Ten Years Later
You do not sleep well, the night that someone almost kills you.
It had been a perfect day: sunny, blue sky. We, my translator and a driver, had gone from Kirkuk across the northern part of the Sunni triangle to the Tigris River where Saddam Hussein had a palace complex. It was April 2003, a few days after the end of the war.
At the time, there was a wonderful holiday feeling drifting across the country. We drove through Hawija, a town a few miles west of Kirkuk. A week before, Saddam loyalists had stopped an invading Kurdish Peshmerga force on the outskirts of the town. But on that day, there was no sign of hostility towards a westerner, just jokes and smiles.
We drove the eighty-miles to Hussein’s palace. It was an Eagle’s Lair of a complex. A series of palaces built on the side of the hills. Now each of the buildings had been pierced with a single missile strike. The road torn up with cluster bombs. In an Olympic-size swimming pool, where Hussein loyalists had swum, a local shepherd was now watering his flock of sheep.
Gangs of organized looters were systematically attacking the palaces and ripping out anything of value, down to the copper wires in the walls. A few individual looters stopped and chatted. For the most part, we were ignored.
We drove up past more ruined palaces to the top of the hill. There was an American military outpost. This is when we were almost killed.
Our driver was an idiot. He stopped and started the car in front of the road up to the American base. We shouted at him, but he thought it was a big joke.
We got out of the car.
There was silence.
Then my translator and I started walking up the road, into the silence.
The main thing, I remember, about 2003 is the essential decency of many Iraqis. A Christian Church in downtown Baghdad. An evening service, April 2003. The place was full. Iraq had a large, historic Christian community numbering almost a million people. Everyone there was very kind. I asked one man, “I wonder how many Ba’athists there are here?” The Ba’ath party had been Saddam Hussein’s party.
He looked at me strangely. “Actually, almost all of us are Ba’athists.”
A woman hurried over. She had heard that I was a Canadian. She was worried. Her sister lived in Toronto, she knew that there had been an outbreak of the SARS virus there, and she wanted to know if her sister’s family would be safe.
We were a few blocks from bombed out buildings in Baghdad, but she was worried about her sister and other Canadians.
It was the same at the Kirkuk Headquarters of the North Oil Company. Kirkuk is one of the great oil centres of the world. The North Oil Company had the monopoly on all extraction in the area. The Americans had searched senior management for someone – anyone – not connected with the Ba’athists. It was like trying to find a businessman who is not a member of the Kiwanis or Rotarians in small-town Ontario.
Under Saddam Hussein, the Ba’ath party had a violent, abusive wing, but most rich, secular Iraqis were members of the Party. They had found one fellow had not been a member. He seemed intelligent and kind. When I first met him, a Norwegian journalist was showing how macho he was by being rude to him. Invasions are like that – foreigners get to come in and patronize you in your own office.
The streets of Iraq were a kaleidoscope of the very decent and the very awful. There were the injured and dead in the hospitals; the flattened piles of tanks at the side of the highway; the tangled, pummeled wrecks of former government buildings. The one exception was the Oil Ministry. The Americans had not bombed it. There was a thin khaki line of soldiers around it. The Americans did not guard the National Museum or the hospitals, but they did guard the Oil Ministry building.
However, there was also a giddy sense of optimism in Iraq. Groups of children would run to the American soldiers, looking for candy. An older man came up, shook my hand, kissed my cheeks and thanked me for getting rid of Saddam. I told him I was a Canadian, but he did not seem to understand the difference. All he cared about was that Saddam Hussein was gone and he danced a little jig of joy.
All that optimism and delirium was gone in one short year of mismanagement and corruption. In 2004, I returned to see the fear in the eyes of the Iraqis. I spent weeks sitting with my back to the wall.
It had begun on a day in May 2003, when Paul Bremer, the head of the American occupation announced that both the Iraqi Army and the Ba’ath Party were being disbanded. After the news, the streets had no division between optimism and devastation. There was only a skin-crawling tension. It was one long, tense night that gave way to years of incompetency and corruption.
We walked twenty metres up the silent road towards the base. Suddenly a group of American soldiers stood up and started screaming at us. We had an almost walked into a full ambush.
A young man, seemingly barely out of high school, was behind a machine gun on a bipod. There were tears of fury running down his cheeks. “You idiots! I had you in my sights. I was going to pull the trigger. You would have been dead.” His mind struggled with the realization of killing us.
My translator (who had fought in the Iran-Iraq War) was completely calm. We spoke to the soldiers. We drove back to Kirkuk. I went to bed. Then the force of what had happened that day hit me like walking into a wall. My skin crawled with the memory. I did not sleep at all.
The next morning over an Arabic coffee, I excused myself to the translator. He looked at me and said, “No problem. I went to bed last night, but I did not get any sleep either.”
Those memories still remain. On bad nights, I lie awake thinking of what has happened to Iraq since the invasion: the millions of refugees, the Christian community in Baghdad now almost extinguished. All the cosy deals given to friendly oil companies. I remember my Iraqi friends and I wonder what happened to the decent people that I met. I even wonder what happened to the soldier who was going to kill me.