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15 September 2004

'He's just sleeping, I kept telling myself' 

On Sunday, 13 Iraqis were killed and dozens injured in Baghdad when US helicopters fired on a crowd of unarmed civilians. G2 columnist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who was injured in the attack, describes the scene of carnage - and reveals just how lucky he was to walk away



Tuesday September 14, 2004
The Guardian: go to original



PHOTO LINK: Dead and injured Iraqi civilians on Haifa Street, Baghdad, after a US helicopter attack. Photo: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad/Getty Images


It started with a phone call early on Sunday morning: "Big pile of smoke over Haifa Street." Still half asleep I put on my jeans, cursing those insurgents who do their stuff in the early morning. What if I just go back to bed, I thought - by the time I will be there it will be over. In the car park it struck me that I didn't have my flak jacket in the car, but figured it was most probably just an IED (improvised explosive device) under a Humvee and I would be back soon.

On the way to Haifa Street I was half praying that everything would be over or that the Americans would seal off the area. I haven't recovered from Najaf yet.

Haifa Street was built by Saddam in the early 80s, part of a scheme that was supposed to give Baghdad a modern look. A long, wide boulevard with huge Soviet high-rise buildings on both sides, it acts like a curtain, screening off the network of impoverished alleyways that are inhabited by Baghdad's poorest and toughest people, many of whom are from the heart of the Sunni triangle.

When I arrived there I saw hundreds of kids and young men heading towards the smoke. "Run fast, it's been burning for a long time!" someone shouted as I grabbed my cameras and started to run.

When I was 50m away I heard a couple of explosions and another cloud of dust rose across the street from where the first column of smoke was still climbing. People started running towards me in waves. A man wearing an orange overall was sweeping the street while others were running. A couple of helicopters in the sky overhead turned away. I jumped into a yard in front of a shop that was set slightly back from the street, 10 of us with our heads behind the yard wall. "It's a sound bomb," said a man who had his face close to mine.

A few seconds later, I heard people screaming and shouting - something must have happened - and I headed towards the sounds, still crouching behind a wall. Two newswire photographers were running in the opposite direction and we exchanged eye contact.

About 20m ahead of me, I could see the American Bradley armoured vehicle, a huge monster with fire rising from within. It stood alone, its doors open, burning. I stopped, took a couple of photos and crossed the street towards a bunch of people. Some were lying in the street, others stood around them. The helicopters were still buzzing, but further off now.

I felt uneasy and exposed in the middle of the street, but lots of civilians were around me. A dozen men formed a circle around five injured people, all of whom were screaming and wailing. One guy looked at one of the injured men and beat his head and chest: "Is that you, my brother? Is that you?" He didn't try to reach for him, he just stood there looking at the bloodied face of his brother.

A man sat alone covered with blood and looked around, amazed at the scene. His T-shirt was torn and blood ran from his back. Two men were dragging away an unconscious boy who had lost the lower half of one leg. A pool of blood and a creamy liquid formed beneath the stump on the pavement. His other leg was badly gashed.

I had been standing there taking pictures for two or three minutes when we heard the helicopters coming back. Everyone started running, and I didn't look back to see what was happening to the injured men. We were all rushing towards the same place: a fence, a block of buildings and a prefab concrete cube used as a cigarette stall.

I had just reached the corner of the cube when I heard two explosions, I felt hot air blast my face and something burning on my head. I crawled to the cube and hid behind it. Six of us were squeezed into a space less than two metres wide. Blood started dripping on my camera but all that I could think about was how to keep the lens clean. A man in his 40s next to me was crying. He wasn't injured, he was just crying. I was so scared I just wanted to squeeze myself against the wall. The helicopters wheeled overhead, and I realised that they were firing directly at us. I wanted to be invisible, I wanted to hide under the others.

As the helicopters moved a little further off, two of the men ran away to a nearby building. I stayed where I was with a young man, maybe in his early 20s, who was wearing a pair of leather boots and a tracksuit. He was sitting on the ground, his legs stretched in front of him but with his knee joint bent outwards unnaturally. Blood ran on to the dirt beneath him as he peered round the corner. I started taking pictures of him. He looked at me and turned his head back towards the street as if he was looking for something. His eyes were wide open and kept looking.

There in the street, the injured were all left alone: a young man with blood all over his face sat in the middle of the cloud of dust, then fell on to his face.

Behind the cube, the other two men knew each other.

"How are you?" asked the man closer to me. He was lying against the cube's wall and trying to pull out his cellphone.

"I am not good," said the other, a young man in a blue T-shirt, resting against a fence. He was holding his arm, a chunk of which was missing, exposing the bone.

"Bring a car and come here please, we are injured," his friend was saying into his cellphone.

The man with his knee twisted out, meanwhile, was making only a faint sound. I was so scared I didn't want to touch him. I kept telling myself he was OK, he wasn't screaming.

I decided to help the guy with the phone who was screaming. I ripped his T-shirt off and told him to squeeze it against the gash on his head. But I was scared; I wanted to do something, but I couldn't. I tried to remember the first-aid training I had had in the past, but all I was doing was taking pictures.

I turned back to the man with the twisted knee. His head was on the curb now, his eyes were open but he just kept making the faint sound. I started talking to him, saying, "Don't worry, you'll be OK, you'll be fine." From behind him I looked at the middle of the street, where five injured men were still lying. Three of them were piled almost on top of each other; a boy wearing a white dishdasha lay a few metres away.

One of the three men piled together raised his head and looked around the empty streets with a look of astonishment on his face. He then looked at the boy in front of him, turned to the back and looked at the horizon again. Then he slowly started moving his head to the ground, rested his head on his arms and stretched his hands towards something that he could see. It was the guy who had been beating his chest earlier, trying to help his brother. He wanted help but no one helped. He was just there dying in front of me. Time didn't exist. The streets were empty and silent and the men lay there dying together. He slid down to the ground, and after five minutes was flat on the street.

I moved, crouching, towards where they were. They were like sleeping men with their arms wrapped around each other in the middle of the empty street. I went to photograph the boy with the dishdasha. He's just sleeping, I kept telling myself. I didn't want to wake him. The boy with the amputated leg was there too, left there by the people who were pulling him earlier. The vehicle was still burning.

More kids ventured into the street, looking with curiosity at the dead and injured. Then someone shouted "Helicopters!" and we ran. I turned and saw two small helicopters, black and evil. Frightened, I ran back to my shelter where I heard two more big explosions. At the end of the street the man in the orange overall was still sweeping the street.

The man with the bent knee was unconscious now, his face flat on the curb. Some kids came and said, "He is dead." I screamed at them. "Don't say that! He is still alive! Don't scare him." I asked him if he was OK, but he didn't reply.

We left the kids behind the bent-knee guy, the cellphone guy and the blue V-neck T-shirt guy; they were all unconscious now. We left them to die there alone. I didn't even try to move any with me. I just ran selfishly away. I reached a building entrance when someone grabbed my arm and took me inside. "There's an injured man. Take pictures - show the world the American democracy," he said. A man was lying in the corridor in total darkness as someone bandaged him.

Some others told me there was another journalist in the building. They took me to a stairwell leading to the basement, where a Reuters cameraman, a cheerful chubby guy, was lying holding his camera next to his head. He wasn't screaming but he had a look of pain in his eyes.

I tried to remember his name to call his office, but I couldn't. He was a friend, we had worked together for months. I have seen him in every press conference, but I couldn't remember his name.

In time, an ambulance came. I ran to the street as others emerged from their hiding places, all trying to carry injured civilians to the ambulance.

"No, this one is dead," said the driver. "Get someone else."

The ambulance drove away and we all scattered, thinking to ourselves: the Americans won't fire at an ambulance but they will at us. This scene was repeated a couple of times: each time we heard an ambulance we would emerge into the streets, running for cover again as it left.

Yesterday, sitting in the office, another photographer who was looking at my pictures exclaimed: "So the Arabiya journalist was alive when you were taking pictures!"

"I didn't see the Arabiya journalist."

He pointed at the picture of the guy with V-neck T-shirt. It was him. He was dead. All the people I had shared my shelter with were dead.


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13 September 2004

Unmasked: The George W Bush the President Doesn't Want the World To See 

Sunday Herald - 12 September 2004

Go to original


With less than 50 days to the US polls and a 10-point lead over John Kerry, George W Bush’s re-election as President looks a breeze. Despite his dodgy past, he has successfully sold himself as a ‘hero’ War President and defender of traditional US values. How did he do it? Bush’s people have run riot over Kerry’s record, so what about the President’s?

By Neil Mackay, Investigations Editor - Sunday Herald

Is President George W Bush, who weaves a narrative about himself as a man of God, actually a charlatan? Is he really a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Is his faith a sham? Is he more bad boy than born again? More playboy than penitent?

This past month has seen John Kerry, Bush’s Democratic rival for the White House, take one almighty pasting from the Republican right wing over accusations that he exaggerated his military record in Vietnam. Kerry, a many times decorated navy Vietnam veteran, said the smear campaign was orchestrated by a Bush team desperate to divert attention from the woeful state of the US economy and the running sore of Iraq.

But this week it’s Bush’s turn to line up for a beating. But where Kerry has a single questionable question mark hanging over his past, Bush’s charge sheet for alleged wrongdoing has got it all – sex, drugs, cowardice, cruelty; his alleged failings and foibles are imperial in stature.

These are the issues being debated as a result of further revelations into the shrouded past of the President.

His Military Record

President Bush has wrapped himself in the Stars and Stripes since the horror of September 11. His presidency has pushed a simple message: America is in danger and he’s the man to keep the people safe; he’ll take the fight against the terrorists abroad and he’s proud of the USA’s troops.

If that is the case, why is Bush mired in a scandal about his Vietnam-era service, or lack of, with fresh allegations that he was able to sneak out of serving his country overseas because his daddy was famous, powerful and rolling in cash?

Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war as a pilot and never left the country. He even cut short his military commitment in 1973. In 1989, he told a local newspaper in Texas: “I regret not having gone to Vietnam.” He went on to say that “I did my time” and “I did my duty”.

Despite Bush’s claims, his service in the home-based National Guard is highly questionable. CBS Television’s acclaimed 60 Minutes programme interviewed Ben Barnes, a former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, who said that he pulled strings for a Bush family friend to get George Jr into the National Guard so he could avoid service in Vietnam.

“I was a young, ambitious politician,” Barnes said, “doing what I thought was acceptable, that was important to make friends … I would describe it as preferential treatment.

“I was maybe determining life or death and that’s not a power that I want to have. I’ve thought about it an awful lot. You walk through the Vietnam memorial and, I tell you, you’ll think about it a long time.”

CBS also produced documents which allegedly showed that in 1973, Bush’s superior officer complained of being pressurised to “sugar-coat” an annual officer evaluation for Bush even though the future President had not been at the base for the year in question. His opponents accuse him of going awol – absent without leave.

According to airforce records, Bush did not meet his military commitments. On July 30, 1973, shortly before he moved from Houston, Texas, to Harvard to take an MBA course, he signed a document that declared: “It is my responsibility to locate and be assigned to another reserve forces unit or mobilisation augmentation position. If I fail to do so, I am subject to involuntary order to active duty for up to 24 months.”

Bush didn’t sign up with a National Guard unit when he moved to New England – but nor did he get drafted as a punishment. In May 1968, Bush signed a “statement of understanding” that he would “achieve satisfactory participation”, including attendance at 24 days of annual weekend duty and 15 days of annual active duty at home. The document also said that Bush would face two years in Vietnam for “unsatisfactory participation”.

Bush performed no service for an entire six-month period in 1972 and for a period lasting almost three months in 1973, yet Bush’s unit certified in late 1973 that his service had been “satisfactory”. His opponents say this was favouritism shown to a wilful rich boy.

Retired army colonel Gerald A Lechliter, who has studied Bush’s military records, says: “He broke his contract with the United States government – without any adverse consequences. And the Texas Air National Guard was complicit in allowing this to happen. He was a pilot. It cost the government a million dollars to train him to fly. So he should have been held to an even higher standard.”

The unit that Bush was assigned to was known as the Champagne Squadron because of the number of sons of American millionaires who served in it. The unit included the sons of former Texas governor John Connally and former senator Lloyd Bensten, as well as several members of the Dallas Cowboys American football team.

Retired Lt Col Albert C Lloyd Jr said that by not joining a unit in Massachusetts, Bush “took a chance that he could be called up for active duty, but the war was winding down and he probably knew that the airforce was not enforcing the penalty”.

Lawrence J Korb, an assistant secretary of defence in the Reagan White House, said Bush “gamed the system”, adding: “If I cheat on my income tax and don’t get caught, I’m still cheating on my income tax.”

When Bush enlisted in the US equivalent of the Territorial Army, he was given an automatic commission as a second lieutenant and underwent flight training for 13 months. In June 1970, he began what should have been a four-year posting with the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. However, in May 1972 he moved to Alabama to work on a US senate campaign on the condition that he trained with the National Guard in that state.

Nobody has come forward with any memory of Bush serving in the National Guard while in Alabama or when he returned to Texas in 1973. In Alabama, Bush was removed from flight status as he failed to take an annual physical test in July 1972.

His last physical test had been in May 1971. Major General Paul A Weaver Jr, who retired in 2002 as head of the Pentagon’s Air National Guard, said: “There is no excuse for that. Aviators just don’t miss their flight physicals.”

After inspecting Bush’s brief record of flying, Weaver said: “I would not have let him near the airplane.” Weaver added: “It appears that nobody wanted to hold him accountable.” Former friends of the Bush family have said that Bush was sent to Alabama as he kept “getting in trouble and embarrassing the family”.

In May 1973, Bush’s superior officers said they could not complete his annual performance review as he had not been seen at the base in Houston for 12 months. Terry McAuliffe, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that “the President did not serve honourably”.

Memos uncovered by CBS purport to show that Bush’s superior officer, Lt Col Jerry B Killian, felt he was being forced by his own commander, Brigadier General Walter B Staudt, to go soft on Bush for his underperformance.

The memo, dated August 1973, shows the political clout that Bush had and an attempt, opponents say, to embellish his service record. Bush’s father was a Houston congressman at the time of the Vietnam war.

Another Killian memo, headed “Subject: CYA” – a military acronym for “cover your ass” – reads that Staudt “has obviously pressured [Major-General Bobby W] Hodges more about Bush. I’m having trouble running interference and doing my job”.

The memo adds that Killian received “a message today … regarding Bush’s [annual officer efficiency report] and Staudt is pushing to sugar-coat it”. Killian also felt that Bush was “talking to someone upstairs” to engineer a move to Alabama.

Robert Strong, a friend of the late Killian who ran the Texas Air National Guard offices, said that because of Bush Killian had “found himself between a rock and a hard place”.

CBS reported that the White House did not dispute the authenticity of these documents. However, some questions have been raised about their provenance, with typographical experts saying the documents were produced by computers, not 1970s typewriters.

CBS, however, said it had the documents authenticated by its own experts. CBS also spoke to Killian’s superior, Major-General Hodges, who said the sentiments in the memos were the same as Killian expressed to him. However, Marjorie Connell, Killian’s widow, said she didn’t believe her husband would have used the words in the memos.

In a reversal of the sniper attacks launched on John Kerry and his military record by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth organisation’s adverts on TV, an outfit calling itself Texans for Truth is going to start running television ads asking if Bush ever served with a unit in Alabama. The Republicans have already rubbished the planned ads as unfair and playing dirty.

Cocaine, Booze And Abortions

Being proved to be a little yellow- bellied about fighting in Vietnam would be mere collateral damage to the Bush campaign compared to the all-out nuclear holocaust which would ensue if the allegations made about Dubya’s cocaine use and abortion-fixing, in biographer and muck-raker Kitty Kelly’s forthcoming book on the Bush family, stand up to scrutiny.

Bush’s stance as a strongly moral Christian who prizes family values and Biblical ethics is just as powerful a pull on his supporters as his patriotism and militarism. Bush has come out as bitterly opposed to abortion. His acceptance speech for the presidential nomination at last month’s Republican Party Convention in New York City was peppered with sentiments about the rights of the unborn child and the wrongs of gay marriage.

The Republican party faithful see the President as a man of moral rectitude who will keep the liberal barbarians from the gates. But if, as alleged by Kelly, Bush used class A drugs and arranged for doctors to “kill” his own baby – as many in the party would regard an abortion – that would hole Bush below the waterline and scupper his chances of re-election.

Kelly – the bitch of biographers who has already assassinated the characters of such luminaries as the Reagans, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Onassis and the Windsors – says she spoke to the President’s sister-in-law Sharon Bush, who divorced the President’s brother, Neil.

Sharon Bush apparently told Kelly: “The President did coke at Camp David when his father was President [1989-93] and not just once either.” Camp David is the US presidential retreat. Sharon Bush, however, is now denying that she made the cocaine claim to Kelly.

Proof of coke use in the late 1980s and early 1990s would mean that Bush used the drug after his reported conversion to Christianity. If that was proved to be the case then the one thing that protects Bush from his hard- partying past – his born-again status and his repentance for past sins – would fall to bits. The cocaine claim is therefore political dynamite. Bush has pursued America’s so-called war on drugs with a vengeance. US jails, which now have the highest population figure ever, are filled with drug users.

Even more damaging is the allegation aired by Kelly in her book, The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, that she has gathered “a great deal of circumstantial evidence” that the President helped arrange for a girlfriend to have an abortion in the 1970s.

Kelly says four friends of the woman who had the abortion provided affidavits to the authoritative US current affairs magazines Time and Newsweek about the abortion but the magazines did not run with the story.

Kelly also brings up allegations of George Bush Sr’s affair with his English secretary Jennifer Fitzgerald, which apparently devastated Barbara Bush, his wife. The book further delves into the sexually transmitted diseases which have afflicted one of Bush’s brothers following his habitual use of Asian prostitutes.

Sharon Bush told Kelly: “The Bushes don’t practise what they preach.” Bush has always been evasive about drugs. During his first presidential campaign, he said: “The current FBI form asks the question, ‘Did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?’ I will be glad to answer that question and the answer is no.”

Kelly quotes a former lieutenant, who refers to Bush not taking his medical during his Air National Guard days, saying: “There is circumstantial evidence pointing to substance abuse by Bush during this period.”

The book claims that Bush first used coke at university in the mid-1960s. Kelly quotes two sources, one of whom says Bush sold him the class A drug. Another acquaintance of Bush says that after work, Bush, in his mid-20s, “liked to sneak out back for a joint of marijuana or into the bathroom for a line of cocaine”.

There are even claims that First Lady Laura Bush was a drug dealer in her youth. She is the darling of the US right, adored for her schoolmarm demeanour and whiter-than-white aura, and one of the biggest assets in Bush’s attempt to appeal to middle America. But Kelly says she was the “go-to-girl for dime bags” of grass at the Southern Methodist University. Kelly quotes a PR executive, Robert Nash, who says: “She not only smoked dope but she sold dope.”

Laura was also involved in a car smash that killed a friend when she was 17. The accident happened when she ran through a stop sign in her Chevrolet sedan on a clear night in November 1963, drove into an intersection and struck the Corvair sedan of 17-year-old Michael Douglas. No charges were ever filed.

Laura is also supposed to have had to flee her marital home on a number of occasions because of Bush’s apparently abusive behaviour. However, the police were said to have never been involved.

A friend of Bush, Tobery Macdonald, says: “Poor Georgie. He couldn’t relate to women unless he was loaded.” Another “friend” added: “He went out of his way to act crude. It’s quite amazing that someone you held in such low esteem became President.” A third says Bush wasn’t interested in anything except “booze and sports”.

In 1976, Bush was found drunk driving down his parents’ street in Washington. When his father challenged him, Bush apparently offered to fight his dad, saying: “You wanna go mano a mano right here?”

His consumption of alcohol – primarily beer and whisky – turned him into a belligerent boor. At one society party in Houston, he asked an older woman: “So, what’s sex like after 50, anyway?”

Bush allegedly confronted his alcoholism in 1986 – a decision he says set him off on the road to being born again. He dried out, joined an evangelical group and found the Lord.

Kelly’s book quotes a family friend saying of Bush: “George has no humility whatsover about being President. He really thinks he deserves the office; that it’s his by merit, not default. With each political job he’s had, he’s gotten worse, more arrogant. Now he’s unbearable.” Kelly’s book concludes that Bush’s faith makes him invulnerable to self-doubt – just like his political friend and fellow Christian Tony Blair.

A Caring Christian, A Compassionate Conservative?

America may not have the same sensibilities about the death penalty as “old” Europe, but there can’t be many US citizens who embrace the killing of their fellow man as gleefully as the President.

Perhaps the most disturbing example of Bush’s zeal for the Death House was shown in 1998 when he was governor of the state of Texas. Karla Faye Tucker was then facing execution by lethal injection. The former teen prostitute had committed murder after a three-day drug binge and later underwent a religious conversion in jail. As a born-again Christian – just like Bush – many religious leaders wanted her life spared. Tucker even appeared on Larry King’s TV show to discuss her case. Bush was caught out by a reporter mocking the condemned woman. Sneering at her, he put on a whiney voice, pouted his lips and whimpered: “Please, don’t kill me.” Significantly, Tucker had never even asked for mercy while on King’s show.

Bush later claimed in his biography, A Charge To Keep, that he had a “restless night” before Tucker’s execution and “felt like a huge piece of concrete was crushing me” as he waited for her to die. Bush said reading her postmortem was “one of the hardest things I have ever done”, adding that the whole experience left him “heavy of heart”.

Bush said he denied her a clemency appeal – which was based on the fact that her conversion had rehabilitated her – saying: “I have concluded judgments about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority.”

When governor of Texas between 1995 and 2000, Bush presided over more than 120 executions – that accounts for about a third of the executions in the entire USA during the same period.

Bush objected to a bill to stop the state executing people with mental problems. He also vetoed a unanimous bill by the Texas legislature requiring the appointment of a lawyer to an accused within 20 days. Most states require a lawyer be appointed within 72 hours.

In Texas, judges appoint lawyers for defendants. The bill which Bush vetoed would have allowed an independent body to appoint lawyers. There were concerns that the appointment of lawyers was being influenced by the fact that lawyers were making campaign contributions to judges. A survey by the State Bar of Texas found that half of all judges believed campaign contributions from attorneys were a factor in judges considering which lawyer to assign to which case.

Dodgy Deals And Insider Trading Allegations

Since his days in Yale, Bush has been strongly anti-intellectual and rampantly pro-business. Until the age of 30, he didn’t really do very much of anything, but by 1977 he started to use his family’s powerful connections to raise money for an oil business.

He describes his attitude to business as a “bulldog on the pantleg of opportunity”. However, in all Bush lost some $2 million of other people’s money in failed business ventures while still managing to walk away in 1990 with $840,000. One of his ventures was called Arbusto, which the President thought meant “bush” in Spanish – it actually translates as “shrub”. Shrub has now stuck as the nickname for him by his Texan detractors.

The most questionable business venture of Bush’s oil career came while he was with the Harken Energy Corporation. Harken made investments in the Middle East in the run-up to the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam . At the time, Bush Sr was the 41st President of the USA and Bush Jr was on the board of Harken. Harken took a pasting on the stockmarket. In June 1990, Harken consultants said only “drastic action” could save the company. Bush sold his entire stock in Harken before information about the dire state of the company was known publicly – despite a legal requirement on him to notify the Securities Exchange Commission immediately. Bush didn’t report his sale for eight months.

Bush – who now stakes his fiscal reputation on the fact that he loves to slash taxes and not spend public money unwisely – took a hefty slice of taxpayers’ cash when he later bought the Texas Rangers baseball team. He persuaded the city of Arlington to finance a new stadium for his team using public taxes. Arlington contributed $191m in public subsidies. Bush’s stake in the Rangers was later valued at rising from $640,000 to $15.4m.


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