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Shock and awe

IN MARCH 2003 I was working for Channel 4's Dispatches series in Iraq. I went there to cover what I believed would be a turning point in the story of our times. I hoped to witness at first hand the end of the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein.

I wished to see for myself the beginning of a new and hopeful chapter in the lives of millions who had lived under the terrifying grip of the Ba'ath Party.

I also reckoned that the fall of a dictatorship that had attacked its neighbours, provoked wars, massacred its own citizens and was a major sponsor of international terrorism would be a good day's work.

Ten years ago this week I was sitting in the foyer of a dingy, fortified hotel in Sulaymaniyah, a large town in northern Iraq under Kurdish control. The place was full of men with guns waiting for a showdown.

 

Punish

Saddam's army was dug in not far away and everyone was on edge. In the 90s, tanks and truckloads of infantry had swept up the highway to take the town and punish its inhabitants for daring to resist "my master, the President". This was the term every Iraqi was told was the correct way to refer to their chilling fuhrer.

It was March 21, 2003. All eyes that fateful morning were on the television screen in the lobby. Al-Jazeera was carrying the unforgettable images of the US Air Forces' "shock and awe" bombardment of Baghdad. Saddam followed with a defiant statement from his bunker promising to turn Iraq into a graveyard for the Allied forces.

The men near me laughed with derision. Others raised their shoes and hurled insults at the deluded dictator. Inwardly they prayed this would be his last stand. But they all had experience of Saddam's capacity to inflict his own version of awe.

Nearby was the town of Halabja. In 1988, Iraqi forces used chemical weapons to subdue the town. More than 5,000 were silently killed by gas. Across the region, more than 200,000 had perished in a campaign to crush the regime's opponents. Many of these casualties had also died as a result of chemical attacks.

For weeks before the aerial assault on Baghdad, I had travelled across the region gathering testimonies of life under the Ba'ath Party. My constant companion was Mustafa Al Khadimiy, a Shia Arab from Baghdad, who had been jailed by the regime and knew firsthand its power to frighten and subdue.

With Mustafa, I met captured Iraqi officers who told me about lethal experiments conducted on prisoners. We met a torturer who told us why he did it. "I would be tortured if I refused." We also met many survivors of past horrors. Mustafa wanted me to remember every image, every memory and pass on what it was like to be afraid all the time.

Ten years ago I wanted to see this evil brought to an end. Millions of Iraqis who were trapped in the "Republic of Fear" wanted to breathe again. "Shock and awe" was the only way that was going to come about. Despite all that has followed, I believe the world is a better place without the despotism that turned the country into a living and dying hell.

I was well aware that sentiment was out of kilter with public opinion here in Ireland and throughout most of Europe.

By a margin of two to one, the Irish people opposed "Operation Iraqi Freedom". Many regarded the American President George W Bush as just as great a villain as the man who ruled Baghdad.

The fact that Bush was an admirer of Winston Churchill was for some further evidence of his badness. His adversary was a man who had come to power through the barrel of a gun. Saddam Hussein's heroes were Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Saddam studied the depravity of the Gestapo and the NKVD and aped their methods. He ran Iraq the way his heroes Hitler and Stalin had presided over Germany and Russia.

America's most steadfast ally was the Labour Government of Tony Blair. At the time, Blair was depicted as a poodle, a lap dog willing to do anything for Uncle Sam. I didn't see it that way. I had a grudging admiration for the British premier.

I had been in Kosovo in 1999. I saw how Blair had encouraged Bill Clinton to stand up to Slobodan Milosevic. "Slobo" was a brutal and cynical socialist dictator who ruthlessly seized power and went to war to keep it. He would have been very much at home in the company of Saddam Hussein.

Before leaving for Iraq, I watched with dismay 100,000 people march through Dublin to protest against America's threat to take out Saddam. The demo was led by Labour leaders like Pat Rabbitte, walking arm in arm with Sinn Fein and every faction of the anti-American Irish left.

That image lingered with me. Weeks later I stood on the roof of the most forward outpost of what was then liberated Iraq. In the mountains in the distance Saddam's artillery was trained on the deserted frontier town of Chamchamal.

A red flag defiantly fluttered in the wind. A wizened old communist partisan with a kalashnikov and a turban bravely stood guard. I was glad to see him. Most of the town's inhabitants had fled. They feared Saddam's response to "shock and awe" would be a wave of artillery shells packed with nerve gas.

The attack never came. The WMD was never found, and the rest is history. Ten years ago I was on the spot to see the fall of a monster. I still think it was a good day's work.

hnews@herald.ie


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