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Last Updated: Friday, 21 December 2007, 10:56 GMT
Iraq: The trauma and the mistakes
Andrew North, the departing BBC Baghdad correspondent, looks back on his time reporting from Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion.


US soldier in Nasiriya in the first days of the 2003 invasion
Nasiriya, 2003, was a sign of things to come

Deep holes from heavy calibre US rounds scarred the walls of the hospital.

Three dead Iraqi soldiers had been laid out in the remains of the morgue, their wounds still fresh.

The battle wasn't long over and marines were now going through the buildings room by room.

Some Iraqis had surrendered.

Look, they're taking off their uniforms, but keeping their gear, their ammunition, so they can keep on fighting
US marine

But as the marines moved upstairs, they realised there had been many more inside. Along the corridors and in many of the now wrecked wards, they found little heaps of military fatigues.

"Look, they're taking off their uniforms, but keeping their gear, their ammunition, so they can keep on fighting," said one marine, holding up a camouflage jacket.

They had clearly fled before the Americans got in and left behind anything that would identify them as soldiers.

It was March 2003, a few days into the invasion. I was in the small southern city of Nasiriya, travelling with the US Marines as an embedded reporter.

They had expected little resistance here. Instead, they found themselves in the midst of heavy fighting against Iraqis employing mainly guerrilla or insurgent-style tactics.

The marines were coming under fire from people in civilian clothes, who melted into the backstreets.

As well as the hospital, Iraqi fighters were using schools and other civilian buildings as cover - tactics that have since become very familiar.

Faced with the overwhelming firepower of the Americans, guerrilla tactics, trying to merge in with the local population, seemed a logical response by the Iraqis who wanted to fight the invaders.

But the commander of the Marine task force in Nasiriya in 2003 admits it wasn't something they had prepared for.

It's going to be a lesson learned for future operations - you know to have sufficient forces to hold the ground
US Gen Richard Natonski

"If you go back to the Desert Storm fight [in 1991] they used regular army formations," said Lt Gen Richard Natonski, when I met him again recently at the Pentagon in Washington.

"They did not resort to what you might call irregular warfare."

And looking back, he says he now sees the Nasiriya battles as "an indication of what was to come, not that we ever thought that that was what was going to happen".

You could say that also sums up Iraq since 2003. No-one ever thought most things were going to happen. But time after time, it has sprung surprises and shattered the expectations on which the Americans and British invasion was based.

Even when there were signs of hope - the improved turnout in the two elections, agreement on a new constitution - it never lasted.

There might be a lull, but then Iraq would find new depths of madness.

Attitudes hardened, on all sides, and the urge for revenge burned stronger.

And in the struggle for power in the new Iraq, no single group could dominate - not the foreign invaders, or even the newly powerful Shia majority, because they are divided too.

That's one reason why many Iraqis remain cautious on the changes now. They are significant - the level of violence has fallen dramatically - but peace and reconciliation still looks some way off.


So many conflicts were going on at once, it was hard to explain. There was the insurgency against the occupation and the Iraqi government, alongside the sectarian conflict, Shia against Sunni.

In the background, there were internal Shia battles, sometimes just as bloody.

Now there is Sunni against Sunni violence too, as tribes in Anbar and elsewhere fight al-Qaeda in Iraq.

And the battles were played out everywhere - even the playground. I remember a school boy telling me of the Sunni and Shia gangs that fought it out at break time each day.

The level of violence was often hard to comprehend, to put into context for the outside world.

Last year and earlier this year, the sound of gunfire, explosions, mortars, sirens would shake our bureau in Baghdad from dawn to dusk, day after day.

Outside the Baghdad morgue
Corpses came and went at the Baghdad morgue minute by minute

I remember a visit to Baghdad's main morgue last year, at the height of the sectarian killing. Corpses were arriving every few minutes. The smell was overpowering.

Coffins were going out at the same rate, held aloft by crying, bawling men, angry but exhausted tears tumbling from their faces.

An odd thought came to mind - it reminded me of a busy train station, or a bus terminal, this constant, back and forth traffic.

Except that most of the "passengers" here, the queues of people at the gates, were waiting to find a loved one, and if they found them, they'd probably find they'd been horribly mutilated before they died.

Banana boxes - they will always trigger abnormal thoughts too. How many severed heads can you get in one? Nine or 10 seems to be the maximum.

For a while, this became a favourite tactic of some of the sectarian gangs in and around Baghdad.

After torturing their victims, sectarian gangs would then chop off their heads and leave them at the roadside. Strong, double-walled banana boxes were the container of choice.

But the surprises have continued, in other ways. Anbar province, where the insurgency against the occupation first got going, was seen as the last place that would ever stabilise.

Last year, US intelligence reports described it as "lost" to the insurgents.

Instead, it was the first region to start calming down. And similar tribal rebellions against al-Qaeda, consolidated by the US troop surge, have followed in other areas.

The parallel decline in violence in Baghdad has given many Iraqis a sense of hope for the first time in years. But they're still very cautious.

We do not yet have peace in this country. This could well be just a ceasefire
Barham Saleh
Deputy PM

The recent past gives them good reason to be. And the country is still as divided as ever.

The Sunni tribes the Americans are working with in Anbar and other areas complain they are not being embraced by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

"We do not yet have peace in this country," Barham Saleh, the deputy prime minister, warned in a recent BBC interview.

"This could well be just a ceasefire," he said, and he called for renewed efforts to bring Iraq's factions together.


Yet was all the terrible bloodshed and chaos inevitable?

When I look back on the past few years, I still ask that question. Because having reported from Iraq both before and since the invasion, one thing is still clear - most Iraqis wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Even now, despite all the suffering and also the voices who say security was better under his rule, most people are still glad he's gone.

So much was lost in the early days though, when occupying American and British troops failed to stop the looting.

Much of the problem was that they hadn't fully understood that the country was now their responsibility, that this was now an occupation.

US rhetoric before the war - that American troops would simply "decapitate" the regime then hand over to the Iraqis had sunk deep among the troops I was with.

Many Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but the mood of celebration did not last.

As soon as the main fighting was over in April 2003, they were thinking of home. And just six weeks later, the Marines I was with were loading onto ships.

I remember driving into Baghdad with another unit of marines, as looters were stripping warehouses along the road. Saddam's statue had come down in Ferdous square just two days before.

The marines took in the spectacle briefly, but then turned away. It was not their concern. No-one had told them to get involved.

A few days later, I was with more marines on the edge of what is now called Sadr City, famous now as the stronghold of Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr.

I was surprised at how relaxed the troops were. They were camped out in the open. Their armoured vehicles gave them some cover, but there were large spaces in between.

But as far as they were concerned, the war was done.

One Marine had got hold of some real food - some rice and vegetables - nothing special but a welcome change after weeks of living on nothing but packed rations. I was sitting down with them to enjoy this meagre feast.

No-one was hurt, but it was a reminder - it was not over

There was a crack, then two more. It was close. Everyone dived for the ground. Hands scrambled for weapons and helmets.

Rounds were zipping around the camp now, whistling above our heads. Lines of red tracer like lasers against the night sky.

Two marines opened up where they had seen flashes. But like phantoms, the attackers had already evaporated.


No-one was hurt, but it was a reminder. It was not over. The meal now lay in sticky lumps scattered on the ground.

Again, there were some clues in Nasiriya.

When the marines finally took control, looting broke out in many areas. It wasn't on the same scale as the looting in Baghdad a week later, when the capital fell.

One morning I arrived at the main hospital to find a scene that will always live with me.

Patients, many of them in bloodied bandages, were hobbling down the driveway from the entrance. Some supporting each other, others being pushed on trolleys.

They were fleeing - from the place that was supposed to be treating them. At first, I couldn't work out was going on.

I'd been there the day before when every bed was occupied. Many were women and children with dreadful injuries. Even the corridors were being used as treatment areas - so many people had been caught by shrapnel from American bombs or in the crossfire of the fighting.

Many were badly maimed, their limbs like pieces of half butchered meat and even bandages were in short supply. Medical rubbish was piled up in the corners.

When you look at Iraq now, you have only to cry
Baghdad University academic

Some wards were now half empty. Only those who couldn't move at all, or who had no friends or relatives to come for them, remained.

"Where are the Americans?" a furious doctor demanded when he saw me, still wearing my flak jacket, helmet at my side.

Of course he thought I was one of them. Looters had burst into the hospital half an hour before.

They had threatened staff, grabbed equipment and many patients had fled in terror. Hospital vehicles outside had been set alight.

As he talked, there was more gunfire outside. Minutes later a man was wheeled in to the hospital, drenched in blood. He died soon afterwards.

The day before, marines had been guarding the area around the hospital. But they were needed elsewhere.

Gen Natonski's task force was now responsible for two large provinces. He says he ordered some troops back, but needed more: "We were stretched thin."

And looking back he says that if more troops had gone in to stabilise the country "it may have precluded the insurgency that followed later on". "It's going to be a lesson learned for future operations - you know to have sufficient forces to hold the ground."


We were filming a petrol queue one day, in a street near our office. These queues are a sight that has become almost as much a feature of Baghdad life since the invasion as the kebab stands and street-side tea shops.

Nearly five years since the invasion, the country with the world's second largest oil reserves still can't meet its own fuel needs.

Filming on the streets of Baghdad
For Iraqi colleagues, working with foreigners was a death sentence
As always, because of the risk of kidnap or attack, we didn't plan to stay long, especially as we were out in the open. We had enough shots of the queue, hundreds of cars long, snaking off into the back-streets. We were filming the piece-to-camera. The cameraman I was working with asked me to do another take.

Suddenly, our chief driver - who I will call Ali - shouted out. "That's it, time to go. It's the same guys."

We didn't need to hear any more. His tone told us all we needed to know. We were already moving towards our vehicle. As we got in, I saw the car Ali had spotted, now moving away on the other side of the road - an old dented Mercedes, three men inside.

"I saw them watching us before," he said. "And then they came back again. I think that was close." He was driving fast now.

Reporting for the BBC is always a team effort, but even more so in Iraq, with its many and constant threats. I was lucky to work with many great people there like Ali, who literally kept us all alive.


As the violence worsened, it became harder and harder for everyone working there - but for our Iraqi local staff most of all.

They live secret lives, only telling their very closest relatives what they really do. They live in constant fear that their work with foreigners will be discovered - effectively a death sentence.

I've lost count of the number of people I know who have either been killed or fled the country in the time I was based in Iraq.

"When you look at Iraq now, you have only to cry," a professor at Baghdad University said to me last year.

She had supported the US invasion and believed - after decades of Saddam's rule - life in Iraq would finally change.

There may be a possibility of change now, nearly five years later.

But to Saddam's terrible legacy has been added another five years of trauma.

Tens, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and new wounds have been opened. Whatever anyone hopes, Iraq may not be ready to heal yet.

Below are a selection of comments you sent in:

To be fair, I don't think anyone fully anticipated the degree to which chaos would take over in Iraq. Take the example mentioned in this story of the hospital being looted. Who would have thought ahead of time that a hospital would need to be under constant armed guard? I can't blame it on Bush's ignorance though. Even Dick Cheney during the first Gulf War recommended that the US not invade Baghdad and remove Saddam Hussein because of the complications and cost in money and lives that the subsequent occupation would require. I don't understand what changed between then and now.
Henry Patlan, Dallas, USA

The problems started when the Bush administration thought it could pull off an invasion on a shoestring budget. If I remember correctly Colin Powell and the military had wanted substantially more troops and was over-ruled. The poor people suffer for the politicians' arrogance.
Alistair, Glasgow Scotland

Thank you for putting yourself in danger to report this so others can hear. You and your team exhibited a great deal of bravery.
Erik Bilstrom, Portland, OR, USA

Well said Joel Teague. I was part of the biggest peacetime demonstration in London before Tony Blair led us into Iraq and everywhere people were despondent. We knew many civilians would be killed, we knew the conflict would drag on, we knew any honeymoon period with British troops wouldn't last, we knew a country dominated by one man could easily fragment if there was no UN-backed replacement...
Peter McGain, East Bergholt UK

How old is this story? Apparently, your reporter has never heard of the American troop surge of the past few months which has worked remarkably well. Things in Iraq have turned around completely. Your reporter is obviously more concerned with telling his version than the truth.
Alan Lamm, USA

This is a good reminder of what arrogance and ignorance can do when combined in high places. But there is an even more tragic side to this. Andrew says "No-one ever thought most things were going to happen." There we have to agree to differ. Millions of us knew exactly what was going to happen - and to those of us who shouted, demonstrated, marched and tried in vain to make ourselves heard, the expression "hate to say I told you so" has never been so painful.
Joel Teague, Beaconsfield, Bucks

How much worse it has been made by the US forces "losing" 175,000 weapons. Arms given to the Iraqi forces and now unaccounted for. A humanitarian disaster with 4 million refugees - twice as many as Darfur. This would be equivalent to 10 million in the UK. Mr Fayed should perhaps reconsider the ability of the intelligence services.
Dr Michael Murray, Glasgow, Scotland

And isn't it sad that just as peace, permitted by a surge in US troop levels, is breaking out, the Democrats are selfishly calling for massive withdrawals? The Neo-Con mistakes of not enough troops initially, being compounded by the Neo-liberals' reluctance to make the hard choices.
Krishna, Chennai, India

Looking back on four years reporting from Iraq

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