So who really did save Private Jessica? That's what Richard Lloyd Parry in al-Nasiriyah asked.
The rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, which inspired America during one of the most difficult periods of the war, was not the heroic Hollywood story told by the US military, but a staged operation that terrified patients and victimised the doctors who had struggled to save her life, according to Iraqi witnesses.
Doctors at al-Nasiriyah general hospital said that the airborne assault had met no resistance and was carried out a day after all the Iraqi forces and Baath leadership had fled the city.
Four doctors and two patients, one of whom was paralysed and on an intravenous drip, were bound and handcuffed as American soldiers rampaged through the wards, searching for departed members of the Saddam regime.
An ambulance driver who tried to carry Private Lynch to the American forces close to the city was shot at by US troops the day before their mission. Far from winning hearts and minds, the US operation has angered and hurt doctors who risked their lives treating both Private Lynch and Iraqi victims of the war. "What the Americans say is like the story of Sinbad the Sailor — it’s a myth," said Harith al-Houssona, who saved Private Lynch’s life after she was brought to the hospital by Iraqi military intelligence.
They said that there was no medical care in Iraq, and that there was a very strong defence of this hospital. But there was no one here apart from doctors and patients, and there was nobody to fire at them.”
Dr Harith was on duty when Private Lynch was brought to al-Nasiriyah general by Iraqi soldiers a few days after her capture on March 23. She was a member of a 15-member US Army maintenance company convoy that was ambushed after taking a wrong turn near the city.
At the time, she was suffering from a head injury, a broken leg and arm, a bullet wound to her leg, a pulmonary oedema and her breathing was failing. In a hospital inundated with war casualties with few drugs, her condition was stabilised and she regained consciousness.
“She was very frightened when she woke up,” Dr Harith, 24, a junior resident at the hospital, said. “She kept saying: ‘Please don’t hurt me, don’t touch me.’ I told her that she was safe, she was in a hospital and that I was a doctor, and I never hurt a patient.”
Private Lynch’s military guards would allow no other doctor to tend to her and Dr Harith formed a friendship with her. She talked to him about her family, including her arguments about money with her father, and about her boyfriend, a Hispanic soldier named Ruben.
Dr Harith went outside the hospital during the bombing to get supplies of Private Lynch’s favourite drink, orange juice, and struggled to persuade her to eat.
“I told her she needed to eat to recover, and I brought her crackers, but her stomach was upset. She said as a joke: ‘I want to be slim.’
“I see (many) patients, but she was special. She’s a very simple person, a soldier, not well-educated. But she was very, very nice, with a lovely face and blonde hair.”
The Iraqi intelligence officers told the hospital that Private Lynch would soon be transferred to Baghdad, a prospect that terrified her.
After her condition stabilised, they ordered Dr Harith to transfer Jessica to another hospital.
Instead he told the ambulance driver to deliver her to one of the American outposts that had already been established on the ouskirts of the city.
“But when he reached their checkpoint, the Americans fired at him,” he said.
On April 1 the local Baathists fled al-Nasiriyah for Baghdad and arrived at the hospital looking for their prize captive. Dr Harith moved her to another part of the hospital, and other doctors told the soldiers that he was away.
“They said that they thought Jessica had died, and they didn’t know where she was,” he said. In their haste and confusion the soldiers left, leaving behind only a few critically injured soldiers.
The American “rescue” operation came on the night of April 2. The hospital was bombarded and soldiers arrived in helicopters and, according to the hospital doctors, in tanks that pulled up outside the hospital.
Most of the doctors fled to the shelter of the radiology department on the first floor.
“We heard them firing and shouting: ‘Go! Go! Go! Go!’ ” Dr Harith said. One group of soldiers dug up the graves of dead US soldiers outside the hospital, while another interrogated doctors about Ali Hassan al-Majid, the senior Baath party figure known as Chemical Ali, who had never been seen there. A third group looked for Private Lynch.
US soldiers videotaped the rescue, but among the many scenes not shown to the press at US Central Command in Doha was one of four doctors who were handcuffed and interrogated, along with two civilian patients, one of whom was immobile and connected to a drip. “They were doctors, with stethoscopes round their necks,” Dr Harith said.
“Even in war, a doctor should not be treated like that.”
Unluckiest of all was Abdul Razaq, one of the hospital administrators, who took shelter from the bombardment in Private Lynch’s room, believing that he would be safe.
He was seized and taken with the US soldiers on their helicopter to their base, where he was held for three days in an open-air prison camp.
“When he left his skin was the colour of yours,” another doctor, Mahmud, said. “When he came back, he was black.”
Bizarrely, the rescuers cut open a special bed, designed for patients with bed sores, which had been provided for Private Lynch’s use.
“They took samples of sand out of it,” Dr Harith said. “It was the only bed like it that we have, the only one in the governorate.”
Today, the hospital struggles on without adequate supplies of drugs and without running water or mains electricity.
“There are two faces to Americans,” Dr Harith said. “One is freedom and democracy, and giving kids sweets. The other is killing and hating my people. So I am very confused. I feel sad because I will never see Jessica again, and I feel happy because she is happy and has gone back to her life. If I could speak to her I would say: ‘Congratulations!’”
Richard Lloyd Parry: "So who saved Private Lynch?" in The Times, London, April 16, 2003.