Unembedded in Iraq: Ten years on

Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. To mark the event, former Independent correspondent Justin Huggler is releasing a fictional book based on his experiences covering the war between 2003 and 2004.

Here, he tells Press Gazette about covering the Western occupation of the nation as an unembedded reporter.

When did you first start covering Iraq?

When the occupation was underway – in that time when George Bush had declared mission accomplished but it become clear very quickly that it wasn’t. The whole thing was turning into a complete mess.

I first went there in July 2003, which is really when it started to unravel – when the UN bombing happened. We thought it was going to be quiet but it wasn’t.

How much of your new book, the Burden of the Desert, is fact-based?

It is fiction but with a fact-based background. The events happening around the characters are real life events that happened.

How did covering Iraq compare to your previous assignments?

It was the worst in terms of a total disintegration of everything. I was in Afghanistan in 2001 and that was extremely dangerous.

The different thing in Afghanistan is that for most of the time I travelled with the Northern Alliance, so you were with one side in the war.

The thing about Iraq is this had happened inside relatively modern cities. And inside a modern city you don’t know who is who. Everybody is rubbing up against each other – it’s impossible to tell which territory is which.

For that reason it was extremely dangerous. In Baghdad you didn’t know where you could go and where you couldn’t go.

Were you embedded with a military group?

No. The Independent didn’t do much embedded stuff. So we would stay in a hotel outside the protected area. There was no military security from US or British forces. And we’d take care of our own security as far as we could.

If you were with embedded with an American unit you could cover the story of the soldiers, which was an important story.

But there was another story, which was the story of Iraq, and what was happening to Iraqis. That was the story of the occupation going wrong really. Because of what was happening at a street level to Iraqi society.

What is your view on the Iraq war?

I was against the Iraq war at the start. I’d been in Afghanistan, I felt that there was an important job still to be done in Afghanistan,  that it wasn’t over and that that needed resources which it was then deprived of.

I felt that the Iraq war was the wrong move at the wrong time.

Under this occupation you’d have this unbelievable descent into inhumanity and the scale of the killing and the way that extremists were flocking from around the world to get involved in that.

It was a great draw for Al Qaeda followers. I was against it but I didn’t envisage what would happen. I wasn’t against for the reasons that I would now say it was a mistake.

Burden of the Desert by Justin Huggler was published on 18 March, and available from amazon.co.uk.

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