A photojournalist’s tale of the immediate aftermath of “Flanders Fields, without the mud.”
This spring marks a very significant anniversary for me. Not only is it 10 years since the 2003 Iraq conflict, but it also marks 25 years since I first covered Iraq’s final offensive to reclaim land which was captured by Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
Foreign journalists were rarely allowed on either battlefront during the Iran-Iraq war. The only news about the war came from both countries’ state-controlled media. In order to keep both populations firmly behind the war effort, it was rare to hear either side admit defeat.
As a result, the Western press had a difficult time painting an accurate picture on what was actually happening on the ground. This began to change, though, during the last year of the war when Iraq began to get the upper hand.
In September 1980, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered an all-out surprise attack on the Iranian oil-rich province of Khuzestan and the strategic city of Khorramshahr. He counted on the population, who were predominantly ethnic Arabs and not Persians (Iranians), to be sympathetic to an Iraqi invasion.
Initially Iraq had the advantage, but it didn’t take long for the Iranian military to regroup and mount a counter offensive. By 1982, Iran had not only liberated much of the territory they had lost, but now the Iranian military was on a roll, penetrating deep into Iraq.
Ayatollah Khomeini was able enlist volunteers who would be willing to protect the Islamic Revolution at all costs, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives. Waves of volunteers, both young and old, ran through minefields ahead of soldiers and armored tanks in order of open up corridors. Such fervor even shocked the Iraqis who were accustomed only to the conventional military draft.
The turning point for Iraq happened in April 1988 when its forces retook the strategic Fao Peninsula at the mouth of the Shat al Arab waterway, which Iran had captured two years before during one of their big offensives. On the very same day that Iraq launched Operation Ramadan Mubarak (Blessed Ramadan), to reclaim Fao, the U.S. Navy attacked the Iranians at sea in retaliation for a sea-mine that damaged a U.S. Navy warship.
In the naval battle which ensued, dubbed Operation Praying Mantis, the U.S. Navy destroyed two oil platforms used by the Iranians to attack merchant ships and sank one warship and damaged another.
With the tide of the war squarely on the Iraqi side, it wasn’t long before the foreign press was invited to witness a resurgent Iraq.
Being summoned by the Iraqi Ministry of Information
I had to turn down the first invitation from Baghdad because I was consumed with covering the “tanker war” from by base in Dubai. Not surprising after the U.S. and Iranian navy confrontation at sea, attacks on shipping subsided considerably. With the seas relatively calm I got the go ahead from my agency to go to Iraq whenever I could procure a visa.
During May, June and July of 1988 I traveled back and forth to Iraq to witness the aftermath of numerous Iraqi offensives. Looking back now it’s hard to distinguish one visit from the other because the terrain both sides were fighting over was barren and featureless.
The one trip that does stick out, and that is in part due to having recently reread Tony Horwitz’s book Baghdad Without A Map, was a trip to the oil-rich Majnoon (Crazy) Islands located just north of Basra, in Southern Iraq. Horwitz account of touring the battlefront jogged my memory of the events I had witnessed. He even quoted me; through I can’t remember if I was the French or the American photographer he referred to in the book.
There was never much warning when the Iraqi consulate in Dubai called to invite me to Iraq. They usually woke me in the middle of the night and said something like — “The Iraqi Ministry of Information invites you to Iraq for trip to the frontlines tomorrow. Please come and pick up your visa at the consulate.”
“Now?” I inquired.
While the rest of Dubai slept I headed to the Iraqi consulate for my visa. The thing with the Iraqis you never knew when they would issue a visa and how long the window of opportunity to pick up the visa would last; so it was best to go soonest, even if it meant it was at one o’clock in the morning.
No matter what time of day or night I went to the consulate there was always about a half dozen men (consulate staff) sitting around the reception area, watching TV and eating a mountain of Quzi, a traditional Iraqi dish of lamb and rice, with their hands off a large plate.
As soon as I arrived, someone would inevitably say that it would take some time to organize my visa “so won’t you join us.” Basically the faster the food was eaten, the sooner they would get back to work and I’d get my passport back and be on my way.
There were no direct flights between Dubai and Baghdad in those days so I had to transit through Kuwait, Bahrain or Cairo, the latter being in the opposite direction. Fortunately, the Iraqi Ministry of Information nearly always reacted prematurely and the gathered press would inevitably have to wait a few days in Baghdad before the trip to the battlefront was organized.
The journey to the frontlines took anywhere from one to three days, depending on the remoteness and accessibility. It wasn’t uncommon to take about a half dozen modes of transportation to get there as well.
For the trip to Majnoon Islands, the Information Ministry chartered an Iraqi Airways jet from Baghdad to Basra (commercial flights to Basra were canceled shortly after the war began). From Basra we boarded helicopters; followed by a bus and lastly we all piled into mud-covered jeeps for the final leg of the journey. The vehicles were all covered in mud (including most of the front windshield) to prevent the enemy from spotting sun glares off the glass or chrome.
Gruesome trip to Majnoon Islands
Of all the frontline visits I made, the trip to the Majnoon Islands was by far the most gruesome. Horwitz compared it to “Flanders Fields, without the mud” (A reference to WWI). There was carnage everywhere. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but burned out vehicles and bodies, some with blood still oozing from the wounds.
The heat in June was nearly 50 degrees centigrade (120 degrees Fahrenheit) and even though the last of the fighting had just ended the bodies were beginning to bloat. The smell was nauseating, and I often doubled over — dry heaving in an effort to gasp fresh air.
It was a very real and eye-opening experience to see such a complete disregard for the Iranian dead. The identity tags of the fallen soldiers were rarely removed before bulldozers pushed the bodies into mass graves. On a previous visit a colleague of mine, went around and detached as many identification tags as possible, which he later gave to the Red Cross.
That night we visited Iranian prisoners inside an enclosed compound not far from the frontlines. Many of the prisoners were wounded and in pretty bad shape. They were obviously happy to see the foreign press and some passed pieces of papers to us with their names and address, or insisted we write down their names if they didn’t have it already written, in hopes that we might in some way be able to tell their families back in Iran their fate. I know for a fact that the names we got were later passed on to the Red Cross.
After our visit to the prisoner camp we went to one of the command bunkers where we were given a room to sleep for the night.
As dead tired as I was, I don’t think I slept a wink. The suffocating heat inside the airless bunker, combined with celebratory gunfire outside, was enough to keep me tossing and turning. At one point, in the middle of the night, I went outside just to get fresh air, but quickly retreated back in when an officer pointed up to the night sky and told me that all the bullets being shot in celebration have to come down somewhere.
The destruction of Iraq
Over the last three decades, I have witnessed all three of Iraq’s wars. At the same time I watched as a once-prosperous and proud Iraq slowly disintegrated into anarchy. It was Saddam Hussein’s ego that literally destroyed the country and killed millions of innocent people in the process.
He alone instigated both the Iran and Kuwait conflict, and even though the U.S. and her allies wrongly attacked Iraq in 2003, it was obvious that Saddam Hussein’s time was up. Sadly, while Saddam Hussein hid in a “foxhole,” it was the Iraqi people who suffered under the bombardment and the chaos that ensued.
It will take decades for Saddam Hussein’s legacy to finally die and even longer for Iraq to heal.