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Blood and Chaos: Russian Journalist Recounts 2003 Baghdad Bombings

Russian journalist Alexander Minakov in IraqInternationalIndiaAfricaDenis BolotskyAlexander Minakov was incredibly fortunate to survive the US invasion of Iraq. The Russian television reporter was in Baghdad on the morning of March 20, 2003. As American bombs began to pound the Iraqi capital, Minakov found himself at the center of the massive blitz.He sought to leave the city as part of a Russian diplomatic convoy on April 6. However, as the Russian convoy began heading towards the Jordanian border, it came under fire — presumably by US troops. The attack resulted in several Russian diplomatic personnel being heavily wounded.Sputnik sat down with Minakov, who is now a political observer with the Russian state TV broadcaster VGTRK, to talk about the early days of the US invasion of Iraq and why the adventure went horribly wrong.Sputnik: You were the first journalist in the world to cover the beginning of the bombing of Baghdad. Do you remember that day? How did it go?Alexander Minakov: You know, about three days before the big event, there was already a tense, heated atmosphere in Baghdad among journalists. Everybody knew very well that there was going to be a very serious war and there was going to be serious bombing of Baghdad.There is an important point here that explains a lot about why I was the first journalist to cover the beginning of the bombing of Baghdad. The Iraqi authorities forced all journalists to stay in the two largest hotels in Baghdad. Understandably, to keep everyone under control. I understood that if I ended up there, in that «birdhouse,» it would be very difficult to work. We paid for our rooms. That is, we officially registered and paid as if we lived there. But a few days earlier, under the cover of night, we went to live with my driver, Omar, an Iraqi, in a private house in southwest Baghdad.Coincidentally, it was the night of March 19-20 that I decided to sleep in the car. Something inside me was telling me to do that. Somehow I was already «tuned in» to this war or something, I don’t know. The cameraman, the sound man and the driver slept in the house, and I slept in the car. Then at about 5:30, or a little earlier, I opened my eyes and heard a distant rumbling, like an airplane. Nothing like that had been heard in Baghdad lately, and I knew immediately that it was no accident. I rushed to my satellite phone and began calling Vesti, the newsroom in Moscow. Just as the phone signal was about to «go up» to the satellite, I heard the first explosions. It was about 300-400 meters away. I was immediately put on the air. I began to tell them that «the first bombs began to fall,» and so on.And of course at that moment I didn’t even know if I was the first or not, I just reported that bombs had fallen in my neighborhood. And then when the cameraman went up to the roof of the building, he started shooting, there were other explosions. In other areas of Baghdad: not only bombs, but cruise missiles were hitting there. I mean, it was quite a massive strike.© Photo : Alexander MinakovRussian journalist Alexander Minakov in IraqRussian journalist Alexander Minakov in IraqSputnik: On April 6, 2003, the Russian diplomatic convoy with Russia’s ambassador to Iraq, Vladimir Titorenko, came under fire on its way to Fallujah. Practically everything indicated that it had been shelled by American troops. You were in that convoy. How did it all happen? Were the Americans really shooting?Alexander Minakov: March 20 and April 6 are now important days for me. Also, on April 6, our diplomats with whom we were in that situation and I are still in touch by phone. We consider it our second «birthday» because we were in a very serious situation.My tour of duty was coming to an end, and my colleague Andrey Medvedev was going to replace me. It was very difficult because Baghdad was already surrounded by American troops and there was fighting on the outskirts. Our diplomats came to us and offered to evacuate because the embassy itself was being evacuated. They coordinated the withdrawal of this convoy from Baghdad with the American troops and with the Iraqi troops, the so-called “green corridor.” We agreed, and we finally left at about 9 a.m. on April 6. There were six embassy cars and two [Chevrolet] Suburban press cars in the convoy. Everything was quiet, and we relaxed and began to think that we would get on the highway, drive to Jordan, and fly back to our native Moscow.And at some point, massive shelling started. Within seconds, there wasn’t a single piece of glass left in the car. It felt like the bullets were flying between all of us. Since we were at the end of the column, I wasn’t very aware of what was going on up ahead. As soon as the attack started – from machine guns – we jumped out of the car. And then more massive shooting started, including mortar fire. I even have footage in my archive of a shell exploding literally 50 meters away from us.20 Years Since US Invasion of IraqUS Squandered Its Unipolar Moment by Sowing Destruction Over Last 25 Years17 March, 14:03 GMTOf course, we recorded everything we could in that situation. It lasted about 25 minutes; we couldn’t lift our heads. But I could see that the diplomats in front of us and our journalists were also hiding on the side of the road. Then the shooting started to die down. Another 35 minutes passed and everything calmed down.I crawled over to the first car in which the ambassador was riding and saw the driver’s head resting on the steering wheel. I realized he had been badly wounded or killed. I raised him up and he was moaning, his shirt was covered with blood. He had two gunshot wounds. Thank God we always carry a first aid kit. I bandaged him up as fast as I could to stop the bleeding. There were two civilian cars in front of us, and four people were killed in them. The ambassador’s driver, Vladimir Arkhipov, was wounded, and another diplomat was badly wounded in the head by shrapnel. Two of the cars were completely disabled.And then, about 15 minutes later, an armored column of US troops passed by.Sputnik: Was it clear at the time who was firing the guns?Alexander Minakov: At that point, it became clear to us. We have worked in wars for a long time and we know that any armored column, especially one like this, is usually accompanied by special forces who go ahead and monitor the situation to make sure there are no saboteurs. And we realized that it was a group of US special forces that accompanied this armored column that opened fire on us.20 Years Since US Invasion of IraqIndulging in Cruelty: US Atrocities in Iraqi Prison of Abu Ghraib18 March, 14:00 GMTSputnik: The media reported that bullets from American M-16 rifles were found at the scene of the shooting. Is this true?Alexander Minakov: We found them in our cars. There was no need to look for them. Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko showed these bullets directly to the camera. They were, of course, M-16 bullets.Sputnik: The Americans declared that the fight against terrorism was one of the main goals of the invasion of Iraq. Although Moscow did not support the invasion itself, it had repeatedly declared its solidarity with the United States in the fight against terrorism. Why were the coalition forces — American and Australian soldiers in Iraq — so rough on the Russians in the end? The shooting of the convoy was not the only example of hostility, was it?Alexander Minakov: Well, you know, the Americans, they didn’t just treat the Russians that way, they didn’t single anybody out. They treated everybody like that, you know? As many times as we encountered the US military — very rarely were they polite. It was always a very rude way of communicating.Here is a vivid example of how they view other people’s lives, especially the lives of journalists. They knew very well that many foreign journalists — European, American, Russian — lived in the Palestine Hotel. And when on April 8 [2003] an American Abrams tank opened direct fire from a bridge on the Palestine Hotel, three people were killed: two Spanish journalists and a Reuter’s camera operator — a good friend of mine, a Ukrainian named Taras Protsyuk, with whom we used to work in Chechnya. Several people were wounded, a Japanese man lost his leg. Why in the world would they fire on a hotel that posed no danger to anyone? That’s why they have this arrogant, geopolitical style, just like they had then and they have now.20 Years Since US Invasion of IraqSenior Iraqi Military Officer Tells Sputnik About American Crimes During 2003 Invasion of Iraq18 March, 14:00 GMTSputnik: Has the world, America, and the Middle East learned the lessons of the Iraq War?Alexander Minakov: Everyone understood very well that the Americans had simply «blown up» the region. I remember months before the war started, people from other parts of the country came to Central Park in Baghdad for Ramadan. It was a celebration, people were happy. It was a normal, peaceful country.Of course, they had their problems there. But they didn’t have such serious problems in terms of life before the war. Saddam Hussein used his authoritarianism to “hold” the differences between the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. These three regions had very different interests, ambitions, and cultural attitudes. Understandably, the methods he used to contain their differences were quite harsh, and sometimes brutal. But after the Americans «brought down» Saddam Hussein’s regime, chaos ensued.When you go out to shoot some scenes, you get an explosion on the way: a hotel was blown up, there was a terrorist attack, some groups were fighting each other. Then they blew up an American convoy, shot at it, and so on. The country went from maybe a totalitarian country to a chaotic country where blood started to flow. When I made my documentary «Russian Iraq» in 2004, I kind of foresaw that this would happen, but in fact, it wasn’t that hard to predict.

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