On Assignment in Iraq, for a Month of Mayhem

On Assignment in Iraq, for a Month of Mayhem

BAGHDAD ~ Arriving back in Baghdad in many ways feels like returning to a second home. Which I’m not sure is a healthy sentiment – Baghdad has for the past four years been a place few want to call home, and most want to leave.

By Michael Holmes

On this occasion, my bosses wanted us to film extra footage, “behind the scenes” stuff, to show people how we work, give more time to showing the realities on the ground in Iraq. I cringed a little when told the documentary would be called Month of Mayhem.

It proved to be a more than apt title.

This was my eighth visit, my first being as the war wound down in 2003.

The previous seven “tours” had allowed me to witness a steady deterioration in the level of security and services – despite my hopes, it was always, always worse. And I knew this trip would likely be no different.

It really becomes a matter of how bad it’s going to be. Before leaving the airport – before leaving home, for that matter – I know there will be bodies, and there will be bombs – it was only a question of who and how many.

But still I return, as do many colleagues. Well, not so many these days – four years into this war, there is a hard core of western journalists willing to come back, willing to risk their safety, willing to live like we do, in order to continue telling the story of Iraq.  When I arrived in Baghdad in 2003, there were hundreds, possibly thousands of western reporters. Today, they number a few dozen.

As it turned out, this visit would see one of the bloodiest periods since the war began.

The road from the airport to CNN’s bureau is a familiar one, a road I’ve traveled many, many times. But I’m a little ashamed to admit I can’t tell you its real name. To me, and most other Westerners, it’s either Route Irish (the military’s name for the road) or simply “The BIAP road” (Baghdad International Airport).

This time our security staff told me we’d probably encounter worse-than-normal traffic (traffic in Baghdad is always “bad”) because of a firefight. Turns out it was more than “just” a firefight.

Within 10 minutes of reaching the bureau, I was live on air reporting on the Battle for Haifa Street, as US and Iraqi forces battled Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda elements not more than a mile or so from our office.

All day, the air was rent by the sounds of small-arms fire, heavy-caliber machinegun fire and missiles fired from the Apache helicopters that swooped low over our heads.

CNN’s Arwa Damon was much closer. Embedded with a Stryker Unit, she’d found herself smack in the middle of the nine-hour battle, having already been awake for 24 hours. As always, she reported with great skill and calm. So much calm that our cameraman later reported she took naps between calling in to report live. Napping while the bullets flew around. But that’s Arwa for you.

Arwa being in town ended up being a boon for me – it allowed me to largely escape the routine of “liveshots” from the bureau and embed with the military for much longer than usually possible on a five-week assignment.

Embedding with the military has become the safest way of reporting, not just on the war, but on Iraqi civilians. It’s about the only way we can safely meet with ordinary residents, talk to them on and off camera and get first-hand accounts of the awful tribulations they endure.

This was a month of massive bombs at universities and market places, of more and more bodies dumped in the streets, hands bound and shot after being tortured in almost inconceivable ways, including the use of electric drills.

It was a month when what the US called its “troop surge” began, when the “Baghdad Security Plan” got underway, when the first Joint Security Stations were being set up.

We traveled to the heart of Adhamiya, to a US outpost in the middle of one of the city’s most dangerous areas. We went with a local sheik on the streets of a Shia district to witness the ritual of Ashoura, as men hit their heads with swords and blood streamed down their faces as they honored the Imam Hussein and shared his pain.

The severity of the security situation is well illustrated by the embed in Adhamia, an area about six miles from our bureau, but considered by our security advisors too dangerous to drive. Roadside bombs and ambushes are common.

So, to reach the unit, we drove a mile into the Green Zone, waited a couple of hours to hitch a ride on a US Blackhawk helicopter to Taji, about 40 kilometers north, waited several more hours and joined an armored military convoy that was heading to Adhamiya.

A journey that could – should – have taken maybe 20 minutes instead took about seven hours.

Each time I return there seems to be a new “worry” among the troops. This time it was the increased sniper activity and the growing threat of EFPs, or explosively formed projectiles.

These are savage weapons … “shaped” charges that fire out a ball of molten copper, or similar metal.  Regular IEDs were described to me by one soldier as “like a shotgun blast.”

“EFPs are like an amour-piercing bullet aimed at your head,” he said.

I met another soldier who’d been “blown up,” as he put it, four times, by IEDs, and wounded three.  It was his first day back after his latest medical leave, and he was the driver in my humvee. Dark humor about his “bomb magnet” status flew around the vehicle.

Another soldier told me about an EFP that hit a humvee he was driving. It went through the right rear window of the vehicle, decapitated the soldier sitting there, took the legs off the gunner in the middle, took the head off the soldier in the left rear seat and continued out the window.

And this happened to an “up-armored” Humvee.

I met Iraqis forced from their normal, comfortable lives by the sectarian bloodletting and now living in fetid, sewage flooded “camps for internally displaced people.” It’s a fancy name for a disgusting garbage dump that is now home to dozens of families.

I met a local arms dealer who says he sells only so people (in his sect) can “defend themselves,” although his inventory included Rocket-Propelled Grenades, heavy machine guns and mortars. Hardly “defensive” weapons.

I drank tea with families as US troops searched their houses and questioned their men. Iraqis, like most Arabs, are hospitable people, even when soldiers are going through their bedrooms looking for contraband.

During that month, we laughed in our bureau – you have to laugh – we had a party or two with our competitors inside our compound, we flew in helicopters, drove in Strykers and Humvees and Bradley’s. And we saw incredible suffering and loss.

I left feeling that some positive things were being put into effect. And a stronger feeling that most of those things were about two or three years too late.

I’ll go back, later this year. Because I need to. Because I feel honored in many ways to, as a journalist, have the opportunity to cover this story up close. Because, like most of us who come – many for much longer periods than I do – care.

Michael Holmes is a CNN anchor and correspondent.

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