The Bombing of Baghdad, January 1991   1 comment

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In January 1991, John Simpson, BBC correspondent, found himself living and working from the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, just a hundred feet over Saddam Hussein’s bunker. Both he and the Coalition forces knew this: the European company which had built much of his bunker had handed over all the blueprints to them. The American embassy, before it had closed down, had warned everyone who stayed that they could expect to be killed by the bombing. Of the big American news corporations who had been present in Iraq’s capital, only CNN remained.

Simpson admitted that his reasons for remaining were complex. Certainly, there was a sense of duty and a commitment to the BBC’s role as a world-wide public service broadcaster. As its ‘Foreign Affairs’ editor, he wanted the Corporation to have proper news coverage of what was about to happen. He had not been ‘sent’ to Baghdad, but had chosen to go, and therefore didn’t feel it right to leave the city and leave the job to someone else. In addition, he was too interested to turn his back on what would be the greatest bombardment in human history. He had also undertaken to write a book on the crisis, and couldn’t therefore simply walk away from the final chapter. Although he enjoyed the sense of danger and excitement, he knew he would have to survive to be able to write the chapter. When he returned to London later the same year, he was interviewed on the popular radio programme, Desert Island Discs, admitting to its host Sue Lawley that he didn’t risk his life just to write the book, but because he was, indeed, a bit of a chancer. He thought he would probably survive, and then the benefits of seeing the war at first hand would be considerable in every way. Whatever his mix of motives for staying, the fact that he did has provided historians with a series of important eye-witness accounts of the Bombing of Baghdad, on radio, TV and in print.

Even on the eve of the day the bombing began, 16 January, ordinary Iraqis were sure that there would be no war. Nobody wants it, he was told. That night, Simpson produced what he considered to be the best report he had ever done. Despite what he had been told, it showed people taping up their windows and finished with the first air-raid sirens of the war. It was sent to London by satellite. The satellite revolution which had occurred over the previous decade had not simply speeded up the delivery of film reports for almost immediate broadcast, it had also meant that government control of what was shown on TV was almost impossible. Mrs Thatcher was unable, even had she wanted to, to control the images coming out of Baghdad as she had controlled those coming out of the South Atlantic in 1982.

That same evening, the French and American broadcasting organisations with teams in the Al-Rashid Hotel got in touch with them to tell them that the bombing would start that night. The BBC crew, which included two other hardened reporters, Eamonn Matthews and Bob Simpson, heard nothing from their bosses. They had apparently changed their minds and decided that the crew should leave Baghdad. Simpson’s orders came from one of the most senior figures in the Corporation, whom the journalist told that he would then need to get a new foreign affairs editor. They finally agreed that if Simpson chose to ignore the BBC instructions, he would not face disciplinary action on his return. However, the other members of the crew were told that if they stayed on in defiance of the instruction, they would be regarded as having resigned from the Corporation. The severance would be immediate, without payment to themselves or, should they be killed, to their widows. Four of the team, including the whole technical crew, decided they had to obey. Simpson, Matthews and Simpson were faced the prospect of staying on without a camera team and a picture mixer.

in the event, they soon found two cameramen, both of whom had been sacked for questioning their offices’ instructions to return home immediately. Anthony Wood had been working for TV-AM in the UK, and Nick Della Cassa for CBS. In addition to a hand-held video camera and Nick’s American NTSC equipment, the ‘new’ crew also had a satellite phone. It soon became obvious that CNN had done a separate deal with the Iraqis, who had agreed to let them have use of a government communications system, a two-way telephone line called a ‘four-wire’, which ran in a protected culvert to the Jordanian border. It was immune to the general telecommunications jamming which the Americans carried out. In return, anything Saddam Hussein wanted the world to know or see could be said or shown via CNN. Later, ex-President George Bush was deeply critical of CNN, the BBC and other broadcasters who worked in Baghdad during the war. As John Simpson himself pointed out, however…

even in wartime, broadcasters in a free society are not a co-opted branch of the military; their function is not and shouldn’t be to keep up morale at home, nor to spread deliberate propaganda abroad. In the Second World War the BBC, with Churchill’s full agreement, broadcast as much of the truth as the proper demands of national security would allow; so that often the first news of  British reverses was broadcast, not by Germans or Japanese or Italian radio, but by ourselves.

‘We always listened to the BBC,’ said one of the tens of thousands of letters the BBC received from its European well-wishers after the War was over, ‘because we knew that if you were honest about the bad things that happened to you, we could trust you to tell us about your victories.’

If you are fighting in a good cause against those who wish to suppress truth and honesty,  – whether they are Nazis or the Iraqi government – it is the worst thing possible to suppress truth and honesty yourself. The results of the BBC’s approach in the Second World War were of course remarkable. Not only did the civil population of Germany and the occupied countries listen to the BBC in preference to their own broadcasters, but the BBC’s international reputation for honesty and unbiased reporting was established for the rest of the twentieth century.

I doubt if CNN’s behaviour during the Gulf War will win it that kind of praise. Yet the Gulf War was the making of CNN… CNN denies strongly that it persuaded the Iraqis to throw everyone else out soon after the war began, and that it tried to stop them being invited back some time later… though CNN has also denied, rather unconvincingly, that it used the Iraqi four-wire communication system. What we do know is that by establishing its pre-eminence in Baghdad, CNN became the television news leader in America.   

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In the early hours of 17 January, soon after the BBC technical crew had told Simpson, Matthews and Simpson that they were leaving and the three ‘stayers’ had hired Antony Wood and Nick Della Casa, the bombing of the Iraqi capital began. The Americans started by jamming telecommunications. Remembering Saddam Hussein’s warning that there would be two enormously destructive waves of bombing, John Simpson felt distinctly nervous, but only the nervousness you feel before an important match, or a stage appearance. At 2.32 q.m, following his suggestion, he, Wood and Matthews headed out into the streets to film the start of the bombing. They ran across the lobby of the hotel into the silence of the cold night outside. Most of the city lights had been switched off. They had hired a driver for the night and they ran to his car, jumped in and slammed the doors:

‘Drive! Drive! Drive!’

But drive where? We hadn’t had time to work it out. Each of us shouted suggestions. I wanted to be in the heavily populated areas on the other side of the river, but I was afraid of crossing a bridge. All the bridges, we knew, would be bombed, and if we were stuck on the wrong side without any shelter we might well be lynched as spies.

We were still shouting when the darkness and silence exploded around us. There was an extraordinary racket, as the hidden guns and missile batteries started blasting off excitedly into the air. I remembered to look at my watch: 2.37. Red tracer flashed up in patterns beside us, lighting up the frightened, sweating face of our driver, and Eamonn peering through the window trying to see where we should go, and Anthony’s face screwed into the side of the camera. Sirens started up everywhere. Our ears were besieged with with waves of disorienting noise.

‘I’m getting this, I’m getting this,’ Anthony yelled.

The car took a sharp turn into an underpass, its wheels squealing, and came out on the other side just as a battery of rockets exploded beside us.

I’m glad you are, I thought. I could see what was happening: the driver was so frightened, he was heading straight back to the hotel. We were going on a mile-long circle, with nothing to show for it but a few flashing lights in the sky and some spectacular noise. As for the bombing, it hadn’t even started. This was just a display of nervousness by the Iraqi gunners… 

They tried to set up their camera in front of the main door of the hotel, just as the first rumblings of aircraft became audible over the anti-aircraft guns. However, the big security guards hauled them inside. They could hear that outside, the first bombs and missiles had begun falling. The whole building shook as they landed nearby, though nothing, as yet, had hit it. They were forced down into one of the vast underground rooms which were being used as shelters:

It smelled of fear. People were gathered all round the walls in little groups, lying or sitting, terrified or weeping or trying to come to terms with what had happened to them. The old rules that applied on the surface seemed not to work down here. I saw a young woman undressing in front of everyone, and neither she nor anyone else seemed to pay any attention. Children wept or defecated; old men and women sat looking at the floor, too frightened to do anything. And all the time, it seemed, the structure of hotel, fifty feet above our heads, shook and shivered with the bombing.

The crew couldn’t stand to be in this living tomb. They fought their way past a guard armed with a Kalashnikov in the dark and ran up five flights of stairs to the BBC office, catching glimpses on every landing of the extraordinary battle which was going on outside. They were unable to stop, since the guards were chasing them. In the office they found the other members of the crew, and John Simpson managed to record a piece to camera by torchlight, fearing that Iraqi soldiers outside might think they were signalling to the planes and put a heavy round through the window. Dodging past a security man on the corridor outside, and into an empty room, he locked the door and then found his way through several interconnecting doors until, in the light of the blasts outside, he found a bed. Beside it was a short-wave radio which he turned on and found it was tuned to the BBC. As if he didn’t know, the calm voice of the BBC announcer told him that the war had started, and President Bush told him why so much high explosive was being dropped on his head. As he was falling asleep, his watch told him it was 5.45.

He woke up three hours later and went out into the grounds of the hotel, where little groups of journalists were gathered around the white umbrella-like dishes of satellite phones. The skies were blue and empty except for the occasional puffs of smoke from ground-to-air missiles, and there was sporadic gunfire. The BBC journalist did a first telephone report about the night’s bombing, but couldn’t answer questions about what state Baghdad was in that morning. So he and Wood went out again, again dodging the exhausted guards. They found a driver and crossed a still undamaged bridge into the centre of the city which was eerily quiet and empty:

Our car was one of the very few on the streets, and there were scarcely any people to be seen: a woman trailing a weeping child, a few old men and women selling oranges. Here and there entire buildings had been snuffed out of existence – important government buildings, ‘Mukhabarat’ (security guard) centres or Ba’ath Party headquarters – and yet those on either side of them were mostly undamaged, and sometimes still had all their glass in the windows. A local telephone exchange, a smallish building opposite an hotel, was nothing more than a heap of rubble; the hotel was still completely usable.

A couple of hours later, a friend of mine who had been caught out in the darkness told me that she had seen strange red lights playing on the target buildings. British and perhaps American special forces had penetrated the city and were guiding the missiles with infra-red lamps; hence the extraordinary precision.

As we drove round, the driver spotted a ‘Mukhabarat’ car.

‘Allah! He see you take picture.’

The unmarked white car picked up speed, overtook us and forced us to stop. I got out.

 ‘Morning’, I said, ‘Just looking around. I’m sure you don’t mind.’

He did mind. He ordered us to follow him… We crossed the bridge as though we were going back to our hotel, but the police car signalled that it was going to take the right fork, to ‘Mukhabarat’ headquarters: not at all a good destination.

Now, though, the sirens were wailing again, and the Defence Ministry a quarter of a mile away along the river bank vanished in a pillar of brown smoke. You couldn’t hear the cruise missiles coming: you could only see the results.

‘Go straight on, Ali,’ I hissed at the driver. ‘Don’t turn. Go there.’

I tried to look ferocious: Ali had to be more frightened of me at that moment than he was of the secret police. It did the trick. The ‘Mukhabarat’ car turned right, and we sped straight ahead, the hotel only a few hundred yards away now. The missiles were falling again and the futile sound of anti-aircraft fire was everywhere. It must have taken the secret policeman a minute or so to realize what had happened and another minute to turn; but as we raced into the car park the white car was already entering the hotel gates. Ali was safe enough: he told the police I had threatened to cut his throat. Technically it was a lie: but he had interpreted me right.

Later that morning, John Simpson saw a cruise or ‘Tomahawk’ missile pass along the line of the road outside the hotel. It actually turned left at the traffic lights and followed the road which the white police car had wanted them to take. He thought it may have hit the ‘Mukhabarat’ headquarters itself, in which case he was even more relieved that they hadn’t gone there. Soon afterwards, he went down to the hotel gardens, where the satellite phone had been set up. It was around nine in the morning, London time, when he was interviewed by David Dimbleby on a special live programme, and reported the passing by of the missile, adding:

This is the first time anyone’s seen a war like this.  It wasn’t what we expected, to be honest. I’ve covered quite a lot of wars in my time, but I thought this was going to be horrendous: or at least I thought it was going to be last night. It’s turned out not to be so horrendous, and it’s the accuracy of the missiles which makes it less threatening than one thought.

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He didn’t want to become an apologist for any kind of war, but his words were taken as making the case for a new kind of warfare by many back home in the UK, myself included. Somehow, it was evident that war could now be more neat and tidy, without much bloodshed. Until the terrible bombing of the Amriyah shelter, in which hundreds of women and children died, ‘co-lateral’ civilian casualties were indeed minimal. Of course, had it not been for the greed and blinkered mentality of a number of countries, including Britain, in allowing Saddam Hussein to build up so large an arsenal of weapons during and after his war with Iran, it might not have been necessary for them to fight the Gulf War at all.

However, what he felt was incontrovertible was that, for the first time since 1918, this was a war in which killing ordinary people was not a main objective. Of course, those who were against the war didn’t want to hear this. When he went back to Baghdad after the war, he counted only twenty-nine buildings which had been completely destroyed, though those which had been targeted had been hit repeatedly.

Following the initial bombardments of 17 January, there were fewer than forty of the meia people left, including eleven British, eight French, three Italians, a Spaniard, an Australian, a New Zealander, a team of Canadians, five Americans, a Turk and a couple of Jordanians. On the second night, the Americans told the CNN team that they were going to hit the Al-Rashid Hotel, but that didn’t happen. After Iraq fired Scud missiles at Israel, there was a real fear that the Israelis might retaliate with nuclear weapons, but that didn’t happen either. The Al-Rashid had ceased to function as a hotel: there was no power, no water and no food. The raids went on day and night, but the missiles continued to loop around high buildings like the Al-Rashid.

The television crews rushed outside every time the sirens went off, meeting the embarrassed security men running for cover inside. On one occasion John Simpson collided with a desk in the hallway in the dark, cracking two of his ribs. Desperate to get on air, he struggled downstairs. Overhead a sensational battle was being fought between the Coalition planes and the Iraqi ground-to-air missiles. There were explosions all across the sky, but the BBC scheduling in London meant that he could only report on the battle after it was over and the skies had cleared. A wonderful broadcasting opportunity had been lost.

The Iraqi security men were only occasionally aggressive towards the camera crews. Besides being reluctant to be out in the open with them, most of them seemed to be praying that Saddam would be killed or overthrown. Certainly, if his army had fought in the way he had intended, there could have been large-scale losses for the Coalition forces. As it was, they only put up a token fight because they didn’t want to support him. On the afternoon the Information told them they would have to leave Iraq, their chief minder assured them that CNN would also be leaving. As it turned out, that was a lie. Before they left, the area around the hotel was attacked by cruise missiles:

Two of the missiles went round the hotel and hit the conference centre opposite, which was one of the entrances to Saddam Hussein’s bunker. Another was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and plunged into the hotel grounds. At the height of the action I recorded a quick piece to camera, with my back to the window. There was a terrible racket outside, but the people in the room were sitting there completely immobile and silent. Then Bob Simpson spoke.

‘It went right behind you while you were talking. It was a cruise.’

But there was no time to talk about it. Anthony and I went charging downstairs to film the damage done by the missile which had crashed. It had ploughed into the staff quarters, which were well ablaze by the time we got there. Fortunately no one had been in the huts at the time, and there were no casualties. As we were filming, we were jumped on by four security men. We fought them for a while, but in the end one of them got hold of the camera and took the cassette out… It didn’t just contain the pictures of the crashed missile; it also had my piece to camera with the cruise passing behind my head. I felt as though I had lost a picture of the Loch Ness Monster.

When they arrived at the Marriott Hotel in Amman, they were greeted, much to their surprise, by a reception committee from the BBC and various other television organisations. The BBC crew who had left Baghdad had managed to smuggle their pictures through, while ITN’s had been confiscated at the border. In addition, the satellite telephone broadcasts John Simpson had managed to make had been heard by immense audiences. After a quarter of a century in the trade, he could now feel that he had truly arrived as a reporter.

Source: John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke & Oxford: Pan Books.

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One response to “The Bombing of Baghdad, January 1991

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  1. crazy

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