The main road into Baquba, thirty miles northeast of Baghdad, is closed by US Army Humvees and tanks. A column of smoke rises from the outskirts of the city. The mid-morning of Thursday, June 24–less than a week before the “handover” of sovereignty in Iraq–is turning out to be hot, hazy and very violent.
Four major Iraqi towns have broken into open rebellion: In the north, Mosul was ripped by five car bombs, leaving more than 200 wounded and many dead. To the west, in Falluja, insurgents repelled a Marine assault and withstood aerial bombing, while further west, in Ramadi, the resistance attacked several police stations. Other small attacks were reported in hamlets throughout central Iraq.
In Baquba, where the rebellion is most intense, the action began at 5 am, when local mujahedeen attacked a US patrol with RPGs, killing two GIs and wounding seven. Forty-five minutes later, mujahedeen units overran and destroyed part of the police station, killing an estimated twenty Iraqis, seven of them cops. The US military responded by dropping three 500-pound bombs on muj positions near the Baquba soccer field. By midday, US Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt was admitting that Baquba was out of US control. But at 9 am, no one in Baghdad knew any of this.
By 10 am my colleague Dahr Jamail and our translator, Abu Talat, a tough but jolly retired army captain, are headed north from Baghdad; all we’ve heard are rumors that there’s unrest to the south of Baquba, with civilian casualties arriving at the local hospital. We’ll try to enter the city and visit the hospital to see what’s going on. At the town’s main entrance we bypass the first US military roadblock and approach from another side.
Five miles on, there’s another roadblock. A small cluster of cars and trucks idle in a fearful knot. Across some 500 yards of empty, shimmering blacktop sit two mean-looking Humvees, their guns pointed at the stalled traffic.
“The city is closed,” says an Iraqi trucker, throwing his hands up in frustration. But after a moment we see dust rising from a rough plain of cropland and irrigation canals to the south. A few vehicles are leaving Baquba, and a few others are headed in the opposite direction, trying to circumvent the blockade by crossing the fields on rutted farming roads.
We follow the dust, heading off the main road through the fields and then through the street grid of a now-flattened and overgrown former military base. The facility was destroyed during the US invasion of 2003; now poor squatters live in the few barracks still standing.
In the sky to our left, beyond some palm groves, appear two Apache helicopter gunships circling low over Baquba, occasionally dipping and diving; they look like they are strafing. The situation seems worse that we had thought, but we drive on.
Then, several hundred yards ahead, we see a Bradley Fighting Vehicle parked in an empty lot, facing out, toward us. From behind it, along a tree-lined street, come five tanks. Just as we turn right, away from the Bradley, three or four shots crack past our vehicle in what feels like a long, slow succession. In the back seat, I hit the floor. Luckily, the right turn puts some buildings between us and the Bradley that fired at us, or perhaps over us.