well as the journalists I was working with, Damien McElroy of London’s Sunday Telegraph and Aart Heering of the Rotterdam-based Algemeen Dagblad. Aart, as usual, was talking on the phone to Dutch radio, making one of the many live reports from Iraq that turned him into a household name in Holland. Damien and I started to gingerly make our way towards Neruddin who had already fired up the engine of our small four-wheel-drive Toyota.
“Come on Aart, we’re being shot at,” I called. “Aart, come on!” We ran towards the car. “Aart, we’re going. Now!” He kept talking into his satellite phone as the Marines emerged from the governorate and ran towards their own jeeps. “AART! NOW!”
“I was just saying that I had to go now because my colleagues are telling me that we’re coming under fire,” he said.
Great radio. We dived into our car, I put on the Iraqi helmet I’d picked up in the gutter outside the National Bank, and Neruddin sped us out of there, back to the safety of Irbil, in the Kurdish region, and the Dim Dim Hotel. War was not over after all.
Huge stockpiles of weaponry and ammunition that had been left in empty military barracks and in caches all over the countryside by Iraqi troops — who the Americans had wanted to believe were fleeing for their lives ahead of the all-conquering liberators — were, it was now apparent, in the hands of an enemy unknown and unseen, sinister and frightening, certainly with a specific target and maybe even with a plan. This was the day that a lone sniper on a Mosul rooftop let off a few rounds and let it be known that there was reason to be fearful, a potent portent of the utter bloody mess that the country was about to become. One war may have been “mission accomplished,” as George W. Bush was to declare from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego two weeks later [why do I think this was said in the Persian gulf, not in San Diego?], but another — perhaps even one that had been dormant for decades beneath the jackboot of the dictator — was about to be unleashed.
A few days later, when they had been shot at once more in the centre of Mosul, the Marines opened fire on the crowds of people who still gathered around them on the street. There was little else for people to do — jobs no longer existed as all offices of the government — until the war, the country’s principal employer — had been closed. Schools and colleges were closed. Shops were closed. A French colleague who was in the main square when the Marines started shooting said they had killed and wounded quite a large number of people. The American military later denied the incident had ever happened, but the French journalist had been there, she had seen it. She knew the truth.
In retaliation for the sporadic sniper attacks, the Americans sent in enormous Sikorsky helicopters over the city to swoop down on residential areas and major intersections, and hover nose-down tail-up with the blades spinning so fearsomely and deafeningly low they were chopping the trees to tabouli. Anyone walking on the streets felt he had to duck to avoid being sliced apart by the apocalyptic war machines, or blown off his feet by the force of the gigantic rotors. Tomcat jets roared off the runway of the now-occupied Mosul airport to fly sonic-boom missions across the tops of Mosul’s housing estates, low-rise apartment blocks, shuttered souks and schools, over the pulverized remains of the government buildings that had symbolized Saddam’s hold on the country — City Hall, the Mukhabarat secret service complex, Saddam’s local palaces, police and army HQs, all of which had been destroyed by the smart-bombs of the upgraded American war machine. The jets squealed through the overcast skies at glass-shattering speeds. Canny housewives threw open their windows, practicing wartime safety drills and preventing the glass from splintering in on them.
The whole city, having endured decades of dictatorship, deprivation and dread, the build-up to yet another war and the horror of sustained attack, followed by the confusion of a power vacuum and then days of anarchy and looting, was now being collectively punished for the presence within its midst of some who dared to disdain the invasion and occupation of their country by an army that was so obviously ill-prepared for what would and should happen after the fighting was over. When I asked a Marine standing guard outside the airport, Where are the engineers, the bridge-builders, the post-war planners, when are they coming? , he told me, “Dunno, Ma’am. I’m a Marine. I just kill the bad guys.”
Outside a school in central Mosul that the Americans had taken over and where they had installed a bunch of pathetic returned exiles who were sitting around smoking, wearing sheepskin jackets and rubber boots, playing at being soldiers of fortune, a Marines officer in a peaked cap had to cup his hands over my ear and shout above the din of the menacing choppers. “Show of force, Ma’am.” he said. “We do this wherever we go, Ma’am. We want them to know who is in control.”
So it was on the second floor of Mosul General Teaching Hospital, where the morning meeting of heads of department was breaking up I hoped to get some sense of the scale of the problems the Americans were facing, that one of the doctors approached me and, without shaking hands or even introducing himself, asked: “Would you like to meet my wife?”
“Yes, of course,” I said. As a foreign correspondent, I’d become accustomed to being ignored and overlooked by most of the men I came into contact with in the Middle East and Muslim countries elsewhere, like the “stans” of Central Asia. Some say it is politeness, others than it reflects their religious belief that women are inferior. At other times, I was regarded as an “honorary man,” a devise deployed by men who recognized that they were probably going to have to interact with me on terms as close to equal as they could tolerate, and the only way to avoid compromising their misogynist perspective was to pretend to themselves that I was, literally as well as figuratively, one of the boys. This meant that, by and large, I was able to function at a level of equality. There was a fundamental advantage, too, in being a woman in these situations that did put me ahead of my male colleagues in one important respect and that was my ability to meet and interact with the women in Muslim countries, for no other reason than that of being a woman. And, as I had found, this opened up the hidden half of traditional societies in a way that I couldn’t have hoped for otherwise.
He led me outside the conference room, and there, sitting in an alcove behind the door, was a petite and pale round-faced woman in a long and billowing black dress. “This is my wife,” the doctor said.
I told her my name, speaking very clearly so she could understand me through what I thought was likely to be an unfamiliar Australian accent. I asked her name.
“Pauline,” she said.
Oh, I started a little, and may have even laughed. There was something about the way she said it. She was shy, and there was nothing about her mien to suggest she wasn’t from around these parts, yet I couldn’t be too sure.
“Where are you from?” I asked her.
“Lancashire,” she said. She was definitely not from around these parts.