I remember the day the Americans came into Baghdad [April 9], and I was standing by the side of the street watching the convoy go by. And some of the Humvees had little American flags on the antennas, just a couple of them. An Iraqi ophthalmologist — there were two from the eye center nearby — saw me going to the crowd and they spoke some English. And they said to me, “Look, you’ve got to tell them to take these flags off the Humvees. They’re going to make people so mad.” And I said, “Well, what makes you mad about it?” And he said, “They’re Americans and that’s the American flag. That’s what occupiers do. That’s an occupation and that’s what people don’t want here.” And I think a lot of us picked up on the first day a lot of very ambivalent feelings, and those feelings were basically completely overwhelmed by the images and, most important, the superficial event that took place that day — the statue being taken down, the Americans taking control of the city.
The toppling of statue — yes, there were people celebrating, but there were as many people standing in shock. It was not just one big party, as I think the cameras tried to make it out to be. In fact, Morning Edition called me after the first feed, and they were seeing the TV coverage, and said, “Do you want to redo it for the next feed, because it seems like the pictures are people celebrating.” And I said, “Well, there are so few people trying to pull down the statue that they can’t do it themselves; the Marines have had to intervene, rightly or wrongly, with a crane to pull it down.” Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best, but they weren’t joyous; there was a very mixed feeling about seeing American soldiers in their midst.
And there was a quote. A man was standing next to me, a university professor, by pure chance, and he said to me, “You understand, you will now have to be in complete control, and we will resent you every step of the way.” And he was so right. The only problem was that of course the U.S. was never in complete control and the resentment was probably even greater because of it.
You were coming across American soldiers who looked like they’d just beamed down from a spacecraft, and had no idea which way was which and what they were doing and who they should be looking out for, and at the same time were mingling with Iraqis on foot, and stopping in juice shops for drinks.
It was a free-for-all in every sense of the word. Along with the unrestrained looting and the chaos that that implied, there were also enormous possibilities to do all kinds of reporting. And if you had a bureau there, like we did, and it was a known bureau and a known company like CNN was, it was a beacon for everybody. It was a beacon for Iraqis who believed they had stories. Iraqis would show up, there would be Iraqis lined up outside the door. There would be the Iraqis who needed medicine for their dying mothers, there would be the Iraqis who told you they had nuclear documents in their basement and would you like to come and look [laughter]. You know, there was almost that pang when you turned somebody away, [you were] thinking, “Damn, maybe this guy really does have nuclear weapons in his basement, but I don’t have time.” So you never really knew. And then there would be the line for the American soldiers who hadn’t talked to their family in six months. Everywhere you went, because we had satellite phones, there would be people desperate, desperate, desperate to get in touch with their families.