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.
My first day there [April 13, 2003], I had a driver, a Shia driver, drive me around, and he took me to Sadr City, which at the time was still called Saddam City. But the event that had a lasting effect on me was a week later — going to a Sunni mosque in the al Adhamiya district. I was actually going there just to meet an old college friend who was in Baghdad and I thought I would catch up with her. She was at the mosque. Iraq’s most important Sunni cleric had just gotten back from five years of exile, and about ten thousand people had come to hear him speak, and he was emphasizing Sunni-Shia unity [and] opposition to the Americans from the first day.
And these marines, a patrol of marines walked in on the whole event — on the Friday service with ten thousand people there — and this was like the most pro-Saddam neighborhood in Baghdad — wealthy Sunni Baathists. They walked right into the crowd on the street, and there was a very tense standoff. They were pointing their machine guns at the crowd. The crowd was very angry.
They were finding documents — everyone was looting the government buildings and finding the files — [Saddam Hussein’s government] had secret files on them, and they were finding out that their neighbors had been informing on them for years. Some of the problems that we’re still suffering from were already becoming evident at this stage: all of the rage and mismanagement, frustration and anger.
A perfect anecdote: I read it in a local newspaper and chased it down and it was a true story. In Basra there was a farmer and he had a small herd of cows — let’s say four or five cows. In the late nineties, this farmer had gone to the local office of the Ministry of Agriculture and had asked for some medicine because one of his cows had some sort of illness. And, you know, typical, disorganized, inefficient government — they said no, come back, go to a different office, they gave him a bit of a runaround, and all of his cows died, and his livelihood was destroyed. And these kinds of things happen. Right after the war, this farmer, we’re talking five years later, went back and found that local government official, and said, “You owe me four cows, plus interest, or I’m going to kill you.” The guy didn’t have the money, or said he didn’t have the money, and he was killed. There was a sense of euphoria and opportunity, but there was also the opportunity to get even.