Baghdad, Spring 1992

Baghdad was not being bombed when I visited the war-ravaged city during the early spring of 1992, but thousands of Iraqi children were still dying every month due to disease and starvation. Food and medicine were scarce, dead babies could be found in abundance and the governments of the United States and Iraq argued over the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Silencing the lambs was not very difficult for the Butcher of Baghdad and the Warmongers of Washington.

I despised both the butcher and the warmongers and, to satisfy my own need for knowledge, I traveled to Iraq to observe the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait and the resulting world war against Saddam Hussein.

“Why are you on bus?”

The Iraqi border guard was more surprised than suspicious about my presence on the passenger bus. Few Americans traveled the land route from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad, Iraq. He ordered me off the bus and into his office for a brief interrogation. The bus driver acted as our interpreter; he spoke very good English. The Iraqi asked for my passport and flipped through the pages until he found the visa permitting me to visit his country.

The questions were routine and I was allowed to re-board the bus. The other passengers smiled and nodded at me when I returned; I’m not certain if they were concerned about my safety or if they were just happy to get back on the road. It was a thirteen-hour drive on a crowded bus through a desert landscape. Unanticipated delays were not welcome.

The bus arrived in Baghdad at one o’clock in the morning. My first glimpse of the city was through a dirty window of a slow moving bus. We drove through an open-air marketplace that was illuminated by dim electric lights. The market was open and people milled about, leaning over the displays of vegetables, meats, spices, bottled water and various other goods; everything seemed to be covered in a thin layer of dust. The people were dressed traditionally, women in chadors and men wearing kafiyahs. The few children I could see were dressed in ragged, dirty clothing. The smells of the street wafted into the bus; I liked the aroma.

I took a taxi from the bus station to a large modern hotel. The officials at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington told me that I had to stay at an approved hotel. I approached the counter and asked for a room. I asked how much the hotel charged if I stayed for a month.

“It is one hundred and fifty dollars per night,” said the well-dressed clerk. “American dollars.”

“You’re joking'” I said. He had to be joking.

“No, sir. The price is the same for each night you stay.”

It wasn’t a joke and I wasn’t laughing. I turned away from the counter, picked up my bags and walked out the front door of the hotel. I was supposed to stay at this hotel, but I didn’t have enough cash to stay more than a few days, a week at the most. I also didn’t think I should pay so much for a room in an empty hotel. I decided to try my alternative plan. I had learned about a small hotel in the center of the city that allowed foreigners to rent rooms without asking a lot of questions. The owner of the hotel was related to the travel agency owner who sold me my airplane ticket to Amman. I opened my notebook and found the address.

“Taxi, mister?”

I gave the taxi driver the slip of paper on which I had written the address of the hotel. It was on Sa’doon Street, on the west side of the Tigris River. It only took a few minutes to drive from the luxurious surroundings of the multi-story modern hotel to the squat four-story building that probably had visitors arriving astride camels when it was first opened. I exchanged some dollars for dinars with the taxi driver and paid for the ride. I walked to the front door of the hotel and rang the bell; the door was locked and there were no lights on in any of the rooms. I rang the bell a second time.

A light switched on and I could see inside the small lobby. A bleary-eyed young man opened the door. He didn’t speak English but understood immediately that I wanted a room for the night. There are times when people can communicate without having to use a lot of words; I understood that there would be an English-speaking clerk on duty in the morning. I could wait and pay my bill at that time; the room would cost me two dollars per night. The soap in the fancy modern hotel probably cost more than two bucks. The clerk led me up a wide flight of stairs; my room was on the third floor.

The hotel was old, but very clean. There were no chicken bones under the bed and I had a small balcony where I could sit and look out over the city of Baghdad.

I was tired from the long drive through the desert and excited to be in the Iraqi capital. I had managed to avoid the official “guides” that were assigned to monitor the movements of foreign journalists, and I was not staying in a hotel where the Iraqi authorities could keep me under surveillance. I was a free man, and I was about to wander through the streets of an imprisoned and besieged society. I unpacked my bags, then undressed. I retrieved my small stash of pre-rolled marijuana joints and hid all but one of them in the bottom of the window curtain. I walked out onto the balcony and fired up the joint. I inhaled.

The city of Baghdad was beautiful at night.

* * *

When I obtained my visa, I thought it would be a good idea to contact other journalists who had previously traveled to Iraq. I spoke on the telephone with a few reporters and what came through loud and clear was how oppressive it was to work under the gaze of the official guides. I was warned to be very careful and not to attempt to “ditch” the guides; the government assigned them and they took their jobs very seriously.

I awoke early in the morning. I called the front desk and the English-speaking clerk welcomed me to Iraq. He confirmed the room rate and said I could pay in dinars, the Iraqi currency. I asked for a pot of black coffee, no sugar, to be brought to my room. The bathroom was clean and modern; the shower water was hot. It took me about an hour to get ready for my first day in Baghdad. I didn’t have an itinerary and I couldn’t speak Arabic. I did not look like an Iraqi. I loaded my old Nikon camera with a roll of film and walked down the stairs and out the front door of the hotel. I didn’t have a map of the city, but I did have an excellent sense of direction. I turned left and began walking through the streets of Baghdad.

“You are Russkie,” said the middle-aged man. “Not American.”

“No,” I replied. “I really am an American.”

I was sitting at a table in a small cafe sipping a cup of tea. I’d been walking for hours, observing the people of Baghdad as they went about their daily routines. The year before I visited Iraq, during the months of January and February of 1991, the allied coalition created by George Bush was raining destruction on the helpless citizenry. There were no bombs dropping while I walked around, though, and life in Baghdad seemed to be normal. Or, as normal as could be expected for a people denied the basic necessities of life. Food and medicine were scarce, and the modern infrastructure of Iraq had taken a beating. Clean water was a luxury.

“No, you are Russkie.”

“Here, look at this,” I said.

I held up my Maine driver’s license. The man took laminated card and pretended to read the words. He shook his head slowly, back and forth, then smiled at me. He still didn’t believe me. He couldn’t fathom an American loose on the streets of Baghdad. Tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed Russians were living and working in Iraq, and the man had no doubt at all about my nationality.

“You Russkie.”

There were only a few other customers in the cafe, and one of them was a young soldier. They were all watching as the middle-aged man and I discussed my country of origin. They were not hostile and, regardless of whether I was Russian or American, I was made to feel welcome. When I finished my tea, I pulled out a wad of dinars from my pocket. I tried to pay for the drink.

“No, please,” said the man. “I pay.”

There was no use arguing with him. The hospitality and generosity of the Iraqi people was a pleasant surprise to a citizen of the United States. My country had bounced rubble throughout Iraq and destroyed the lives of thousands of innocents, but the people I met during my visit were always friendly and polite, almost deferential. I would not be allowed to pay for any of the many cups of tea I drank during my travels through Iraq.

After leaving the cafe, I continued walking around Baghdad. I took photographs of people and buildings. The people didn’t shy away from having their picture taken and the police and soldiers never tried to stop me from photographing the damage to the few remaining buildings that had not yet been repaired. I walked for miles and miles.

* * *

“Where have you been?” said Ali. “Why didn’t you report to the Ministry?”

Ali was surprised and angry. He was the Ministry of Information official responsible for the care and feeding of foreign journalists. Ali was also responsible for their surveillance; he assigned the guides. He had just learned that I had been in Iraq for three days without checking in with the Ministry of Information, and that I had already been out and about in Baghdad talking to people and taking photographs.

“You could get into trouble, Mr. James,” said Ali.

Only with government officials, I thought. I had been in Baghdad for four days; three of them were spent interviewing a variety of Iraqis without any trouble. Everyone who agreed to talk to me would express grief and sorrow about what the war had created, but would always clarify that they were angry with the United States government, not the American people. The bombing was terrible, yes, but many of the people I spoke with were more concerned with the sanctions and security measures brought on by years of war and suppression. For more than forty years, the people of Iraq had been at war with either Mr. Bush’s allied coalition, the Iranians, or their own leadership; each group had succeeded in killing thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Ali,” I said. “I didn’t know I had to report to you.”

A true statement, but incomplete. No one among the Iraq officials I had dealt with to get into the city of Baghdad had ever given me explicit instructions on where to go and what to do. I realized, of course, that they would want to “guide” me through their country and, when I didn’t show up at the hotel or Ministry, someone would be wondering about my whereabouts. That someone was Ali. He immediately assigned a guide to assist me in doing what I had already done: tour Baghdad. For the next few days, I was taken to various cultural sites and museums in Baghdad. I interviewed a woman who directed a major art institution from a spacious sculpture-filled office where, years later, she would be killed when Bush’s future successor and current presidential election opponent, Bill Clinton, bombed Baghdad. I was being educated about the ancient culture of Iraq, but I wanted to learn about the lives of the living.

“Mr. Ali,” I said. “I want to go to Ur.”

“It is far away,” he said. “And dangerous.”

But, Ur was a major cultural site, the same type of locations where I had been dragged to for three days. It was located in southern Iraq, an area where the Iraqi officials didn’t want a lot of snooping by foreign journalists. I wanted to see what kind of damage was done outside of Baghdad. The only way to get to Ur was by automobile. Ali told me he would ask his superiors.

“Where are you staying, Mr. James?” said Ali. “I will call you when I know if you can go.”

I told him the name of the hotel. Ali was again surprised and angry. I wasn’t booked into one of the approved hotels. He asked me why.

“It’s too expensive,” I said. “I won’t pay that much for a room.”

Ali was experienced in dealing with journalists living on expense accounts. I was probably the first reporter he’d met without the resources to afford the high prices of the high-class hotels. Oddly enough, he calmed down and smiled at me. The penetrating eyes softened. It was as if he saw the human being behind the press card.

“I will call you later,” he said. “Maybe I can help with the hotel.”

I didn’t understand what he meant by helping. I returned to my little room in the downtown hotel, sat out on the balcony and got high. I looked out over the city. My view encompassed neighborhoods of low-rise buildings; the modern skyline of Baghdad was out of sight. Needle-sharp minarets rose up above the roofs of the buildings. Patches of broad-leaf palm trees grew in courtyards and gardens.

The city of Baghdad was beautiful during the day.

* * *

“Mr. James,” said Ali. “I have good news. You may go to Ur.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Thanks. When do I go?”

“Tomorrow. Your guide will meet you at the Palestine Hotel.”


Ali told me that his superiors understood my financial situation, and they were offering to put me up at the modern high-rise Palestine Hotel. It was located next to the Tigris River. All my expenses would be paid for one week, except for alcohol. If I accepted, I could move in the next day. I thanked Ali for the offer, telling him I’d think about it and give my answer in the morning. If I showed up at the Palestine with my bags, I said, I would stay there; if not, I would just remain in the small hotel. I was uncertain about whether it was ethical to accept a free room and all the food I could stuff into my face. Nothing that the Iraqi officials could have offered would have made me change what I believed, or affect what I’d write or report. However, I wanted to think about the offer for a few hours; and, since I was meeting a veteran journalist later that night for drinks, I figured I would ask his advice. Thomas [the veteran journalist] worked as a cameraman for VISNEWS.

“Why not?” said Thomas. “CNN gets freebies all the time.”

The VISNEWS cameraman and I were sipping Johnnie Walker Black Label at the bar in the Al Rashid Hotel. Thomas was an Englishman and had covered stories all over the world. His assignment in Iraq would soon end, and he was anxious to get home to his wife and children. I talked about my grandson. Thomas doubted that I was a grandfather; he said I looked much too young. But, by my fourth whiskey, I was feeling my age. I was 44 years old.

“James,” said Thomas. “Want to try a different drink?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

I was already feeling real good. Thomas thought it would be fun if I ordered the drinks in Arabic. He slurred a few words in Arabic.

“That’s all you have to say, James.”

“What am I asking her?”

“You’ll find out,” said Thomas. He was smiling.

I motioned to the bartender. She was a tall dark-haired woman who moved gracefully behind the bar. I mumbled the words as instructed, wondering what kind of drink I was about to be served. The woman froze. She looked at me with hard black eyes; she was not smiling. She started yelling at me and waving at one of the security guards lounging in the lobby.

“Let’s go, James,” said Thomas.

He hopped off his barstool and headed for the door. The woman was still voicing her displeasure as I followed Thomas out of the bar. We crossed the lobby and left the Al Rashid Hotel. Thomas was laughing hard as he signaled to a taxi driver. We got in to the vehicle and drove away from the hotel and the angry woman.

“Thomas, what did I say to that lady?”

“Oh, James,” he replied. “You don’t want to know.”

Thomas did not speak Arabic, but he had been in the Iraq long enough to have picked up some street language. He thought it would be funny if I asked the Iraqi woman for something other than a drink. I’m still unsure about just what I said, but it was sexual in nature and a really stupid and dangerous thing to say to an Arab woman in the middle of Baghdad, Iraq. We went to my hotel and continued drinking. It was four in the morning when Thomas finally stumbled out the door and returned to his own lodgings. I had to be ready to travel to southern Iraq in less than three hours, and I also had to decide whether I’d move to the Palestine Hotel.

“CNN gets freebies all the time” was about the only advice I got out of Thomas concerning the ethical issues of accepting anything of value from potential subjects of my reporting.

* * *

Ur was the site of an ancient civilization and the current location of a variety of large craters created by the allied bombing in 1991. It was a tourist destination without tourists in the spring of 1992. My guide and I climbed the crumbling steps to the top of a temple and looked out over the flat sandy landscape. It was very hot; the horizon was shimmering in the heat.

I didn’t really care about Ur. Anthropologists and historians might have enjoyed scratching around the old monuments and graves, but I was in Iraq to learn about what had happened during Mr. Bush’s War. The long drive from Baghdad to Ur allowed me to observe the damage caused by the bombing. There was a lot more damage to buildings, roads and bridges outside the city of Baghdad. As we drove south, my guide described what the buildings had been used for prior to the war; not many of the destroyed structures were connected to the Iraqi military. Food factories, schools, hospitals and other non-military buildings were completely flattened; there really were piles of bounced rubble spread out over the land of Iraq.

Damaged people were also spread throughout Iraq; they were dead and buried, or hidden from view. Human rubble.

“Tariq,” I said. “Let’s go to the marketplace.”

“It is not safe for you, Mr. James,” said my guide, Tariq.

He was worried about the local population. They were Shiite Muslims, and they despised the Shia Muslims who dominated the government of Saddam Hussein. In the days following Mr. Bush’s War, the allied coalition stopped killing Iraqi soldiers, allowing the Iraqi government to turn its weapons on the Shiite rebels who had been encouraged to rise up against the rule of Saddam. I was told that the people living in southern Iraq were not very fond of westerners, especially journalists.

“Don’t worry, Tariq,” I said. “Bring the driver. He can help you.”

Tariq’s job was to keep me from learning anything of importance, and to keep me from being attacked by angry Iraqi civilians. He was a skinny little man capable of deflecting my questions with a smile, but he would have been useless in an altercation. Our driver, though, was a big hulking young man with a menacing presence.

I doubted if I would need their help. My three days of freedom in Iraq had taught me that the Iraqi people were not bloodthirsty mobs looking to kill any and all Americans. They were just normal people trying to survive in Saddam Hussein’s police state while being sanctioned by George Bush’s global police. Life was very hard for the Iraqi people. When they were able to meet an American journalist unaccompanied by a government guide, the Iraqis vented their frustrations, not their vengeance. Iraqi civilians never threatened me.

The marketplace was crowded with people. It was located in the middle of a small town near Ur. I was the center of attention wherever I walked, but no one dared approach me. I had two government officials walking with me. I realized that I would have to lose my companions.

“Are you hungry, Tariq?”

I offered to buy lunch for the two men. They readily accepted, and we stopped in front of a stall that sold tiny chunks of charred dead animals speared on thin wooden sticks. As soon as Tariq and the driver placed their order, I turned and walked away.

“I’m a vegetarian, Tariq,” I yelled over my shoulder. “I’m going to buy some bread.”

I slipped into the crowd passing in front of the store and ducked low. I was a tall man trying to hide among very short people. I heard Tariq call after me, but I was out of his sight within seconds. I turned down a narrow alley and walked as fast as I could. I made a few more twists and turns before I stopped walking. The people immediately began crowding me, talking excitedly in the melodious Arabic language.

“Where are you from, mister?”

A young man wearing jeans and a tee shirt asked the question. Most of the people wore traditional dress, but this young man was garbed like any American teenager. “America,” I said.

Everyone understood, everyone smiled and everyone began talking even louder and more frantically. The young man tried to translate what was being said to me, but it was impossible for him to keep up with all the comments. I could only understand fragments of each brief exchange.

“Saddam is evil.”

“Bush is evil.”

“Americans are good people.”

“Why does America kill us?”

There was no time to do a taped interview with any of the people who wanted to tell their stories. I wouldn’t be able to write about the individual difficulties faced by the people surrounding me. I was only able to shoot a few photographs before I noticed Tariq and the driver. The people also saw the Iraqi officials and quickly moved away from me. The young man ran inside a nearby building.

“Mr. James,” said Tariq. “You should not talk with the people. It is dangerous.”

“Sorry, Tariq,” I said. Bullshit, I thought.

“No problem, Mr. James,” he said. “We are tired. It is time to go back to Baghdad.”

It had been a long day. I was also tired. We walked to where the official Iraqi vehicle was parked. It was a white Chevrolet sedan with government license plates.

“Would you like to drive, Mr. James?”

Tariq was smiling. The driver handed me the keys to the Chevy.

“Why not,” I said. No shit, I thought.

The drive from Ur to Baghdad took about three hours. The highway was modern and, except for the large bomb craters that pockmarked its surface, it was an easy drive. I floored the gas pedal and the car roared down the road at eighty miles per hour. Tariq and the driver chided me for going too slow. We only stopped at the checkpoints manned by Iraqi soldiers. The looks on the faces of the young uniformed men as I pulled up to the barricades would cause Tariq and the driver to break out laughing; I sat in the drivers seat as the soldiers peered into the vehicle, hoping that the armed young men would understand the joke.

I had decided to stay at the Palestine Hotel. I drove up to the front of the building. My bags were in the trunk of the car.

“Thanks, Tariq,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

I entered the lobby of the hotel. It was sleek and shiny and new. I was only saving a few dollars a day by leaving the old hotel, but the free food was a bonus. I registered at the front desk; the staff was expecting me. I took the elevator to my room on the twelfth floor, tossed my bags on the bed and grabbed for the telephone. I dialed room service and ordered a large meal.

My first published photograph depicted three small boys dressed in rags. They were running toward me as I stood in the marketplace near Ur. They were begging for food.

Saddam was feeding me, not poor Iraqi children.

* * *

I stayed at the Palestine Hotel for one week before moving back to the small hotel. The view from my window at the Palestine was wonderful, but I had run out of marijuana and my fear of heights kept me well back from the edge of the windowsill. The guides at the Ministry of Information controlled my days; at night I tried to get out and meet the people. Unfortunately, my guide would want to go along if I planned anything other than a walk around the area near the Palestine Hotel. So, I did a lot of walking in the neighborhood. I doubted that the Iraqi government authorities would think I was important enough to follow me on my nightly walks.

On my last evening at the Palestine Hotel I decided to walk along the bank of the Tigris River. I could’ve used the help of my guide when the armed soldier pointed his automatic weapon at me and shouted something sinister in Arabic. I stopped walking and thrust my hands into the air. The beam of a powerful flashlight blinded me.

“I’m an American,” I said. “A journalist.”

The soldier lowered the light, but not his weapon, and motioned for me to put my arms down. He didn’t speak English, but I knew he was asking for my “papers.” I handed him my passport. The soldier noticed that I was also carrying a small notebook; he took it out of my pocket. I didn’t worry about him having my United States passport; there weren’t any bombs dropping at the time. But I was concerned about my notebook winding up in the hands of the wrong person. The wrong person would be an Iraqi official who could read English. I never censored my thoughts and observations when writing in my notebooks, and the comments about Saddam Hussein and his regime might cause me big trouble.

I kept repeating the name of the Iraqi official at the Ministry of Information. I thought that might ease the tension and convince the soldier that I wasn’t an American spy. We were standing on a thin ribbon of asphalt that ran along the riverbank. It was dark. On one side of the pathway was the river; on the other side, brightly-lit fish restaurants selling the catch of the day. I could hear the people talk as they ate their meals. The Iraqi soldier spoke into his radio, then looked at his catch of the night. He said words in Arabic that I didn’t understand, but I knew instinctively that I should just stand and wait. A few minutes later I saw the lights of a vehicle headed our way. It was driving on the pathway separating the river from the restaurants. A military jeep filled with other armed soldiers stopped in front of my captor and me; the vehicle’s headlights illuminated the area where we were standing.

“Why are you here?” asked a tall man in an officer’s uniform. “Where are you from?”

“I’m an American journalist,” I said. “I’m staying at the Palestine Hotel.”

I pointed in the direction of the hotel. The Iraqi officer listened to my explanation, recognized the name of the Ministry official I’d mentioned and quickly decided that I wasn’t a threat to his nation’s security.

“No problem, Mr. James,” he said. “You understand that we have to be careful.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Can I keep walking?”

“Yes, but stay on the pathway.”

The soldier who had stopped me gave back my passport, but not my notebook. I reached out and snatched it from his hand. He was about to object, but the officer waved the soldier away.

“Please,” said the officer. “You go now.”

Certainly, I thought, no problem. I walked slowly away from the group of Iraqi soldiers. When they could no longer see me, I turned off the pathway and ran up a slight rise to one of the fish restaurants. I sat down and ordered a cup of tea. I lit a cigarette, then pulled out my notebook and began writing nasty comments about being stopped by an armed Iraqi soldier near the Tigris River.

* * *

The estimated death toll during the first year of sanctions against Iraq was 58,000. It was a number that stunned me, and I included the information in an article published after my trip to Iraq. I wrote about a “war without end,” and compared the number of dead Iraqis to a similar number of dead Americans. The Americans were the military men who were part of a ten-year shooting war against Vietnam; the Iraqis were mostly civilians, women and children, who had been starved to death or died from a lack of medical supplies in only one year. I did the math and figured out that more than a million innocent victims could die if the sanctions against Iraq lasted as long as America’s war against Vietnam.

Impossible. No American government leader would want to be responsible for killing innocent people in numbers that could be considered genocidal.

A million civilians allowed to die for political reasons? No way, I thought. And then I remembered Vietnam, and the millions of dead people whose names would never be etched on a long black wall.

James T. Phillips is the editor of This is a selection from his forthcoming book, Remembering Maine. This excerpt was originally published in YellowTimes. Phillips encourages your comments: