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THE BAATHIST

When a regime came tumbling down

Some tea, a smoke, a look down gun barrel

April 10, 2008

Five years ago Wednesday, U.S. forces entered the heart of the Iraqi capital, and Saddam Hussein's regime fell. While much of the world watched the downfall of Hussein and the destruction of his huge statue in central Baghdad's Firdos Square on television, Iraqis lived it. They have memories of what they were feeling as Hussein was toppled from power. Here are some of them:

--

As a junior member of Hussein's ruling Baath Party, I had prepared for months for the war. I was part of a seven-member party cell in Baghdad, and our task was to maintain order and prevent mutiny in our area of operation.

The U.S. military came from the west. We got a call telling us the force was en route and not facing any resistance. The information was relayed to our commander.

I was standing at the gate of my home when the commander passed by with a pickup truck loaded with fighters carrying AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. They were speeding toward the highway to confront the U.S. force.

Our instructions had been very specific: Maintain order and prevent insurrection. The commander apparently strayed from them on a whim.

Minutes later I heard heavy machine-gun fire and several loud blasts. Three of the fighters who had been with the commander were running down my street. They looked terrified.

"What happened? Where's the section commander?" I shouted at the three, who were racing toward their homes and no longer carried weapons.

"They're dead, all of them blown to pieces!" one said. Then another yelled about the U.S. troops as he ran past, never stopping. "They're invincible! Even the RPG wouldn't go through their armored vehicle!"

Party cells quickly began disintegrating. Some members vanished. We would call their homes and their families would insist that they did not know where they were.

Nevertheless, we regrouped haphazardly and decided to stick to our initial objective of maintaining order, and to leave the fighting to the experts.

On the eve of the regime's collapse, I was in the kitchen drinking tea with my mother when we heard a distant rumbling. I thought it was Iraqi tanks, so I went outside with my tea and a cigarette hanging from my mouth.

Suddenly, a U.S. armored vehicle appeared just across the road from my house. It stopped at the corner. This was my first sight of American forces. The turret rotated and the barrel of the gun pointed at me.

My feelings were mixed. I felt rage, sadness, relief that the war might be over, and shame at Iraq's and my impotence at this moment.

I stayed calm as I faced the barrel, careful not to make sudden moves. The Bradley took a right turn and moved away, but the barrel stayed pointed my way.

The next morning, one of our ranking division leaders ordered all files relevant to our section destroyed. I drove to the section headquarters, where a crowd was salvaging the emergency fuel supply stocked there.

Looting had begun, but people were only interested in valuables and sustenance materials at that point. I got myself a gallon of fuel and walked into the building. Pictures of Hussein were strewed across the floor, some ripped into shreds.

I made my way to the archive room in the now empty building.

The files were still in their cabinets and had not been touched. I pulled out everything -- the documents, records and internal memos -- made a pile and doused the papers with the fuel. Then I lighted them.

-- An Iraqi employee of a Western company who cannot be identified for security reasons

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