History

The Iraqis Who Survived America’s Shock and Awe

“I felt like somebody stomped on my heart. I knew these guys are going to their death.”

A damaged mural of Iraq’s ousted leader Saddam Hussein in a military outfit, next to a destroyed building in Baghdad
A damaged mural of Iraq’s ousted leader Saddam Hussein next to a destroyed building in Baghdad on April 24, 2003. Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

This article is adapted from “Shock and Awe,” the eighth episode of Slow Burn’s new season.

On March 17, 2003, George W. Bush demanded that Saddam Hussein surrender power. Saddam stayed where he was, and the U.S. invaded Iraq 48 hours later. The U.S. was joined by a small coalition that included Great Britain and Australia.

Bush announced the start of the war to the nation in an Oval Office address.

The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder. We will meet that threat now with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters, police, and doctors on the streets of our cities. 

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When the Americans arrived, Jamal Ali was an aircraft engineer in Baghdad. “I remember we were, we were sleeping. We just hear the bombing everywhere,” he told me. “So that’s when the war started. And we fall off the bed, because the whole house was shaking.”

Ali heard a rumor a week beforehand that the invasion might be happening soon. He hadn’t believed it. But he bought a generator and stored some food, just in case.

I call it really a dirty war because they want to get it over fast. So they targeting either the water stations, electric station, and all the essential things for the people, which is—that’s not good“ he said. “Everywhere you live, at least there is something important for the allies to hit.”

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“Some of my friends, some of my relatives, some of them there have been missing. They don’t know what happened to them.”

The night the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad began, NBC’s Ann Curry was on the U.S.S. Constellation aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Curry watched as the planes took off. There was a young pilot named Nathan that Curry had spent time with while reporting from the ship.

When the planes finally got back, I searched out Nathan and there was an older pilot with him,” she said. “Nathan was talking a mile a minute about taking out targets in Baghdad and how the mission worked. And then I turned to the older pilot, and he had experienced the first Gulf War. And he had been quiet this whole time until finally he said that flying over the desert, he could see the headlights of the U.S. ground forces moving in, and he passed over them.

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“And as he was heading towards Baghdad, he had the strange feeling, knowing that on the Iraqi side, there would be some poor slob in some tower, probably no idea what was going to happen and no choice but to man his post. And he felt for him. And it was just so interesting to hear that from a man who just drop bombs. And knew he’d kill people.”

By early April, American forces were all over Baghdad. Atheer Kakan lived in the neighborhood of al-Mansour, full of well-off people and Iraqi government officials. He grew up with Kurdish relatives and a leftist mother. He hated life under Saddam. I asked him what he thought when he heard that Saddam was going to go.

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I was supportive of Saddam’s to go, but I wanted him badly to go by Iraqi hands,” he said.

Kakan was working as a journalist and translator. One day, he went up to the roof of his aunt’s house. It was clear that Saddam’s military was on its way out.

And I look in the skies, and I see the American coalition forces, aircraft, and I was like, ‘gee, Zouliou, […] that means there’s no resistance at all, because otherwise they would not be, like, so visible.’ ”

Then, Kakan went out into the streets. There were huge crowds of people, all in civilian clothes. He saw one Iraqi soldier drop a duffel bag on the ground, and take off his uniform. The soldier was trying to escape.

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“And I asked them what is happening? And they said, ‘it’s a massacre, man. It’s a massacre. They are sending us, like, to confront the Abrams tanks and stuff,’ ” Kakan said. “And it’s like they give us, like, our RPGs. But our RPG is like, don’t even hit the American tanks and stuff. Or like nothing happened when we hit them. And then the American tank will shoot us with one bomb, and we’ll be, like, chopped into pieces, like shredded into pieces and stuff. And my heart like—like, I felt like somebody stomped on my heart,” he said. “I cannot believe it; I knew these guys are going to their death.”

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On April 9, 2003, Donald Rumsfeld announced that Baghdad had fallen. The Iraqi capital was in chaos. Looters busted into the National Museum, and stole priceless antiquities. U.S. soldiers were as close as 50 yards away, but did nothing for six days. 

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Pentagon officials said this was a matter of prioritization. Soldiers had secured more important sites, like the Ministry of Oil. And there was still combat going on, especially outside the city.

Rumsfeld said the chaos was “part of the price” for a liberated Iraq.

Stuff happens! And it’s untidy. And freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes. And commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things and that’s what’s gonna happen here.

After the invasion, Atheer Kakan and his neighbors took food and supplies from a warehouse near his home. That warehouse belonged to Red Crescent, the Muslim world’s version of the Red Cross.

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“If you don’t have a law system that, like, govern your life, chaos is going to be the only ruler. And that’s what happened,” he said. “I’m just saying it’s human being nature. I’m really sorry if many people thinks they’re superior to Iraqis. They’re just like, misguided.”

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There was no electricity in Baghdad, so Kakan and his friends would play backgammon in the street.

So that was our only joy. And then the American troops would come in and like, kick us into our houses. And you can imagine. I mean, you’re American, right?” he asked me. I told him yes. He apologized for the question, but I told him it was OK. After all, I had asked where he was from.

Imagine I came from another country,” he said, “as invader. And I tell you, ‘go back to your house.’ And imagine how would you feel about it.” 

Listen to this full episode of Slow Burn below, and subscribe to Slow Burn on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Join Slate Plus for your ad-free feed.

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