For three weeks in late February-early March 2003, as Baghdad strove to stave off the inevitable invasion that not one Baghdadi believed was coming, the sprawling, congested Iraqi capital that throbbed along the Tigris was home. Teeming with war correspondents who could smell the impending conflict, every conversation with an Iraqi centred around a dogged refusal to believe the Americans would dare bomb their beloved city. Or for that matter, their country.
There were no WMDs, they would aver. You've been to Al Taji, to the test sites outside the city. No missiles. Ergo, there would be no war. This must have been what it was like to be in Berlin before the blitz, I would think as I sat in traffic on the city's main 14th July Bridge. It was a city in ferment, caught in a fever of anticipation in the last days of the Saddam regime; yet, in complete denial.
Fully stocked groceries
The giveaway were the tiny grocery stores, so reminiscent of Dubai, that were fully stocked. If the invasion did come, when did I think it would happen, the Indian nun at Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity hospice asked, down a side street from the famed Tahrir square where Saddam's statue once stood. Her urgent tone was in marked contrast to the bravado of the ordinary Iraqi. Every man jack of them would be ready and waiting, armed and dangerous, said my government issue minder.
In Baghdad's waterfront cafes along the Tigris where families flocked to savour grilled masghoof, at the university where the city's sharpest intellects dissected the IAEA's every statement, in Shiite-dominated Saddam city, safe to walk even after midnight, they shrugged off the war that hung over the city like a pall.
When the first bombs fell and I watched - from the safety of Dubai - as millions did on television, the building across from the Al Rashid hotel where I had stayed only days before, went up in flames. I dialed all the friends I had made in that incredible city and sent frantic emails to the rest. Silence. Framed against the waterfront offices of Al Arabiya, hit in that first wave of bombing was the television anchor Shaker Al Tai, the man who took me under his wing while I was in his city. Unfazed, he, like his stoic brethren was doing what he does best, his job.