Remembering Basra

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Nine years ago, I drove into Iraq one spring morning. As we leave it’s worth recalling: After all the angry commissions and self-serving memoirs, the war was always more complicated than it seemed.


So much has happened since that it’s a shock to go back and remember. The smell of confusion on that first day of the ground war, when we rose in the middle of the night and drove our rental cars from the Kuwait City airport through the blowing sands until we found an obliging British unit that didn’t mind letting a pack of anxious, unauthorized reporters into Iraq. When we found ourselves facing gunfire — not parades — and little boys throwing stones, and mines placed along the side of Highway 8, the main road to Baghdad, the one that U.S. troops were even then pounding north on.

This was during the period that President George W. Bush so memorably, and incorrectly, referred to as “major combat operations” in his ill-advised victory speech a few months later. Of course, with nine years of hindsight, it’s fair to say it was most likely the safest time for an American to be driving around southern Iraq in a rental car, Motown music blaring, accompanied only by a few friends and a single shared interpreter whose Beirut dialect of Arabic was hardly any help at all in Basra as it turned out.

We did not see what we expected. But then again, who did? Could anyone have imagined where we would be nine years later, as another president and another era finally bring to a close the chaos unleashed that night in the warm air of southern Iraq?

We drove into Basra, the downtrodden center of what Shiite resistance there had been to Saddam Hussein’s regime, soon after the British seized it, on an April morning in 2003. Angry crowds on street corners demanded water and electricity. There was no food and little celebration. All the stores were closed — except for those still being looted. Later, as we toured the city in our rented four-wheel-drives, we ran right into a mob of looters at the central bank; I was on the Thuraya satellite phone at the time, talking to NPR while my friend Ed cursed robustly.

On the way into the city we made two stops. The first was to investigate a crowd by the side of the road. It turned out to be a jail, known bitterly by its former occupants as the Jail for Adult Re-Education because it occupied the facility of a former school for adults. Saddam’s jailers had fled two days earlier, and the raucous crowd was composed mostly of bewildered, frantic prisoners, newly liberated and not quite sure what to do. Astonished to find Western journalists in their midst, they grabbed our hands and dragged us into a room they said had been used as a torture chamber.

Here is how I described it that day in the Washington Post:

Adnan Shaker pulled up his shirt to reveal dozens of scars crisscrossing his chest. He turned to show the marks of cigarette burns on his back. He waved his misshapen right hand, two fingers twisted and useless. He grabbed the electric wire attached to the ceiling in the cell where he lived until a few days ago, and demonstrated how his jailers had tied his hands behind his back when they administered the shocks.…

Two days after the southern city of Basra was seized by the British military, Shaker and other former prisoners returned to their jail on the outskirts of the city. They came to celebrate and to tell their stories to anyone who would listen. They brandished identification cards and color mug shots of those they claimed died here. Shaker pointed to a Ministry of Defense identification card for an army officer named Hilal Abbas.

“This one said ‘Death to Saddam,’ ” Shaker said. “They hanged him.”

Around him, the crowd chanted their defiance of Hussein. “Yes! Yes! Bush! Yes! Yes! Bush!” they screamed. “Saddam! No! No! No!” One man grabbed a picture of Hussein and started eating it, ripping violently with his teeth. Another man took a newspaper with a photo of Hussein and slowly tore off the head.

Our second stop was at the massive summer palace kept by Saddam Hussein in Basra, now occupied by exhausted British troops, some of whom we found lounging by the Shatt al-Arab waterway in their underwear, playing Scrabble. We spoke to a kindly major who offered us a safe bunk for the night there until he was overruled by American superiors who had decreed no help for unauthorized reporters like us. As far as they were concerned, the only way to cover the Iraq war was by following the Pentagon’s rules and embedding with their troops.

And so we found ourselves that night at the Basra Teaching Hospital, the only major facility in the city still open and functioning, though its director had abruptly left a few days earlier, when more than a dozen members of his family were mistakenly killed in an allied airstrike. We slept on the roof, alongside a British sniper team stationed there. They paid no heed to the Pentagon decree and seemed happy when we offered them cold beers we had managed to buy, though they politely turned down the Johnnie Walker scotch we offered, purchased from the same Iraqi bootlegger.

This was as much of a British presence as we were destined to see over the next few days and weeks. An occasional British tank drove by on the shabby streets as we made our rounds; once, the British came to rescue us when we were surrounded by a group of Shiite political activists who turned violent in the midst of a meeting in a Basra suburb. I often thought angrily about the American official I had spoken with before the invasion back in Kuwait, at the luxury hotel on the beach where he and the others in charge of planning the after-war had been staying. The biggest problem, he had told me, was what to do about garbage pickups in Baghdad for the few days while the situation sorted itself out. I thought about this while sitting on the Basra rooftop, listening to the crackle of gunfire from our sniper friends and wondering whether we would find food and the smugglers who would sell us gas for our cars the next day.

On our second day there, we decided to go looking for the Baathists who had been ruling the city. They had not disappeared. We found one, in air-conditioned comfort at a private hospital suddenly emptied of its paying customers. “What’s going on right now is not an ending of the Baath Party,” he lamented. “It is an ending of Iraq itself.”

Later, we went to the home of Ali Ahmad Majid Alghanim, who told us, “Saddam Hussein is not finished; the Baath Party is not finished.” Across from him sat his brother Adnan, one of Saddam’s main Basra henchmen until a few days earlier. Asked where Saddam was now, he placed his hand over his chest. “In my heart,” he told us. This family of Baathist stalwarts seemed to be under no threat of arrest or any other bother by the new British occupiers; I often wondered what had happened there later. Were they planning the insurgency in the backroom after sipping tea with the Western reporters by the front door?

And yet Saddam had been just as cruel as we had imagined him to be. In the Basra Teaching Hospital that was our safe haven, we sat down one afternoon with one of the doctors. He wept as he told us about cutting off the ears of Army deserters, part of a campaign ordered up a few years earlier. We saw crowds of men crawling like ants over the rubble at what had been the city’s main prison, looking for the rumored secret cells where they hoped to find their missing family members. At the mosque nearby, a paper was pinned to the wall: a list of 147 names that someone had dug up, names of men who had been executed years before, but whose families were only finding out now what had happened to them.

In one story, I wrote about interviews with more than two dozen men in Basra who had been tortured. I found two of them at what had been the Mother of All Battles branch office of the Baath Party, now occupied by squatters. “There’s no one who wasn’t tortured in some way in Iraq,” one of them, a man named Daud Khalaf, told me.

We saw much that only made sense later, after Fallujah and second Fallujah, after the rise of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the capture of Saddam, after all the recriminations in Washington and London, the commissions and the self-serving memoirs. But I had almost forgotten, and it is worth remembering.


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