Military history


Kill Yourself

THERE WERE THESE stories going around about the suicide bombers. Just rumors, of course. One story I heard was that there were so many volunteers crossing over from Syria asking to kill themselves that there weren’t enough missions to go around. A bottleneck of sorts. So the organizers were handing out numbers and sending the volunteers home—to Amman, to Damascus—and telling them to wait for a telephone call. The phone call went like this: “Number 27, it’s your turn. Come.” Made sense to me. So many people were blowing themselves up that it was hard to keep track. In the first five years, more than nine hundred people detonated themselves in Iraq, sometimes several in a single day. That was before you counted the car bombs, when the driver got out before it exploded. There were thousands of those. Among the insurgents, there was a large demand for the suiciders, as the Iraqis called them. In the summer of 2005, someone posted a manual on the Internet for would-be volunteers called “This Is the Road to Iraq.” It gave instructions for young jihadis to get into the country and told them what to do once they got there. Go to Syria first, the manual said, and make sure you tell the immigration authorities that you are going to Turkey next. That way, they’ll give you a transit visa and everyone will be sufficiently fooled. Take a bus to the Iraqi border, “wear jeans and eat donuts and use a Walkman which has a tape of any singer. Do this for Allah’s sake; war is tricks.” Once you are across, the manual said, do anything your bosses tell you. “Never say that you do not do suicide work.”


Another story concerned women. The young men who came across the border to join the insurgency often stopped in one of the towns on the Iraqi side of the border, Al-Qaim, say, or Husayba. While they were there, they waited for one of the jihadi groups to recruit them, or for their number to be called. And, the story went, the foreign jihadis were so popular with the locals that fathers would sometimes offer the fighters one of their daughters for marriage, or temporary marriage at least, one of Islam’s loopholes for casual sex. And eventually, the jihadis would go off to war, and they’d get killed, or they’d blow themselves up, so few of them ever returned to the little Iraqi villages where they’d laid up for a while. And so, the story went, some of these Iraqi border villages contained unusually large numbers of children without fathers. And unusually large numbers of unwed mothers. It was just a story.

Once I asked an American military adviser how he thought the pipeline worked. We were sharing a Coke in the Green Zone. If you were an aspiring jihadi, how would you hook up with an insurgent group once you’d crossed the border? “Oh,” the American said, sipping his Coke, “I think it would be like wandering into a bar in Belfast and asking about the IRA.” Not very difficult, in other words. The Euphrates River ran from the Syrian border all the way to Falluja, just west of Baghdad. The Americans called it the rat line.

The smoke was usually white. Not black; white. Black smoke meant other things. American bombs, for instance. But car bombs and suicide bombs sent plumes barreling into the sky that were, in my experience, nearly always white. This was useful knowledge if you were trying to figure out what was happening from a distance. Sometimes the white smoke was very white, too, even luminous. In 2004 a suicide bomber drove his car into the Lebanon Hotel. The billows of smoke shimmered in the night sky, like clouds in front of a full moon.

One autumn evening a man driving a silver Mitsubishi minivan filled with TNT drove into the cement wall that surrounded the Sheraton and Palestine hotels in Baghdad. The blast blew a breach in the wall, and before the cloud cleared, a cement mixer, also filled with TNT, drove through it. The Iraqi hotel guards had disappeared. The guy in the cement mixer made it as far as the curb outside the Sheraton’s lobby when his truck, a Russian-made Kamaz, got hung up on a piece of razor wire. I watched the whole thing afterward on one of the Sheraton’s closed-circuit televisions. The driver of the cement mixer, realizing he was tangled in the wire, backed up a little and drove forward again. He was aiming for the lobby, but the razor wire wouldn’t give. Finally an American soldier stationed on the other side of the complex spotted the cement mixer and shot the driver, but it was too late. The blast sent up a gigantic Hiroshima cloud, a dirty white-brown mushroom twenty stories high. I was in the Times’s house down the street. The blast blew out nearly every window. Our three-story cement building rocked back and forth like a toy. The radiator from one of the trucks landed in the backyard, smoking and hot to the touch. For a moment I thought we’d come under attack. I went up to the roof and watched the Iraqi police shoot wildly in the chaos.

The Sheraton still stood the next morning. The lobby was in ruins; all the hotel’s windows had been shattered. A pair of feet, bloodless and green, sat together on display on the sidewalk. The Americans said they’d come from the driver of the cement mixer. And there was a spinal cord, unfurled on the sidewalk. And a finger, black and green.

A month later, I watched a video about the attack posted on a jihadi website. It was a slick production, “Brought to you by the media section of Al-Qaeda,” a banner on the video said. First came portraits of the three suicide bombers: two of them had Saudi names and the third was Syrian. Then, remarkably, the video shifted to a briefing given by an Al-Qaeda planner to the three bombers before the attack. The Al-Qaeda leader was not shown in the video, but he could be heard speaking in a calm, dispassionate voice, with a noticeable Saudi accent. He used his electronic pointer to pick out various things on a surveillance video Al-Qaeda had made of the Palestine and Sheraton complex. “This is the gas station,” the Al-Qaeda man said, issuing orders to two bombers. “Brother Abu Jihan and Abu Daham will park there. They will be in the queue and no one will notice them.

“Abu Naim, pay attention,” the planner said, calling to the third bomber, who was evidently present for the briefing. “You will set off your bombs right here, to destroy the blast walls around the building.”

Toward the end of the video, one of the bombers offered his last will and testament. His name, he said, was Abu Daham Rahimullah, and he looked to be in his early twenties. Rahimullah’s statement, which he read from a piece of paper, was filled with proclamations of glory. But the young man had a sullen face, and he hardly looked at the camera. “I swear to God,” he said, his eyes darting, “I am the happiest I have ever been in my life.”

One thing I heard a lot was how the jihadis were sometimes tricked or coerced into killing themselves. Sometimes, the police would find the steering wheel of a suicide car—with the driver’s hand cuffed to it. Sometimes they would find the bomber’s right foot taped to the gas pedal, just in case he had second thoughts—or was shot while approaching his target. I heard something like that with respect to the bombing of the United Nations building in Baghdad in August 2003. The insurgents used a Russian-made Kamaz truck for that one, too. An American official with the CPA told me afterwards that although the cement mixer had a driver, the bomb itself might have been detonated remotely, by a radio signal. Not by a suicider. Apparently the driver had been told that his job was to park the explosive-laden truck and run, that the bomb would be detonated after he got away. It didn’t happen that way, the American told me. The trigger man hit the button on the detonator before the driver could run. Boom.

The craziest thing about the suicide bombings were the heads—how the head of the bomber often remained intact after the explosion. It was the result of some weird law that only a physicist could explain: the force of the blast would detach the bomber’s head and throw it up and away, too fast for the blast to destroy it. So there it would be, the head, sitting on a pile of bricks or underneath a telephone pole.

One day a man walked into the Buratha Mosque in northern Baghdad during Friday prayers and blew himself up. The explosives were hidden in his shoes. He killed eleven people and wounded twenty-five. I got there about an hour later. The walls were speckled with blood, and the workers were sweeping up the rubble. Sure enough, they’d found the head. They’d placed it on a platter, like John the Baptist’s, and set it on the ground next to an interior doorway. It was in good shape, considering what it had been through. Some nicks and cuts and a thin coating of dust, which gave the skin a yellow hue. The most curious aspect of the face was the man’s eyebrows: they were raised, as if in surprise. Which struck me as odd, given that he would have been the only person who knew ahead of time what was going to happen.

That day at Buratha, I pointed to the head on the plate and asked an Iraqi man where it came from. “Foreigner,” he said. “Not Iraqi.” The Iraqis were often adamant that the suicide bombers came from somewhere else. “Iraqis don’t do this sort of thing,” they’d say, like the issue was eating pork or drinking alcohol, though they did those things more than they admitted, too. Once I’d gone to the scene of a suicide bombing and the Iraqis were saying they’d found the foot of the bomber. How they knew it was the bomber’s foot they didn’t say. “It’s not an Iraqi foot,” one of them said.

The insurgents were always looking for a new and improved way to deliver a bomb. First came the car bombs, then the suicide bombers, then the car bombs driven by suicide bombers. Every time the insurgents figured out a new delivery system the Americans gave it a new acronym. Car bombs, for instance, were VBIEDs, pronounced “vee-bid,” for Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device. Suicide car bombers were called SVBIEDs, for Suicide-Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device. I never heard the acronym for suicide bombers on bicycles; they rode them into weddings and funerals. The insurgents hid bombs underneath dead animals, especially dogs. No acronym for that. And then they strapped bombs to dogs. Live bombs to live dogs. That would be DBIED, or Dog-Borne IED. Also, the D could have stood for Donkey, when they tied bombs to donkeys. In the fall of 2005 some marines discovered a donkey walking around Ramadi with a suicide belt on. They didn’t want to kill it, of course, but each time they tried to get close enough to remove the suicide belt, the donkey scampered away. Then they tried using a robot, one of those bomb-disposal things, which tried to waddle up to the donkey and defuse the payload, but the robot, too, kept scaring the donkey away. Finally the marines shot the donkey. It exploded.

Among the favorite targets of the suicide bombers were American ribbon cuttings—a pump station, for instance, or a new school—because of the crowds they brought. It got so bad that the Americans sometimes kept the unveilings of new projects a secret. Which kind of defeated the purpose. And the bombers sometimes got there anyway. Once a crowd of Iraqi children gathered around some American soldiers who were handing out candy at the unveiling of a pump station in Baghdad’s Yarmouk neighborhood. A suicide bomber steered his car into the crowd of children and blew them up. And then came a second car, also filled with explosives, just to be sure. There were lots of dead children. You could never be sure about these things, but I figured the candy bombing was a target of opportunity: the suicide bombers were just loaded up and cruising, looking for targets. I’d hear that sometimes. A suicide bomber is driving around the neighborhood, looking for a target; look out.

They started to come in waves. Four a day. Ten a day. Twelve a day. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Sometimes, all of them before breakfast. One morning, my colleague Ian Fisher was driving to Abu Ghraib to interview some Iraqi prisoners who were being released from American custody, when he came upon the scene of a suicide bombing just seconds after it had occurred. The victim had been Ezzedine Salim, the president of the Iraqi Governing Council. Ian stopped, stepped amid the bodies, did some reporting and climbed back in his car. A few more miles down the road, he came across another suicide bombing, the bomber’s body in pieces on the roadside. He never made it to Abu Ghraib. “This place is crazy,” he said, walking in the door.

No one wanted to stand in a crowd anymore. No one wanted to stand in line. Every morning the Iraqis who worked for the Americans in the Green Zone lined up for security checks before they were allowed inside, and the lines stretched for hundreds of yards into the streets, sometimes for hours. The same at police recruiting stations. One after the other, the car bombs flew into the lines. One after another, men wearing puffy jackets wandered into the lines, sweaty and nervous, mumbling to themselves, then exploding.

After a while, everything started to sound like a bomb. A door slamming in the house sounded like a bomb. A car backfiring sounded like a bomb. Sometimes it felt like the sounds of bombs and the call to prayer were the only sounds the country could produce, its own strange national anthem. The silence was creepy, too. One day there would be ten bombs and then the next day none. Twelve bombs and then no bombs. And I’d ask myself: Are they giving up? Or just reloading?

I think it was like porn for them. I think they got off on it. The insurgents made videos of their suicide bombings, like they were making an amateur sex tape. In the summer of 2005, one of the insurgent groups posted a “top ten” video on the Internet. It contained video snatches of their bloodiest bombings. When you watched the video, you could see that someone had arrived at the site beforehand to get a good view. It was usually someone in a car with his window rolled down, his kafiya half covering the lens. “God is great.” They always said that when the bomb went off.

The videos made me wonder: What was more important to these guys, the suicide or the murder? You’d think it would be the murder, but I wasn’t always so sure; there was a hint of nihilism in everything Al-Qaeda did. At the end of the Palestine-Sheraton video, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia at the time, gave a little speech. He promised victory for the Islamic world and, barring that, annihilation.

“If the enemy wins,” Zarqawi promised, “we will burn everything.”

I used to imagine the car bombers getting stuck in traffic jams, there were so many of them. Driving to Baghdad from Falluja, a half-hour drive. Falluja was the source. For many months the city was under the control of hardcore jihadis, who had set up something called the Council of Holy Warriors. Finally the marines went in and took the city back. I went with them. In one neighborhood, Shuhada, just about every house the marines went into was a bomb factory. Stacks of antitank mines next to stacks of cell phones next to stacks of circuit boards. Some of the marine units discovered half-built cars, too, cars with doors taken off and the back seat removed. One of the marines carried out an armful of antitank mines; he looked like a busboy carrying a stack of dinner plates.

Most of the bombs in Baghdad went off before ten in the morning. In the early days they woke me up. I’d hear the bombs and feel the walls shake and I’d jump out of bed. And I’d run up to the roof to follow the smoke, or I’d run out the door. Later on I slept through them. At first, in my ignorance, I thought there was some Islamic ritual involved, some special ceremony for suicide bombers that started before dawn and put them on the street at the same time each morning. Then I thought it was the drive from Falluja, the traffic. Then I realized: they were attacking at rush hour. There were just more people on the street then. More bodies for the blast.

MANSOUR AL-BANNA SAT at his dining room table and flipped through the snapshots of his departed son.

“Here is my son in New York City,” Mr. Banna said, pushing the photo across the table. “Here, take a look.”

The photograph showed a good-looking young man seated on a mountain bike, wearing sunglasses and a pale green jacket, flashing a winning smile. Downtown New York stood behind him in the distance. His name was Ra’ad, a young Jordanian lawyer on his first tour of the United States: another Middle Eastern kid who wanted to be American.

“Here is Ra’ad in California,” Mr. Banna said, pushing me another photo. “That is the Santa Monica Pier.”

Indeed it was, with the same exuberant young man standing in front of it. In this photo, Ra’ad was dressed in baggy knee-length shorts and a green shirt with palm trees. His hair glistened with gel.

Mr. Banna himself was a chubby, middle-aged man, dressed in a sweater and gray suit. He owned a company in Amman that made cement. He kept a cell phone on the table. His wife, daughter and other son looked on from the couch.

Mr. Banna found another photo, one of Ra’ad sitting on a Harley-Davidson.

“You see,” Mr. Banna said, “my son loved America!”

And so it was especially strange when, a few nights before, the voice on the telephone had told the Bannas that Ra’ad had died while fighting the Americans across the border in Iraq. The voice said Ra’ad had been a member of a group called “The Sons of the Gulf.”

“Your brother has been killed in a martyrdom operation,” the caller said, employing a common euphemism to describe a suicide bombing. “Congratulations.”

The day before I arrived at the Bannas, a Jordanian newspaper had reported that Ra’ad had died a suicide bomber, driving a tanker filled with gasoline into a crowded market in the city of Hilla. It was a gruesome attack even by Iraqi standards: the fireball incinerated 166 people. And then there was the puzzling obituary that had appeared in Al-Ghad, another local paper. It was paid for by the Bannas.

“Announcing the death of a martyr,” the obituary read, “who got his martyrdom in the Iraqi land at the age of 32. Don’t think that those who were killed for God are dead; quite the contrary. They are alive, and are even born again.”

The Jordanian news accounts had made their way to Iraq, and hundreds of people had rioted outside the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad. Iraq threatened to recall its ambassador from Jordan.

We moved to the couch. Al Jazeera, the Arabic news channel, was playing an interview with the Bannas on television. The Bannas kept glancing at the TV screen and then at me.

“I had no idea he was in Iraq,” Mr. Banna said. “Ra’ad told us he was going to Dubai to look for a job as an engineer.”

Ra’ad never made it to Dubai. Instead, according to Jordanian records, he had headed in the other direction and crossed the border into Syria. From Syria, one could guess, he had made his way into Iraq.

The Bannas oscillated between grief and denial.

“He loved life,” his mother, Bouthana, said. “He was a big spender. A big tipper—five dinars, ten dinars, even for the delivery man. This is not a boy who would become a suicide bomber. I am just waiting for him to walk through the door.”

The most intriguing part of Ra’ad’s story was unknowable: How did an English-speaking, American-loving, hair-gel-wearing lawyer who’d walked among the bikinis of Santa Monica come to blow himself up in Iraq?

Ra’ad had fallen in love with the United States during an eighteen-month stay in southern California from 2000 to 2002, his parents said. He’d managed to get a work permit, delivering pizza and working in a grocery store. He’d applied for a green card.

“He wanted to marry an American girl and become a U.S. citizen,” Bouthana said. Her hair was wrapped neatly in a head scarf, and she freely interrupted her husband. “He wanted to marry an educated girl, not a nightclub girl.”

Ra’ad had been in California during the attacks of September 11, 2001, and he told his parents they had done serious harm to the Muslims and Arabs of the United States. Ra’ad returned to Jordan when his visa expired, but soon left for Chicago, which, he believed, offered even more opportunities than Southern Cal. On landing in O’Hare, an American visa officer found a discrepancy on Ra’ad’s visa application and, after questioning him, concluded that he had lied. Ra’ad was sent home.

“When he came home,” Mr. Banna said, “he was crestfallen.”

It was then, Ra’ad’s brother, Ahmad, told a local newspaper, that Ra’ad had begun his turn to Islam. “September 11 changed Ra’ad from a very normal to a very religious person, praying constantly in the mosque,” Ahmad told Al-Ghad. But today, sitting across from me, Ahmad said barely a word.

In any case, whatever change overtook Ra’ad took many months. After being rejected for his visa, Ra’ad had applied to work in Amman with the United Nations, in a job handling human rights complaints. He was a good candidate, the interviewer noted, but he was turned down nonetheless.

Ra’ad’s father read from Ra’ad’s rejection letter: “The applicant did everything that was asked of him.”

With so few prospects in Jordan, Ra’ad told his parents he would leave Jordan again, this time for the United Arab Emirates to look for a job. That was a few weeks before.

“He called only a month ago to tell me that he found a job in Dubai—a good job,” Mr. Banna said. “He said he was the supervisor of an entire office.”

I asked Banna about the obituary, about its celebration of Ra’ad’s martyrdom. “That wasn’t my idea,” he said. “I was too distraught to write the thing and I gave it to my friends.”

The elder Banna hardly seemed like a harborer of jihadi sympathies, or even the father of a jihadi. He seemed like a befuddled parent. He leaned forward, pleading with me to agree with him.

“The Americans are in Iraq, trying to make a new Iraq,” he said. “Please tell the Americans we support them.”

The members of the Banna family agreed to sit together for a photo. Christoph Bangert, the photographer who accompanied me, corralled the family on chairs. As Christoph lifted his camera, the Bannas, as if on cue, began to wail and sob. Soon, with Christoph snapping, the Bannas were rocking back and forth, cradling each other, slapping their chests and foreheads.

THE AMERICAN HELICOPTER swooped low as my car came to a halt. We were on the Syrian side of the border, a hundred yards from Iraq, across an expanse of sand known as “the forbidden area.” It was a Kiowa, a two-seater, buzzing like an angry insect. A soldier holding a rifle hung out its door, searching the ground. The Kiowa had crossed into Syria. The Syrian checkpoint, which was right in front of me, was like an island; empty desert swept in every direction. I’d driven from Damascus that morning, along the green edge of the Euphrates River, which snaked like a vine through the colorless plains.

Groups of men were crowding round the border gates, pushing, moving, straining for views. Most were milling around. They didn’t look like men with business to do, in Iraq or Syria. They weren’t carrying suitcases or briefcases.

A pair of Syrian guards lounged inside an air-conditioned hut, smoking cigarettes. One of them spotted me. He lifted himself laboriously from his slouch and came over to my car. He was the chief, Major Ali Shamad, a thin man with a thin mustache. You will have to leave, he said, but he seemed happy to have the company. “The Americans are firing at random, firing at so many people,” Major Shamad told me. The week before, two locals, one Syrian and the other Iraqi, cousins, he said, were shot dead when they tried to walk into Iraq. Two others had been wounded. “Their planes come over the border every day. It is very provocative. Very provocative.”

Major Shamad sighed, in the weary manner of someone tired of having to explain his civilization to the unknowing. “The thing you need to understand,” the major said, “is that people on both sides of the border are related. Syrians and Iraqis—same thing.” They belonged to the same tribe, smuggled the same goods, grazed their sheep on both sides. No one had ever stopped them from doing that before. “Why don’t the Americans understand these things?” he said.

I backtracked down the Euphrates to a village called Abu Kamal, where I found the father of one of the locals who had been shot. Abdul Rehman Halhoum was his name, he said, a teacher of Arabic, and he asked me inside. We sat in simple chairs on a bare tile floor without carpets or much on the walls.

Halhoum said his son, Abdul Halim, and his cousin, Same, both twenty-five, had been shot by a sniper as they walked across the border at night. “As soon as they crossed into Iraq,” he said. The family had already retrieved the bodies, Halhoum said, which the Americans had delivered to Syrian authorities. Halhoum’s brother lived across the border in the Iraqi village of Al-Qaim. Another relative worked at the hospital where the two men’s bodies came first, also in Iraq. “I never had a problem with the Americans,” Halhoum said, “But after what they did to my son, I hate them now.

“What do they want with Arab land?” Halhoum said. “They are there only for oil. Everything is related to oil and Palestine.”

We sat for a while sipping tea.

“You could say I am an Iraqi or a Palestinian or a Syrian, they are the same, it makes no difference,” Halhoum said. He gestured out the window. “People here are angry enough to go and fight. They are quite ready to go and fight the Americans.”

I walked into the street, and my driver, Abu Mazen, told me that a man had invited me and my Syrian interpreter, George, to lunch. I had never met the man, and neither had George or Abu Mazen. But I was desperate to talk to anyone in this desolate town, so I agreed. George and I followed Abu Mazen down a dusty street to a squat pale house where I left my boots at the door. I was led through the sitting area, where I spotted a woman darting out of the room on the far side—my only glimpse. I entered the dining room, and a man introduced himself. Sulaiman Abu Ibrahim, he said. He wore an ear-to-ear beard and a sheer white dishdasha through which a large stomach bulged.

The room was bare but for a television set and an acrylic mat spread wide with a Middle Eastern feast: two kinds of salad; hummus; a delicacy of crushed wheat stuffed with meat and onions called kibbeh; grilled chicken; a spinach dish, mloukhieh; and mansaf, a traditional Arab stew.

“For you, my American friend,” Abu Ibrahim said, smiling and gesturing with his arms spread wide.

We sat down and got going on the food. Ibrahim, who seated himself next to me, began a speech about the Americans in Iraq. “Many Americans are being killed there,” he said. “The American soldiers are all from Mexico and Africa, and no one really knows about them, no one cares about them. The Americans dump them into the river at night so that no one in America knows how many have been killed. They are mercenaries. Do the American people know this?”

Ibrahim picked up a plate of kebab and plunked a few pieces on my plate.

“More food, my American friend?” he asked.

Ibrahim had evidently figured out how little Arabic I understood, and after every couple of bites he turned to George and told him: “Look, now, the food will stick in the American’s throat and he will start to choke.”

We were nearing the end of the big meal.

“Would you mind if we watched a short video?” Ibrahim asked. And he popped it into a DVD player. On the TV screen appeared images of Arab fighters dressed in kafiyas, carrying Kalashnikovs and RPGs. There were scenes of Iraq. Words flashed on the screen: “The Battle for the Baghdad Airport.” Ibrahim chuckled and sat back.

“Jihad is our oxygen,” a voice on the video said, to the scenes of masked men firing guns. “Without jihad, we cannot breathe.”

A camera panned a recently opened mass grave. Then it showed American soldiers entering Iraq.

“These are the things in Iraq the American people do not see,” the voice on the DVD said. “Martyr yourself in Iraq in the name of Islam.”

Ibrahim was nodding. The video flashed to a Caucasian man—the voice said he was an American—lying flat on his stomach. The screen showed a close-up of his face, and on the other side of him the legs and feet of other, unidentified men standing around him. A hand reached down, grabbed the Caucasian man’s head and pulled it back. The hand produced a knife and began to cut the man’s throat. The knife kept cutting, then sawing, and finally the head came free. The hand held it high.

Ibrahim was beside himself, rocking back and forth, running his finger across his throat.

Ameriki,” he said, dragging the finger across his neck, “Ameriki.

THE WALLS OF THE HOUSE swayed and the windows rattled and the bathroom door slammed on its own. I set down my coffee and spilled it over the counter. It was 8: 20 a.m. The explosion was unfolding so close I could discern the intimacies of its sounds, its timbers, the cracks of the tumbling debris, the simultaneity of noise and wave. I ran out the door in my T-shirt and jeans.

It was a few blocks away. A crowd of Iraqi schoolgirls were running, mouths open, eyes wide. The bodies were spread across Al-Nidhal Street in a tableau, burned brown, blown apart, no clothes. The blast had flung a body into a metal fence, where a torso lay in the dirt. The blast had thrown a body into a brick wall, pushed the wall over and cracked the body’s skull. The blast had tossed a body into someone’s yard, thrown it like a dancer, and it had landed in the pose of a ballerina. A man crouched over a dirty body and looked for something to recognize in its face.

The sky blackened. The bomber had crammed his payload into an ambulance and sped down Al-Nidhal Street to his destination, the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Another driver in another car, a Good Samaritan, had spotted him, sped alongside to catch him and cut him off. The ambulance exploded and disappeared, and the car of the Good Samaritan lay in the street in the fire, the driver in his seat, his hands on the wheel, his head arched in a final fiery grimace. From the walls that still stood hung hunks of bleeding flesh.

The building lay in heaps and next to it a crater, and water gushed from a severed main. The street was filling, a spreading watery fire. In the smoke firemen splashed like phantoms. “Oh my God, help me, oh my God, help me,” an elderly woman cried, her face and clothes spattered red, her arms extended for the young men who were leading her away. At her feet lay a severed arm.

The Americans arrived, children in the horror world. Young in laundered uniforms, they surveyed the scene with unknowing eyes, but the order they brought was real and they did not waver. A soldier knelt with his gun next to a corpse that looked like a doll. The American’s face was round and pale and his eyes were blue, and he glanced over his shoulder and bit his lower lip. Past him medics carried something on a stretcher, a lump of red and black.

A thud echoed in the distance. Then another thud.

“There have been two more bombs,” an Iraqi police officer quietly said to his colleagues.

By the time we reached Shaab, a poor Shiite neighborhood a few miles away, another place had been blown up, a total of four in less than an hour. In Shaab it was a police station. When we pulled up we saw the burning building and hundreds of people gathered round. There were five of us: the driver, Waleed al-Hadithi; Warzer Jaff, the interpreter; and two photographers, Mike Kamber and Joao Silva. We drove to the edge of the crowd, stopped the car and were walking in when everyone turned and surged. Some guy put his face in my face and started screaming and I was screaming back, and people were clubbing me from other directions. Someone stripped the phone from my hand, then my notebook, and then others grabbed my arms. I began to float, as if in a riptide, dragged to the sea, not moving my legs but drifting anyway; there was nothing I could do. There was a lot of noise and a voice came through: “Aktuluhum! Aktuluhum!”—the voice of an old man. “Kill them! Kill them!” I wondered where my colleagues were, and then suddenly the tide reversed itself, and I lifted off the ground and started flying backwards. It was Waleed.

He put me back on my feet and pushed me toward the car as he swatted a mass of them. Jaff and I dove into the car through the driver’s seat, and Joao came in behind me, but Mike was trapped outside when the bricks started coming. The windows were shattering and the crowd was yelling and a brick hit Mike in the head. He raised his hands, which turned quickly red; he crouched down and crawled into the back seat as Waleed started the car. People started leaping onto the hood. We still had our windshield, but I wasn’t sure if the car would move with all the people around it but it did, it started moving and the people were falling off as the rocks kept coming and the windows kept shattering. We plowed through the crowd, gathering speed, Waleed flooring it, and we took a hard right down an alley at high speed. I saw sunlight at the other end but a kid, too, already winding up like a baseball pitcher. Vida Blue, I thought, Vida Blue, the pitcher from the 1970 s. The kid had great form and Waleed gunned the engine and swerved to get him, and I was yelling, Hit him, Waleed, hit him! as the kid released his pitch and dove. The windshield shattered in our faces as Waleed swerved to run him over but the kid leaped away.

Mike was cradling his bloody head so I took off my T-shirt and we wrapped it up. We drove to the emergency room at Al-Kindi Hospital, which was filled with wailing people. We walked Mike into the lobby and then a hallway and into another room where wounded people had gathered. A doctor approached us, exhausted and jittery, and he guided Mike to a metal table to sit down. In the middle of it stood a pool of blood. Mike froze. “I don’t want to do that,” Mike said, looking at the blood. The doctor just laughed.

The Cloud

I WAS OUT for a run, jogging along the trail on the banks of the Tigris, heading south. I was nearing the halfway point, a defunct pump station that blocked me from running any farther. The heat was unbearable, as it usually was. I was carrying two half-liter bottles of water, one in each hand. I was about thirty yards from the pump station when I heard an explosion and the ground shook beneath my feet. I turned around and watched a white mushroom cloud rise up about a mile away. Close. They’d hit Tahrir Square again, a traffic roundabout near the Jumhuriyah Bridge. The bombers were always hitting the roundabout at Tahrir Square. They’d park their car next to one of the market stalls on the edge of the roundabout and wait for an American convoy or a bunch of contractors to come in, then they would hit the gas and fly into the roundabout and crash the middle of the convoy and explode. Happened all the time.

I stood and watched the mushroom cloud for a while. I needed the break anyway. The cloud was dissipating in the blue sky. After the blast, which was quite loud, there wasn’t any sound to speak of, at least not that I could hear from so far away. The buildings along Abu Nawas Street obscured my view of the square itself. If I had tried to run back to the bureau, our guys would already have left to cover it. I stared at the remnants of the cloud for a few more minutes. I tried to imagine what was happening. I took a sip of water from my bottle. I retied my running shoes. I turned and got on with my run.


THE LEGAL ADVISER walked to the front of the room, holding a sheet of paper. The marines, packed and ready, were assembled before him. The assault on Falluja was about to begin.

“Okay, guys, these are going to be the rules of engagement,” the adviser, Captain Matt Nodine, said. He looked across the room. “It’s going to be slightly different this time, so everybody listen up.”

He glanced down at his paper. “First, you can engage the enemy wherever he engages us, or where you determine there is hostile intent,” Nodine told the men.

“Your response needs to be proportional to the attack,” Nodine said. “That means you use the minimum amount of force to remove the threat and continue the mission. Let me give you an example. You may come under fire from a building. If you can kill the guy with an M-16 or an M-240, do that. But don’t call in an airstrike—take him out yourself. If you need a grenade launcher or a machine gun to do it, that’s okay, as long as you don’t cause unnecessary collateral damage. A TOW missile might be a later resort. Just remove the threat and continue the attack.”

He glanced down at the paper. An enlisted man was handing out yellow note cards to the marines in the audience. “You’re all going to get one of these,” he said.

“There are some circumstances under which you will need specific permission to fire,” Nodine told the marines. “If you are taking fire from mosques and minarets, you’re going to need permission from your C.O. before you can engage. The one exception for that is if the loudspeakers are being used to call men to battle. In that case, you’re free to engage. Take out the loudspeaker.

“Okay, hostile intent,” Nodine said. “You can fire if you determine there is hostile intent. What’s hostile intent? Let me go through some of the situations.

“If you see a guy carrying a gun,” Nodine said, “that’s hostile intent. It’s assumed. You are free to shoot.

“If the guy drops his weapon and runs, you can engage him,” Nodine said. “But if he drops the weapon and puts his hands up and indicates that he’s surrendering, you cannot engage. You have to detain him.”

He glanced down again at his card. Some of the men had begun looking at theirs. “If you see a guy on a cell phone—and he’s talking on the phone and looking around like he’s a spotter,” he said, “that would be hostile intent. Use your judgment, but you can shoot.

“Okay,” Nodine said, looking up, “if a guy comes out of a building with a white flag, obviously you can’t shoot him. Unless he starts to run back and forth with the white flag,” Nodine said. “We’ve had a lot of insurgents try to use white flags to maneuver. If he tries to use the flag to maneuver, that’s hostile intent. You can shoot.”

He glanced down at his note card again.

“Okay, ambulances,” Nodine said. “You shouldn’t be seeing any ambulances out there—the Red Crescent has withdrawn. But, as you know, we have had instances where enemy forces have used ambulances to transport their guns and wounded, and just to move around. So if you see an ambulance out there, fire a warning shot. If they don’t stop, that’s hostile intent. Use your discretion, but you can engage.

“Okay now, listen up, this is important,” Nodine said. “You might find yourself in a firefight where there are civilians around. You can’t indiscriminately shoot civilians, obviously. But it’s also possible that you’re going to see women and children acting in hostile ways—carrying ammo to the enemy, or placing themselves between you and the enemy. We’ve seen that. We’ve had cases where the enemy tries to use civilians for cover. We saw that in Mogadishu, guys hiding behind women and children to shoot at us. In those cases, use your best judgment about whether or not to engage,” Nodine said.

“And, if you have women and children engaging you—exhibiting hostile intent,” Nodine said, “you are going to need to prepare yourself mentally beforehand for the possibility that you might have to engage them.

“Any questions?”

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