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Profile: Mitch Potter
Mitch Potter was a participant or observer in the following events:
IKONOS satellite image of Saddam Hussein Hospital in Nasiriyah. [Source: GlobalSecurity.org]Toronto Star bureau chief Mitch Potter reports a very different version of events surrounding the capture and hospitalization of Army Private Jessica Lynch (see March 23, 2003). Whereas US military officials have claimed that Special Forces rescued her in a dramatic battle with Iraqi resistance forces (see April 1, 2003), Potter finds that Iraqi soldiers had actually left the hospital two days before the rescue. In fact, Iraqi doctors had attempted to return Lynch to US units once before, but were fired on by US forces and forced to return to the hospital. [Baltimore Sun, 11/11/2003]
Shootout Never Happened - Potter calls the story of Lynch’s rescue a “flawless midnight rescue… in true Rambo style” that “rais[ed] America’s spirits when it needed it most. All Hollywood could ever hope to have in a movie was there in this extraordinary feat of rescue—except, perhaps, the truth.” Potter quotes three hospital doctors, two nurses, a hospital administrator, and several local residents, and presents a far different story than the one released by US officials. Dr. Harith al-Houssona says he came to consider Lynch a friend as he cared for her injuries. He says the story of the rescue is almost complete fiction: “The most important thing to know is that the Iraqi soldiers and commanders had left the hospital almost two days earlier. The night they left, a few of the senior medical staff tried to give Jessica back. We carefully moved her out of intensive care and into an ambulance and began to drive to the Americans, who were just one kilometer away. But when the ambulance got within 300 meters, they began to shoot. There wasn’t even a chance to tell them ‘We have Jessica. Take her.’”
Staged Rescue - On April 1, US Special Forces soldiers descended on the hospital. Hassam Hamoud, a waiter at a nearby restaurant, was approached by some of the soldiers. “They asked me if any troops were still in the hospital and I said, ‘No, they’re all gone,’” Hamoud recalls. “Then they asked about Uday Hussein, and again, I said ‘No.’ The translator seemed satisfied with my answers, but the soldiers were very nervous.” At midnight, the sound of helicopters circling the hospital’s upper floor prompted the staffers to take cover in the X-ray department, the only part of the hospital with no windows to the outside. The soldiers cut the power, then blew the locked doors and stormed inside. The staffers heard a male voice shout: “Go! Go! Go!” Seconds later, the door smashed open and a red laser targeting light found the forehead of the chief resident, Dr. Anmar Uday. “We were pretty frightened,” Uday recalls. “There were about 40 medical staff together in the X-ray department. Everyone expected the Americans to come that day because the city had fallen. But we didn’t expect them to blast through the doors like a Hollywood movie.” Another doctor, Mudhafer Raazk, noticed that two cameramen and a still photographer, all in uniform, accompanied the strike teams into the hospital. The tension quickly dropped after the soldiers realized no Iraqi fighters were in the building. A US medic was taken to Lynch’s room and the soldiers secured the hospital without incident. Several staffers and patients were immobilized with plastic handcuffs, including, al-Houssona recalls, one Iraqi civilian already motionless from abdominal wounds suffered in an earlier explosion. One group of soldiers ask about the bodies of missing US soldiers, and are led to a grave site opposite the hospital’s south wall. All were dead on arrival, the doctors say. After four hours, the soldiers departed, taking Lynch with them. Raazk says: “When they left, they turned to us and said ‘Thank you.’ That was it.” The staff went through the hospital to assess the damage: 12 doors were broken, a sterilized operating theater was contaminated, and Lynch’s bed, the hospital’s only specialized traction bed, was damaged beyond repair. “That was a special bed, the only one like it in the hospital, but we gave it to Jessica because she was developing a bed sore,” al-Houssona says.
'We All Became Friends' - Al-Houssona recalls that, far from ominous hints of torture and abuse, the hospital doctors and staff became friends with the injured American soldier. “We all became friends with her, we liked her so much,” he says. “Especially because we all speak a little English, we were able to assure her the whole time that there was no danger, that she would go home soon.” Though the hospital had an acute shortage of food, the staffers scrounged to find her extra juice and cookies. She was also assigned the most nurturing, motherly nurse on staff, Khalida Shinah. She has three daughters of her own, some close to Lynch’s age. Through a translator, Shinah recalls: “It was so scary for her. Not only was she badly hurt, but she was in a strange country. I felt more like a mother than a nurse. I told her again and again, Allah would watch over her. And many nights I sang her to sleep.” Houssana recalls Lynch being frightened in her first hours in the hospital. “Everybody was poking their head in the room to see her and she said ‘Do they want to hurt me?’ I told her, ‘Of course not. They’re just curious. They’ve never seen anyone like you before.’ But after a few days, she began to relax. And she really bonded with Khalida. She told me, ‘I’m going to take her back to America with me.”
No Gunshots or Stab Wounds - Far from suffering “multiple gunshot” and stab wounds detailed in previous Pentagon reports (see April 5, 2003), Lynch was suffering from injuries resulting from the wreck of her Humvee. Houssana believes she was hurt when she was thrown from the vehicle. “She was in pretty bad shape,” he recalls. “There was blunt trauma, resulting in compound fractures of the left femur and the right humerus. And also a deep laceration on her head. She took two pints of blood and we stabilized her. The cut required stitches to close. But the leg and arm injuries were more serious.” Lynch was only one casualty among many in the hospital, almost all suffered in the intense fighting around Nasiriyah. The hospital lists 400 dead and 2,000 wounded during the two weeks bracketing Lynch’s stay. Almost all were civilians, but Raazk does not blame the Americans alone for the carnage. “Many of those casualties were the fault of the fedayeen, who had been using people as shields and in some cases just shooting people who wouldn’t fight alongside them. It was horrible.” By March 30, Lynch had regained enough strength that the doctors were ready to operate on her badly broken left leg. She required a platinum plate on both ends of the compound fracture. The doctors were preparing similar surgery for her broken arm when the Americans rescued her. On April 4, an American military doctor visited the hospital. The doctors say he came to thank them for the superb surgery. “He was an older doctor with gray hair and he wore a military uniform,” Raazk recalls. “I told him he was very welcome, that it was our pleasure. And then I told him, ‘You do realize you could have just knocked on the door and we would have wheeled Jessica down to you, don’t you?’ He was shocked when I told him the real story. That’s when I realized this rescue probably didn’t happen for propaganda reasons. I think this American army is just such a huge machine, the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing.”
Angered at Reports of Abuse - The US media’s reports that Lynch was abused and perhaps even tortured sadden and anger the hospital staffers. When Shinah is told of the reports, her eyes fill with tears. She composes herself and answers: “This is a lie. But why ask me? Why don’t you ask Jessica what kind of treatment she received?” That is not currently possible; the Pentagon is restricting access to Lynch as she continues to recuperate at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A spokesman says, “Until such time as she wants to talk—and that’s going to be no time soon, and it may be never at all—the press is simply going to have to wait.” [Toronto Star, 5/4/2003]
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