On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, I was working as a correspondent for the American news agency, the Associated Press (AP), in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. My job was not only demoralising, exhausting and hazardous, it was virtually suicidal.
War was looming, and I was pulled between my sense of duty and my sense of patriotism – the dilemma of a native journalist reporting on a conflict for a news organisation that, in theory, belonged to the other side – to the enemy.
I had already spent more than six years reporting for the BBC and AP on the Iraq-Iran war, which ended in August 1988. For much of that time, I was in the trenches along the 1,200km-long frontline or investigating the war’s human cost and its political and social impact.
I had my own war to fight, too, as I battled to maintain neutrality between the two sides’ narratives and positions. Complying with global journalistic standards often meant employing “tricks” to avoid Saddam’s censors.
An Iraqi covering the war under Saddam
I no longer questioned whether Iraq would be bombed, just what would become of the 'cradle of civilisation'.
Sometimes it worked. But sometimes it didn’t.
There were occasions when I faced the wrath of Iraq’s Ministry of Information or its ruthless intelligence service, the Mukhabarat – often for stories they considered negative or insufficiently patriotic.
But if covering the Iraq-Iran war for foreign media was daunting, it was nothing compared to reporting on the US’s Operation Desert Storm for a major American news agency.
Under Saddam’s authoritarian rule, there were strict limitations on what could be reported. The cost of breaching those could be grave. An Iraqi reporter might face death for gathering information considered to be confidential or for writing an article deemed to be harmful to the state.
Really, I should have quit. But that would have meant losing both my job and the opportunity to be on top of the biggest story in the world at the time.
When I contemplated resigning from AP during a heated discussion with then Minister of Information Latif Nussayif Jassim al-Dulaymi about a report I had written on Iraq’s war preparations, I was surprised that he rejected the idea.
“I will shoot you with my own gun and hang your body over the bridge,” he thundered.
He had his reasons.
We were, after all, showing the world horrific scenes of death and destruction inflicted by the Americans, images that he knew could prompt the world to demand that the US stop its bombardments.
American reporters fled before the bombs fell
Many news organisations kept their teams away from the front lines, arguing that it would be too dangerous for their reporters to stay in Baghdad.
Then US President George Bush senior personally rang the heads of US media networks to ask them to ensure that their employees left.
Few foreign journalists were willing to remain. As they left and the doors to Iraq closed, I felt acutely aware of being stuck with my own destiny – for better or for worse.
The countdown to war had started as Saddam refused to comply with the UN’s January 15 deadline to withdraw from Kuwait, and I found myself deeply immersed in covering the crisis.
My fears gave way to my journalistic instinct.
On January 8, 1991, I made my fifth trip to Kuwait under Saddam’s occupation. It was a trip organised by the Ministry of Information to show Iraqi reporters the trenches and fortifications built by Iraqi soldiers across the country.
There was no doubt, war was imminent
On my return to Baghdad, I met the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat, whom I had known for years.
I had been at Arafat’s office less than two months before, when, on November 29, 1990, he had met the former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Nakasone had previously met Saddam in an effort to convince him to defuse the crisis.
Go and tell Saddam that Iraq will be sent back to the pre-industrial age if he does not withdraw from Kuwait, Nakasone had basically told Arafat.
Now, I told Arafat that war was unavoidable.
To my surprise, he called an urgent press conference at his residence in an Iraqi government guesthouse, telling journalists: “There will be no war. There will be no war. I promise.”
Once the press conference was over, Arafat was whisked along the 1,000km-long highway to neighbouring Jordan in a Mercedes. When the war began two days later, US warplanes bombed that same road.
There was one last-chance bid for a peaceful resolution from the then-UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar. He arrived in Baghdad on January 12, 1991, to tell Saddam to pull out of Kuwait.
I was the only reporter on that historic day to have access to De Cuellar’s spokesman, Francois Giuliani, at a secret guesthouse. Giuliani, a former Reuters journalist, told me that De Cuellar’s encounter with Saddam was scheduled for after the Iraqi leader’s afternoon nap the next day. From that, I immediately understood that the UN chief’s mission was doomed.
Baghdad, the ghost town
I no longer questioned whether Iraq would be bombed, just what would become of the “cradle of civilisation”.
The moment we would find out came on Wednesday, January 16, 1991, the day after the deadline set by the UN.
Government offices and shops were shuttered. Windows were taped. Tens of thousands of Iraqis crammed into buses and cars and fled the capital.
As dusk approached, the streets were dark and quiet. Troops manned roadblocks at the main junctions, but Saddam’s henchmen seemed to have given up altogether.
The city that history books called Madinat al-Salam, or the City of Peace, was bracing for war.
My headline that night was: Saddam defiant, Iraq bracing for military showdown, Baghdadis leaving or cowering at home.
At 2:30am, the first bombs fell. Explosion after explosion rattled the city. Iraqi soldiers fired back from anti-aircraft batteries positioned on rooftops.
By morning, Baghdad was a ghost city. Its main government buildings and communication centres either disabled or heavily damaged.
There was no electricity or running water.
The city of “A Thousand and One Nights” seemed to be on its way back to the Middle Ages.
Today, I am retired from active reporting. Yet, I am still stuck with Iraq as much as it is stuck with me.
The 1991 Gulf War, as I have repeatedly argued in all my writing, including my memoirs, A Life of Paper, was an eruption that has left Iraq forever shaken, and with it, my own life too.
Salah Nasrawi is a veteran Iraqi journalist who worked for international media, including the Associated Press and the BBC in the Middle East. He wrote for leading Arab newspapers and periodicals.