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BBC Two10 Days to war
Page last updated at 15:05 GMT, Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Reporting the invasion

Richard Watson
Richard Watson
BBC Newsnight

In the weeks before the Iraq war the tiny oil Kingdom of Kuwait witnessed an invasion of journalists.

Families fleeing Basra

Some 2,000 hacks booked out hotels and rented every Land Cruiser in town to engage in their own desert manoeuvres, patrolling the border lands near Iraq, searching for different angles on "the military build-up", the only story in town.

I was part of this crowd.

Time away from the desert was spent negotiating access and interviews with the small army of American and British public affairs officers who were based in a five star, beachside hotel south of Kuwait City.

These were surreal times; a meeting or two followed by fruit cocktails by the pool, perhaps a game of volleyball, and then the rush for the gas masks as sirens wailed their warning that Saddam had loosed off another missile aimed our way.

The stark "evidence" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was fresh in our minds and the threat of chemical or biological attack seemed all too real.

'Pain in the arse'

Our team had decided not to "embed" with the military but to remain free to roam around as best we could.

The word UNILATERAL was stamped on our passes; it could have read "pain in the arse" such was the attitude we encountered from some of the British and American military commanders on the ground.

Unilaterals were a danger to themselves and were annoyingly "off-message", the thinking went.

We thought it was a badge of honour but with hindsight it has to be admitted that much of the most memorable reporting came from embedded journalists who had remarkable access at the frontline.

Nevertheless we did our bit, happy to be thorns in the side.

British soldier in Basra
The Desert Rats took control in Basra in March 2003

On the 19 March we discreetly dropped-off the end of a convoy of journalists' vehicles which was being led by a sleepy Kuwaiti military escort.

We had escaped yet another "photo opportunity" to do some research of our own.

Driving off into the desert we travelled to a farm we had arranged to rent, close to the Iraqi border.

Soon we found evidence that US and British military units had already moved up into the De-Militarised Zone between Iraq and Kuwait.

We reported the invasion was imminent - hardly a ground-breaking story in the circumstances but in the incrementalism of pre-war planning it was an interesting development.

The air was thick with repressed hysteria
Richard Watson

In the days following the invasion our independence proved more useful, especially in Basra.

A crowd had gathered outside a secret police prison which had been ripped apart by coalition bombs.

Desperate hands led us through the twisted steel into the interrogation rooms.

Men crouched down, hands behind their backs, mimicking in a stress position to show us how they had been tortured.

Others came forward so we could film their scars; several pushed hair back to reveal missing ears.

British troops in Basra
British soldiers patrol the streets of Basra in May 2003

The air was thick with repressed hysteria as the crowd surged through the broken police cells.

We were swept along, feet barely touching the ground, and carried into a packed courtyard where old men were kneeling, ears pressed to the ground.

They were tapping the concrete floor slab with hammers, waiting for an answering tap from below.

They were convinced prisoners were still alive in deeper cells and urged me to put my ear to the slab.

I willed a response, but heard nothing before moving away. At this moment, I felt an overwhelming sense that the war was justified.

But of course it was weapons of mass destruction, not Saddam's cadre of expert torturers, which had been used to justify the invasion, and the WMD were proving elusive.

'Smoking gun'

In early April we based ourselves at Iraq's deep water port, Um Qasr, where we obtained exclusive access to an international team of spooks and intelligence experts from the Joint Inter-Agency Coordination Group.

Men with names like "Chief" told us how they were searching for evidence of Saddam's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The team was staffed with officers from US military intelligence, the CIA, and Britain's Secret Intelligence Service MI6.

The political pressure to find evidence of WMD was enormous and the spooks had already impounded a suspicious cargo at the docks. We were told there was clear evidence of sanctions busting but no sign of the "smoking gun".

One evening on the 11 April, one of my intelligence contacts told me engineers had unearthed something at an industrial site not far from the port.

When we arrived men in chemical, biological, nuclear "moon suits" were investigating.

We filmed this eerie scene before rushing back to edit our package for the programme.

It turned out to be another false alarm: it was a radioactive source used to detect cracks in pipes.




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