Gethin Chamberlain, in al-Amarah, Iraq, for The Scotsman, 19 April 2004
WE were almost out of al-Amarah when we heard the first gunshots.
A couple at first, as we crossed a bridge out of the town, enough to focus the attention of two soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had their heads and upper bodies poking up through the hatch in the roof of their Land Rover.
A few moments before it had all begun, there had been a message over the radios urging caution: this was the most dangerous part of the town.
Then the message came over the radio: one unit disabled, requesting assistance. We were almost out of the city, but the column of Land Rovers wheeled around and headed back towards the shooting to go to the aid of their army colleagues.
We were travelling to visit casualties from the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps who had been injured in a previous clash with militia forces. But quickly, and violently, things had changed.
The gunmen, far from being deterred by the presence of so much British firepower, appeared to be getting closer, to judge by the volume of rounds passing overhead
From the direction of the mosque in the city, someone had thrown a blast bomb at a patrol from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, knocking out the oil sump on their Land Rover and bringing it to a halt.
Then the militia opened fire with automatic weapons from the windows of the building. On the roof, a man with an rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) got off one shot before the soldiers picked him off. But although they were returning fire, they were stranded and pinned down.
As we swung back into the city, there were two loud explosions, one after the other, the second louder than the first, and then the shooting started in earnest. Machine-gun fire echoed around the streets and there were the sounds of more explosions all around.
Soldiers sought the cover offered by a low wall running along the side of the street.
Lying sprawled across the soldier’s rucksacks in the rear vehicle, attempting to peer through the windscreen to see what was going on, is a lonely experience.
All the soldiers were out and, if not firing, then taking up firing positions attempting to cover the wide street in a built- up area of the town. The only company was the military radio, over which the soldiers could be heard exchanging situation reports and requesting – with what would become an increasing urgency – assistance from armoured units to help them get out of there.
For a few minutes, it went quiet. The radio was still crackling away, the commanding officer (CO) requesting updates and more information on who was facing what threat, but the shooting had stopped.
Then an RPG screamed overhead. It literally does scream, an awful screeching sound like one of those small rockets let off in back gardens on Guy Fawkes Night. It sounded close, and it was, barely five feet above the line of Land Rovers.
The first casualty report came in, an injury to a lower limb it said, a shrapnel wound to the foot.
For a while, the radio offered a little comfort – though that was not to last. The quick- reaction force had been dispatched to give assistance, but had come under fire from multiple weapons. A voice said they were pinned down, and held in contact – under fire and unable to move.
Outside, there was another rattle of gunfire and another RPG, this one exploding a little way away. It triggered a fresh exchange of shots, the automatic SA80s of the British troops with their short sharp retorts mingling with the slower chug of the militia’s AK-47s and a few single shots, weaker, like someone popping their mouth with a finger.
A pistol, perhaps, or something else of a low velocity. It is easier to identify the heavier machine-gun rounds, they just sound that bit more substantial, more solid.
Crouched down in the back of the Land Rover, it all blends into a cacophony of noise. Already it has been going on for 20 minutes or more and every time it seems to be over, it just comes back worse. Of course, more of Muqtada al-Sadr’s people have been alerted by the sound of the firing, and are joining in from neighbouring rooftops and windows, just as the British troops are desperately calling for reinforcements.
Listening to the voices coming across over the radio network, there seem to be problems directing the armoured vehicles to where they are needed. And then there is the CO’s voice again: “We’re not out of this yet,” he says.
Another RPG exploded further along the street, this time from a new direction. Before, the firing appeared to be coming from the direction of the mosque, about 200 metres away, and the buildings around it, but now there appeared to be people all around us. A couple of the soldiers were pointing and shouting to the others, gesturing to an alleyway further down the street from where they thought the RPG had been fired. Some of the other soldiers dart from their positions and duck down behind the Land Rovers and alongside the large concrete blocks set along the edge of the pavement. There are more bursts of gunfire, from both sides.
And amidst all this chaos, there were still people moving along the street, cars coming over the bridge and driving slowly by, cyclists pedalling along the far side of the road, seemingly oblivious to the dangers. At the far end of the street, away from the bridge, a large crowd had gathered to watch.
The Land Rover, which had previously appeared to be, at worst, only as much of a target as the other vehicles strung along the road, was now the closest vehicle to the RPG position.
Time dragged, though there was plenty to catch the attention. The gunmen, far from being deterred by the presence of so much British firepower, appeared to be getting closer, to judge by the volume of rounds passing overhead.
On the radio, there was the CO’s voice again, heated by now, instructing the commander of the heavy call signs – the jargon for armoured vehicles – to move south towards our position. “It is under contact with RPGs,” he snapped. The soldiers seeking out what cover they could find by the sides of the vehicles knew this already; they were watching them skimming down the street just yards away from where they were crouched.
Lieutenant-Colonel Matt Mayer, the commanding officer, of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, was on the radio saying: “Lets get a grip on this – there is crowd grouping on the bridge now.” His voice was barking over the radio, tense, frustrated. “Where are the other heavy call signs?”
Everyone would have to get out of there, he said. There was no longer any virtue in trying to save the stricken Land Rover, which was by now on fire anyway. Vehicles are expendable, he said, call signs [soldiers] are not.
And then the closest explosion yet. An RPG detonated in the road less than 50 metres away. The vehicle rocked sharply, and there was a white flash, and then the explosion, juddering through the body, louder than any film can convey, and anyway, how could a film convey the sheer primal gut-wrenching fear as the shockwave passes through the body. The heavy-machine gunner was blasting away too, and it seemed then that this could not get worse. But then it went quiet again, at least for a few blissful moments. The driver, Sergeant John Gemmell, had been leaning against the rear of the vehicle when the RPG exploded. Now he opened the door and looked at me, his helmet wonky, his eyes wide.
A pall of smoke was rising from the road in front of us. But still there was no sign of getting out of there.
The CO was shouting into his headset now: “I want this moving now, now, now,” he screamed, and there was another burst of gunfire overhead.
Then they were there, the Warriors, with their 30mm cannon and chain guns, appearing over the crest of the bridge, just as the cavalry should.
And there at last was a chance, a chance of getting out of there alive, before that man with the RPG worked out how to fire in a straight line, before any of the bullets bouncing all around the soldiers in the street finally found their mark.
I threw open the rear door of our Land Rover and two men tumbled in, red faced, sweating. They looked angry, if they had any expressions at all. It is hard to recall, above the relief.
The drivers shunted backwards and forwards, trying to get the Warriors between them and the RPGs.
And then just as we were coming level with the Land Rover in front, it stopped – a wheel caught on a brick. It rocked backwards and forwards and then freed itself and lurched forward, only to stop again.
Sgt Gemmell just swung the wheel and squeezed through the gap between him and the bridge parapet and then we were accelerating, swerving so violently it seemed we must tip over, hurtling across the bridge. Across it, machine gun fire chasing us down the road, around a corner and straight into oncoming traffic, Sgt Gemmell screaming at the drivers, everyone screaming for them to get out of the way.
Oblivious to the danger, an old woman stepped off the pavement, Sgt Gemmell standing on the brakes, the air blue, everyone thrown forward and then we were on the road out of town and ten minutes later we were back in the camp, behind its sandbagged walls and barbed wire, but none of that mattered. All that mattered was that we were no longer sitting by that roadside in al-Amarah.