Iraq and ruin

Iraq and ruin

Gethin Chamberlain, for The Scotsman, 18 March 2006

IT IS 9 APRIL, 2003. Muhannad Hussam is at home in Baghdad, watching television as the 20ft statue of Saddam in Ferdoos Square is hauled down by ordinary Iraqis. About 3,000 miles away in Aberdeen, Walter and Diane Douglas are also watching TV, hoping that this event signals the end of the war, and that their son Allan’s regiment will not be needed after all. At home in Edinburgh, Brigadier Andrew Mackay is wishing he could have been there. In Basra, British soldiers are spending their third full day in the city, and Wa’il Majeed Salim has already sought them out to ask for work.

The statue crashes to earth. It is the end of Saddam’s rule. All think they are witnessing the final chapter of the war. None imagines that three years later, events will turn out quite the way they do.

Colonel Muhannad Hussam was always convinced that Iraq would lose. He came from a military family; everyone he spoke to thought the same, he says, not because they were outgunned, but because they were tired of fighting Saddam’s wars.

When the coalition forces poured over the border, Muhannad was teaching science at the police academy in Baghdad. He was put in charge of 100 teenage students with no military experience and told to deploy them as infantrymen. They were terrified.

His own family, his wife Wala Kudair Abbass and their three children, were still in Baghdad. Others had fled to the countryside but he had been told to stay where he was. He was not too worried about the direction of the bombing, “but when the ground is shaking under you, it’s a miserable feeling”. Everyone wanted it to end, he says.

On 8 April they saw US Apache helicopters in the sky above the city. “I felt, that’s it, everything done,” he says. He told the students to put down their weapons and go home.

He did the same.

Muhannad was born in Diala, Iraq, in 1966. A Sunni, he had risen through the ranks of the police force to the rank of colonel. He joined the Ba’ath party because it was the only way to get a government job. Most people did. But he was no fan of Saddam Hussein, who he felt had ruined the country.

Now Saddam was out, the Americans were in and Muhannad found himself on the wrong side. Hearing that the US forces were on the lookout for an English-speaking officer, he put on his uniform and went along to the Meridien hotel, where they had set up their headquarters.

“When I got there the guard pulled out his rifle on me and shouted, ‘Hands up’,” he says. An officer came out and smoothed things over. He was told he could go back to work.

Muhannad was made deputy commander of west Baghdad, but it quickly became clear that the police force was riddled with corruption. Complaints flooded in. He was put in charge of internal affairs, and tried to clean up the police force. At first he seemed successful. US documents show that Muhannad was responsible for the arrest, sacking or transfer of more than 50 corrupt Iraqi officers.

But he quickly discovered that some people did not want the police cleaned up. Political parties were manoeuvring themselves into positions of power and did not want others prying into their affairs. He survived four attempts on his life, but two of his staff were killed.

The Americans tried to find him somewhere to live inside the Green Zone but it was to no avail. Last year he quit, gathered up his family and fled to Jordan.

While Muhannad was trying to marshal his students, Paul was kicking his heels on the border with the rest of the British troops, waiting for the orders to advance.

Brought up in one of the poorest parts of Glasgow, Paul – not his real name – had been a soldier for seven years. He tells a sorry story of a childhood spent with alcoholic parents, no money and little to look forward to. He joined the army as soon as he was old enough. He found out he was going to Iraq from a news bulletin; officers told the men not to listen to rumours, but the report turned out to be true.

Paul was excited at the prospect; there were not many people who had the chance to go to a war. There was a risk of getting killed, but it was not something he was going to worry about. The trickiest part was telling his wife.

They hung around in the Kuwaiti desert for weeks before the war got underway. “I lay on the deck of the Warrior [armoured vehicle] looking at the night sky. That was the only nice thing I saw for the rest of the tour. We heard the planes pass and then, later, the helicopters.”

The next morning, they crossed into Iraq. For the next month, there was little chance to gaze at stars.

Paul was a sniper; more than most people, he saw the results of his actions. “People always asked me if being a soldier meant I would be able to kill another person and truthfully, I didn’t know,” he says. “But when you’re faced with that situation your survival instinct kicks in, you want to live and you do anything to do that, including kill. After a while it becomes second nature.

“I wouldn’t say you enjoy it but the adrenaline rush and feeling of power is indescribable.”

It was not until 6 April that Paul’s regiment finally rolled into Basra. Inside the city, Wa’il Majeed Salim was waiting. He had prayed that the coalition would attack, not because he wanted to see his country invaded, but because of the behaviour of Saddam and his regime. Like Muhannad, he was sure the coalition would win.

Wa’il was 23 at the time and living in the centre of Basra with his family. He is a Shia, though other relatives are Sunnis. None of them was a member of the Ba’ath party.

Wa’il had a degree in English from Basra university so he decided to try to put it to use. Seeking out the British soldiers, he offered his services as a translator.

The young student believed that the old regime had penalised the south; it should have been rich because of its oil but instead people lived hand to mouth. Saddam, he said, had turned Iraq into a graveyard.

The Ba’ath party, he says, was “the most fascist and criminal regime the world had ever seen”, though many people joined because they had no choice.

But with Saddam gone, Iraq was one big political vacuum. “I felt happy and excited, but also worried and very afraid. We do not know what will happen, who will rule Iraq?”

There were shortages of water and electricity, but gradually, he says, signs of improvement. He voted in the elections, hoping that it would make a difference. “I am quite sure that the new government will bring peace and prosperity to Iraqis.”

But still the violence continued. Allan Douglas was taking down an antenna at a police station in the town of al-Amarah when the bullet struck him. It went in through his cheek and continued on, severing his spinal cord. On 30 January this year, he became the 99th British soldier to die since the start of the war.

His mother, Diane, was working in Asda in Aberdeen when she was called to the personnel office. When she entered the room, there were two men to one side. One was in uniform, the other in civilian clothes.

“I just kind of looked at them and said ‘What are you doing here’ and then it sort of clicked and I said ‘Oh my God’. I just knew there was something very far wrong.” One said: “Mrs Douglas, I’m here to inform you …”

“And I just said ‘Nae my bairn, nae my bairn’ and I sat down and cried my eyes out. I couldn’t even say anything to them.”

She rang her husband, Walter, and told him there had been an accident. “How bad?” he asked. The worst, she said.

Walter was in the St Nicholas shopping centre, where he worked as a janitor. The army men went from Asda to the centre to see him. He waited for them in the janitor’s room, on his own. “I knew anyway,” he says. “I knew right away.”

He and Diane went home and called their daughter, Donna. The army people sat with them for an hour or so. Once they left, Walter and Diane did not say much. “We wandered back and forth from the kitchen for most of the afternoon,” Diane says.

Allan was 22 and a lance-corporal in the Highlanders. He joined when he was 17 and his parents say he planned to leave at the end of his tour of Iraq in May. The last time they saw him was before Christmas, when he was home on leave.

He returned to Iraq on December 14. Diane says he didn’t want to go. She popped her head into his room to say goodbye. “I gave him a cuddle and told him to look after himself,” she says. “Dinnae worry,” he told her. “In a couple of months we’ll be finished and I’ll be home, Mum.” It took ten days to bring his body home. Walter and Donna went down to RAF Brize Norton to meet the flight. The funeral took place a week later.

All the family want now is for the troops to come home, even if Iraq falls apart. “That’s nothing to do with us,” Walter says. “Just let them get on with it. It’s been a waste of time since day one. We’re as well getting out now before any more are killed.”

The death of Allan Douglas merited a few paragraphs in most newspapers, but the real focus was on the 100th death, which came a day later. Brigadier Andrew Mackay admits he has been surprised by the lack in interest shown in the war back home.

“I remember very well coming back from Baghdad after nine months and being surprised by the number of people I met within civilian life who were totally disinterested – not that you expected them to be interested – but I was surprised by the depth of their disinterest,” he says.

Mackay had been in Iraq trying to sort out the mess left behind by the Coalition Provisional Authority, which took over the running of Iraq after the end of the war. His job was to try to get the police force up and running again.

A lot of mistakes had been made in the vacuum after the conclusion of the war, he said. Lessons of previous conflicts had not been learned: the looting took everyone by surprise and not only were there too few troops to stop it, there was no police force either and the Iraqi army had been disbanded. They lost a year after the end of the war because no-one had thought to plan ahead.

Mackay was working as a colonel in Glasgow when the war started, and so he watched much of it unfold on television. Now he runs 52 Brigade in Edinburgh; the Royal Irish regiment, one of his, has just returned from Iraq and the Royal Scots are still out there. He still believes that the public are behind the army, even if they long ago lost interest in the war.

“There is no denying it is an unpopular war but that has not led to a public view of saying that we are an unpopular, unwanted army,” he says.

Three years have gone by. Muhannad is still in Jordan with his family, unemployed, relying on his father to support him. He voted in the elections, but fears it will be many years before his children will be able to go back to Iraq. He is glad that Saddam is gone, but unhappy about what came afterwards. Paul is still in the army. He thought about leaving but wasn’t sure what he would do. He thinks a lot about what he did out there, and there are nightmares, too.

“I don’t think any man can go through what I did, killing, seeing dead and mutilated corpses almost on a daily basis, sometimes having to move those bodies, and not have bad dreams,” he says.

Unlike Allan’s parents, he still thinks it was worth it. “Saddam was an evil man and seriously mistreated his people,” he says. “The easy thing to say is ‘pull out the troops’ but if that happens things will only get worse and we’ll end up back there anyway.”

Wa’il is still in Basra, convinced that life is improving. “We have many problems and may be afraid because of the current situation, but we are quite sure that the coming is better,” he says. He does not believe there will be civil war: after all, he argues, Iraq is based on tribes and they contain Sunnis and Shia. Brother will not kill brother.

“Iraq is our country and we all must work together to rebuild it,” he says. “I will never say that Saddam was better in comparison with nowadays, whatever happens or will happen.”

Mackay is back in his office in Edinburgh Castle overlooking the city, looking forward to a visit to Basra next month. He doesn’t fancy another full tour, though, and his wife has made her negative thoughts on that subject quite clear. He sees light at the end of the tunnel, but is not convinced by the seemingly headlong rush to get out.

Reasonable assurances of stability are needed if coalition forces are to be able to withdraw, he says.

And Walter and Diane Douglas sit in the living room of their home in Aberdeen, wondering what to do next. Both are still on bereavement leave. They need to sort through Allan’s personal belongings, but they are leaving his room as it is for the moment.

In the corner of the room, a computer screensaver plays pictures of Allan on a continual loop. They keep it running all the time. Pictures of Allan sitting on a Warrior, legs astride the gun on the front, pictures of him with Iraqi children, with the translators, standing framed in the open back door of the Warrior, firing a mortar, lying on his bunk, asleep, peaceful. The images click on, and on, and on, over and over again.

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