‘Why are we here?’ A diary of shock and awe on the Iraq War frontline
‘Shock and Awe’ – March 20, 2003
If waiting on war is bad enough, its arrival is always a moment of mixed emotions.
“US planes are attacking Baghdad,” shouted the young Kurdish peshmerga fighter, grinning wildly in the half light as he stumbled into the room waking his sleeping comrades and journalists sprawled out on the floor where we had spent a damp and miserable night seeing out George W Bush’s deadline for war in Iraq.
“Do you think the Iraq army will now start shelling us here?” the young Kurd asked almost immediately, his initial euphoria melting before our eyes.
There it was: the two faces of war. One minute, the gung-ho warrior’s anticipation of a fight then, next, the harsh realisation of just what that means.
The chain reaction has begun. The war is barely a few hours old, but all the familiar tell-tale signs of lives being uprooted or pushed into the abyss are already bearing down. I see it in the children being bundled into the back of a lorry, wet, hungry and afraid. I see it in the eyes of a heavily pregnant woman, weeping after walking for hours alongside her tiny daughter and husband, all traumatised by what they witnessed and left behind and what now lies ahead.
War has many faces and guises. It means market touts here in northern Iraq selling plastic sheeting and out-of-date gas masks at exorbitant prices to terrified Kurds seeking futile protection against rocket and chemical attacks.
It means an old man trying to reassure his wife that they won’t be left behind in escaping the bombardment. She cries, while he fumbles in a puddle for the screws he dropped in a nervous panic while trying to attach the car roof-rack that will carry a mere handful of his family’s lifetime belongings to a place of safety.
Stand on the roadsides leading out of Iraqi cities and towns such as Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul, and what you hear is not the hell-bent ring of “regime change”, but the pleas of innocent people caught up in a military onslaught beyond their comprehension. “Shock and Awe the US military commanders call it and there is certainly no shortage of shock.
My first days on the frontline accompanying Kurdish fighters supported by US Special Forces see us time and again being pinned down.
“Fall back, fall back,” screamed one American officer throwing himself behind a mound of dirt next to myself and a photographer colleague. The soldier let loose a burst of fire at the Iraqi Army positions ahead of us but instead of falling back we continue to advance towards Kirkuk.
We drive into the city through the acrid smoke belching in clouds from the nearby wells on Iraq’s largest and oldest oilfields. The whole place is one mass frenzy of looting and shooting that keep the nerves on edge. There is no telling if among the countless groups of armed men in civilian clothes roaming the streets there are any Iraqi Republican Guard or Fedayeen diehards. And this is only the beginning.
Above, David Pratt standing in central Kirkuk after its liberation with the statue of Saddam Hussein about to be pulled down
Inside the ‘Sunni Triangle’ – January 2005
There was no warning. Just an enormous bang that momentarily changed the air pressure around us as the car was blown to smithereens, and the glass from the windows flew into the room of the building where we were standing 50 yards away.
As we dashed outside on to the street, all around us passers-by screamed or cowered as Iraqi soldiers and American gunners, on top of their armoured Humvees, fired heavy 50 calibre machine guns at another suspicious vehicle approaching the provincial government building where we had gathered.
“Look there mister,” insisted an elderly Iraqi man, his quivering hand pointing at a mangled torso on the ground. The body’s severed head and limbs lay scattered around the street and pavement, along with small pieces of burning rubber and charred metal. It was all that was left of the car and its driver.
Nearby, in another scorched pick-up truck, four Iraqi policemen whose vehicle had been rammed, lay torn and bleeding from shrapnel wounds caused by the blast. “Welcome to Baquba and the Sunni Triangle,” an American soldier said wryly coming up alongside me. “Not much left of the bad guy, eh?” he pointed out casually, before strolling off while wiping the dust from his wraparound sunglasses.
What had been billed as a pre-election Peace Day gathering of local leaders and US military officials in Baquba, had just been about to start when the suicide car bomber struck.
This was meant to be Iraq’s first free election since the invasion but hopeful anticipation of this exercise in democracy is tempered by an ever-present dread of the bombers and gunmen.
At night, on what is known as FOBs (Forward Operation Bases), flares light up the chill night sky, alongside the arc of mortar fire aimed at ensuring “terrain denial” to the insurgents. Inside the FOBs ringed by razor wire, concrete and bomb-proof cladding, US soldiers eat mashed potatoes and corn dogs cooked by Bangladeshi contractors while watching Fox News or CNN in hangar-sized “chow halls”.
Iraq is cold and wet at this time of year and outside the US troops accommodation trailers and tents, their Humvee vehicles and Abrams tanks sit in ankle-deep mud being revved up for the next mission out beyond the wire into the heart of Baquba.
“This is RPG (rocket propelled grenade) alley,” Sergeant Tom Martinez of the 3rd Brigade 1st Infantry Division tells me as we make our way across the city in a heavily armed convoy to deliver ballots for the election.
When not waiting for RPGs or Kalashnikov fire to come hurtling out from adjacent buildings or undergrowth, there is the ever-present threat of the suicide car bombers.
“Sometimes you notice the car sagging from the weight, or badly patched-up holes in the bodywork that have been filled with explosives,” explained Martinez, continuing a running commentary that had me breathing a sigh of relief every time a dilapidated slow-moving car passed our convoy on a quiet street.
Armed forces in Iraq
Badlands of Baghdad – May 2007
When Sergeant Lucas T White was blown up, his buddies reckoned that the heat from the blast was way off the usual scale.
“I’m telling you man, it’s the way they make them,” one of the soldiers tells me as we crouch behind the cover of a garden wall, hopefully out of harm’s way from insurgent sniper fire.
The young infantryman is tall and gangly, but the nametag sewn onto his fatigues – rather ironically identifies him as Private Little. It’s early morning and we are in a rainy street in Baghdad’s Mansour district during a “shakedown” operation looking for guns, bombs and “bad guys”.
Pte Little is drawing heavily on a Lucky Strike, and from somewhere in the distance there is that distinctive flat pop-pop-pop sound that any in country veteran infantryman recognises as the sound of Kalashnikov fire.
“A f***ing EFP man,” Little continues, describing how the explosive-formed projectile – the deadliest of roadside bombs – blasted into Sgt Lucas’s Stryker armoured vehicle.
“Motherf***ing thing looks just like some big copper ashtray but heats up on detonation and goes straight through the armour like a hot knife through butter. There’s tanks been hit by them that’s been taken out,” Little explains.
“It blew in, hit Lucas in the side and in his face,” he continues, now in full flow. Then he pauses, as if suddenly seeing Lucas in his mind’s eye.
Sgt Lucas T White was a 28-year-old Native American, and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon. Perhaps that was where his love of the outdoor life came from.
As a kid, he is said to have been an energetic youngster who enjoyed playing with toy soldiers and digging foxholes in the wheat fields near his home. Later he developed a passion for salmon fishing, snowboarding and camping.
But all that was before he left his wife Jennifer at home in Moses Lake, Washington, in 2001 to enlist in the US army’s “war on terror.”
Then, in November last year, he and his unit were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents in a Ghazaliya street in the badlands of Baghdad, neighbourhoods so brutal and devastated they turn to black and white in your head almost the moment you leave them.
It has been six long months since Sgt Lucas died. His passing, along with the Bronze Star he has been awarded, is now remembered only by his remaining family, a white headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery, and the inscription on a bracelet Pte Little rolls up his sleeve to show me.
“He was a cool guy, a good NCO, but shit happens man,” says Little with a shrug. Little is not wrong there for here in Baghdad, shit happens with a near monotonous, if terrifying, regularity.
The translators – August 2007
I’m lying on my camp bed with headphones on and music playing loudly. When the mortars hit I don’t hear them. Only the change in air pressure and violent shaking of the locker next to me signals that the camp has come under attack.
Outside, a crowd has gathered, but it quickly disperses when news comes through that no-one has been injured.
Nearby, on an improvised flood-lit sports field, two teams of Iraqis are playing football while others beat drums and chant from the touchline.
“They call me Keane, after Roy Keane,” one of the Iraqi subs tells me.
“We’re all translators,” he says, explaining that the rival teams are made up of those Iraqi translators who have been here some time versus the recent arrivals.
Being a translator for the coalition forces is a thankless and dangerous job, and ‘Keane’ admits that often he feels very uncomfortable and embarrassed while accompanying the Americans on house searches.
“Everyone has a grudge against us translators,” he says. “The insurgents see us as collaborators, ordinary Iraqis are envious of the money we make, and to the Americans we are just more Hajis,” he laughs, using the derogatory expression many US soldiers employ when referring to Arabs.
Keane asks which unit I’m embedded with as a journalist during operations outside the wire, and I tell him the Stryker Brigade.
Just like the translators, the Strykers are unpopular with the Iraqis and the Americans alike, he informs me. Some US soldiers had even told him the unit is full of “white trash”.
“People in Baghdad especially hate the Strykers,” Keane says. “They call them the Nazi Brigade or the Dirty Brigade because of the way they behave when searching Iraqi homes and also because they never hesitate to shoot,” he confesses.
David Pratt on the frontline in Iraq shortly after the US-led invasion in 2003
Why are we here? – January 2006
“Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” was how one coalition soldier described Tal Afar to me before I left Baghdad for the journey north to this restive town of some 170,000 people, 45 miles from the Syrian border.
It’s a chill 7am start in the dark as our convoy of three Humvees, manned by the US 82nd Airborne, heads out into the desert en-route for polling stations in the Sarai district of Tal Afar.
“I am the Ayatollah of rock ‘n’ rolla,” sings the gunner of our Humvee, barely audible above the growl of the engine and the overhead helicopters.
At various intersections Bradley armoured vehicles and Abrams tanks sit around this impoverished, densely populated neighbourhood, their gun turrets pointing down the dusty streets.
I heard a story while in Tal Afar, a terrible story, told to me by a senior US Army officer. It was about a 14-year-old Iraqi boy who had been kidnapped from his family and press ganged into service by a cell of Islamic insurgents operating in one of the city’s Sunni neighbourhoods.
During questioning by the Americans after his capture, the boy told how he had been abused by the insurgents, before being given the job of holding down the legs of victims they beheaded.
Throughout the traumatic period of his detention by some of the most barbaric fighters in Iraq, the only reassurance the boy was ever given was that of promotion; that he himself would one day become an executioner and beheader. It’s a shocking account, but then Tal Afar is a place of scarcely believable brutality.
There is a cartoon drawing that does the rounds among American soldiers in Iraq and while in Tal Afar one soldier showed it to me. The drawing depicts some newly arrived American soldiers at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). Behind them the cartoonist has drawn an apocalyptic landscape of bomb-blasted buildings full of dismembered bodies littering the streets.
Sticking up from the devastation is a signpost on which is scrawled in blood-red letters the words: “Welcome to Baghdad.” All the cartoon soldiers stare at the sign except one, who, from the corner of his mouth, urgently asks his buddy the question: “If God blessed America, then why the f*** are we here?”
With every day that passes here, it strikes me that only history will be able to answer that question.
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