The Keystone Cops on Steroids

  1. This is probably the most interesting reportage on Iraq available at this time. The picture painted here, is almost a Donald Rumsfield version of 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome'. It is reporting that the New York Times certainly will never carry. It's just too real. NH

    Iraq Unravels: an Interview with Scott Taylor
    by Christopher Deliso

    Canada's top war reporter, Scott Taylor is known for his two books on the Kosovo and Macedonia wars, and especially for his frequent reports from Iraq - many of which have been gathered in narrative form in his recent book, Spinning on the Axis of Evil: America's War Against Iraq. Christopher Deliso caught up with Taylor in the wake of his most recent trip to Iraq earlier this month.

    Chris Deliso: Scott, what in hell is going on in Iraq?

    Scott Taylor: Well, as everyone can now see, the situation is deteriorating rapidly. This one-week trip was the most dangerous of my many missions in Iraq. It coincided with the Shiite uprising in Sadr City and the continuing standoff with Al Sadr.

    I arrived in Iraq on the 30th of March, crossing over from southern Turkey. The first place I went with my driver was Mosul, where a Canadian security guard had just been killed. The guard had been protecting a visiting GE executive trying to see a local power plant his company was working on. Apparently the assailants had been gunning for him, but killed his two security guards instead. Although local Kurds had probably been responsible for the murders, they blamed it on "Arabs." Still, local Iraqi police saw young Kurds cheering in the streets over the deaths of the foreigners, and did nothing to stop it. "Out of my jurisdiction," said one cop. "We're only supposed to guard our station."

    Baghdad Burning

    CD: What was the situation like by the time you got down to Baghdad?

    ST: My driver and I got to Baghdad on the 5th of April. That night there was a huge battle in Sadr City, the Shiite slum formerly known as Saddam City. Because of the heavy fighting, we couldn't go in until the next morning. I'm pretty sure I was the first foreign journalist to get into Sadr City at that time.

    Almost immediately, however, we were stopped in our tracks on the edge of the suburb by a protest of some 4,000-5,000 angry youths, shouting slogans like "free Al Sadr!" and "death to the Americans!" Luckily, one Iraqi man who happened to speak English came up to us. He was quite surprised to see a foreigner like me just wandering around. Concerned for our safety, he asked, "What are you doing here? It's not safe for you." We informed him that we were trying to get around the mob and onward into Sadr City, and asked if he could escort us. He did. When we had bypassed the crowd, we made it to the main square, which was being occupied by American tanks. A crowd of little kids took an interest in us and started to follow us around.

    The US soldiers observed us talking with the Iraqi kids. It had been a long night for them. They were just happy to see anyone who wasn't a Shiite. While they were processing our ID's, however, the kids voiced their displeasure by throwing rocks at us. "Can you speed this up?" I asked the soldier. "After all, I'm not sitting in a tank." To his credit, the soldier jumped down as a gesture of good will. Still, he was the one with the body armor on, not me.

    Sadr City: "We Were the Ones Doing the Hitting"

    CD: Did the troops give you any details about how the battle had gone, from their point of view?

    ST: The soldier in the tank, who only gave me his last name (Webster), was a veteran of the first Gulf War. He knew the area and had plenty of experience. I said to him, "You guys got hit pretty hard last night." He said, "No, we were the ones doing the hitting." According to him, the Iraqi fighters have a fatal superstition: "They believe they can act as they like when it's dark, because Allah can't see them. That may be true, but we sure as hell can."

    The American soldiers reign supreme at night. When Donald Rumsfeld slammed Syria for allegedly supplying night vision goggles to Iraq, it showed just how seriously the Americans take this technology. This is closely guarded, cutting-edge stuff that the US doesn't even like to share with its favorite allies.

    CD: But surely the Americans aren't the only ones who have night vision goggles?

    ST: Right, but an enemy using a pair of cheap Soviet-made goggles is not even in the same league. The stuff the Americans have got is very advanced - they can switch from thermal mode, wherein a heat signature is detected, to light-enhance detection and also to motion detection. So a lot of these Iraqis don't realize that they're sitting ducks when they try to hide in some dark basement. The Americans can see everything.

    CD: So how was this advantage used in the actual battle?

    ST: Webster and I were joined soon thereafter by Company Commander Capt. John Meredith from Montana, who also added details about the battle the night before. According to the troops, the Iraqi fighters thought they could send guys up onto the rooftops and from there lob RPG's down on the soldiers below. Yet they didn't know they were clearly visible to American gunners sitting in helicopters hovering 4 km off. They could see these guys easily and just kept greasing them with 20 mm cannon fire. They picked off so many, in fact, that the soldiers compared it to a video game.

    Capt. Meredith added that the helicopters generally try to distinguish between people carrying RPG's and things like umbrellas or shovels, to avoid collateral damage. But at the same time they err "on the side of caution."


    CD: Did you get any sense of the scale of the battle, in terms of casualties and destruction?

    ST: Well, we walked around a lot and I got many photos of destroyed vehicles, houses, blood, and body parts. It was a real mess. I visited one of the 4 hospitals in Sadr City that day, spending approximately 90 minutes talking to doctors and visiting the wards. I saw the stiff body of a 60 year-old man who had just died of his wounds. No one had come to claim him yet. There were many very badly wounded Iraqis, and the hospital was of course very poorly equipped. A total of 64 people were dead because of the battle, a doctor informed us.

    CD: What kind of people? Civilians, fighters?

    ST: There was a 3 year-old boy, women, and other non-combatants who were killed, but the vast majority of the dead were males of fighting age. I know this because my driver went through the hospital's casualty list while I distracted the doctor. They did not want us to see the list, probably because it confirmed the American story that it had been a legitimate battle.

    Iraq: Land of the Hired Gun

    CD: Scott, what can you tell us of the famed private soldiers/contractors of Iraq?

    ST: Iraq is now full of private security officers, former Special Forces and Gurkhas, all armed to the teeth. These guys tend to be outfitted with Kalashnikovs and pistols, which sets them apart from the standard-issue US soldiers. They drive around in these modified armored Suburbans with tinted windows and rear-facing seats for a tail gunner.

    CD: About the four American guys killed and mutilated in Fallujah. Do you feel sorry for them, or were they tempting fate? Is it possible they were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?

    ST: Well, first of all, I can't say exactly what they were doing, but nobody just goes driving through Fallujah. They had some other role. But in any case they knew the risk. These guys were making $1,000 a day.

    In some cases, the private contractors are in less immediate danger than the Iraqis - and always much better compensated. For example, the guys doing the de-mining training for Iraqis and mine-sniffing dogs are making from $14,000-$25,000 a month. But the Iraqis they instruct - the ones who actually have to go in and remove the mines - are making $152 a month.

    CD: Does this piss them off? Are they even aware of the discrepancy?

    ST: I spoke with Shaheen Jehad, a Turkman, former general under Saddam, and the nominal director of this de-mining program. He told me, "The salary is not important to us, because we are helping to make this a safer country for all Iraqi citizens." He was being sarcastic.

    CD: A recent report stated that after the Fallujah killings private security companies are going to "power up" with even more personal weaponry. Some have voiced concern over such a prospect. What can you say about this?

    ST: Well, first of all, they're already armed, so anything else they add is just going to be on top of that. Yet all these armed bodyguards and contractors roaming around Iraq have many Iraqis quite concerned. People have legitimate questions.

    For example, what jurisdiction do these guys have? Are they accountable to anyone, and what are the limits of legitimate self-defense? They are private citizens, not restrained by any military code of conduct, not well-acquainted with the culture, and usually they don't speak Arabic.

    That said, you can imagine any number of situations in which a simple misunderstanding could result in murder. Since there are so many people gunning for foreigners now, these contractors are on high alert all the time. So if they are already on edge and understand neither the language nor the culture, they could end up dusting some Iraqi who was just trying to be friendly.

    Riding Shotgun on the Brown & Root Money Truck

    CD: Did you have any encounters with specific contractors of this type?

    ST: I spoke with this Canadian former special commando who now makes $1,000 a day riding shotgun on the KBR (Kellogg Brown & Root) money truck. We saw one of these convoys, very big and very heavily guarded. It must have had ten flatbeds with containers. But the actual money was only in one or two of them. The point is that any would-be attacker would never know which one to hit.

    CD: A money wagon, armed cowboys in the Iraqi desert - this sounds really Wild West! It seems like a rather dangerous way to do business. Do the Americans have to operate like this?

    ST: Oh yeah, it's gotta be cash. You can't just wire money into Iraq. They're trying to rebuild the banking system, but 'til they do everyone has got to be paid.

    CD: What about the relationship between the average US soldier and the private contractors? After all, like their Iraqi recruits the former are in more danger, and are less well-paid than the latter.

    ST: There is a huge rift between the US Army and the Brown & Root guys. In fact, one soldier even asked me how much I was making to be in Iraq. I tried to explain to him that I was just a journalist, not a contractor, and I got paid by the story. He didn't seem to understand the difference. Referring to one of those guys making $14,000 a month, he scowled, "at least someone's making money out of this ****!"

    Hunkering Down in Iraq's "Rolling Sideshow"

    CD: How are the US soldiers handling the situation, now that the resistance has ramped up its attacks and become much more deadly of late?

    ST: Over the last couple months, as the Iraqi resistance has gotten much more dangerous, the US military has been frantically trying to armor up all of their vehicles. So you can see what were once olive-drab army vehicles turned into these multi-colored monstrosities.

    As their APC's and tanks keep getting blown up, the Americans have to take any face-hardened steel plating available and start welding. Take the example of the classic troop truck, where soldiers typically sit facing one another. Now they stand inside what looks like a huge metal dumpster, manning weapons facing out to different sides. All of these modified vehicles have been outfitted with 40 mm grenade launchers and 50 caliber machine guns.

    Now you see these improvised fighting machines all over Iraq. Once painted with that solid olive drab color, they are now patchworks of red, black and green, with random pieces of metal sticking off everywhere, bristling with guns. They look incredibly bizarre. I call it the Mad Max Rolling Sideshow.

    Living it Up in the "Green Zone"

    CD: Enough about the troops. How's life for the colonial administrators and top brass?

    ST: Having been to Baghdad so many times, I know the city pretty well. But it looks completely different than in the Saddam era. The US has sealed off a 10 sq. km area in the very center, known as the "Green Zone." This little fortification contains all the most important landmarks - the Coalition headquarters, Hotel Rashid, a conference center, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, former palaces of Saddam, etc. The Green Zone hosts approximately 8,000-11,000 people, mostly Americans. And 90 percent of the people who enter the Green Zone never come out. It's this safe little refuge in a sea of hostility, full of NGOs and other organizations that had hoped to work throughout Iraq but are now finding it too dangerous to leave their fortified enclave. The Red Cross, UNHCR, all the big ones are there. But they're hiding behind these huge concrete barricades, processing paper.

    Predictably enough, there is alcohol all over the place and this huge coupling thing is going on inside the Green Zone - both foreigner-on-foreigner and foreigner-on-Iraqi. A lot of very attractive young Iraqi women are brought in from other parts of Baghdad, to do jobs such as translation, secretarial, personal assistance, etc.

    CD: Do you think that they're... er...?

    ST: Well obviously, they got their jobs, one way or another, and they want to keep their jobs. But from what I've heard there's no organized, mafia-style prostitution yet. The situation's not stable enough.

    CD: You mentioned alcohol. What other luxuries are available in the Green Zone?

    ST: Now the Americans have got their own restaurants there. But oftentimes the food is exactly the same as what you find on the street outside. "You gotta try the roast chicken!" I heard this American guy raving. Well, it was the same exact chicken they serve in any Iraqi roadside grill - only when they sell it in the Green Zone, and put it in a Styrofoam box to conform to American fast-food wishes, suddenly it becomes a delicacy. Unreal.

    The place seems to get bigger every day. New barriers are always going up, but new restaurants too. You can find all the usual Western food. A new 'Pizza Express' just opened up. In the Green Zone, one can find even burritos and American-style espresso coffees.

    CD: Well thank God for that. I imagine the prices are Western, too?

    The Price of Protection

    ST: Real estate in the Green Zone of Baghdad is probably worth more than in Manhattan right now. If you want to rent property, you have to sign a year's lease, and cough up around $100,000. Anything that's safe is worth a fortune.

    CD: Who are the renters paying?

    ST: In most cases, they are paying the original owners.

    CD: That's thoughtful of the Americans. I imagine any Iraqi lucky enough to have property there would rent out straight away.

    ST: Well, in some cases it's safer. My driver's father, who owns a big house in a nice part of the city, plans to rent it to an American company for a year, and hopes to get $100,000 for it. It's in his interest for two reasons. First of all, he's somewhat a target, living in a neighborhood where foreigners go. And, with less than half of that sum, he can buy a mansion elsewhere in Iraq. And he will always have his Baghdad house back after a year. So something is working out for the Iraqis. They're also enjoying a huge influx of goods and technologies that were banned under the UN sanctions, from computers to radios to microwaves. The black market is thriving.

    Armed Convoys - to the Home of the Whopper

    ST: The people in the Green Zone are living in their own little world. A good example was when the clocks changed last month, and nobody knew about it. For 48 hours the Green Zone was in its own time zone. Iraqis who live in other parts of the city are employed there, and though they knew the clocks had gone forward, the Americans didn't. So the guards at the gate thought these guys were showing up for work an hour early.

    CD: So these people in the Green Zone are more or less trapped, huh?

    ST: Yes, but sometimes the Americans holed up in there get courageous and make a break for it. When they just can't stand being without real American fast food any longer, they get in armored convoys and head for Baghdad Airport, where an authentic Burger King is now located. Generally nobody gets near the airport; the Americans have it sealed off. But inside there is a real live Burger King, staffed by local Iraqis duded up in the official polyester pants and paper hats.

    Tales of the 14th July Bridge

    CD: How do ordinary Iraqis not part of the administration feel about the existence of this Green Zone and the American urban redecorating scheme?

    ST: Because of all the concrete barricades they had to put up, the whole look of the city has changed. It's wreaked havoc with traffic, since they had to block off bridges and roads.

    There is a two-lane highway leading into the Green Zone, which traverses the 14th of July Bridge. The Americans have divided it into a 'Lane 1' and 'Lane 2.' Iraqis have to use Lane 1, and undergo a body and vehicle search by heavily armed US soldiers. This inevitably causes huge traffic backups and waits. Lane 2, on the other hand, is reserved for Americans and others with special clearance. These people are whisked right through.

    CD: The Iraqis must be pissed, huh?

    ST: One day, I ended up talking to this 22 year-old American soldier manning the bridge for about 45 minutes. His name was Scott, too - a specialist from the 4th Armored Division. This soldier was very entertaining, especially when he stopped a Mercedes with tinted windows attempting to pass on Lane 2. There was obviously someone important in the car; Iraqi bodyguards, a female Iraqi who looked like a translator, a well-dressed older Iraqi man. The young soldier waves them to stop, and bangs on the hood. "Are you Ira-qis?" he shouts. "Yes, yes," they reply. "Then get in Lane 1!" he orders.

    They're obviously flustered at this, and the older man jumps out of the car, waving his clearance pass. The man informs the young grunt that he is a member of the Iraqi National Council and is on the verge of being late for his meeting with Paul Bremer. The soldier is not fazed. "If you're an Iraqi," he says, "get in Lane 1."

    At this, the man loses his temper at the absurdity of the soldier's logic. "You don't understand!" he cries. "I am a member of the Iraqi National Council! I am a very important person!" To which the soldier responds by cocking his gun and aiming it square at the man's chest. "Not to me you're not."

    And so the Iraqis had to go wait it out in Lane 1, and Bremer was probably sitting in his office wondering where the hell they were.

    After this I kept chatting with the soldier about his bridge duties. He told me that this one day he was watching the traffic when a beat-up old Passat manned by a man in Arab headgear came barreling down Lane 2. The soldier flagged him down and running up to the driver shouted, "Hey Muhammad, get in Lane 1!" The driver pulled down his scarf and a Level 4 security pass, which means access to the president. "My name's not Muhammad," he replied, and sped off.

    Saddam Spotted?

    CD: What do the Iraqi people think about the capture of Saddam? Was it really him?

    ST: Many Iraqis don't believe the US line on Saddam. Everyone has their own conspiracy theory.

    CD: Where do conspiratorial Iraqis believe the "real" Saddam may be now?

    ST: I don't know, but since the US bombed an Iraqi version of KFC last year looking for him, they might want to check the airport Burger King. No one would look for him there.

    Tough Times for the Occupying Force

    CD: How do you see the next few months shaping up for the Americans in Iraq? Given the Al Sadr showdown and growing unrest in Najaf, Fallujah and elsewhere, is it possible that things could get out of control?

    ST: Well, it's already out of control. Making a symbol out of Al Sadr was a huge blunder. One of his clerics went on TV recently and marveled, "Now after 12 years, the Americans have succeeded in doing what no one thought possible - bringing the Sunnis and Shiites together, unifying Iraq in a single hatred for Americans."

    They also made a miscalculation dealing with Shiite leader (Ayatollah Ali) al-Sistani. First he was resisting, shouting "No democracy!" Then he realized he could do a judo flip on Bremer, simply by demanding "Democracy now!" Given their majority, the Shiites could democratically elect an Islamic fundamentalist government, a prospect which terrifies the Americans. Now, the US civil administration is just trying to buy time to avoid a Shiite landslide. They want the Iraqi National Council to guarantee in writing that the future democratic order cannot be usurped by the clerics. Yet unfortunately for them, the continuing bloody skirmishes with the Shiites and the escalating Al Sadr situation are only radicalizing the Iraqis further.

    CD: But surely aren't the Americans aware that their heavy-handedness is contributing to antagonizing the Iraqis?

    ST: There is both stubbornness in the military and a lack of information sharing between branches. Every soldier knows about that. But take a situation like Fallujah. The US had pulled out of it in November, with good reason. It was uncontrollable. Yet then the Marines just had to go in after, boasting, "The Airborne couldn't pacify Fallujah - so we're gonna do it!" So the things the American forces are doing or not doing have partly to do with their own internal rivalries, too.

    Generally, however, the Americans just keep messing up. They're going around in a blaze of gunfire, giving orders. Busting stuff up, knocking down walls. They're like the Keystone Cops on steroids.

    However, this attitude is not winning them any friends. As I told a Turkish border guard on my way out of Iraq, the war didn't begin 12 months ago, it began 2 weeks ago (with the US attack on Sadr City). And it's likely to get a lot worse in the hot summer months ahead.

    Christopher Deliso is a Balkan-based journalist, travel writer and critic of interventionist foreign policy. Over the past few years, Mr. Deliso's writing for, UPI, various American newspapers, websites and European strategic analysis firms has taken him everywhere from the shores of the Adriatic to the top of the Caucasus Mountains. Mr Deliso holds a master's degree with distinction in Byzantine Studies from Oxford University, and also manages the Balkan-interest news and analysis website,

    Reproduction of material from any original pages
    without written permission is strictly prohibited.
    Copyright 2003