COVER STORY: Its strategies shattered, a desperate Washington is reaching out to the late dictator's henchmen.
Patrick Graham | Sep 20, 2007 | 10:04 am EST
It was embarrassing putting my flak jacket on backwards and sideways, but in the darkness of the Baghdad airport car park I couldn’t see anything. “Peterik, put the flak jacket on,” the South African security contractor was saying politely, impatiently. “You know the procedure if we are attacked.”
I didn’t. He explained. One of the chase vehicles would pull up beside us and someone would drag me out of the armoured car, away from the firing. If both drivers were unconscious—nice euphemism—he said I should try to run to the nearest army checkpoint. If the checkpoint was American, things might work out if they didn’t shoot first. If it was Iraqi . . . he didn’t elaborate.
Arriving in Baghdad has always been a little weird. Under Saddam Hussein it was like going into an orderly morgue; when he ran off after the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003 put an end to his Baathist party regime, the city became a chaotic mess. I lived in Iraq for almost two years, but after three years away I wasn’t quite ready for just how deserted and worn down the place seemed in the early evening. It was as if some kind of mildew was slowly rotting away at the edges of things, breaking down the city into urban compost.
Since 2003, more than 3,775 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, while nearly 7,500 Iraqi policemen and soldiers have died. For Iraq’s civilian population, the carnage has been almost incalculable. Last year alone, the UN estimated that 34,500 civilians were killed and more than 36,000 wounded; other estimates are much higher. As the country’s ethnic divisions widen, especially between Iraq’s Arab Shia and Arab Sunni Muslims (the Kurds are the third major group), some two million people have been internally displaced, with another two million fleeing their homeland altogether. Entering Baghdad I could tell the Sunni neighbourhoods, ghettos really, by the blasts in the walls and the emptiness, courtesy of sectarian cleansing by the majority Shias. The side streets of the Shia districts seemed to have a little more life to them.