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Exclusive: ‘Terrified of Saddam Hussein’ Essam Al-Ghalib, Arab News War Correspondent

UMM QASR/BASRA, 30 March 2003 — Four days ago my friend, Mohammed Al-Deleami and I were invited by Abdul Rahman Almotawa, a journalist at our sister publication Asharq Al-Awsat, to accompany him on a trip organized by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information to report on the humanitarian relief effort at Safwan, an Iraqi town at the Kuwaiti border.

I jumped at the opportunity to get past the Kuwaiti Army checkpoint at Mutla’, which was the biggest obstacle keeping me from entering Iraq. As we raced to catch up to the convoy heading out of Kuwait, I told Almotawa that if the opportunity presented itself for us to break away from the ministry’s convoy once we got into Iraq, that we should, as such an opportunity may not present itself again.

When Mohammed and I left our hotel, we had no idea that that would be exactly what happened. We were ill-prepared for we had nothing but our gas masks, which we carried everywhere, the clothes on our backs, my cameras, a satellite phone, a Kuwaiti mobile and laptop.

After 75 minutes of driving in a manner likely to get me arrested in most countries, we were able to catch up to the convoy as it passed through the dreaded checkpoint at Mutla’, where we had been turned back several times in the days before.

When we finally made it to Safwan, Iraq, what we saw was utter chaos. Iraqi men, women and children were playing it up for the TV cameras, chanting: “With our blood, with our souls, we will die for you Saddam.”

I took a young Iraqi man, 19, away from the cameras and asked him why they were all chanting that particular slogan, especially when humanitarian aid trucks marked with the insignia of the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society, were distributing some much-needed food.

His answer shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.

He said: “There are people from Baath here reporting everything that goes on. There are cameras here recording our faces. If the Americans were to withdraw and everything were to return to the way it was before, we want to make sure that we survive the massacre that would follow as Baath go house to house killing anyone who voiced opposition to Saddam. In public, we always pledge our allegiance to Saddam, but in our hearts we feel something else.”

Different versions of that very quote, but with a common theme, I would come to hear several times over the next three days I spent in Iraq.

The people of Iraq are terrified of Saddam Hussein.

I broke away from the hundreds of people literally climbing over one another and fighting to get a box of the rations being distributed. What ended up happening is that the weak and the elderly who needed the food most were getting nothing, whereas the young and fit were getting up to six boxes each.

I broke away from this disgusting scene and wandered into the desert to take some pictures of the elderly and young children picking through the heaps of trash, having given up on getting any of the rations, searching for food. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a British Army convoy driving through Safwan heading north being followed by one, then two, then three SUV’s marked “TV”.

I ran back to Arab News’ SUV and yelled at Abdul Rahman and Mohammed to get in. Of course, they asked why I was screaming at them like a mad man. I explained that the opportunity to get into Iraq was driving away from us.

I turned to Abdul Rahman and said: “Decide right now. Are you in or not?”

He thought of his wife and children and how volatile and unpredictable the situation in Iraq and working with me could be, and opted to stay.

My friend, Mohammed Al-Deleami, jumped right in without hesitation.

We caught up to the convoy of TV crews and army vehicles and just drove behind them. Within minutes we were on an Iraqi freeway, with signs directing us to Umm Qasr, Basra and Baghdad.

I was ecstatic. We were in Iraq.

I turned up the music and started dancing in my seat as I looked in the rear-view mirror for pursuing ministry vehicles, but could see none.

The TV vehicles broke away from the army convoy and started following the signs for Umm Qasr. Once we got to Umm Qasr, I really started to worry for the simple fact that we had absolutely nothing. I looked at the TV crews in front of me. They were a mountaineering and camping superstore on wheels. They had cookers, boxes of food, sleeping bags, tents, generators, warm clothing, flashlights, bulletproof vests, jerry-cans full of petrol, virtually everything they needed to live in the desert for weeks.

As we drove along the freeway approaching Umm Qasr, we could see several burned out Iraqi civilian and military trucks. There were people walking along the side of the road waving at us, some motioning with their hands for us to stop and some made gestures indicating they needed food and water. Being Muslims, Mohammed and I wanted so much to help them; but we had no food or water.

As I slowed down to speak to some of these children, my Kuwaiti mobile rang. It was my editor in chief, Khaled Al-Maeena. He couldn’t believe I was in Umm Qasr. I handed my phone over to a young Iraqi boy aged maybe nine, and asked him to yell into it where we were. He yelled, “Umm Qasr,” then asked me again for food and water.

I told him we would be camping in Umm Qasr and that if he found us I would get him some food and water from the other crews in our convoy. My editor was thrilled.

We decided to make camp in front of what used to be a hotel and rest stop just off the freeway, which was occupied by a Scottish brigade of the British Army. We spoke to the brigade commander in charge and he explained that Umm Qasr was relatively safe but had been encountering pockets of resistance from various individuals belonging to the Baath party.

He said that we were not allowed to stay in the camp as we were not “embedded” with the British troops, but we were welcome to set up camp a few yards outside the fence of the “hotel”. He promised that if we were in any danger, his troops would immediately come to the rescue.

Once in Umm Qasr, Mohammed and I made our way around to the TV crews that were there and introduced ourselves. We struck up an unspoken deal where I would provide them with English/Arabic translation for their interviews with the Iraqis and they would provide Mohammed and I with food, water and warm clothing to help sustain us.

As night fell, we set up camp, ate and tried to go to sleep. As we started to dose off, a loud explosion went off very near to us, and a lighting flare shot up into the sky bathing the area in a yellow-orange light. Apart from the bright light, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

An hour later, several more explosions followed by flares lit up the area. One kilometer away, Mohammed spotted several people on foot running around with what appeared to be rifles. We were starting to get really worried, because we didn’t know what was going on. In the far distance we could see the occasional flash of a light and a loud bang. We assumed it was the battle for Basra.

(Part II tomorrow)