I remember Iraq not being what I expected it to be. I had visions of desert swept vistas with crumbling ruins of ancient biblical cities such as Ur, Sodom and Gormorrah. It was very much a smelly, rampant and vibrant place – well, in Basrah it was. Basrah is Iraq’s second largest City and with it being the country’s largest port, it was rumoured to be the home of Sinbad the Sailor. It took the British 2 weeks to capture the city despite further attacks from Fedayeen fighters. Just outside of this Port City a highway leads off to the south towards Kuwait.
It was here that a stretch of destruction, ranking alongside a minor war crime, disappeared into the horizon. Vehicles, mainly military were turned into a grotesque twisted metal sculpture and within these cages the husks of burnt out bodies were seen. Many were the bodies of civilians fleeing the fighting. Prior, to this queues of aircraft, waiting in line as patiently and with as much discipline as a queue at Sainsburies, took their turn to released guided and freefall retard bombs on the convoy. They were better off staying in the city and closing down their hatches for the west to pounce.
There is a lot of historical, religious and esoteric potential in this country, but various corporations and western ideologies have destroyed this. What was I expecting? Ali Baba and the 40 thieves? What I got as a top cover (armed sentry on a landrover) was a hybrid of West and Middle East. A collection of people thriving to live on whatever means necessary, and seldom forfeiting elements or certain Pillars of their religion to do this. The British have been here for a lot of the 20th Century, there are war graves to fallen British servicemen. There are even ginger haired Iraqis from, dare I say it, illegitimate couplings in the past. The people here were friendly enough, but I can hardly say I trusted many as there were personal gains to be sought and this ruled most of their daily lives. Living in such a harsh environment warranted this sort of behaviour.
“Man-Chestah Yoonited!! Dayveed Bek-Haam!” I remember asking myself if this were the only words they understood in English. The children would chase the snatch Landrovers and we’d be throwing sweets at them. Swarms of motorised vehicles… hang on.. I’ll get to that in a minute. You probably don’t know where I worked.
I worked in the Brigade Headquarters as SSR (Social Sector Reform) G2 (Intelligence) and we had a role in the development of the Iraqi Police Service’s Intelligence Section. We had taken over from a Captain who favoured himself as a clandestine operative in the shady world of intelligence, when in actual fact it was a frustrating, bloated wealth of information that stagnated and went to waste. I used to say ‘what’s the use in potential ‘Intelligence’ when it’s handled by un-intelligent people who believe that ‘knowledge is power’’. Information dreams of the next stage in its evolution to form into that ‘intelligence’ that reaps rewards for the owner. A bit of a mouthful, but something I’ve always believed in. The necessity to foster human relationships in order to get information is so false; we’re tackling the human element, the human condition. People have died through a lack of clarity and fluidity of information through certain conduits.
As well as developing methods of predicting insurgent patterns and their developing stratagems we make sure that the IPS (Iraqi Police Service) Intelligence Section turn up on time. Some, especially the guy in charge was too bothered about his hair and new suit to get to work on time. I spent 2 weeks in the ‘Old State Building’ and we worked alongside the Police Intelligence Section here. They were a bit of a nightmare to put it lightly.
I once had to visit the Governor of Basrah. He was an ageing man of perhaps 70. This age was deemed a very rare and prestigious age to reach. Very lucky. The main reason for our visit was his two air rifles.
We drove out of Basrah Airport and into the city. Dead dogs on the sides of the road on the way there. I’m sure the Iraqi’s saw the canine as a filthy animal and shot them where possible. They had a road system similar to ours but once we hit the suburbs you saw the desperation. It was on the side of the road selling anything from copper piping, to batteries, to mobile phones to animals. Often we’d wade into a sea of people, all milling around the market. We’d unwittingly entered a thriving, market.
Only a month before there’d been running gun battles down these streets as an uprising was on its last legs. Muqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army were being killed off in droves and a stand-off in a mosque ensued in some random city between here and Baghdad.
Here, of all places. Didn’t a group of men steal a Landrover and burn it out? On this very street? The Iranians would have paid a high price for that Landrover. Iranian infiltration, hmm. That’s another story.
We eventually reached the Palace like building and I jumped out the back. Like Vinnie Jones out of Lock Stock and two smoking barrels I waltz up the street and follow the other interpreter through the many layers of security and gates. This fellah is loaded, I thought. There’s lush carpeting on the floor. A giant oil painting of a desert scene with a group of camels. His office was made of mahogany furniture and lush velvet trappings. The old man seemed too frail and insignificant in all this grandeur. He explained he was a simple old man only trying to do what was right for the city and that the Chief of Police was as corrupt as they get. He was an Iranian puppet. The Governor assured us we’d be safe on our way back to the Airport. Not sure what he meant by that. We left that place all the more wary that we’d been there for 30 minutes. Ample time for an ambush or a bombing, but I remember the Governor’s assurance of our safety. Still, I could see that our escorts, a troop of TA were getting twitchy. We mounted the Land Rovers and headed to Shat-Al-Arab Hotel. A lovely Hotel that met a similar fate to that of the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo.