BAGHDAD — This doesn't feel like a city about to fall.
I was in Baghdad when it fell to U.S. troops in 2003. In the days before the assault, Iraqis were rushing to convert their dinars into any hard currency they could get their hands on. They were packing their furniture into trucks and driving it out of the city. They were moving their families to stay with relatives outside the capital.
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Iraqis were taping up their windows. I taped up my windows, too. We all knew that bombs would soon be falling and that the U.S. military drops big bombs.
It doesn’t feel like that in Baghdad now. Instead, it feels like the city has drawn its knives and cocked its guns and is ready for a fight.
Militants from Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a fanatical Sunni group that sees itself as the new and improved Al-Qaeda, are less than 60 miles from the capital. The militants have taken Mosul in the north and on Monday took Tal Afar, near the Syrian border. They’ve executed dozens and perhaps hundreds of Iraqi troops.
ISIS says it wants to destroy the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, describing them in statements and videos as “filth” that must be disposed of. It says it wants to come to Baghdad to “settle scores.” Baghdad got the message. This is the capital of the Shiite-led government. This is the seat of power that Shiites in Iraq have longed for since they lost control of Mesopotamia to Sunnis in the 8th century. Thanks to the U.S. invasion, the Shiites have it now. They have no intention of giving it up again.
In Baghdad on Monday Iraqi troops mobilized on nearly every corner. They’ve taken out the armored vehicles and 50-caliber machine guns that U.S. troops taught them how to use. The weapons are positioned by the airport and in front of nearly every government building. Police are searching cars at checkpoints that seem to be everywhere. Intelligence agents check I.D. papers. They want to know who’s moving on the streets, which were mostly empty.
Shiite militias patrolled the downtown shopping district in a convoy of taxis. They drove fast, forcing other cars aside as they passed, assault rifles pointed out the windows. Other Shiite militias patrol other neighborhoods. They’ve divided up Baghdad into zones like neighborhood watch groups.
The Shiite religious authority issued a fatwa, or a religious edict, saying that it is an obligation to for “people who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defense of their country” to join the security forces. Some Iraqi troops aren’t willing to fight for their government. But many Shiites appear willing to fight for their religious leaders.
If ISIS tried to move on Baghdad now, there would be big battles, but an all-out assault on the capital would likely fail. Instead, Iraqis expect the militants will try to soften the capital with car bombs, suicide vests and assassinations.
The militants from ISIS — whose charge seemed ferocious and unstoppable a few days ago — may have missed their opportunity to march on the city. Iraqi Shiites awoke and now they have their knives, guns and U.S.-trained army at the ready.
First published June 16 2014, 11:25 AM
Richard Engel is widely regarded as one of Americaâ€™s leading foreign correspondents for his coverage of wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years. Most recently, he was recognized for his outstanding reporting on the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the conflict in Libya and unrest throughout the Arab world.
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Engel was named chief foreign correspondent of NBC News in April 2008. His reports appear on all platforms of NBC News, including â€œNightly News with Brian Williams,â€ â€œTODAY,â€ â€œMeet the Press,â€ â€œDateline,â€ MSNBC, and NBCNews.com.
Engel, one of the only western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq, joined NBC News in May 2003. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, most notably during the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. He remained in Baghdad as NBC's primary Iraq correspondent until his appointment as senior Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief in May 2006. Engel also covered the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 from Beirut and southern Lebanon.
Prior to working for ABC News, Engel served as the Middle East correspondent for "The World," a joint production of BBC World Service, Public Radio International (PRI) and WGBH-Boston radio from 2001-2003. He has also written for USA Today, Reuters, AFP and Jane's Defense Weekly, a British publication in which he authored the magazine's in-depth profiles of Egypt, Yemen and al-Qaida.
Engelâ€™s work has received numerous awards, including seven News & Documentary Emmy Awards. In 2011, he was honored with the Daniel Pearl Award, the David Bloom Award and the Overseas Press Club Award in recognition of his coverage of the war in Afghanistan. In 2010, Engel received a Gracie Award for his work on â€œUnlikely Refugees,â€ a â€œNightly Newsâ€ story about Afghan women who are treated as criminals for attempting to leave abusive marriages. Engel was honored in 2009 with the George Foster Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Society of Professional Journalism Award for â€œTip of the Spear,â€ a series of reports from Afghanistan that focused attention on the hardships and dangers faced by American soldiers. Engel also received the 2008 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, the first ever given to a broadcast journalist, for his report "War Zone Diary." The one-hour documentary, compiled from Engel's personal video journal, gave a rare and intimate account of the everyday realties of covering the war in Iraq. In 2006, Engel received the Edward R. Murrow Award for his report "Baghdad E.R.," the first ever to win in the category "Feature â€“ Hard News."
Engel has lived in the Middle East since graduating from Stanford University in 1996 with a B.A. in international relations. He speaks and reads fluent Arabic, which he learned while living in Cairo. Engel has also traveled extensively in the Middle East and can comfortably transition between several Arabic dialects spoken across the Arab world. He is also fluent in Italian and Spanish. He is the author of two books, â€œA Fist in the Hornetâ€™s Nestâ€ and â€œWar Journal: My Five Years in Iraq,â€ which chronicle his experiences covering the Iraq war.