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Before the fall

Wendell Steavenson
7 April 2003

Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan, Monday April 7, day 19 of the war

A strange sight, while the Iraqi regime dissipates into rubble on the other side of our front line: a press conference given by three men wearing military ski-masks and sunglasses. One wore a grey suit and a grey shirt and a grey tie, another wore a green suit and a green shirt and a green tie; a third wore a smart camouflage uniform with the crossed sabres and eagle insignia of the Republican Guard on his shoulders. He was said to be a general who had walked for seventy-six hours into Kurdistan with a bullet in his shoulder. They said they were representatives of the Iraqi National Unity Assembly.

Members of the press said: who?

The translator asked them to explain themselves and three ski-mask-covered heads turned like synchronised sock puppets, to listen to him.

Members of the press tried not to giggle.

They said they had coordinated the successful uprising in Najaf with coalition troops, that they had a network of members ‘everywhere’ in Iraq.

“We use masks to avoid serious consequences for our relatives,” said the Republican Guard general, in a deep phlegm-filled growl that was blurred through the balaclava. “The regime is ready to kill. We are now part of the opposition.”

They said they had struggled and sacrificed many martyrs, they said they wanted a democratic free Iraq and they would work, and had been working with the coalition to achieve this. Members of the press probed for specifics that were not forthcoming and were bemused.

After me, nothing

The following day I met with two of them alone. Because I did not have a camera they appeared to me without their masks. One was a professor, with a kindly intelligent earnest air. The other said he was a lieutenant-colonel in the Special Republican Guard that was responsible for guarding the presidential palaces in Baghdad. He said he had left Baghdad four days before and would not tell me how he had come to Kurdistan through varying front lines nor, really, why; he said only that he had come because he thought he was about to be discovered by the regime and because the Assembly leadership had ordered him to.

He used the name Mohaned al-Douri (‘Tiger from the city of Dur’, near Tikrit) – also the home town of his near-namesake Mohammed al-Douri, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations.

He sat perfectly smooth and composed. His suit was new and without a crease, his shoes had barely been worn. He had even square teeth, a brown smooth face like a television host and wore black sunglasses despite the fact it was a gloomy day and we were meeting indoors. He wore a gold watch and on his right hand a gold ring with an apricot coloured stone. His hair was a steel helmet, his moustache thick and implacable. His air was perfectly arrogant. He occasionally reached his hand into his pocket and pulled out a packet of Marlboro Lights. He smoked holding the cigarette aloft, with his elbow on the armrest of the chair, quite deliberate, circling with the glowing tip with roving dismissive gestures.

At first he and the professor talked a lot in generalised circles about their Assembly. I tried to ask the lieutenant-colonel about himself and Baghdad.

He said he commanded 1300 men. He was a Sunni Arab, had joined the Ba’ath Party in 1980 when he was 18 and had always been a soldier, but had never fought, being posted to protection duty only. He was a career officer (certainly he had the vanity and the condescending bearing of an officer of an elite guard).

“We watched the regime from 1980 to 1988,” he told me. “We believed in the war against Iran. We thought it was a just war. It was what happened after the uprising that changed things.”

What happened?

“210,000 people were executed. They were executed between 16 March and 29 March. I saw the executions. The operation was conducted by the inner circle of the regime by ‘The Presidential Special Committee of Executions’. There are mass graves in the Baghdad district of Ranighwania and in the Babylon district of al-Mahawil.”

I asked him about his job and its responsibilities. He said he thought everything was chaotic in Baghdad and his absence would not be missed. He had access to a secret Thuraya (satellite phone) inside Baghdad and could get messages to the opposition. He had sent his family to a safer house in Baghdad. He said the coalition should have begun the war more devastatingly.

“They did not strike the vital spots, the media stations, the information centres, the communications posts; they could have destroyed the Iraqi propaganda apparatus and branches of the Ba’ath Party, then it would have finished sooner.”

What will happen to Saddam?

“Saddam has rented 300 different houses in Baghdad, in different residential neighbourhoods. He drives in taxis around the city so as not to attract attention. Or he drives in ordinary cars that are not distinctive. He disguises himself. I saw these things myself.”

How is Saddam planning to defend Baghdad? (I felt like I was debriefing him). He said he had not talked to the Americans.

“Saddam’s plan is foolish. He has divided his forces between schools, hospitals, houses, playgrounds, civilian factories. He wanted the American army to fight street by street inside Baghdad. He has said: “It must be a flood, a typhoon behind me. Because there is only me, and after me nothing.”

New regime, new performance

What about Iraq’s chemical weapons? (I felt like it was ‘everything-you-always-wanted-to-ask-Tariq-Aziz-but-were-afraid-to’).

He said that three months ago he saw olive green painted metal boxes with white cyrillic lettering being ferried throughout the city in white pick-ups and ambulances. The convoys were heavily guarded and moved during black outs. The Special Security Organisation, (the Jihaz al-Amin al-Hazi, a branch of the Amin, the interior ministry forces) under the direction of Qusay, Saddam’s younger son, was used.

What was the mood among your soldiers before you left them?

“Their morale was high but sometimes it seemed like a performance.” The officer relaxed a little, he smiled, losing some of his defensiveness. “Their confidence was somehow not inside their hearts. I could see the expression on their faces, everyone had a thousand questions about the future, what would happen.”

Small groups of junior officers asked him what he thought their fate would be and if he thought they had the force to face the Americans. “I told them their fate would be with the people. I advised them, if danger happened, to save themselves for the sake of their families.”

He said that in the two weeks before the war began he had news that sixty officers in Tikrit and Beiji had been arrested. Some were his friends and this is how he knew about it. They were given no chance to answer charges and were summarily executed.

I asked him what he felt in his heart when he saw pictures of American soldiers in Baghdad and what he thought about the civilian casualties of American bombing.

“I consider the Americans to be the rescuers of the Iraqi people,” he said. “It makes me sad to see civilians hit, but I am happy when they hit military targets. When civilians die it makes our tragedy greater but we believe we must pay for freedom. Because we believe if Saddam stays in power the price will be even higher.”

At the end of the interview, he said I was welcome to come to his home in Baghdad. I said I could not find him because I did not have his real name. He smiled and said that in three or four days, inshallah, they would be able to reveal themselves and their identities.

I believed he was who he said he was, but I had no understanding of his agenda or why he had come to Kurdistan while the Americans were at the centre of Baghdad. I had the feeling that all sorts of oddities presenting themselves as something different and wise are going to appear over the next few weeks. The manoeuvring for power in post-Saddam Iraq is already starting.

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