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“I vomited,” Mouffak Fathi Daoud says, and you have to understand why. Three young soldiers were brought to the trees on the hills outside Sulimaniyah. They had been retreating from the great battle against the Iranians on Jebel Maout. Saddam had ordered that all deserters should be shot. Daoud was one of the Iraqi army’s top newsreel cameramen. He didn’t have to watch. But he was a witness.
“They were between 20 and 26 years old. All of them said the same thing, ‘Our brigades collapsed; we retreated with the commanders’. They were all crying. They wanted to live. They couldn’t believe that they would be killed. There were six or seven in the firing squad. Each of the men had their hands tied behind their back. They were shot as they cried. Then the commander of the firing squad went forward and shot each in the forehead. We call this the ‘mercy bullet’.” Yes, the coup de grâce . How easily the Iraqis learnt from us.
Mouffak Daoud’s story is extraordinary. For eight years, he was the Iraqi army’s top wartime cameraman in the Somme-like conflict against Iran. He was even filming when the Americans stormed into Baghdad in April 2003. He still films for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior.
The old pictures of him show Daoud with an Arriflex film camera – he agrees real film will always beat the definition of video – and with long hair. “My colleagues would drink before we went off to the front,” he says. “One of my friends, he would drink Iraqi arak, so much that he was completely drunk; that was how he would go off to the front because he was sure he was going to die. But he lived.”
Others did not. The first execution Mouffak watched was of a young soldier outside Basra. Accused of desertion, he was sentenced to death. “The reporter from Jumhouriyah newspaper tried to save him. He said to the commander, ‘This is an Iraqi citizen. He should not die’. But the commander said, ‘This is not your business’. And so it was his fate to be shot.
“No, he did not cry. But before he was executed, he said he was the father of four children. And he begged to live. ‘Who will look after my wife and my children?’ he asked. ‘I am a Muslim. Please think of Allah, for Saddam, for God. I have children. I am not a conscript, I am a reservist. I did not run away from the battle. My battalion was destroyed’. But the commander shot him personally, in the head and in the chest. Then he lit a cigarette. And the other soldiers of the Popular Army gathered round and clapped and said, ‘Long Life for Saddam’.”
The longer Mouffak Daoud talks, the more you feel sorry for him. Eight years of frontline war. He talks about his colleagues, pouring liquor into themselves before they set out for the front each morning. “Some of them had to be drunk to go there.” It was obvious that Mouffak sometimes had to indulge. I tell him British soldiers on the Somme sometimes went “over the top” on rum. He nods. He knows what the Somme is. “A friend of mine, Talal Farid, he would never have breakfast, he would just drink arak. He wanted the power to die.”
Many did die. Take Abdul Zahera, who lost a finger at Moharemah, victim of a sniper. In the Iranian stores, Mouffak says, they found alcohol and drank it all. Abdul Zaheras was killed by a sniper at Qaladis in 1987. At the battle of Shalamcheh, Mouffak was stranded between the Iraqi and Iranian front lines, trapped with Iraqi soldiers who would have to surrender, hiding in shell holes and protecting his friend, Talal.
He was ordered to fly in a helicopter – on Saddam’s personal orders – to film the bayonet battles of Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, “so close that they stabbed each other and we could not see which was an Iraqi martyr and which was an Iranian martyr”.
Mouffak insists that the Iranians were martyrs too. He is no Saddamist, even if Saddam did give him a $3,000 (£1,600) watch for his battlefield filming. “Saddam came to Shalamcheh but only his personal cameraman was allowed to film him; we weren’t permitted to do so.”
The Iran-Iraq war has touched every family in both countries. “I lost my brother, Ahmed Fathi, in this war,” Mouffak says. “One of his comrades had a wife who was expecting a child so Ahmed volunteered to do his job for him while his friend went to Baghdad to see his newborn. It was 5 May 1985. My brother escorted an ammunition convoy to the front and it was ambushed and we never learnt any more. I went to the front and spoke to his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Riad, and he said he did not know what had happened. We got nothing. No papers. No confirmation. Nothing. He was married with two daughters and a boy and his family still wait for him to come home. They are still waiting for news. Because there was no body, because there were no details of his death, his name was not even put on the war memorial.”