Iraq: Mission unaccomplished
- May 2, '13
By Andrew Arnett
Hattem came by the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman at 3 in the morning, waking me from a vague and disturbing dream. He was the fixer who arranged for me, the driver, and the SUV that would take me to Baghdad through the dangerous western Iraqi province of Al Anbar. The date was April 27, 2003, and the Iraq War was still a "hot war".
The road from Amman to Baghdad is a 520 mile (837 kilometer) stretch through barren desert, and in the weeks since the start of the war, untold numbers of journalists and travelers had been attacked, killed, and robbed by bandits patrolling that highway. It was littered with bomb craters and the burnt out husks of buses and trucks. Despite all this, it was still the safest way to reach my destination, which was the Palestine Hotel, and a rendezvous with my father, the renowned war correspondent Peter Arnett.
Four weeks earlier, on March 31, 2003, while covering the war for NBC, Peter Arnett was fired from his job for granting an interview to Iraqi television, in which he commented that America's "first war plan had failed". Initially, NBC had supported him by saying that the interview was given as a professional courtesy. After a few days however, NBC caved in to mounting right-wing pressure and subsequently pulled their support, stating: "It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV, especially at a time of war, and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview." Upon his resignation, Arnett told NBC's Today Show: " I want to apologize to the American people for clearly making a misjudgment ... but it (what I said) was what we all know about the war."
Less than 24 hours later, London's Daily Mirror newspaper hired him, with a front page headline reading "Fired by America for telling the truth ... hired by the Daily Mirror to keep on telling it." Then, shortly after that dizzying turn of events, I myself received a message from Peter Arnett, asking me if I could join him in the battlefield, with my film equipment, to help him continue covering the war. Within two weeks, I was en route to Baghdad.
The 12-hour long drive over Highway 1 was surreal enough, with the Iraqi desert resembling more the surface of Mars than anything you'd expect to find on Earth, but entering into the Baghdad city limits made me feel as if I'd just plunged into a sequel to Mad Max.
The twisted wreckage of Iraqi tanks and anti-aircraft guns presented a macabre backdrop to a city still in the grips of shell shock. We drove through neighborhoods lined with Ottoman-styled houses on streets congested with people, motorcycles, and donkey carts. There were strange vehicles cobbled together from cannibalized auto parts. A general atmosphere of lawlessness and mayhem prevailed.
The Palestine Hotel overlooks the Tigris River on its eastern bank and was situated inside a US military compound that included the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel across the street. This was the media hub for the war. As we passed through the checkpoint we entered into another world dominated by satellite dishes and the swarm of news junkies buzzing about the story of the decade.
The moment we got out of the SUV, Iraqi children descended upon us looking for handouts. I dispensed as many of the bottles of water and candy bars I had to hand, then worked my way through the makeshift bazaar that had sprung up in front of the hotel. It catered to Western media and offered everything from rugs to electronic devices to White Horse Whiskey at 20 bucks a pop.
At the start of the war, Saddam ordered all the foreign media into the Palestine. By the time of my arrival, CNN had 45 people working at the operations center located in the lobby. The Associated Press took two conference rooms down the hall. Reuters had three suites on the 15th floor. NBC, CBS, BBC, RAI and all the networks from all the countries were there.
The Palestine was itself the center of the news a few weeks prior to my arrival when, on April 8, an American tank fired a shell on the hotel, killing two Reuters journalists and wounding three others. In retrospect, the Iraq War has turned out to be the most deadliest conflict for journalists in history, with 231 reporters killed during its eight year run.
My father was staying in room 1025. I found him there and after we greeted each other he gave me a breakdown of the situation. He showed me the gas masks, and demonstrated the proper operating procedures in the eventuality of a nerve/chemical gas attack. He showed me the tablets of Atropine to be used as antidote to nerve gas. At the time we were still operating under the assumption that Saddam had and was willing to use his stockpile of noxious gases.
He explained that there had been no running water since the start of the war, and bathing was done with bottled water. Luckily, I had brought 20 cases of water in the SUV. He complemented me on my haul. Food, he explained, was also a dicey situation. The hotel restaurant was operational, but the menu was limited. We would subsist, for the time being, predominantly on army rations.
The next morning, we went to Abu Ghraib prison. Here was a unique window of opportunity. Just five months earlier, Saddam had given amnesty to the 15,000 inmates housed there, and released them into the general public. This left the prison empty. Within a matter of days, the prison would be commandeered by the US led coalition forces. This would eventually lead to further notoriety in the years to come, involving US torture of Iraqi inmates.
But on that day, April 29, 2003, the prison was empty, save for the handful of NGO workers and Iraqi people searching for evidence of their lost loved ones.
The atmosphere was eerie and foreboding, filled with the presence of evil doings of the past and those to come. We came across one room which simply had a rope hanging from the ceiling, and a trap door beneath it. How many men were killed in that place, I wouldn't want to guess.
Outside, on the grounds behind the prison, a group of Iraqis and Red Cross workers were unearthing dozens of buried bodies. These bodies were wrapped in white sheets and thrown into shallow pits. None of them were marked, and their was nothing identifying them. The stench of death and decay was thick in the air. This would turn out to be the first of hundreds of thousands of bodies found buried in mass graves throughout Iraq.
There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator, and his removal from power was a great blessing to the Iraqi people. In those early days of the war, there was a genuine optimism in the Iraqi people, at least from the ones that I encountered. The Americans were optimistic too, and two days later, on May 1, President George W Bush famously announced "mission accomplished". But 10 years later, the optimism in Iraq has all but completely evaporated, and one is left wondering what exactly has been accomplished?
Andrew Arnett is a New York-based film maker, writer, and cameraman for Time Warner Cable/ MNN. He is currently directing a documentary called WARPATH.
(Copyright 2013 Andrew Arnett)