14 March 2013 , Falkland Islands
Before the dust had even begun to settle after the events of 9/11 and the 2001 conflict in Afghanistan, I was despatched to Iraq by the Daily Telegraph to cover the final months of Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baathist regime.
Saddam announced an amnesty releasing thousands of prisoners from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison after "winning" a 100% Yes vote in a referendum, hundreds, possibly thousands of Iraq's turned up at the gates of the prison and ultimately forced their way inside the outer perimeter of the jail hoping to find their loved ones being released, it was the first sign that the regime's days were numbered .
It was a fascinating time to be in Iraq. The United Nations weapons inspectors under Hans Blix were searching in vain for evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) under the watchful gaze of not only the Iraqi Security Services but also the world’s media. Each news organisation was assigned an often comically inept government ‘minder’ who accompanied us daily on our travels around the country, keeping a watchful eye on our reporting and who we spoke to, making it difficult to get an honest opinion from anyone. We’d fill most days either following the UN inspectors in wacky races style convoys across the country to derelict former chemical weapons plants or run down military bases searching for WMD’s. These bases were more often than not guarded by soldiers whose toes poked through the holes in their well-worn slip-on shoes.
The evenings were often spent in open-air restaurants in the more affluent parts of town, at the closing down parties of the numerous embassies in town or back at the Al Rashid hotel where room 222 became “Le Club Trois Deux”. Photographers and correspondents from the world’s media would stop buy for a glass of Arak and a chat . Alcohol was government subsidised and cheap in Saddam’s Iraq. Being a Police state, Baghdad at this time was also quite safe and one could easily hitchhike back to the hotel in the early hours without fear of being mugged or killed .
As it became more apparent to the Iraqis that war was inevitable in early 2003, there developed an air of disbelief mixed with resignation. Life carried on - families went to the funfair and slaughtered sheep for the Eid festival to announce the end of the month-long Ramadan fast. But there were also mass protests against the impending Allied attack, orchestrated by the regime to coincide with the anti war protests held in London.
The day before the first “shock and awe” airstrikes on Baghdad, the Daily Telegraph correspondent David Blair and I were pulled out of the capital by our then editor, Charles Moore. I flew to Kuwait before re-entering southern Iraq through a hole in the border fence in a hire car, accompanied by journalist Peter Beaumont from the Observer and photographer Sharon Abbady. Arriving a little late in the day we covered the final days of the predominantly British battle for Basra, at night we would hunker down with other "unilateral" un-embedded journalists back towards the relative safety of the port of Um Qasr . The Italians had strapped a table to the roof of their jeep and would dine at it every evening.
Basra in the end fell with a whimper with the majority of Iraq soldiers melting away and we walked down the main street into the centre along with men from 3 Para as the inhabitants passed us laden down with looted goods.
Petrol is a problem in a war zone and although we had packed extra jerricans we too ultimately had to resort to looting ourselves and were led by some locals to a fuel dump where we syphoned off what we needed to head north to Baghdad. We drove along MSR Tampa in a 3 vehicle convoy of 4x4’s, along with our colleagues Jim LoScalzo and Peter Turnley arriving miraculously in one piece on the day the capital fell after being shot at twice by American soldiers on the road up.
The city was almost unrecognizable, the major thoroughfares and bridges being mostly blocked by American troops, especially in the government districts of the city where most journalists had been based prior to the invasion. Shops were closed, the Iraqi police had disappeared and daily there were fatal shootings of innocent civilians who failed to stop at American checkpoints.
My driver before the invasion Salah was sadly found dead in his bullet riddled car by his daughter’s days after the US Marines fought their way into the centre of the city. The scenes of jubilation in the first 24 hours following the fall of Baghdad gave way to the harsh reality of US occupation and the power vacuum that it created.
Chaos hung like a dark cloud over the city. Looting was rife, and after the palaces and other government buildings were stripped bare, the looters turned on the hospitals and other municipal facilities. Shortages of medical supplies were combined with power cuts, caused by the looting of copper wire and other materials from power stations, the power cuts also affected the water supply in a city in which temperatures can soar to 50 C.
There were heart-rending scenes at the Abu Ghraib cemetery, where families came to find the graves of loved ones who had disappeared during Saddam’s rule. Former intelligence officers had sold them the locations of the graves, marked by numbers not names.
If anyone benefited from the end of Saddam’s regime it was the Shia Muslim majority who had suffered for years especially after the 1991 uprising in Basra. Finally allowed once again to publicly display their faith, the first Ashura after the war was particularly passionate, men and boys of all ages dressed themselves in white sheets and cut open their heads in memory of the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein at the Battle of Kerbala in 680 AD.
Under the leadership of Moqtadr Al Sadr, who had lived in exile in Iran for many years, the more militant Shia began to protest against the perceived western occupation which ultimately ended in street fighting with US forces in the holy city of Najaf two years later.
Hard to believe for an oil rich country like Iraq but there were extreme petrol shortages for many months after the war and petrol queues could be many hours long. I photographed this small boy just after having his Jerri cans of benzene and cash confiscated by US soldiers for street hawking.
In the Spring of 2004 a year on from the invasion the country’s American Governor Paul Bremer announced the 100 day countdown to handover of power to the Iraqi’s in the palm tree lined gardens of the Conference Centre, punctuated by the distant thud of insurgent’s mortars. The were huge protetst on th streets organised by Moqtadr Sadr after one of the more Shia newspapers was closed on the orders of Bremer, which quickly spread across the country.
In late 2004 I began my first of what were to be many embeds, firstly with the Black Watch in an area known as the “Triangle of Death” just south of Baghdad as a blocking manoeuvre to Insurgents escaping the battle for Fallujah. The viciousness of Central Iraq came as a shock for British troops who had been accustomed to the more benign insurgency in Basra in the south of the country suffering casualties from a suicide bomb within days of arriving.
The US Marines were also operating in the area and I joined a platoon of the 24th Marine Regiment on search and destroy missions before finally heading south to work with the Welsh Guards in Al Amara, one of the tougher areas to operate in the British area of responsibility. Here I went on dawn raids to locate caches of weapons hidden by the Shia militia groups, which were often under the beds of their own children.
Embedding enabled me to see the war from another perspective, that of the young western soldier thrown into a conflict not of his making but nonetheless hoping to make a difference, or simply survive and I developed a great sense of respect for them.
The following years in Basra were fraught with danger for British forces as the insurgency matured and resupplying the military bases around the impoverished city became increasingly dangerous as the Shia militias frequently attacked their supply chain.
Chinese made rockets regularly rained down on their bases inside the city and I would often find myself donning my body armour after being woken from a deep sleep at the sound of the siren. Insurgents would also time their attacks to coincide with mealtimes hoping to catch soldiers on open ground between the cookhouse and their sleeping quarters.
In the Old State Building in central Basra I photographed soldiers from 7 platoon, Chindit Company, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, crash out fully clothed on their bunks after another tough patrol in the city.
Finally in April 2009 I documented the final days of our venture in Iraq. I watched Lnc Cpl Martin Campbell of A Coy, 5 Rifles carefully and thoughtfully fold the Company Colours at FOB Oxford on the banks of the Shat Al Arab river as the base was dismantled. I then moved on to the handover ceremony of Basra Airbase from British to American command marking an end to six years of British involvement in a war that was unpopular at home.
A deeply touching memorial service was held prior to the handover and the names were read out of the 179 service men and woman that had died since the spring of 2003. This left a lump in my throat, having witnessed the final moments of one of those servicemen and my thoughts also turned to the friends I’d made and lost during that same time. To then see their sacrifice reduced to the shaking of hands and the lowering of the 20th Armoured Brigade’s flag was difficult to see, but it would have been impossible to march through Basra in a victory parade when none had been achieved, having been hampered from the start by a lack of political will and poorly resourced.
It is common knowledge now that over 115,000 Iraqi Civilians died violent deaths during the 2003 invasion and in the following years during the occupation, even though the US publicly stated that they didn’t keep a count of Iraqi deaths, only western ones.. These statistics make it somewhat of a challenge for me to regard our foray into a country once lauded as the cradle of civilisation positively, but only the Iraqis themselves can be the final judge of that .