As the Americans begin to commit "suicide before the walls of Baghdad," Abu Mush' Republic Guard company is engaged in early morning exercises 180 kilometers north of the Iraqi capital. It is 7:30 a.m. on April 6, and the troops are assembled on the parade grounds of the main barracks at Tikrit, Saddam's and Saladin's home town. The city, built on a flat plain that stretches to the horizon, appears small under a vast sky.
"That's how it was," says Abu Mush*. Now, two weeks later, he is sitting in his living room, surrounded by brothers, nephews, cousins, and his three daughters. Abu Mush was Saddam's last man in Tikrit. He knows the story of the American victory, the victory that should have been the Iraqis'. "That's how it was," he says. Then he takes a fresh "Pine" from a blue pack of cigarettes, lights a match, and tells his story: "That's what this war was like."
It is April 6, and Tikrit is already half-empty and becoming even emptier. Civilian militias, Saddam's elite, a special force 20,000 strong, and the palace guards have already been deployed to defend Baghdad. Now the city's residents, another 20,000-25,000 people, are leaving the city in droves to take refuge in the surrounding villages and countryside.
Cars packed high with belongings roll through the main streets, past the walls of the parade grounds, past slogans painted in pale green and red: "Saddam and the Baath Party, always ahead for the Iraqi people," "Saddam's birthday is the birthday of the Arab people," "Saddam's birthday is the birthday of freedom." Of course, these things have long since ceased to be true.
Abu Mush' company consists of 270 men under the command of 30 officers. The unit has seven 57-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, six Soviet BTR-260 armored personnel carriers, six old heavy artillery guns, 300 AK-37 assault rifles, Jeeps, and one ambulance. Three such companies have been designated to defend Tikrit, the home town of both Saddam and Saladin. 900 men against America.
"That's how it was," says Abu Mush. His face is tired, making him appear older than his 42 years. His story is constantly interrupted by the comments of his brothers, nephews and cousins, who are more interested in discussing the gasoline shortage in the country, the power outages, the arrogance of the Americans. The war is still warm in Tikrit. "But we never saw our enemy," says Abu Mush. Ashes from his cigarette fall onto his left trouser leg.
On the afternoon of April 6, the main telephone line to Baghdad goes down. The military command at headquarters can no longer be reached. Abu Mush, a major and deputy commander of the company, one stripe and one star on his shoulder, watches his men play volleyball as the afternoon comes to a close.
They have spent weeks practicing house-to-house combat within the city's walls. In late March, they were deployed to the plains three times to practice rural warfare. Abu Mush feels that his men are 100% prepared for anything that might come their way, 100%. He is not afraid. He has been a soldier for 16 years. Going to war is his profession. Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti is his leader.
April 7 and 8 are both long and uneventful days for the troops. Their routine can no longer fill the hours of the day. Morning roll call at 6, report to duty at 7, exercise at 7:30, weapons exercises at 8 a.m. Take apart and reassemble guns. Then political instruction, breakfast, and a discussion of the situation among the officers. On television, they're saying that the Americans and British are laughably inferior, that the enemy offensive is sinking into the sand, that Iraq's glorious army is enjoying victory upon victory. But on the morning of April 9, the television screens in Tikrit go to freeze frame.
"That was not a good sign," says Abu Mush. Porcelain poodles, decorative chocolate boxes, plastic flowers and family photographs adorn the sideboard in his living room, which fills an entire wall of the room. One photo shows an uncle shaking hands with Saddam. "We had no orders, no news. We were uneasy," says Abu Mush.
The regional commander, a general who has become the commander-in-chief since the telephone lines went down, sends a courier by car to Tikrit with orders to prepare the company for battle and move the troops to man the gates of the city, to repel any advancing invader.
Abu Mush barks out the necessary orders. The troops pack their things. Company and equipment are to begin moving at 6 a.m. on April 10. But the night ends two hours early. In Tikrit, the war begins at 4 a.m.
The invisible enemy attacks the city with a terrible barrage of firepower. A storm moves across the plains, bombs fall from the heavens, and rockets are launched by the ton, without pause.
One after another, the bombs strike the offices of the intelligence services, the police headquarters, the offices of the state security agency, the Tikrit Hotel with its Corinthian columns, the central telephone switching station, the main wing of the Saddam Museum, the military academy. They strike barracks, military facilities, individual air defense positions.
But they don't strike Abu Mush. During a six-hour wave of attacks, his company is spared. Not a single bomb or Tomahawk missile finds its way to these 300 members of the Republican Guard. The company moves quickly to the south. It marches past the portal of Saddam's Faruk Palace, which bears two large mounted figures of the leader, and past the monument marking the grave of Saddam's father Hussein Madshid, rising 30 meters into the sky on the right-hand side of the road, like some multi-colored, sugar-coated confection.
The officers ask themselves: Where is the Iraqi air force? Has Baghdad fallen? Is Saddam still with them? The company is smaller now. Three dozen men deserted in the night. The soldiers don't dwell on it. Instead, they set up camp.
A few kilometers from Tikrit, they dig trenches in the hard-baked earth, lining the edges with a double layer of sandbags. The trenches are sufficiently wide and deep to permit one man to stand, arms outstretched, with only his head rising above ground level. There will be no house-to-house combat. A rural battle, perhaps. They set up their tents far apart from each other, and park their armored vehicles even farther away. On the evening of the 10th, the enemy launches new air attacks. The soldiers crouch in their trenches, hands folded over their helmets.
"We never saw our enemy," says Abu Mush, as if he were still searching. His entire body forms a diagonal line as he leans to the left in his chair, holding a glass of tea in his hand. "It was a war without an enemy."
On the 11th, without officers and without having lost a single man to the enemy, their numbers have been reduced to only 200 men. They make tea. Abu Mush enforces the prohibition on playing cards in the field. They wait. They drink tea. Wait. Drink tea. Until the next "alarm" sounds, as the sky fills with a low humming sound. Then they dive back into their trenches. The earth shakes. No enemy in sight.
The enemy should be coming from the south, but to the south there is nothing but an empty horizon. No Americans. No British. Not on the 11th and not on the 12th of April. And no radio contact to the other units that are defending Tikrit, Saddam's and Saladin's home town. Abu Mush thinks to himself: game over. In fact, he's been thinking this for some time, ever since the television screens went blank.
"But I am a soldier," says the major in forced retirement. He walks around, on thin legs, offering everyone cigarettes, and calls to the women in the kitchen to bring more tea. "I was responsible for my men," he says, "all good men, all around twenty years old."
Day after day they face the plains, an ochre surface, a featureless landscape stretching to the horizon. Behind them nestles Tikrit, a small city stuffed with 16 private palaces of the leader, palaces equipped with swimming pools, gold fixtures, music rooms, libraries, kitchens, laundries, long hallways flanked by bedrooms, and hidden safes. There is much at stake in the defense of Tikrit.
On April 13, a 40-year-old officer breaks down. He weeps in front of his men, worried sick about his family in Baghdad. He asks around for news of his family. He curses the Americans and the war. His soldiers attempt to calm him, an officer of the dreaded Republican Guard. Meanwhile, the waves of bombings continue.
On the next day, April 14, the defenders of Tikrit have been reduced to a paltry 25 officers and no more than 140 men, even though none of them has been killed. The Republican Guards, who had sworn an oath to defend, in all their actions, Allah, the revolution and the country "down to the last drop of their blood," are throwing down their weapons. They steal away in the night, surrounded by rocket fire.
By the 15th, the entire company, officers and troops, has been reduced to 45 men. Since the previous day, there has been talk in the trenches: Baghdad has fallen, Saddam is dead, the entire war was lost long ago. Iraq in the hands of the enemy. And the officers can do nothing about it.
"What were we to believe?," asks Abu Mush with empty eyes that anticipate no response. Now that the war has ended, he wants to do "something with computers." A 286 PC gathers dust on a side table. Abu Mush jumps through his internal war diary, turning the pages forward and backward and forward again, and reflects on the contradictions of his war with the Americans. "What were we to do? What could we do?"
On the morning of April 16, the encampment counts 45 attacks in two hours. The Americans, the British must be nearby now. These are no longer bombs from the sky. These are surface-to-surface missiles, some conventional artillery. Grenades. No one from Abu Mush' company is injured or killed. When will the enemy's infantry arrive?
That afternoon, the regional commander, the general, reviews the troops' position in a staff car. He provides no information on the situation. Yes, yes, he says, the other two companies are still defending Tikrit. The Americans? They can be expected to arrive at any moment. Baghdad? May Allah protect it. The general orders Abu Mush' people, all 45 men, to abandon their position and shift closer to the city. The men are relieved.
They pack. On the evening of the 16th they say to each other: "We could go home and see if they're all still alive. We could see if our houses are still standing. We could take a shower! Get something good to eat!" That's how the men part. They vow to meet again at the new position. They swear that they will not relinquish the field to the enemy. After all, they have sworn to defend God, the revolution, and their country.
On the morning of the 17th, 14 men remain. Abu Mush, the deputy commander, a major, is now the ranking officer. The company commander, a lieutenant colonel, failed to report to duty today. American paratroopers are landing north of Tikrit, invisible and unreachable to his dozen Republican Guards. The enemy takes up a position on the outskirts of the home town of Saladin and Saddam. It encircles Tikrit.
Now, after a week of phantom war, Abu Mush sees the first visible evidence of the enemy, as dust clouds rise above the plain. They are several kilometers wide. There must be many of them. Between the enemy and Tikrit stand the major and his 14 men.
What he and his troops do not know is that one of the region's four dominant sheiks is driving toward the Americans, waving a white flag, ready to hand over Tikrit without a fight. Tikrit capitulates without the knowledge of its defenders and without their having fired even a single shot at the enemy.
The company of the Republican Guard melts even further. During the course of the day, it has been reduced to a dozen men, then ten, and then eight. Abu Mush gives up trying to convince them to stay. Game over.
"It was no longer the hour of bravery," says Abu Mush. He swats flies from his face and orders a cousin to refill his guests' glasses with cold water. "There was nothing left to defend," he says, after spending three hours telling his story in the dim living room, "and all that was left was something we could lose, right?"
On the afternoon of the 17th, he is alone. Saddam's last man in Tikrit. The Americans take control of the city. They do so without tanks, without Abrams, without Bradleys. On the 17th, the paratrooper camp is gradually turned into a military base. Infantry advances into the city without encountering any resistance.
They occupy the parade grounds and transform it into the command post for Tikrit, Saddam's and Saladin's home town. On the walls is written: "Saddam's birthday is the birthday of the Iraqi people." On the Americans' tanks is written, in block letters: "Blitzkrieg Bop."
Abu Mush is alone. He faces the plains. Behind him nestles Tikrit, stuffed with 16 palaces of the leader. Abu Mush assesses the situation. He says to himself: Holding Tikrit does not mean winning the war. He asks himself why he and his men practiced house-to-house combat, week after week, on orders from the very top, at the behest of Saddam. He asks himself why they were deployed to the plains three times in late March to practice rural warfare.
At six in the evening on April 17, in the light of the setting sun, Abu Mush walks around the abandoned position and destroys the Kalashnikovs, to keep them from the enemy.
"Now I believe that it was the best thing for my men to desert," says Abu Mush. "Even Saddam said that our families were the most important thing. So it was good to go home." The brothers, nephews, and cousins chime in. Some of those sitting in the living room feel that what the soldiers did was not desertion. In fact, they say, what they did was to protest against Saddam. Abu Mush agrees. "If they had still loved Saddam," he says, "the war would never have ended so quickly, never. We would still be fighting, for months."
But on the 17th Abu Mush stands alone in the middle of a vast landscape. He looks around. His vehicle is gone. His driver fled with the car two days ago. Every other vehicle, except one, has been driven away or destroyed by missiles. Only the ambulance remains. The key is in the ignition. Now Abu Mush, Saddam's last man, finally gives up.
He gets into the ambulance.
He drives home.
"That's how it was," he says.
translated by Chris Sultan
*Name changed by the editorial staff