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In Iraq, warning signs were there from the start

NBC News' Jim Maceda recalls his thoughts three years ago on the verge of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and three moments shortly after the U.S. troops marched into Baghdad — all of which to proved to foretell things to come. 
Baquba bombing
Iraqi policemen stand next to a destroyed police car at al Muqtadya police station near Baquba, Iraq, on Tuesday. At least 15 police officers were killed and 30 detainees freed in an assault on the station.Ali Hussein / EPA
/ Source: NBC News

Three years ago I was sitting on the Iraq-Jordan border in a grubby transit town called Ruweishid when I saw my future go by in a flash.

I recall the lump in my throat that told me the next five years — at least — would be consumed by yet another war, by more combat reporting, more threats to myself and my team, more explosions and possibly, more kidnappings, just as I had experienced in other Middle East flashpoints.

I was, to borrow a phrase, in shock and awe that the invasion was actually happening. Especially since I had bet my foreign editor, Danny Noa, $50 that President Bush wouldn’t do it.

Perhaps naïve
Not that I had any real problems with the justifications for the offensive. In March 2003 there was no reason to believe that Saddam Hussein wasn’t hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMD). And, frankly, I was completely doubtful that the tons of allegedly missing biological and chemical precursors and agents were just “an accounting mistake,” as one of Saddam’s top scientists put it.

Even Saddam’s inner circle believed he had WMD. And, having covered the brutal police state that was Iraq since the early days of the Iran-Iraq War, I understood the connection between toppling Saddam Hussein and freeing his people.

But, as others have expressed more eloquently since, the timing of a second front (while Afghanistan remained “hot”) seemed wrong.

Not exhausting all other pressure points before going to war seemed illogical. Not engaging our allies in a true coalition of the willing seemed insane.

But Noa was right, and I was naïve.

Waiting game
Speaking of naïve, at that border town three years ago we believed that the “Western Front” of Iraq would fall like a house of cards.

We thought that Iraqi border guards would flee even before awe had followed shock, and that our Jordanian friends would let Western journalists enter Iraq with smiles on their faces. In fact, the border with Jordan proved to be the last port of entry.

The Jordanian government, wanting to project an image of order and discipline, insisted that we have journalist visas. But those were issued by ministries in Baghdad that were soon to be, well, no longer.

Instead, we watched the drama unfold from the monitors of our satellite truck parked in dusty Ruweishid until Saddam (and his statue) fell on April 9, 2003.

The following day, a 14-car convoy (with this reporter in the lead armored jeep) transported what would become NBC News Baghdad across the desert and into the burning capital.

We had finally entered Iraq, but on “human shield” visas — those issued to human rights activists who were willing to put their bodies on the line to prevent the war — an irony that raises a chuckle even today.

Future foretold
And when we got to Baghdad, the predictions that had started on the Jordan border continued. In particular, there were three moments that stick in my mind, details that added flesh to my earlier musings.

The first was while covering a breadline near the Haifa Road, in downtown Baghdad. A father of a family of six (all on line) told me, smiling, “You know, you Americans will have about six months of welcome. After that, you will be seen as an occupier, and that means you will be our enemy.’’

The second incident was inside Saddam City (soon to be renamed Sadr City), when we were profiling Abdul Rahman Mohsen, a local Shiite engineer, who was running from shell hole to shell hole, plugging spouting water mains and stringing broken power lines.

“You must tell your president to move quickly, for Iran has already come here with aid, food, clothing, and officials dressed as mullahs,” Mohsen told me. “Tell him, please, for soon it will be too late. America will be the military occupier and Iran will be the political power and we will be stuck between both of you!’’

And, finally, the last moment was in Fallujah, just after 82nd Airborne paratroopers had fired into an angry crowd of protestors, killing several children.

One of the doctors who worked in Fallujah’s main hospitals, a man who was not anti-American (and in fact was anti-insurgent) said to me, “You have little time to make amends. Your soldiers come here, looking and acting aggressive in their glasses and goggles that see through our women’s skirts and through the walls of our homes at night. This must stop. Otherwise, the more force you use, the more powerful these bloody insurgents will become. I warn you …please tell them to stop!”

Well, at least I hadn't bet on it.