The U.S. military says Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief helped set the entire rescue operation in motion. And in a new book, he tells how saving Private Lynch meant putting himself and his family in danger. Read an excerpt from his book below:
By mid-March, the winter chill and damp gives way to spring in our part of the world. The season came on time this year, but it wasn’t quite as usual. The sun shone, the lilies bloomed. . . and American missiles took aim at the presidential palace in Baghdad.
My hometown of Nasiriya was a market center of 300,000 people, about 200 miles southeast of the capital. Most of us were Shiites, Iraq’s left-out majority, the ones who stewed in hidden hatred of Saddam Hussein. Like my neighbors, I had seen too much war in my thirty-three years. We all knew its price; we knew that innocents would suffer. Even so, most of us were eager for the U.S. to rid us of Saddam and his Baath Party. Our fear was that the Americans would do the job halfway-that they’d stop before Baghdad, as in the Gulf War.
On the night of March 17, when George W. Bush gave Saddam forty-eight hours to leave the country, some Iraqis thought their leader would run. I never believed it. Saddam was too crazy and pigheaded to back down. He dreamed he was a Saladin who would turn back the infidels and protect our ancient civilization. He did not see himself as a thief and a gangster, a thug in president’s clothing. No one near him dared hold up a mirror.
With each murder-and there were untold thousands of them-Saddam had fathered more enemies. Without his Republican Guard, his legions of security and intelligence and paramilitary goons, there was no place in the world he could be safe. He would cling to Iraq to the end. Our one hope to avoid war, I thought, was for the Americans to target a building with Saddam inside. A decapitation, as the CIA director called it.
But when a snake slithers underground, it is not so easy to cut off its head. The day after Bush’s ultimatum, I joined my two younger brothers, Ahmed and Hassan, in the lines of hoarders at the souk, the community market. Our family farm, twenty miles to the south, would keep us in dates and molasses, but the rice harvest was sold and gone. We would also need flour and sugar, and chicken and lamb to stock the freezer at Baba’s house in town, where my brothers lived with their families.
The first air-raid sirens came on Thursday, March 20, at around 10 a.m., when I had just left home to take my car for an oil change. I raced back and led my wife, Iman, and our five-year-old daughter, Abir, to the airtight basement beneath our home. Every family of means in our town had one. If Saddam was pushed to the wall, we assumed that he would wage chemical warfare and the United States might retaliate in kind.
Our shelter had a generator, an air vent and charcoal filter, a refrigerator and stove, food and water for twenty days. There was a bed for each of us and a spare one for a guest. Every seam was lined with a sealant used by goldsmiths.
Iman fixed us tea and we sat for two hours. We had a sturdy stone house, but the bombing rattled it to the foundation. Hungry for news, I tuned our radio past the official Iraqi stations; our information minister, Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf, was an utter clown. I stopped at Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language station funded by the U.S. government. I heard about fierce fighting in the far south near Basra, where my brother Ali worked as a dentist.
In those first long hours of the war, as we waited out the siege, I feared the unknown dangers ahead. But I also hoped against hope that our time had come at last. I hoped that we might win a future for our children, free of a regime that tracked their every move and word. Abir refused to leave the shelter when the all clear sounded, so we brought down her toys. Iman would stay with her, skipping her nurse’s shift at Saddam Hospital at the northwest edge of the city. I called my father, who asked me to check the farmhouse and see if it might be better for all of us there. Half an hour later, I was hugging my sister Fatma, who lived with her husband on the farm.
“It is not safe here,” she told me. “There is army all around.” Saddam’s troops were camped among the date palms. It seemed unwise to move next to them.
Back in town, Baba called a meeting. “Children,” he told us, “the war has started.” To protect the family businesses, he issued his marching orders: Ahmed to the hotel, Hassan to watch the clothing and perfume stores downtown. I would stay with Baba. In the meantime, we would send our wives and children, including Ahmed’s two young daughters, to our vacant rental house. It was next to a mosque and not much else. There they might be safe, Baba thought.
I had a different idea. With no furnishings, the rental house seemed impractical. And judging from what happened in the Gulf War, I needed to keep an eye on my own place to fend off looters. Anyway, who could say where safety resided in a whirlwind? There is an Arab expression: What is going to happen, will happen.
I drove back across the Euphrates and down Baghdad Street to our home in southwest Nasiriya. We settled downstairs for the night. Deaf to the cruise missiles and guided bombs, I fell into a deep sleep-until Iman jostled me awake, saying, “Talk to your daughter.” Abir was trembling with fear. When a bomb rocked our house, she would cry, “Oh, I’m going to die!” Trying to comfort her, I said, “It’s not an air raid. It’s only the thunder.”
She looked at me skeptically: “It’s not raining.” A moment later, a near miss knocked a pot off our stove. “This is thunder?” she said.
The next day was Friday, the Muslim Sabbath and the start of the ground war. People crowded the mosques in hope of warding off misfortune. But the barrage continued around the clock. On television they announced Saddam’s bounties: 100 million dinars for shooting down an American or British plane; 75 million for downing a helicopter; 50 million for killing a Marine; 25 million for capturing a Marine; 15 million for the capture of any Iraqi found helping the occupiers.
Even with our devalued currency, at about 2,000 dinars per dollar, these were powerful temptations.
From “Because Each Life is Precious.” Copyright © 2003 by Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief. HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.