20th anniversary: A look back at the Iraq War – Hamilton Wende

With this week marking the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, Hamilton Wende reminisces on a piece he wrote that was originally published in the Citizen in April 2003. This original article is a first-hand account of Wende’s experience in Kuwait during the Iraq War. As Wende and his colleagues head north through the Kuwaiti desert towards Umn Qasr, they see a huge oil fire burning on the western horizon. They learn that the fire is burning in the Rumaila oil fields in Iraq, which troops loyal to Saddam Hussein set on fire before coalition forces secured the area. The dangers of reporting in southern Iraq are also discussed – reflecting on the death of a colleague who was shot by coalition forces. The article also provides insights into the military campaign and the devastation it caused. Read more below.

By Hamilton Wende*

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War and the official coalition military operations in the days and short weeks that followed.  The war, as conceived by the planners in the Pentagon along with their allies the British, the Spanish and a number of other smaller European countries, was over quickly.  By May 1 of that year, President George Bush was calling it ‘Mission Accomplished’, declaring the end of major combat operations.

It wasn’t. The real war, in many ways, had just begun. Nearly a decade of gruelling, brutal combat erupted within days of his announcement.  Iraq descended into a vortex of chaos: anti-coalition attacks and sectarian violence within the Iraqi community itself tore the country apart. Hundreds of thousands of people died and were injured in the maelstrom – most of them Iraqis. Despite President George W. Bush and other American leaders and British Prime Minister Tony Blair talking about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy,’ there was little more than terror and suffering for the Iraqi people.

Today, 20 years on, Iraq has no real democracy.  It has a complex system of sectarian representation of some sort, where elections of a sort do take place, but they do little to unify the country. Corruption and malfeasance make real accountability to the populace largely an illusion.

Violence, though, has been sharply reduced in recent years, with the exception of political clashes involving supporters of different factions in the government and the continuing ISIL insurgency, life is finally somewhat better for Iraqis.  But this is a consequence of the conflicts largely burning themselves out rather than any direct consequence of the American-led war in 2003.

Saddam is, indeed, long gone, and we should never forget just how brutal his dictatorship was. However, removing him from power was a secondary aim.  The main US justification for the war was around the false assertion that Saddam and his regime possessed dangerous stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction. (WMD)

President Bush, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and a number of other senior American and British leaders lied repeatedly and unashamedly to their own people, to the United Nations and to the world at large. There were no such stockpiles of WMD and, if they didn’t know that, they should have. Their own intelligence services told them repeatedly that this was the case. They ignored these assessments, and told the world they were invading and did so on the flimsiest of pretexts.

It was a disgraceful and brutal decade of bloodshed and dishonesty. Looking back on it today, one can see how the falsehoods so loudly shouted into the world’s consciousness then have become a political norm in the democratic world today. 20 years ago, people still believed somehow that Presidents might, at least at times of crisis, tell their people the truth.  Now, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s and the American Right’s unhinged, duplicitous jabber, it is hard to believe anything that politicians say. Making things up has become a political norm.

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Truth doesn’t depend on whom you might choose to believe. Its ultimate origins may always be elusive, but the only way to approach it is to cherish the facts.  President Bush deceived the world about the reason to kill Iraqis without a stain on his conscience.  There is a direct link from his deliberate untruthfulness then, 20 years ago, to the whirlwind of lies that surround us in the democratic world today.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the false credibility those two-decade old lies give Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine today.

I covered the Iraq war, and this is what I wrote in the first week of the invasion. I wouldn’t change a word of it today:

A huge oil fire burns on the western horizon.  The cloud of black smoke billows northwards in the storm winds that cut across the open desert.  We are heading north through the Kuwaiti desert towards the port city of Umn Qasr.  The fire must be burning in the Rumaila oil fields to the west of us inside Iraq.  Troops loyal to Saddam Hussein managed to set fire to nearly a dozen oil wells before the coalition forces secured the area.

For four days now there have been conflicting reports.  ‘Are they secure; are they not secure?’ We don’t know.  No longer can the statements from either side be trusted entirely.  The war, like all wars, is not going according to plan, and southern Iraq has become the most dangerous place in the world.  

Across the globe millions of people have seen the last pictures of ITN journalist Terry Lloyd before he and his colleagues were caught in a hail of cross fire. It seems they were shot by coalition forces who mistook them for Iraqis. It is a horrible tragedy.  

Just a few nights before they left for southern Iraq, Terry and his colleagues were sitting on the couches in the plush hotel suite that serves as our temporary television bureau here in Kuwait City.  I didn’t know Terry, but one of his producers – who didn’t go into Iraq with him – is a close friend of mine, also a South African journalist.  We have known each other since the terrible days of the killings in the townships.  ‘What are your plans?’ she asked me, trying to help Terry and his team get as much information as they could before they crossed the border.  We, too, were planning to cross into southern Iraq, and there was talk of us travelling with the ITN team. But we were delayed by all sorts of logistical snarl ups with our vehicle and permission to get through the Kuwaiti checkpoints.  ‘I don’t know,’ I told her.  And we didn’t go.

Terry and his colleagues were mature, seasoned journalists, not inexperienced  cowboys looking for an adventure.  They calculated the risks, made their choices based on experience, and – they were shot.

I will never forget Terry and my friend sitting on that couch.  That night is such a short time ago.  It is an illusion, but that meeting feels so close, almost as if I could still reach back in time and touch him on the shoulder and somehow change things.  But of course I can’t.  We all must live – and work to cover the news – here with the knowledge and memory of a colleague’s death.

A few days later, only 12 hours after the main briefing at CENTCOM in Qatar had declared Umn Qasr ‘secure’.  I was part of a column of journalists taken in to the port by the Royal Marines.  Umn Qasr lies just a few kilometres north of the Kuwaiti border.  For three days, the fighting raged in this small port city as the world watched  it live on Sky News.  The American and British troops were surprised by the fierce opposition they encountered from somewhat less than 200 Iraqi fighters.  

We know now that it is not safe to travel into southern Iraq without a military escort.  But doubts still remain about even how safe that is.  ‘The word is,’ a colleague who had returned from camping out in northern Kuwait near Umn Qasr, ‘that the Brits and Americans own the city by day, but by night the Fedayeen [militia troops fiercely loyal to Saddam Hussein] come out in their civilian clothes and cause mayhem.’

The journey from the Kuwaiti military checkpoint just north of Kuwait City into the desert was a surreal unveiling of the layers of war.  Like the rest of the world, we have been watching half-compelled, half-horrified by the war unfolding on our TV screens, now we had a chance to witness its after-effects.

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The plumes of smoke from the burning oil well on the horizon were the first evidence we saw.   We counted nine huge mobile field guns flying Kuwaiti flags and thundering through the checkpoint as they drove down the highway.  ‘I’ve never seen anything like those,’ said an American colleague, an expert on US military hardware.  ‘Well,’ I told him, ‘that’s because they’re South African G-6 guns.’  

The Kuwaitis are not actively fighting in what has been called ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, but they, not US or British troops, are defending their borders against any Iraqi counter-attack.   Still, this war seems so far away from South Africa, the familiar profile of the G-6s was an eerie sight.

Further north along the road the signs of war grew more and more frequent.  This is a classic military campaign, no different, in essence to the advance of Napoleon on Moscow or that of the Eighth Army through the Libyan desert in WWII.  It is a kind of war that September 11 was supposed to have changed forever.  But here the rearguard of a vast army seethes and rumbles through the desert.  Moving, it seems, almost blindly towards its objective hundreds of kilometres away.  We were travelling through the British section, and we passed camp after camp, filled with tanks, Land Rovers, and transport trucks.  Beyond them stretching for hundreds of miles northwards lie even more of these machines.

In the low undulating dunes a black smear of burned wreckage lies on the pale sand.  ‘It’s the remains of the Tornado jet that was shot down by the Patriot,’ one of my colleagues said.  Fluorescent pink tags flutter from pieces of the debris.  The coalition forces are conducting an investigation into the friendly fire incident.  ‘They’ll also be looking for human remains,’ an ex-US special forces officer told me later.

So the grim toll of war unfolded before us.  We passed through the DMZ into southern Iraq and into the port of Umn Qasr where we were to film Australian divers searching for mines in the harbour.  It is still too uncertain for journalists to go into the town itself.   As I am writing it appears that nearly 60 allied troops are killed or missing.  No one knows yet how many Iraqis have been killed or injured, but it is certainly hundreds already.

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In the centre of a roundabout on the outskirts of the town stood a mural of Saddam Hussein firing a pistol into the air.  A few young Iraqi men and boys wandered across the deserted, empty streets.  No women or girls were visible anywhere.  The situation is still very dangerous.  I saw two shattered buildings blackened with fire at the edge of the road.

A few of the men waved and smiled at our truck full of journalists.  But who knows what they really think?  The shooting has stopped here less than a half a day ago.  I have seen other wars; and other towns where a new army has entered before.  Once the fighting is over, the victors are always greeted with smiles and waves.  It is suicidal to do otherwise.   I have no doubt many people are happy to see the end of Saddam Hussein, but how long will the troops stay?  And what future do they offer the people in the deserted, shell-shocked streets of Umn Qasr?  It is too early yet to expect answers, but, if all the death and destruction and suffering is to have any meaning, these are the questions that the world must soon ask of George Bush and Tony Blair.

*Hamilton Wende is an author, journalist and TV producer. He has worked all over the world, covering historical events and some 17 wars.