“It’s the Americans Hamid.”
“The Americans?” He was incredulous and barely audible.
“Yes, and you don’t have to whisper. Saddam’s finished.”
It was mid-morning, April 7, 2003. Hamid and I were taking turns to look through the viewfinder of an ITV News camera, resting on a tripod and pointed at the far bank of the River Tigris.
To use cameraman’s parlance the Panasonic DVCPro camera was “at the end of the bottle.”
Meaning it was zoomed in as far as it could go, making the Bradley Fighting Vehicles just about discernible. It was misty and they were several hundred yards away.
Hamid was one of our Iraqi drivers and one of life’s gentlemen.
Once he was convinced his eyes weren’t deceiving him he smiled, but still said nothing. Under Saddam careless talk cost lives and it would be a while yet before ordinary Iraqis felt confident enough for honest expression.
We were in Suite 636 in the Palestine Hotel, Baghdad. Rundown in the manner of everything denied modernity by a despot and the 12 years of sanctions he’d incurred, this place had been our home for almost a month.
It was about 10:30am and I was the last up that morning – not for the first time.
When I staggered in, the air of excitement in the room was all too apparent. Cameraman Phil Bye had the look of a professional already pleased with what he had “in the can.”
“Johnny, have a look at this,” he beckoned.
Whatever he wanted me to see, it was beyond the naked (and bleary eye) of an overslept correspondent.
“**** me Phil, it’s the Yanks.”
“Come on you beauties!”, I yelled. “You little beauties.”
My ITN colleagues chuckled and smiled. Five or six of us would have been in the suite that morning. During the invasion it was where we ate and drank and discussed events and how we would cover them.
I may have been the last to surface that morning, but any grogginess was soon replaced by elation, thanks to that first sighting of American forces.
All of us instantly understood the significance of what we were witnessing.
And yes we were glad to see them. Soon we would dutifully report their arrival to the English-speaking world, but privately we could all have a shared moment of relief.
Once Baghdad fell, other reporters would be able to reach the city.
Fresh horses would mean we could go home and now that could only be a matter of days away.
For us Bradleys on the horizon meant the end was too.
That is - the completion of a tricky assignment that had taken us away from our families for a few weeks; aged them and us by a few months; and provided all of us with war stories for years to come.
But forget us and imagine what it meant to the one Iraqi present, whom I cajoled into looking through that viewfinder after me.
Hamid Tighe. On any spreadsheet Hamid would have been just a “local hire” expense. In truth he was a faithful ITN retainer, who had endured privations and persecution.
He and his brothers worked for us after fighting for their country in the eight year war with Iran. One of them, Kareem, had spent several nights on a block of ice in one of Saddam’s torture dens.
We had all reported that Saddam Hussein was a monster. Hamid and his kin had the scars to prove it.
Our mental high-fives were meaningless in comparison with what Hamid must have been feeling. He regarded that American unit in the way Noah must have the Ark when he saw it floated…only Hamid was more surprised.
As a Shia he was all too aware of the broken promises of 1991 when US encouragement to rise up was quickly followed by abandonment and ghastly retribution.
No wonder he whispered – “The Americans?” Uttered by anyone else these were just two words, but from Hamid’s mouth they spoke volumes.
I tried to reassure him, but I was fighting against years of experience.
“Honestly Hamid, Saddam IS finished.”
He took a while to convince, but then the evidence was irrefutable. The American armoured personnel carriers were obviously advancing and the Iraqis in front of them fleeing.
I can’t say how truly elated my Iraqi friend really felt at that moment in time. How would I know? For me persecution had never been a first hand experience.
But I do know undiluted joy can’t be whispered. Hamid was beaming. He was sure the Americans meant redemption.
To him those Bradleys were the first harbingers of what he imagined would be a bright new future. And through the viewfinder of our camera he was sure he could see it coming.
“Out of the way lads.”
Reluctantly we let Phil get back to the job at hand. I asked him if he’d got anything good, and listened with the guilt of the well-rested as he talked me through what he’d witnessed since dawn.
Phil Bye had been my cameraman since the start of the war and he had done brilliantly.
He was also a member of a very select club – those who had spent both Iraq wars in Baghdad.
Another member, the brilliant Patrick O’Ryan-Roeder was cutting our stuff.
In 1991, Phil’s exclusive footage of cruise missiles flying low over the city was one of the most enduring images of that war.
Twelve years later and he was the main man for ITN once more.
The fighting was on the west bank of the Tigris which meant the American unit we were filming was from the Third Infantry Brigade of the US Army.
They were on a “Thunder Run” – an exploratory thrust. Reconnaissance to see what they were up against. In truth it wasn’t much.
Many of the Iraqi soldiers did a runner. We would later joke that I-R-A-Q stood for I Ran Away Quickly – little did we know then that they were living to fight another day.
The local conscripts that did make a stand were easily overwhelmed.
The Americans had wanted to take out an artillery position at a bend in the river and as luck would have it (or was it really luck?) it was all unfolding in front of us.
It was visible and audible. The chatter of machine-guns, the pop of the bigger guns on the Bradleys and the unmistakable clackety-clack of Iraqi AK-47s.
Some of the defenders were on our side of the river and the gunfire they were sending across made plumes as bullets hit the water.
Phil had recorded all of this. But the most memorable picture of the day would be several poor sods scurrying along the river bank in their underwear.
Talk about a rude awakening. You know it’s bad when you don’t have time to dress.
“Johnny, do you want to knock off a piece to camera?”
“Yeah Phil, good idea. I’ll be back in a sec.”
It wouldn’t do not to be wearing a flak jacket and I dashed to my room next-door to get mine. I slipped it on.
“Give me the mic Phil and let’s go.”
It was all going off outside, making it a good time. I stood in front of the camera, muttering and mulling over what to say.
“Are you sure you want to do this in your pyjamas?”
“Oh bollocks. Back in a sec.”
“No rush. The war will still be going on.”
Two days later I woke with a touch of Baghdad belly. My comfort zone kept me within twenty feet of a bathroom.
Back in London Dave Mannion would be heard to comment “He’s chosen a ****ing great day to be sick!”
Phil saved the day. He knocked on my door at around 10: 30am and said that a photographer had glimpsed American forces several miles away, but on our side of the river. Should we go and have a look?
Beyond the Palestine was an unknown world. The day before, regime loyalists, bureaucrats and journalists’ minders had done a runner.
There were some nasty looking fedayeen about and to add to our concerns three of our number had been killed when an American tank shelled the hotel.
Venturing out was a decision not to be taken lightly, but we decided to go for it. We asked senior producer Ian Glover-James if he wanted to join us. So Hamid, Phil, Ian and myself jumped into a car.
Soon we came across cheering Iraqis dousing huge portraits of Saddam with petrol and lighting them.
Further on we stopped to talk to locals. They were euphoric. Then the US Marines turned up. Humvees and an Army lorry sped by. The Iraqis cheered and waved.
We followed on foot and saw that on the road ahead the Americans had set up a checkpoint.
“We’re from British television!” Ian yelled. A soldier waved us forward.
Phil told me to go up and saw hello. I extended my hand and introduced myself. The American did the same, but I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly.
“’Sergeant’– did you say?” I asked. He nodded.
“Welcome to Baghdad.”
A few hours later another Marine unit would arrive outside the Palestine Hotel, where Saddam’s statue would be torn down.
None of us knew we had just witnessed the high-water mark of US involvement in Iraq.
Ten years on, there are no definite answers to the many difficult questions. There are just opinions getting another airing.
“Was it worth it?” “Was the disastrous aftermath inevitable?” “Why was there no plan?” “Why was the occupation so inept?”
If there is a consensus about anything, it’s that stripping Iraq’s Sunnis of any influence was disastrous. Basically the Americans told anyone employed by Saddam’s regime that because they had a past they didn’t have a future.
With the stroke of a pen the neo-con puritans ensured the flaring up of the oldest conflict in the Muslim world – the fight between Sunnis and Shia.
A decade after the toppling of Saddam Iraq is in limbo….it hasn’t realised the future we’d hoped for but there remains a chance, which wouldn’t exist if Saddam and/or his monstrously sadistic sons were still in control.
The Iraq story is still being written, but what did it all mean for us in Britain? Tremendous damage has been done to governmental authority and the notion of justification or explanation.
Tony Blair defends his decision, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I dare say it’ll be a long time before any British government imitates the Blair government’s Iraq intervention.
What that means is that this is also the tenth anniversary of why we are doing so little in Syria.