The real 'Hurt Locker': On patrol in Iraq with the Hawks of Baghdad elite bomb squad

Baghdad’s elite fast-reaction force – whose job it is to defuse bombs and collect evidence – is struggling to keep up with the sectarian violence in the city. Benjamin Hall was embedded with the squad and went on patrol

The blast ripped through the tent, in the cold Baghdad morning, obliterating those nearest the bomber and sending body parts 200m through the air.

Ten people died instantaneously and 34 others lay wounded, limbless and screaming. Blood flowed around the scene.

A few miles away, in a different part of the Iraqi capital, alarm bells went off. Men leapt from their bunks and sprang into action, before racing to the scene. These men form the elite Hawks of Baghdad, the bomb squad at the forefront of the battle to protect the city, but which is struggling to keep up with the growing sectarian violence engulfing Iraq.

I was recently embedded with the squad and followed it on patrol, passed the anxious hours between attacks alongside its members and listened as they remembered dead comrades.

The Hawks was founded in 2005, to counter attacks on the US-backed Iraqi army and tasked with defusing bombs or collecting evidence. The team is almost exclusively Shia, but deal with attacks on Sunnis and Shia alike. As such it is acutely aware of the destruction caused by both sides.

As we discuss the recent loses, the men remember how each died.

Lieutenant Colonel Riyadh laughs as he is asked questions about the risks involved in working with The Hawks (Rick Findler)

“These ones from suicide attacks in Daraa, this one shot by a sniper, this one triggered a remote sensor,” said one. More poignantly they list the number of children each one had. “Five... three... six”. Families here are big. The men train for three months before being admitted, learning about the various bombs and how to defuse them.

Each unit has a specialist, whose job is to handle the bombs and he is almost revered.

“Not just because of the grave danger he faces, but as Colonel Ryiad – the jovial and much loved commander of the Hawks told us – “It costs too much to train another.”

It is the specialists who crawl on their bellies up to the bombs and cut the wires, although when asked about comparisons with the film The Hurt Locker they laugh. “All lies.”

“The greatest problem,” Colonel Ryiad says, “is that the bombers adapt, constantly evolving; trying to stay one step ahead”.

He then paraded the wide variety of explosives they had encountered and, looking at them stacked in a room, it is abundantly clear what kind of an enemy they are facing: technologically advanced, well funded and ruthless. “Animals,” the colonel muttered.

Bombs are hidden in pens, torches, books, teacups and flag poles, discarded phone chargers and shoes – anything that children or others might pick up and take home – such is the indiscriminate nature of the attacks.

Some of the bombs are now thought to flood in from Syria, but just as many come from within Iraq, and it is a widely held belief – if not necessarily an accurate one – that the government is to blame, seeking to exploit the already fractious religious divide for their own political gain.

Armed with just a few robots and outdated explosion suits (which are too hot to wear in the scorching summer), they rely heavily on lessons learned in the field. They film everything before attempting to defuse a bomb, using these videos to train later, but this is when they are most vulnerable.

Often, the bomber is still lying in wait, to detonate a secondary device. In these cases little remains of the bodies.

On arrival at a blast, the streams of blood have usually been hosed away, making it impossible for the Hawks to collect evidence. Hundreds of police and soldiers from different units mill around: arguing, shouting and fighting over jurisdiction. It is chaotic.

Men walk around filling bin bags with body parts, picking up a toe here, a hand there and then the bags, dripping with blood and fat, are piled into a van so relatives have something to bury. The Hawks quickly set up a cordon, but nobody heeds it. Family members and friends trample over the scene, leading to even more disputes, while all the time the Hawks must identify other attackers. They pull fingerprints from bombs while they’re live and try to get witness testimony – neither easy jobs, given the confusion.

It is difficult to understand why the Hawks do such a dangerous job and why they put their lives at risk. After much discussion they all admitted it was for the salary; $9,600 a year, in a country where the average is $7,200, and jobs are hard to come by.

Each eight-man unit shares a little room off a long central corridor, which is where they pass their 12-hour shifts. Entering into their squalid and dark quarters, more akin to prison than barracks, we were hit by the sounds of laughter and shouting and the sight of soldiers wrestling. Military camaraderie at least, is the same the world over.

Curious to know about life in the UK, they were fascinated by videos from London. Huddled around on their bare mattresses, under the flickering lights and through a haze of sheesha smoke, they roared with laughter at the sight of the Household Cavalry in full regalia.

In exchange they shared their clips with us. Pornography, it transpires, was the favourite, contrasting with religious sermons blaring constantly from a small television, while someone prayed in the corner of the room.

Even more shocking were the tribute videos for Saddam Hussein: Saddam opening a water treatment facility, Saddam greeting his people, giving out food, bestowing honours – even Saddam with his feared sons. “Father, father,” one Hawk said to me, pointing at the screen. It was not what we had expected.

Trying to understand the growing nostalgia for his brutal reign, which is a growing trend in the country, was hard, but the answer to one question made everything clear. Would you choose freedom or security?

Among the Hawks every man chose security. “What good is freedom if all of us are dying?” said Muhammed, 26, who had himself lost both parents to a bomb.

Another pointed out that their new freedom only benefited the leaders.

Corruption, nepotism and bureaucracy are the greatest hindrances to stability here and must be addressed before the security will improve. Our own driver was a serving soldier who paid half his salary back to his commander just to stay at home – and this practice, along with buying your way into the army – is rife.

So when sitting back with the Hawks, who every day face the brutal horrors of sectarianism; who walk among the body parts and are often targets themselves; when asked about security or freedom, they freely admit they have neither.

This is still a vicious and violent country, one which shows little sign of improvement nearly 11 years after Saddam’s fall, yet here in the middle of it are a group of brave and courageous men trying hard to protect their city from any foe. And while for now they may win some battles, they do not believe they can win the war.

Instead they find their solace in God – and in their videos.