Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Horrors of War Relived

Soldiers recount their experiences in the last days of the Saddam regime.
By Dhiya Rasan

For Iraq's military, the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime on April 9, 2003, brought an end to three weeks of warfare that were filled with fear, chaos, and the occasional desperate last stand against overwhelming odds.


As the likelihood of defeat grew, Iraqi soldiers and officers had to decided when they would stop fighting.


For some, it was a question of loyalty to the military or to the regime. For others, it was a matter of whether the greater danger lay in resisting the Americans, or being executed by regime loyalists as a deserter.


Some officers made that decision early, hoping to spare their lives or those of their men. Other officers made the decision later, having felt let down by their superiors.


Still others continued to fight until they were struck down by Coalition fire.


Although he was a Shia and no Baathist, Mohammed Jumaa was conscripted into the regime's Special Republican Guard, SRG, at the age of 25, just after he graduated from university.


While the SRG once carefully selected recruits for their ideological reliability, it grew desperate for manpower as the war approached.


Jumaa was stationed in a camp in eastern Baghdad. Soon after the war began, it was subjected to intense aerial bombardment, and the troops began to desert en masse.


The unit had 150 soldiers and 23 officers and NCOs at the beginning of the war. The former were reduced to seven and the latter to 17 by the last days of March.


Jumaa was reluctant to desert at first, fearing execution.


But the last of the officers soon made the decision for him, when they drove away with the unit's weapons.


Jumaa slipped away from the camp one morning instead of staying there alone and unarmed.


But he was soon stopped at a checkpoint and accused of deserting. He was beaten and threatened with execution.


Jumaa thought the end had come when a military truck arrived with officers who spoke in the accent of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit - a likely indication that they were hard-core loyalists.


"I thought this was the end of my life, that my execution order had been issued," he said.


Jumaa was beaten again, but managed to explain what had happened and was given two choices: immediate execution or defending the airport.


Jumaa chose the airport, although he suspected the result would be the same in either case.


At the entrance to the airport, Jumaa saw a row of bodies in American uniforms.


He believes they were US soldiers, decapitated by the swords of the Saddam's fidayeen militia and put on display to stiffen morale.


Inside, Jumaa was posted to trenches at the rear, and the Americans attacked soon after he arrived.


The frontline Iraqi troops initially stood firm, leading them to believe that "for the first time, we thought that we would be victorious in this war", Jumaa said.


But as the fighting continued, Iraqi troops began to stream to the rear.


Men complained of blindness, and difficulty in breathing. Many bore unusual and ghastly burns.


Jumaa and others believed they were being targeted with chemical weapons.


"The Americans won a great victory that day," he recalled bitterly.


Early the next morning, the force at the airport received unexpected visitors - Saddam Hussein and his son Qusay.


"The field we were protecting with our trenches was filled with security, soldiers, and fidayeen shouting 'With our souls and blood, we sacrifice for you Saddam'.


"All of them surrounded Saddam in a big circle, and he started to talk to us about how to use RPG anti-tank weapons. He took one of them from his guards and aimed it an American tank abandoned by its crew. He fired, and the tank caught fire. His famous laughter became very loud.


"'Let anyone who is afraid to fight go back to his mother', Saddam told the soldiers. But nobody dared to tell him the number of Iraqis killed in a single night."


Jumaa says he decided to stop fighting.


He and a friend smeared their faces with blood, and hid under the dead bodies in the courtyard. Soon afterwards, the Iraqis withdrew.


For a while, he says, there was silence, occasionally interrupted by a low-flying helicopter.


Eight hours later, he says, US infantry sweeping the airport arrived at his position,"One of the soldiers kicked me to make sure that I was still alive. When I responded, he brought his colleagues. Four American soldiers surrounded me and drew me out with their weapons pointed. They found out that I had no injuries when they tried to give me first aid. This made them laugh."


The Americans reported two fatalities in a two-day battle for the airport that ended on April 4. A full Iraqi toll has never been established.


Jumaa was taken as a prisoner of war to a camp near Basra, where he reports being treated well.


But the camp's translator entered his name as Jamal instead of Jumaa.


Unable to trace him, Jumaa's family decided he was dead and held a mourning ceremony for him.


Four months later, after his release, his astonished mother exclaimed "You're dead!" when he walked into the family home.


Jumaa still lives with his family near the airport, which he describes as a "ditch of death". He says that he is very happy to be alive.


Ahmed Kadhem Mujman, a captain in the special forces, was stationed at a camp at an isolated village near the town of Nasiriya in a unit of 250 officers and men.


Mujman says the unit had no orders to engage the Americans but was to put down any popular uprising that might break out.


Mujman did not like his orders and did not want to fight with Iraqi civilians, he said.


He would have preferred to open negotiations with approaching US forces and surrender. He tried to convince his fellow officers of this, but they had him arrested.


Five days later, the Americans attacked, and Mujman was released to fight.


The battle was completely one-sided, as US warplanes bombed the Iraqi troops and tanks outflanked them from the desert.


"It was a disaster," said Mujman. "The Americans [armored] forces shelled us and the fighters bombed us. We could see the positions from where they were shelling us, but we could do nothing because of our fear and horror.


"Late at night, I went to look for my friends in the front line, and I found their distorted bodies.


"I became hysterical. I lost my nerve. I wanted to get the bodies out of the place where they were hit to give them to their families. I didn't think about the danger."


Mujman ordered some of the survivors to help him evacuate the dead.


"They wouldn't obey, they wanted to leave. They were solders and refused my orders... No one had ever refused to obey my orders before.


"I begged them to help me to carry the bodies. I told them, 'They are your friends how could you leave them?'"


The soldiers relented, and began to load the bodies onto a truck. Then the corpses began to fall apart as they were moved.


None of the soldiers wanted to drive the truck, for fear it would be a target, so Mujman drove it to the main road, where it broke down.


As dawn broke, Mijamn managed to flag down a civilian car, but the driver refused to carry the grisly cargo.


As Mujman pleaded with the driver, he was surprised to see one of the officers who had arrested him, Kamal Yasin al-Mishehdani, coming down the road.


"I told him what had happened in our encampment. He did not seem surprised. 'Defeat takes away two-thirds of [your] manhood'," he said.


The two officers quarrelled by the broken-down pick-up truck, filled up with the bodies of their men.


"I said that what had happened to the soldiers was because you feared Saddam [too much to disobey him]. You sacrificed the soldiers for your survival, and felt no responsibility to them," said Mujman.


Al-Mishehdani eventually departed, as did the other driver.


"They left me alone until the American forces arrived, and I surrendered to them. The bodies were taken somewhere else," said Mujman.


Muhammad Abbas, 23, volunteered in to fight with the fidayeen - paramilitaries steeped in the cult of Saddam, who were among those who fought the Americans until the end.


On April 9, his unit was ordered to patrol the south-eastern outskirts of the city, on the look-out for US paratroops, not knowing that American ground forces had already penetrated the city.


As they patrolled, Abbas spotted a US tank. The fidayeen leaped from their truck into a nearby trench.


They intended to engage the tank with the heaviest weapon at their disposal - a PKS machinegun, whose bullets had no hope of penetrating the vehicle's armour.


As they were setting up the weapon, the tank fired. "The trench was completely destroyed. My thigh was wounded by a fragment of shrapnel, and I fainted," he said.


"Moments later I felt someone opening my eyes. I saw an Iraqi woman standing over me shouting, 'Can you stand up?' But I could neither stand nor answer her."


The woman dragged Abbas into her nearby home, and dressed his wounds.


While Abbas was lying there, the American shot at her home - he believes that they thought they had seen an RPG rocket launcher firing from the house.


The family smuggled the injured Abbas out the back into a private car and drove him to his house, ending his war.


Abbas says that he still "loves Saddam". He blames the defeat on "those who were incompetent around him, who sent us to fight without proper equipment".


Abbas' savior was Mona Khalid, 39, a doctor at Baghdad's Yarmuk hospital.


"It was a big risk," she said. "The American forces surrounded my house for three hours until I showed them my identity card, and explained to them that I treated the man not because he was with the fidayeen, but because it is humanitarian case. They understood and apologised to me, and paid me compensation for the shelling.


"I have taken risks to do my job in [Iraq's] wars, even thought I do not approve of what they do in those wars."


Dhiya Rasan is an IWPR trainee