So, here I was in the Erbil Rotana, itching to get started on our documentary. But before we were headed anywhere, we had to do all the basic kit check and preparation required, as well as get the most up-to-date briefing on the situation on the ground. There was plenty to do. First was a trip into downtown Erbil to get the team’s armoured SUV seen to. The one we were using had been parked up in the hotel car park for a few weeks and needed a complete check-up. So Andy and I volunteered for carpool duty.
We drove into Erbil to a trusted Kurdish garage, where the mechanic gave the SUV a full check-over—tyres, oil, brakes, the lot. While they were doing their stuff, I sat in the office reading the manual that came with the vehicle. I was familiar with these types of vehicles from deployment as a private military contractor all over the Middle East, but as you all know, the letter P features very prominently in Phil’s alphabet. Not only does it stand for plenty, it also stands for preparation. As the old saying goes, “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” I wasn’t taking anything for granted.
According to the manual, the armour and the windows were thick enough to take direct hits from any calibre up to 7.62mm, and could sustain the odd grenade blast or two. All standard issue, really, although I have to say that, although I was glad of the protection afforded, there is a case for saying that these vehicles have their disadvantages, too.
On the one hand, they can stop a few dozen rounds from close up. On the other hand, they do stick out like a holy man in a Hamburg whorehouse. Sometimes it makes sense to downgrade to something a little less flash that blends in with the local vehicles. It may not stop a bullet, but if you play your cards right and look the part, you are not going to attract one either.
The lads in the garage had dropped all their other work to get us seen to in double quick time, and it wasn’t long before the full check was completed. Andy went through the façade of asking if they wanted us to pay with Iraqi dinars or U.S. dollars (you can guess the answer). Then we were out the door and headed for a test drive.
Andy went first and confirmed what we all knew when driving these armoured jobs: The weight of the vehicle makes acceleration difficult and it takes a while to accurately judge your distance when braking. But we were also driving at the worst time of day for our purposes; it was early evening and we were crawling along in Erbil rush-hour traffic.
So we consulted the map and Andy navigated us out of town, toward the airport road where we could give it a bit more speed. But by the time we got there, it was dark, and in our excitement we’d both forgotten the golden rule of driving in this part of the Middle East: Avoid driving at night at all costs. So what began as a simple test drive quickly turned into a real-life fight for survival as we tried to cope with the lunatics that come out at night on Iraqi roads.
There’s no describing exactly what you’ll encounter. On what is essentially a four-lane road with two lanes going each way, you will have drivers treating it as six-lane freeway—free as in free-for-all. Overtaking on the inside, on the outside, any way they fancy.
The golden rule seems to be, the bigger the vehicle you’re driving, the more right of way you have. So it is not uncommon to see a three-tonne lorry—laden with steel construction girders—bearing down on you at 40 kilometres an hour after overtaking another lorry full of bleating sheep.
Now, I’m a good driver, but the title of my autobiography is “Born Fearless,” not “Born Stupid,” and I knew we had to get back to the safety of the rush-hour crawl as soon as possible. Even Andy, who is normally unflappable, remarked, “Fuck me, this is nearly as bad as the A92 between Dundee and 45 Commando camp in Arbroath at closing time.”
“I didn’t know you lot had Mummy and Daddy waiting up for you when you got home from the pub,” I said (politely of course) as I swerved to avoid colliding with a Toyota pickup truck full of watermelons.
“Well, at least we were allowed out after dark, unlike at Hereford.”
And so the usual inter-service banter went until we were back to the comparative safety of the main downtown traffic.
Back at the hotel, we had to put up with the usual painstaking security checks at the entrance. There were half a dozen heavily armed guards packing AKs and Glock sidearms, and I had clocked another 10 or so in two main patrols around the walls, all in walkie-talkie contact. There were plenty of security cameras on show, so I knew there was a control room within the hotel itself where the armed reinforcements would be hanging out.
It was understandable to have all this in place with the front line only around 35 kilometres away, but I’d already figured out how to breach the perimeter the moment I’d arrived. And that would be doing it the subtle way.
ISIS would come in with a suicide lorry packed with explosives in the first wave, and after that it was plain sailing to get into the hotel and go about their business.
I’d already taken the precaution of making sure I had a room high up (to avoid any car bomb explosions), but I was still pissed off about not being able to carry any of my own weapons. I had to keep reminding myself that I was here as a journalist, and I wasn’t happy. As I’d said to Andy earlier that evening, “What happens if it all boots off? How do we fight back? With our fucking press cards?”
“Oh yes,” said Andy, suddenly deadly serious. “I’d use mine.”
“What ARE you talking about?”
He fished his out of his wallet.
“See this plastic edge?” he said, running his thumb along the laminated side. “You can use it to cut their throats. Didn’t they teach you anything in the SAS?”
He’d got me that time, but I’d get him back.
And in case anyone is wondering, yes, they do teach you how to do that at Hereford. It just so happens that was the day I was attending the “how to build a canoe out of your credit cards” course.
I can’t say any more. It’s classified.
Featured image courtesy of Reuters