Epilogue: A Question of Truth

NEW YORK — After a week back, I’ve managed to get some sleep in, say “hey” to a few friends and try to take stock of the aftermath of this war. This is difficult, however, as the urban environment of New York City is so alien to the experiences of the past month that it might as well be a different planet. It doesn’t help that I’m still stepping gingerly around the East Village (residual fear of landmines), looking for sniper positions on the skyscrapers and marvelling that people aren’t all carrying AK-47s.

New York at dawn © 2002 Christopher AllbrittonNEW YORK — After a week back, I’ve managed to get some sleep in, say “hey” to a few friends, put up some picture pages (part one and part two) and try to take stock of the aftermath of this war. This is difficult, however, as the urban environment of New York City is so alien to the experiences of the past month that it might as well be a different planet. It doesn’t help that I’m still stepping gingerly around the East Village (residual fear of landmines), looking for sniper positions on the skyscrapers and marveling that people aren’t all carrying AK-47s.

But that’s nothing compared to what the Iraqi people have had to go through, and what they’re facing. To a certain degree, the same goes for the people of America who, it may be, were lied to about the reasons for this war.
According to the Independent in the U.K., the Bush White House based its case for invading Iraq on a “selective use of intelligence, exaggeration, use of sources known to be discredited and outright fabrication.” The weapons of mass destruction that were said to have posed an imminent threat to the United States and the free world have yet to be found, although Bush promises they will be. Again, the Times reported April 27:

In northern Iraq, a military chemical-analysis team said today that a cache of barrels and two mobile laboratories found near the village of Bayji were most likely not used for chemical warfare purposes, countering earlier reports from an Army officer at the site.

For New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, this is no biggie. “We do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war,” he wrote this weekend. “That skull, and the thousands more that will be unearthed, are enough for me.” He was referring to a graphic and affecting photo the Times ran on its front page on Friday. This is the same man who wrote on Feb. 19:

I am also very troubled by the way Bush officials have tried to justify this war on the grounds that Saddam is allied with Osama bin Laden or will be soon. There is simply no proof of that, and every time I hear them repeat it I think of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. You don’t take the country to war on the wings of a lie. (Emphasis added.)

Friedman wasn’t talking so much about WMD in that earlier column, but the point remains the same. In matters of starting wars, you better have the moral high ground, and you don’t get there by climbing a ladder of falsehoods.

For people wholly supportive of the war, however, the tonic of triumphalism is sweet indeed. Many are now saying “I told you so” to those of us who opposed it. A reader — I can’t find the email now — asked some months ago if I would change my mind on the war if it was proven that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. I answered that no, I wouldn’t, since I didn’t — and don’t — believe that the war was about WMD or an evil tyrant but about realpolitik plans for projecting American power into the Middle East. My response to this reader is to flip the question: “Do you still think this war was necessary since it may very well turn out that there are no WMD to be found?”

(Mind you, I’m sure the U.S. will find some cache of chemicals or a few warheads, but President Bush repeatedly invoked a clear and present danger to the survival of the United States as a justification for war. A few dozen litres of mustard gas or even VX does not strike me as justification for shredding the U.N. Charter, demolishing NATO, harming further the United States’ image abroad and increasing the risk of terrorism at home.)

Still, some very real good occurred from the toppling of Saddam. There is no doubt the future of Iraq will be much, much brighter without him. The war was prosecuted fairly well with relatively low civilian casualties, there was no urban warfare and at least some Iraqis in the Arab parts of the country cheered the U.S’s entry into Baghdad. (The Kurds were, naturally, ecstatic, but the warm welcome I received should not be taken as indicative of the mood of the country as a whole. Many, many Arabs are angry over what happened to their country and the Kurds are ready to bolt from Iraq if they get the chance.) But the aftermath of the war could be more damaging to American interests and the Iraqi people. U.S. soldiers today fired into a crowd of civilian protesters at Falluhaj, about 30 miles west of Baghdad. The director of the local hospital said 13 people were killed and 75 injured. This is the third such incident such as this, with the other two occurring in Mosul.

Trigger-happy troops, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s cavalier attitude toward the rape of a nation’s cultural history — with journalists and soldiers taking part — as well as disturbing but totally unconfirmed stories I was told by troops about atrocities committed by U.S. forces against prisoners all point to one thing: the need for a skeptical and close examination of America’s role in a post-war Iraq.

This examination is not going to come from the networks, obviously. CNN’s news head Eason Jordan, already facing criticism for the arguably morally bankrupt policy of not reporting Saddam’s thuggery in exchange for 12 years of access, revealed to Howard Kurtz on “Reliable Sources” last week that the retired military personnel used on air were all approved by the Pentagon! (L.A. Times, registration req.) “I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, ‘Here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war,'” he said. “And we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.” Cozy arrangement, there.

By and large, the television reports were uniformly awful, in my opinion, with a rah-rah patriotism that television excels at. Print reporters were better, however, with critical reports and unfiltered quotes from troops, including New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins quoting a sergeant as saying he shot an Iraqi woman because “the chick got in the way.”

This criticism is not to take away from the courage of the reporters in the field. I was a chicken and mainly stayed away from the rough stuff so I don’t include myself in that previous sentence. Twelve journalists died in this war, out of about 1,500 covering it. None of those 12 people had to be there; they chose to be there. Their motivations, I’m sure, ranged from the noble dedication to the story and the people of Iraq to the base lust for glory and a collection of war stories. Most likely it was a combination of both. I am including myself here and speaking from personal experience.

So what comes next? For Iraq, no one knows. President Bush says the U.S. will install democracy but that doesn’t include a Shi’a-led Islamic state — a wise choice, even if it does leave the United States open to hypocrisy. We’ll see to what degree democracy really does come to the new Iraq. But I know this: The American people, in whose name this war was waged, need to hold this administration’s feet to the fire. It’s obviously too late to stop this war, but we as a democratic nation still have a responsibility to make the aftermath as beneficial to the Iraqi people as possible now that it’s over. That means that corporate cronyism that seems to be the preferred method for awarding lucrative rebuilding contracts needs to be protested — loudly. Any backsliding on democratic actions or a disconnect between administration actions and rhetoric have to be combatted as vigorously possible.

The anti-war crowd would be criminally irresponsible if it just washes its hands of the matter and considers the battle to halt military action in Iraq a failed cause and moves onto the next cause celebre. And if the pro-war people think they now have a right to say, “We told you this war would go well,” they damn well also have a responsibility to hold the people they supported to their word. It’s time for them, the “winners” in the “Should we go to war or shouldn’t we?” debate, to put up or shut up.

I personally don’t plan on sitting back and letting things just happen, on letting Iraq slip from the consciousness of an easily distracted people. I’m working on a book proposal examining the three acts of this drama — build up, the war itself and its aftermath. I’ll be returning to Iraq as soon as possible to research the rebuilding and to explore those disturbing stories I heard. Most important, I’ll be keeping the voices of the Iraqi people front and center, something the mainstream media tend not to do.

Do keep in touch. Things are getting complicated — and interesting.

Some statistics on B2I
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Peak day: March 27, 2003 with 23,328 unique visitors
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Who’s reading?
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Back in USA

NEW YORK — Greetings all. I’ve returned to New York safely after a jolting car ride across Iraq and Jordan and an uneventful — if long — plane ride from Amman to NYC. This is just a short note, as people had asked to be notified. I will post a longer epilogue in the very near future as well as a previously unpublished feature.
Thanks again to everyone who read. I’ll be back soon.

A Farewell to Arms

BAGHDAD — This is the farewell note, both to Iraq and to you, the readers. Tomorrow I will drive to the Jordanian border through Baghdad and thence to Amman.

(From left) Mala Shakhi, PUK member of Parliament, Brig. Gen. Jalal Aziz, myself and Brig. Gen. Rabar Said, pose in front of the command center in Taqtaq the day before Kirkuk fell. (c) 2003 Christopher AllbrittonBAGHDAD — This is the farewell note, both to Iraq and to you, the readers. Tomorrow I will drive to the Jordanian border through Baghdad and thence to Amman.
The war here is winding down, and the long, laborious process of rebuilding has started. Much of the activity in Baghdad involves the U.S. command looking for qualified people to help get the city back on its feet. Water and power still have to be restored. A state economy now lacks the state, so people have no jobs; no one is there to pay them. Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen in Kirkuk are a hair’s breadth away from Yugoslavia-style ethnic clashes. Mosul is still savage, with little order. One reporter who returned from there yesterday described it to me as “like Mogadishu” with the city divvied up into territories for armed gangs and almost no civil authority. There are fewer than 300 American troops for a city of two million peoplel. This has gone almost completely unreported from what the journos in Arbil are hearing from editors back home. No one seems to care about Mosul, they say.
“They [the Americans] have given up on Mosul,” said one reporter, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s terrifying.” He could have been talking about his editors, too.
At the same time, other cities are calming down — at least during the day. Kirkuk sports traffic lights that work, cops in the street and a bustling street merchant community. At night, however, there is still shooting and thuggery.
All of this will settle down eventually — or explode into civil war — but the question is how long will it take? I think the violence will continue at a low throttle for months, but even that would be a welcome contrast to 35 years of Ba’ath Party systematic terror and three wars since 1980.
Whether Iraqis gets the government they deserve, however, is a different story. Their neighbors don’t wish to see a new American client state in their midst and can be expected to meddle most mischievously. Also, the fractured nature of Iraqi society, thanks the Ba’ath Party’s repression and playing one group off another will take a long time to heal. Free-wheeling democracy is not in the cards for quite a while, if ever, thanks to the majority Shia population and the ethnic divisions in the north. If elections were to be held in the next few months (not likely) they would probably bring to power a government friendly to Iran and hostile to the United States and everyone else in the region. The Kurds would walk out and demand _de facto_ — or even _de jure_ — independence. The United States can not allow this.
Still, many Iraqis are optimistic about the future. “We are happy,” said Hoshang Sadraddin, 22, a Kurd in Arbil. “We want a democratic government, a future. And for all the people in Iraq to live in peace.”
“I look for a better life in the future,” said Jasim Khidhir, 18. “I look forward to success in life, getting an education, that is my dream.”
And in Baghdad, an Arab who wouldn’t give his name smiled at me and said in halting English that he was happy that democracy had come to Iraq. The sentiment was genuine, if a little premature.
We’ll see. The Kurds I’ve talked want the United States to stay “forever” as Assan Ahmen Awla, 30, a taxi driver, told me. America is seen as the Kurds’ insurance against control by Baghdad and Arab violence. The marchers in Baghdad demanding a quick end to American occupation, he said, were incited by Ahmed Chalabi and the INC to stir up trouble against the Americans, so they will leave and the INC can seize complete control. Chalabi, obviously, isn’t popular up here. Neither are Arabs in general.
“I think forever I will chose American troops to keep us away from the Arabs,” said Taha Muhammed Hassan, 30, a fruit vendor. “We know what the Arabs will do if they have control.”
Sentiments like these, as well as threats against Kurds in Tikrit, Baghdad and the southern part of the country are ominous signs, both for a coherent country and a democratic future. Delshad wrote me to tell me his thoughts:
“The heavy heritage of more than three decades of dictatorship and oppression will need many, many years to be overcome and Iraqis to get a better understanding of what is liberation and its limits. And if the Americans keep in their current role [of] being only observers standing aside then things can’t get better!!”
Others suggest democracy isn’t that big a deal to them, that jobs are a priority rather than self-government. “We choose jobs, not democracy,” said Hemin Sultan, 28, a translator.
Given that much of the country is working at subsistence levels, even in the relatively prosperous cities of Iraqi Kurdistan, his opinions are understandable. But I worry that unless the Iraqis demand democracy for themselves the United States won’t give it to them… I believe the White House would prefer a docile Iraq to one that can say no to American interests. But of course, I’m constitutionally inclined to oppose the idea of an American empire based on commercial ties, so I do hope the Iraqis realize that real democracy — unruly, nettlesome and untidy — is in their long-term best interests.
But while the Iraqis have just started a long journey into the future, the Back-to-Iraq.com journey is coming to an end. B2I has succeeded beyond what I expected or envisioned when I began writing it in September 2002. Through the months, the site has managed to provoke, entertain and — hopefully — enlighten people. It’s garnered some attention and people have said it’s a new form of journalism and that it’s history making.
I don’t know if it’s all that, but I’m certainly flattered by the compliments and the accolades. This was journalism without a net (although it was on the Net.) I’ve stumbled a few times, almost losing my balance, but looking back over the site, I hope it was good enough.
Now I’m going home. The stories that I’d like to do require money and time that I simply no longer have. The looming ethnic conflict in northern Iraq, the role of the Turks, the treatment of women, the fate of the political prisoners and the new government’s faltering first steps are all stories that I would love to pursue, with the style and techniques I’ve developed on the site. I’d also wanted to find Salam Pax.
As for the future of B2I, I’m working on that. The site and listserv will remain up for as long as the server has power, but I’m still undecided on what to do next to push forward the concept of independent, reader-funded journalism. I will use the site and the premium email list to announce anything new, so stop in every now and then to say hello.
I do plan on returning to Iraq in a few months to check in on how things are going. Those dispatches will also be published here and on the listserv. Donors who have donated will continue get premium content and photos whenever the site is active.
A note about donations: I am no longer actively soliciting them. The mission is over — for now. Save your cash or donate it to other indy journalists. It’s important to develop this genre of journalism, and reader contributions are key. We all proved that this kind of endeavor is possible. I may be the first, but I sincerely hope I’m not the last. I believe other independent journalists will soon strike out and cover major events alongside the major media. I hope they break more stories than I did, and challenge their mainstream colleagues to keep up.
A few of those mainstreamers here — most enthusiastically from Fox News, oddly enough — think the ideals that B2I brings to the table are grand and think something like this site could be the future of the craft. They bemoan the top-down editorial control and like the idea of readers’ input in deciding what to cover.
That can wait for a bit, however. For now, I must bid you farewell. I’m disappointed and sad to do so, as I feel like I’m leaving early. The reality of a limited budget is an inconvenient fact of life, however. I hope you all don’t hold it against me.
It’s been a truly fantastic journey and I am sincerely grateful to everyone who donated, read, sent in feedback, argued on the comment boards or wished me well. While truth may be the first casualty in war, I hope I was able to save a small shard of it. But it’s hard to say. Many times since I’ve been here, listening to the claims of Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen or Assyrians, I’ve thought that there is no such thing as *Truth,* only myths that people tell their children to get them through to the next generation. History doesn’t exist here, at least not in the American sense; the past is never really past and history isn’t something that happened long ago; it’s very much alive and kicking. In this ancient place, a land of empires, gods, gardens, wars, blood and beauty, at the heart of it, you will find only stories. I hope I’ve been able to bring a few of them home to you.
Sincerely,
Christopher

Clutching for Answers in Baghdad

BAGHDAD — The streets of Baghdad are prickly with pointed questions, as residents pick at my sleeve and beg me for answers I cannot give.

“Why is there no water?”

“The river is too high and will soon flood. When will the Americans do something?”

“We need electricity and security, where is it?”

“Where are the prisoners?” asked a man who gave his name as Muhammed. “It’s a simple question. What is the answer?”

All of these are asked of me, as I pick my way through the crowd outside the Hotel Palestine in downtown Baghdad. Each time I am forced to give the same answer: “I don’t know. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

Two photographers, Jason and Juan Carlos, and I have driven down for the day. The drive in is pleasant, with the occasional T-72 Iraqi tank parked by the road, seemingly abandoned by the crews. Once we get to the outskirts of this sprawling city, however, the tanks and other military vehicles are bombed out and destroyed.

Baghdad itself, low-slung and dusty brown, is bustling with activity. A haze of dust clings to the ground, and mixes with the auto exhaust from the thousands of vehicles on the street. Icons of Saddam are mostly lacking; I’ll bet they have been removed by U.S. troops and Baghdadis. The few posters and murals that remain are largely untouched, though. Driving in, we can see the effects of the looting and the bombing damage. Buildings marked with the Ba’ath Party eight-point star show scorch marks or are partially collapsed. Much of the city seems intact, however. Even downtown, a target-rich environment, seems more or less intact. The “precision bombing” seems to have been more or less aptly named.

The occupation is not making many friends among the Iraqis, however. In marked contrast to the welcome and friendliness we always receive in the north and in Kirkuk, the looks here are guarded and even cold. We smile and wave at people in the cars next to us when the traffic grinds to a halt, but our fellow drivers look at us and don’t smile back.

There seems to be a constant demonstration going on in front of the press balcony of the hotel and as I pass, one man holds up a sign that reads, “The Americans are Lyers.” Another hands me a note in both Arabic and English that reads:

Letter to Conference, Baghdad.
Dear Leaders, USA and Iraq: We are Al Shaab Native Free Party. We wanted to [attend the] meeting in Iraq with the leaders USA and Iraq. Thanks, Best.
Saeed Alifaashmi
Leader, Al Shaab Party
16/4/2003

It seems an opposition movement to the yet-to-be-installed interim government is already taking root.

The Marines here have a tough job. The populace is angry at the lack of services — no phone, water, electricity or work — and the troops are getting increasingly aggressive in the face of mounting public anger. Everyone is on a hair-trigger. The Palestine is an armed fortress, ringed by concertina wire, about 150 troops and a dozen LAVs or so. The Marines push the Iraqis back — not always gently — as they press forward to tell their stories to a trooper, the press … someone who might listen.

At one point, a group of Iraqis began shouting at the Americans guarding the press entry point to the Palestine. The Marines began shoving the Iraqis back as they chanted louder and louder in Arabic. Then, the crowd sat down on the sidewalk. “No Saddam! No Saddam!” they yelled out. They were protesting the use of Iraqi police officers and demanded the Marines provide security instead of the organs of the old regime.

“We want the Americans to cooperate with us,” said Muhammad Abdul-Rasul, 46, an interpreter. “We need work. Who is in charge?” He then demanded “Mr. Bush” to turn on the public services within 48 hours.

The city is awash with conspiracy theories, the preferred method of analysis in the Middle East.

Ehsan Abud denied that Iraqis were the ones responsible for the looting and instead it’s the Kuwaitis coming up to take revenge for the 1990 invasion. And Arabs, not Iraqi Arabs, went into the University of Mustemsrya in Baghdad and burned all the books. And America has trained 500 Iraqis and other Arabs in the United States, parachuted them into Baghdad (nee Saddam) International and turned them loose on the city to burn and pillage.

The Marines based around the hotel declined to comment on these accusations.

The Americans are “useless” because they have been here for 10 days and they have done nothing for the city, said Abud. He said security in some neighborhoods is provided by armed volunteers guarding the streets.

There’s no doubt Baghdad is wooly at night. Marines told me they “took a guy down” last night when he was attempting to break into a media truck. Iraqis tell of the pop-pop of automatic weapons fire from all directions when the sun goes down.

The Interior Ministry is also a favorite source of rumor. This was the dreaded nexus of Saddam Hussein’s security state, and many people think there are underground prisons where loved ones who disappeared 20 years ago suffer still.

“Why don’t they dig under the Security building?” asked Ali Abid Khafaji. “Americans are guarding it and not letting the prisoners out.”

Muhammad, the man who asked about the victims of Saddam’s regime, said thousands of people are waiting to hear about their relatives and friends. Where are they? They have disappeared. “We want to know where they are,” he said. “You are the media. You can tell the world. Please, help us.”

What now for Iraq?

EN ROUTE TO BAGHDAD — Someone asked me why should I question J.’s optimism and how many Iraqis kissing me would it take for me to be convinced. There’s no question many, many Iraqis (especially the Kurds) are happy that Saddam is gone. But it’s not so simple as that.
In Tikrit, and in other places such as Mosul, a lot of people aren’t happy to see American forces — and not just because those forces have failed to provide security. The situation in the cities is volatile, and ethnic hatreds could flare into civil war without too big of a push. Already, we’ve heard reports that Kurds have begun driving Arabs out of villages around Kirkuk, reclaiming their old lands. The recklessness of the PUK and the KDP in post-Saddam Iraq could bring Turkey into the mix when the United States draws down its forces. No one knows what’s going to happen, and the initial giddy optimism I encountered is giving way to guarded anxiety about the future.
I don’t believe the United States went to war to make the Iraqis happy. It didn’t go to war to free them. The United States went to war for geopolitical self-interest (See “Why Iraq?” on B2I for a look at some of the reasons.) If the question is “Are the Iraqis happy that Saddam is gone?” the answer is undoubtedly yes — most of them, anyway. But that opens up a host of other questions that will have to be answered in time. It is much, much too early to declare the peace won and the sacrifice in blood and treasure a worthy investment in Iraq’s and the United States’ futures.
The anti-war crowd (in which I usually include myself) has often underestimated or understated the genuine good that came out of this war, i.e., the removal of a tyrant. But the pro-war crowd has equally underestimated the dangers of the aftereffects of this war: instability in the region, alienation of allies, increased risk of terrorist attacks, etc. Yes, the Iraqis are free — free to turn on their neighbors and kill them. Yes, the fear of visits from the Ba’ath Party has been removed, but now they fear armed gangs stealing their homes. This is still a nation in terror, and a stable, inclusive government is a long way off.
If the goal is establishing a representative democracy, powdered wigs and all, that’s likely to fail. Iraq in 10 years will more likely resemble authoritarian Egypt than friendly, parliamentary Canada. Would that be better than Saddam? Of course, absolutely. Is that what the Iraqis expect and deserve? Emphatically no. Would such an outcome make the region more stable and the United States safer? No one knows, and anyone — including me — who says they do is speaking from beliefs and assumptions rather than a possession of data.
I’m en route to Baghdad today (Thursday) and will file back what the situation is there.
*Technical Note*
Due to a snafu with the sendmail program on my server, two dispatches may have been missed. I believe it’s been resolved now. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Inside Saddam’s palace(s)

INSIDE SADDAM HUSSEIN’S PRESIDENTIAL COMPOUND IN TIKRIT, Iraq — The road into Tikrit today is tense, but passable. Arab clans are setting up checkpoints to make sure that Kurds dressed as peshmergas aren’t entering the city to loot. At one checkpoint, Jason, a photographer buddy from Los Angeles I’m traveling with, backed up a little quickly and we got a warning shot. Nothing serious. Once they realized we were press the gunmen smiled and let us through.

inside palace.jpgINSIDE SADDAM HUSSEIN’S PRESIDENTIAL COMPOUND IN TIKRIT, Iraq — The road into Tikrit today is tense, but passable. Arab clans are setting up checkpoints to make sure that Kurds dressed as peshmergas aren’t entering the city to loot. At one checkpoint, Jason, a photographer buddy from Los Angeles I’m traveling with, backed up a little quickly and we got a warning shot. Nothing serious. Once they realized we were press the gunmen smiled and let us through.
Inside Tikrit, at the roundabout where we came under fire yesterday, a group of Arab men were guarding the way. They were angry about possible looting and they were determined to see that what happened in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul didn’t happen here.
Zaid Ibrahim, a man at the scene, was barefoot. He said not five minutes before, a group of Kurds had stolen his car and even his shoes.
“Tell Jalal [Talabani] these are not peshmergas,” said his friend, Adil Ahmed. “They are thieves. If they come here to steal, we will kill them.” Then he smiled warmly, shook my hand and bid me welcome.
Once the Arabs realized we hadn’t come to steal their stuff, they were quite friendly. They were so friendly, in fact, that they brought me over to show me the bodies of two dead peshmergas. (WARNING: Graphic image.) They lay in a ditch where they had died. They would have looked almost peaceful except for the gaping bullet wounds and the blood.
In the distance, past the bodies, a factory of some kind burned fiercely, sending black smoke high into the sky, while the sun tried to creep through the blackness, giving the scene a post-Apocalyptic feel. Bits of glass, dust and metal crunched under our feet as we walked.
While Jason and I were shooting pictures in this Mad Max landscape, the crowd scattered, leaving us alone with the dead peshmergas. The silence was the worst. The city is deserted, and there was no sound of life. Suddenly, we heard a thump-thump and two Apaches Cobras and a Blackhawk Bell Huey chopper began to circle low over us. Jason and I held out our arms and our cameras to show the pilots and gunners we were unarmed journalists. They circled us about seven times or so, getting lower each time. We could feel the rumbling of the choppers’ engines vibrate inside our chests. They were warning us to get the hell out of there and finally, we got the message and split.
Once inside the city, we crossed the Tigris over a bomb-damaged bridge on which Marines in humvees squatted and kept the locals behind a line of concertina wire. We got into the media line and passed through while city residents, waiting to return to their homes after they had fled the American bombardment, looked on plaintively. Later in the afternoon, after the media had passed, the marines would open up the bridge and let people through to return to their homes.
After that, we drove through the mostly empty streets. The few locals we saw on the street were friendly, and waved and said hello, but we’d been advised by other journalists to be careful. Finally, we drove up to the palaces. It’s a surreal feeling to merrily tool around the sprawling Tikrit presidential compound of Saddam Hussein. We’ve explored two small homes that have been picked over by looters or the former residents. Broken glass was all that remained in the first building, but the second was less ransacked.
The tastes of the residents tended toward Louis XIV kitsch, with ornate and brocaded chairs and sofas. While I was in the second palace, I bumped into a couple of kids looting. We all started, jumpy and edgy in these empty cathedrals to Saddam’s power. When they saw I meant no harm, they smiled, said “Hello!” and went on their way. I didn’t try to stop them. One of them was munching on Sumer crackers lifted from the kitchen. Outside we could see the detritus of the U.S. military: wrappers from MREs.
One of the major palaces on the grounds was heavily damaged in bombing. The upstairs was demolished by several bombs and had collapsed into the lower floors. But we encountered incongruities in the destruction. A mosaic running up the wall of a demolished, curving marble staircase seemed untouched. A wall ornamented with polished cedar and inlaid mother of pearl panels was untouched while on the other side of the wall the room was reduced to ash and rubble.
This palace was abandoned before the war even started. There wasn’t a trace of furniture in the rooms that were mostly undamaged — no tracks in the dust left by dragged furniture, either.
We’ve hooked up for the night with the Marines’ 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, based in front of the bombed palace. I let them call home on my satellite phone and they hooked us up with a case of MREs, a couple of blankets and some water. They were hungry for news from the United States, since they’re just as cut off as the people of Kirkuk were before the peshmergas entered that city. They don’t know anything about what’s going on except that Tikrit is mostly secured, except for some minor looting in the south part of the city, which is still being bombed. At the moment, as if to emphasize the point, a huge boom filled the air. We try to fill them in on the news as best as possible, but they want to know about Syria. So do I.
Cpl. Bryon M. Hightower offered us an AK-47 but I refused. I did let him give me a knife, since he was concerned that Jason and I had no protection. We’re going to camp out here tonight, either in one of these abandoned palaces or tucked up behind their trucks and sleep in the back of the pickup that Jason rented. For tonight, we’re unofficially embedded with the the 1st LAR. It’s probably one of the safest places in the country at the moment.
*Note*
Isaac Taylor wrote in to say the missile we saw was an SA-2, a surface-to-air missile, not a surface-to-surface missile as I mistakenly thought. Thanks for the correction, Isaac!

Tense Tikrit

JUST INSIDE TIKRIT, Iraq — We’ve stopped, about 6.5 km outside the city center. In front of us, about a kilometer up, is a group of Arabs who have been shooting at people. They’re worried about Kurdish looters. Surrounding us are a mass of press SUVs. Someone has sent an Arab cameraman up to negotiate passage through. So now we’re waiting

JUST INSIDE TIKRIT, Iraq — We’ve stopped, about 6.5 km outside the city center. In front of us, about a kilometer up, is a group of Arabs who have been shooting at people. They’re worried about Kurdish looters. Surrounding us are a mass of press SUVs. Someone has sent an Arab cameraman up to negotiate passage through. So now we’re waiting.
I lost J. earlier today. He took off with Freydoon to the Syrian river crossing to head back home to America. He’s been a good friend and his inveterate optimism has been a welcome tonic to my usual cynicism. His military training also came in handy. He truly believes in the United States as a force for Good in the world, and who am I to criticize him for that? I wish him well…