Fear And Daily Struggles: Reporter Reflects On Iraq War

As the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq nears, host Rachel Martin talks with former NPR correspondent Anne Garrels, who reported from Baghdad for much of the war.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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MARTIN: It was early 2003: Doctors reported the first known case of the SARS virus; the musical "Chicago" won the Oscar for Best Picture; and Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush made their case for war.

DICK CHENEY: There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We cannot wait for the final proof: the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

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MARTIN: We now know there was no smoking gun, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but back then it still seemed a frightening possibility.

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MARTIN: Then, in a national broadcast, 10 years ago today, President Bush gave Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein one last ultimatum.

BUSH: Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict commenced at a time of our choosing.

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MARTIN: We're going to spend a few minutes thinking back on the war that started soon after and the expectations of the Iraqi people and how they changed over the many years of war. Our guide is a name and a voice that many of our listeners will recognize.

ANNE GARRELS: The wind whipped through Baghdad overnight, rustling the ubiquitous...

MARTIN: That's Anne Garrels. She served as NPR's Baghdad bureau chief for much of that conflict, and she was one of the few journalists to remain in the Iraqi capital as the war began.

GARRELS: If war is to come, Baghdadis believe it will have to come soon. Virtually, ever night President Saddam Hussein appears on Iraqi television meeting various commanders and promising victory. But for most Iraqis, their days are now measured by foreign...

MARTIN: Anne, what is it like for you to hear that tape today?

GARRELS: I can't believe it's been 10 years. I remember so well because I then stayed on for the bombing, you know, as scared, frankly, as all the Iraqis around me.

MARTIN: In that moment, just before the bombs began to fall, do you remember what people were articulating to you? What were the fears of Iraqis about the war that was pending?

GARRELS: There were so many different opinions. Some people wanted the U.S. to come in. Others wanted an end to Saddam but didn't want the Americans to do it. Then there were, of course, people who wanted Saddam to stay. But first and foremost, people were terrified that the bombing would be like '91, that there would be horrendous destruction, which there was now, and then, of course, what would happen afterwards. I don't think anybody realized that there would be such an explosion of crime, revenge, sectarian violence, power plays. But there was a suspicion it wasn't going to be good.

MARTIN: You became close with one Iraqi in particular. This is Tar Vunis(ph). How did you come to know him?

GARRELS: He initially had been my driver. I was in Iraq for months leading up to the war. I mean, it was so clear there was going to be one. And so Tar became my driver and he also spoke English - hesitantly, but English nonetheless. And over the months I came to trust him. And he's one reason why I decided to stay during the bombing because he said he would be by my side and we had been working together for several months.

MARTIN: At this time, too, just the day-to-day tasks of getting on with life were getting more difficult. Power was incredibly rare. Water supplies were sparse.

GARRELS: You're describing it perfectly. Life was incredibly difficult and a lot of people were out of work. Tar had decided to go back to work with some Japanese journalists because he had had a contract with him and they finally fled the country, as did many journalists, because of the dangers. And he was out of work and never was able to find any work. He was Sunni but he was married to a Shiite and he was in a neighborhood that was taken over by al-Qaida. His family was in terrible danger, so he sent them to Syria but could barely support them.

MARTIN: Which is worth remembering - those who could flee did.

GARRELS: Two million people fled the country at least. And another two million were displaced within the country, at least, and well over 100,000 disappeared or were killed.

MARTIN: Ambassador Paul Bremer was essentially running the country at that time. He famously dissolved the Iraqi military and he banned members of Saddam's Baath Party from holding offices. This was important. What happened?

GARRELS: There were no Iraqis in control. And increasingly, Shiite militias began to take over. They took over the police force. I remember going to see American officers who were working with the Interior Ministry and they were terrified of the Shiite militias with whom they were working. They knew that they were really out to kill them, and there was a different militia on each floor, all competing each other as well with the Americans.

MARTIN: When did you, Anne, start to realize that this is more simply an insurgency, that essentially a civil war had broken out?

GARRELS: I think it began to be pretty clear in the end of 2005. And repeatedly would ask both the military and the American civilian administration about this and they basically told us that we were pessimistic, that we didn't know what we were talking about, but they were all living in the green zone. And the military at that point had pretty much pulled into their barracks because soldiers were coming under attack regularly. Their intelligence was getting worse and worse. And then there was the bombing of Samarra in 2006. That was the bombing of a Shiite shrine. And that just sent the sectarian violence off the charts.

MARTIN: What happened to Tar?

GARRELS: His family was in Syria but, of course, then Syria exploded. He's brought them back.

MARTIN: He's back in Iraq?

GARRELS: He stayed in Iraq, because he was afraid that his house would be destroyed or taken over and he would never get it back. And he was hoping that he could somehow get a job. But so far he's pretty much living hand to mouth.

MARTIN: You were in Iraq before the war. You covered it as it was happening. You were there for years in the aftermath. As you look back on it now, did Iraq turn out the way that you thought it would? Did it meet the expectations that you had as you reported on this war?

Not at all. I did not realize that the U.S. would be so ill-prepared. It was a terrible waste of money and lives. You know, Iraqis certainly don't love us any more for what we did there. We really have gained very little. It's good that Saddam is no longer there but the situation is far from resolved. All of this, you know, the sectarian issues, the security issues, the country is sliding more and more into an authoritarian regime. It is a tinderbox waiting to explode again.

Anne Garrels. She served as NPR's Baghdad bureau chief for much of the war. Anne, thanks so much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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