The Road to Baghdad

 Ambassador Howell informed us that a deal was in the works to get all nonessential personnel out by 24 August, but we would have to go to Baghdad to obtain exit visas. We also learned on 20 August that President Bush had declared all trapped U.S. citizens as "Hostages." He also issued a stern warning to Iraq "that the U.S. Government will not tolerate any further mistreatment of American citizens.” We knew from radio news reports that Americans were being rounded up and the Iraqi Foreign Minister Aziz stated that these were precautionary measures to prevent attack on Iraq. At this point, the "Human Shield" episode began and Iraq began systematically rounding up and placing foreign nationals at various "strategic" sites throughout Iraq and Kuwait. We all knew that at some point we would be required to leave either in our vehicles or taken by the Iraqis. That being the case USLOK took the lead for developing evacuation and convoy plans. We immediately organized all the vehicles on the compound, checked over each vehicle, and began making first aid kits and food packages for each car. Water was a prime concern and we used all available receptacles for water bottles and placed several gallons in each car. We took one other measure by marking all the roofs of the vehicles with an X made of a reflective type of duct tape. We transmitted that back to Washington so that overhead satellites could spot our vehicles along the congested route to Baghdad. COL Mooneyham called a meeting for all military and we discussed our duties and obligations as military officers in regards to the Code of Conduct. He also issued guidance to all of us regarding our status. His words were reassuring, but ominous in a strange way, because we had no idea of what lay ahead.
  By 22 August the British, Japanese, and French begin to evacuate their nonessential personnel. Baghdad issued another warning to the US embassy on 23 August stating "that failure to close embassy will be considered and act of war." We also notice an increase of Iraqi troops and tanks surrounding our embassy. The Iraqis then inform the Ambassador that on the morning of 24 August they will cut off all power and water to the embassy.
On the evening of 22 August, LTC Funk and I briefed our plans and convoy route to the Ambassador, after he approved it we briefed each driver and arranged the cars for our early morning departure. Everyone was rounded up around 0230hrs 23 August and told prepare to leave. We were told an Iraqi official would come to the embassy and provide escort to Baghdad. Finally around 0300hrs and Iraqi Army officer appeared at the back gate and told the Ambassador that he had instructions to allow 57 personnel to depart. That was incorrect and the Ambassador pointed out that it was to be 57 diplomats and their dependents. The Iraqi official would have no part of that - his orders said 57 and 57 was all he would take. At that point, the Ambassador called off the convoy. He communicated this to State Department and everyone went back to bed. By 0600 hrs we got word that an U.S. diplomat from the American embassy in Baghdad would be arriving to provide escort for us to Baghdad. Around 0900hrs, he showed up and we hastily gathered women, children and pets for a rapid departure before the Iraqis change their minds. Ambassador Howell decided to escort us to the border with Iraq. The Ambassador led the first serial with his Black Cadillac complete with US flags flying. The U.S. diplomat from Baghdad led the second serial. The others followed, but the Ambassador had set to fast a pace and the convoy was strung out. Now on the road to Baghdad, all 23 vehicles with families, food, and pets are headed for Baghdad, Iraq. I might point that some of the pets did not survive the ordeal and died from heat exhaustion. Ambassador Howell had requested we take his dog, unfortunately it succumbed from the extreme heat. One area we failed to brief everyone on was the conditions outside the embassy. Most people had been inside the compound since the first week of August and did see all the destruction and large concentration of Iraqi soldiers and equipment, therefore as they drove towards the border many drivers did not focus on the convoy and attempted to view their surroundings. This resulted in a terrible rear end collision as the convoy "yo-yo" effect took hold. Three of our cars collided with each other when our COS swerved to avoid hitting an Iraqi soldier who had jump out into the roadway waving an AKM (rifle). The car behind him immediately braked and was rear-ended by the trailing car resulting in several injuries, one serious enough to warrant immediate medical attention. LTC Tom Funk and Marine Hudson got to the accident scene and treated the victims. Tom realized that the seriously injured woman required immediate medical attention. At that point Tom and the Marine made the decision to load her in their car along with her husband and headed back to the embassy where a doctor was present. The doctor at the embassy diagnosed her to have a broken hip and told Tom she would have to go to a Kuwaiti hospital, (which are now occupied by Iraqis). They got her there and in to see a doctor, at that point Tom and the Marine slipped out of the hospital and drove to catch up with the convoy.
  The rest of us finally made it to the border crossing at Safwan, after four grueling hours of stop and go traffic, caused by military convoys, which had priority on the roads. Once at the border crossing Ambassador Howell was made to return to the embassy. Iraqi officials met us and refused to allow us to park our vehicles in the shaded area along side the customs building, instead we all had to park on the huge asphalt parking lot with no cover. Temperature that day was in excess of 120 degrees and the black asphalt pavement made it soared well above 120 degrees. Now we began another four-hour ordeal of checking passports, cars, questions, and phone calls to Baghdad. We sat in the parking lot with engines idling to keep the car air conditioners running, but after an hour or so most cars began overheating and we had to shut off all the cars. Our concern now was for the women, children, babies, and pets that were with us. The heat was oppressive and many were beginning to show signs of heat exhaustion. Using our drinking water, we continuously poured water on the children and babies to keep them cool. As this situation began to worsen, we finally appealed to the Iraqis to allow us to move under the shade area. It was interesting to note that only Americans and third country nationals (TCN) were being treated so harshly. While many of the European nationals particularly the ones that had not yet committed to condemning Iraq were permit quick passage and no harassment.
  Finally, after four hours, we are permitted to depart for Baghdad. As we left Safwan one embassy official decides to lead his serial into a gas station a few kilometers from the border crossing. They ended up getting stuck by Iraqi military vehicles. The remaining convoy pulled off the road to wait for them. After thirty minutes columns of Iraqi foot soldiers begin route stepping by our vehicles parked along side the road and as they passed, they begin banging on our cars. Fearing this situation could get ugly myself and a few others walk back to the gas station to tell the DOS person in charge that we are going to drive further down the road and will wait for them at a checkpoint we had established on our convoy maps. He reluctantly agreed and half the convoy departed for a checkpoint just south of Nasiryah. Nasiryah had been the planned first fuel stop so as we waited we topped off all our vehicles. Almost two hours passed and still no sign of the remaining convoy so we decide to press on to the checkpoint outside of Nasiryah. While waiting outside Nasiryah, droves of Iraqi citizen's start coming out of their homes. They came up to our cars and start trying to look in the cars, and tapping on windows. Finally some four hours later the remaining convoy caught up with us. We had all now been up since 0300hrs and it is nearing 1800hrs. The traffic had thinned out and as we passed several Iraqi military camps. It was easy to tell they were all abandoned. We reached the next major city Samawah around 2100 hrs and are stopped at the outskirts by Iraqi military checkpoint. We wait an hour or so for them to get the OK from Baghdad to allow us to proceed on. They escorted us through the city and the convoy again got split up due to traffic. We stopped outside of Samawah and waited another hour to reassemble the convoy before heading on. We were still several hours from Baghdad. Most drivers are near exhaustion from no sleep, and many of us were operating on pure adrenaline. We stopped one more time at Diwaniyah for fuel and a short rest, at that point I had my wife take over driving, the children were asleep and I was at the point to where I could no longer drive safely. Chris agreed and drove the final 50 kms to Baghdad. As we neared the outskirts of Baghdad (0130hrs 24 August) the road turned into a four-lane highway. As we enter the highway, we see the Charge of the U.S. embassy Iraq alongside the road. Charge Joe Wilson escorts us all into the embassy compound in downtown Baghdad. His remaining staff of 6-8 personnel help get all the vehicles lined up along the street and quickly began getting people to the staff resident quarters for sleep. The Embassy in Baghdad was a small three story building without a wall or security fence around it, so our vehicles with our belongings had to be left parked on the street curb. The foreign nationals that worked for the U.S. embassy guarded our vehicles until morning. The embassy collected our passports and we all went to various quarters where everyone literally crashed.
  Around 0900hrs 24 August, we were all awakened and told the news that there was a glitch and we might not be allowed to proceed on to Jordan. With that news, everyone went back too sleep, to exhausted to do anything else. The Charge made no progress with the Iraqis all that day. Apparently, they informed him that the US had reneged on the deal and was keeping the embassy in Kuwait open, therefore we would not be allowed to leave until the US closed the embassy in Kuwait. We all knew that would never happen. That evening the Charge organized a get-together at the empty Marine house. Once everyone was assembled, there he informed us that DOS was working the problem, but to hunker down and wait it out. Now everything seemed like deja vu, except this time we were in Baghdad. Needless to say, we nearly cleaned out the Marine House liquor locker and everyone let off a little pressure.

The evening of 24 August almost seemed surreal. Families gathered and discussed all the “what ifs” of the current situation. We knew we were stuck again, except now we were all trapped right in the heart of enemy territory, downtown Baghdad, Iraq. We had not heard any news since leaving Kuwait on 23 August. The Charge had told us that so far, Ambassador Howell and his stay-behind crew were still safe and the Iraqis had made no overt moves to close the embassy. Several news reporters were allowed into the Marine house and we all spent time talking with them about conditions inside Kuwait and requested that they not reveal that 11 of us were military personnel. We had already been told that the Iraqis were requesting that all military be turned over to them. Fortunately we all had diplomatic passports and were on the accredited list of the Kuwait Ministry of Foreign Affairs as US Embassy personnel. We did have a couple of military TDY personnel whom we covered by preparing documentation attesting to the loss of their diplomatic passports, so far it had worked. The reporters by and large were very good about protecting our status and as I recall, they never revealed our presence in any news reports.
As dawn approached on the 26 August, COL Mooneyham met with all of us and informed us that arrangements were underway to allow the women and children to leave, but some of us may have to drive them to the Iraqi border at Zakhu, Turkey. The Charge had gotten word that the route to Jordan and the border area there was a total shambles with thousands of refugees massed in the border area. Safety being our prime concern, it was decided that the Zakhu border crossing in Turkey was less threatening and a safer place for exiting Iraq. We went to work preparing the cars again and organizing another convoy. By late evening, 26 August, the Charge informed us that the Iraqis had agreed to release the women and children, but refused to provide escort or assistance in getting to the border. They also refused to allow any of the personnel from Kuwait (males) to accompany them. We had to brief the women on driving and designated pairs to travel together. We were permitted to have a few embassy foreign nationals lead the convoy and assist at the border. We also decided to send the stake bed truck to carry the luggage and some pets.
At 0230 hrs 27 August we all assembled at the embassy compound to load cars, review the route and say our farewells. That early morning farewell was the hardest good-bye I had ever had with my family. To make matters worst it was our wedding anniversary. Nevertheless, my wife, children, and I hugged and kissed one another a last time before the signal to leave was given. I was devastated, but had a sense of well being; knowing they would make it home safely and I would not have worry about them being stuck in Baghdad, Iraq. Although we all had tremendous apprehension over their journey to the Turkish border, we all felt a certain relief in knowing the women and children were getting out. What we did not know was the ordeal they would endure on their 18-hour drive to the border crossing.
Once they were underway, we all went back to raid the Marine house liquor locker one last time. Their convoy endured an 18-hour trek complete with Iraqi harassment and stall tactics. My wife (Chris) related one humorous story from her ordeal. Our youngest at the time still in diapers had to be changed while driving, so our oldest daughter Natasha (7yrs) would change her and then Chris took the soiled diaper and threw it out the window of the car, Natasha complained to her mother that littering was bad, Chris quickly retorted “ it was perfectly OK to litter in this country (Iraq), but nowhere else.” It was remarkable how these women meet every obstacle and completed their journey with pride, dignity, and purpose. Three male teenagers who were 18 or older were not allowed to cross and were returned to Baghdad. Iraqi law considered them adults so they were not allowed to leave.
We sat on pins and needles until we finally got the word that they were under US control and on the way to the NATO base at Diyarbakir, Turkey. They finally made it to the US on 29 August on a specially chartered 747 out of Incirlick, Turkey and touched down at Andrews Air Force Base the afternoon of 29 August. We learned later that when they arrived at the border the Iraqis detained them for 3 hours. While detained at the border the Iraqis informed them that all vehicles without diplomatic plates would not be allowed to cross. They then had to remove all belongs from those vehicles and reload the cars with diplomatic plates. They then drew straws among the women who could operate standard shift to see who would drive the embassy stake bed truck across the border, a daunting task considering the circumstances. Once permitted to leave, they started towards the bridge across no mans land, the Iraqis stop them one more time and made them get out of the cars and line up along the bridge guardrail, some women panic, thinking the Iraqis were going to shoot them or beat them before they would transverse the last 100 meters to freedom. Their fears were warranted since many Arab men viewed western women as loose and dirty. Their treatment was appalling considering they all were carrying diplomatic passports. Finally, by 0300hrs, they crossed over into Turkey where officials from the US Embassy Turkey had arranged bus transport to the NATO base at Diyarbakir. Their ordeal was finally over and they were now under US control.
After we celebrated their return to freedom, we took on the task of operating an evacuation center at the embassy for any other American citizens (women & children only) whom might be interested in departing Iraq. We usually processed 30-40 women and children a day, most of whom had US passports and were married to Iraqi citizens. In addition, by this time over 350,000 refugees had fled Kuwait and Iraq, most were Arabs, and Asians third country nationals.

Thieves of Baghdad
On the evening of 30 August, Reverend Jesse Jackson came to the embassy to meet with the Charge. He also requested a meeting with all of us to inform us that he was going to meet with Saddam Hussein in attempt to secure our freedom. We informed the Rev. Jackson we wanted no part of his release plan if it involve compromising US principles, position, or any requirements by us to make statements. Needless to say, no one from Baghdad gained release under Rev. Jackson's deal with Saddam Hussein. Rev. Jackson did manage to get a few out from the American Embassy Kuwait and the woman whom was injured during our convoy to Baghdad. Prior to Rev. Jackson's departure, he met with us one last time in an attempt to get us to understand the Iraqi position vis-a-vis the rich Gulf Arab states. We argued with him for an hour or so, and his group decided we were a hopeless cause and they left. This would become a typical drill in the months ahead as various foreign dignitaries came to Baghdad to get their nationals released. It became so common place we referred to it as "Bargaining for Bodies". Generally Saddam would release a few to each dignitary who would issue a statement prior to his/her departure condemning the US and UN resolutions.
We were increasingly becoming part of the politics of diplomacy as the US embassy in Baghdad became the focal point of both the US and Iraqi government's exchange of demarches, political barbs, and views on the crisis at hand. We maintained an open phone with State Department 24 hours a day and established a 24-hour watch officer shift to monitor the phone line. We used the phone to keep Washington and ourselves instantly appraised of events as they unfold in Baghdad, Washington, and the UN. I often spoke with the former US Ambassador April Glaspie when she would inquire on conditions in Baghdad. Washington was pressing to obtain information on the effects of the embargo. Chief Forties again was having good success with slipping out of the embassy and obtaining food stocks on the local economy. During his outings it became obvious that Iraq had done a thorough job of pillaging Kuwait, Dave would often return with food items clearly marked with Kuwaiti price tags and marking from Kuwaiti shops. I went with Dave one afternoon to a local souk (marketplace) where hundreds of vendors were peddling everything from food to electronics all from Kuwait. We even saw cars, furniture, and clothes from Kuwait. One merchant even had a US Navy hat from the USS Reid, a Navy cruiser which had visited Kuwait a few months early and allowed US citizens in Kuwait to visit the ship, so without a doubt the hat had come from an American’s home which had been looted by the Iraqis. A fate which many of our homes in Kuwait would be subjected to. We also learned from the foreign nationals that worked at the embassy that the Iraqi government was issuing visitation permits to the 19th Province. These were essentially licenses to steal. On several occasions we saw where local Iraqis who lived near the embassy would depart in old beat up cars and return a few days latter with new Chevrolet Caprices with Kuwaiti tags and loaded down with booty. It had become obvious to us that it would be a long time coming before the embargo would take hold. The Iraqis did implement food rationing in early September with a stern warning that any violators would face capital punishment. We even stood in a few bread lines and quickly learned the bread they were handing out was not worth the wait. By mid September food rationing was not the problem; blackmarket and inflation became the primary concern. We had a limited amount of Iraqi dinars and dealing on the blackmarket was punishable by death. This made it extremely dangerous for Chief Forties to find, purchase, and keep our food supplies adequate. He nevertheless accomplished the task at great personal risk. We also had to have him lay low for a few days at a time because the Iraqi secret police had already attempted to arrest him.
 As political and diplomatic barbs continued, the diplomatic community just as in Kuwait, established a tight circle of cooperation and met routinely to discuss how to handle the Iraqi actions aimed at driving wedges in the building coalition. The Iraqis also set up a protest group that would form outside the embassy every other day. The same group would assemble and after 10 minutes buses would show up and discharge school children, university students or factory workers all being led by government cheerleaders chanting “Death to the US and down with Bush”. The embassy’s information officer would go out and greet the protesters, take their petitions and then stand back while they shouted for 30 minutes.
We also invited the press to attend the morning country team meetings, this allowed them to see the difficulties we faced in dealing the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). In turn the press would provide updates to us on the home front. Charge Joe Wilson was a master at using the press to get our messages out and he often leveraged them to pressure the Iraqis to allow us to obtain food or make phone calls home. We learned that once you are up front with the press, they will reciprocate and actually become useful in your efforts to tell your story.

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