The convoys were humming down the highway from Amman to Baghdad all last week, trucks groaning under the weight of hundreds of tons of pre-stressed concrete, giant blocks and heaps of cement on the trailers, each one higher than the average lorry. I understood what they meant: protection from car bombs.
I had seen them so often in Beirut when the US Marines first came under fire in 1983. The “liberators” of Beirut were becoming the occupiers. Now the same is happening in Iraq. The “liberators” are turning into aggressive raiders, kicking down doors and screaming at disobedient Iraqis, shooting dead drivers who don’t stop at their checkpoints.
When they kill the former Iraqi leadership, the sons of Saddam, they parade their cadavers before Arab television audiences, just like any other Middle East regime.
Welcome to the “New Iraq”. The vast miles of concrete are to be placed around US bases in Iraq, protection from the car bombs which have yet to be used against them.
At Al-Ghoraib, northwest of Baghdad, the US base has an even more symbolic wall. Installed in a former Soviet armored personnel carrier factory, the Americans have assembled 30 Russian BMP armored vehicles — rust-covered but as sturdy as those which were once intended to plunge through the Fulda Gap — and used them to form a semi-circle of steel around the main gate.
Hiding behind this semi-circle is a US Bradley fighting vehicle, a single soldier in the turret. An American has painted “No Entry” on one of the Russian vehicles. Thus does the ghost of the Warsaw Pact now protect the world’s only superpower from those it supposedly “liberated”.
Into all this exploded the villa on the Mosul road, devastated by the 101st Airborne’s TOW missiles and Kiowa helicopter rockets last Tuesday. “Gotcha”, as we said about the Belgrano. Within hours, Uday and Qusay Hussein’s corpses were the center of a macabre television show. The American authorities — so morally upright when they wish to castigate journalists for publishing photographs of “coalition” dead — became purveyors of low-class pornography. Uday with blood on his face. Qusay still bearded (and thus unrecognizable to the great Iraqi masses).
No problem. An American military mortician washes the blood off Uday’s face and stitches up his nose and mouth — inconveniently entered by a bullet that is later described as “a blow to the head” — while Qusay, with two bullets behind an ear, is given the best shave of any tonsorial artist to make him look more like the original product. And the Iraqis — wait for it — are therefore supposed to be persuaded that the New Iraq is just around the corner. The Baathists are gone. Only Saddam is left.
Everyone, of course, tells us that this is the “turning point”, or to use the favorite new term, the “tipping point”. It’s “a great day for the New Iraq”, according to Tony Blair. It’s “a landmark day for the people and the future of Iraq”, according to US commander Ricardo Sanchez.
“Every day,” he announced last week, “we get closer to a stable environment.” Every day, his army defeats what he calls the “non-compliant forces”, helping to break the “vicious, dictatorial grip” of Saddam Hussein on the Iraqi people. Only Saddam’s “remnants” stand between Iraq and the bright future we have ordained for it.
There is no talk of the growing mass of Sunni Islamists joining the resistance to the Americans — men who had no love for the ghastly Saddam — nor of the increasingly brutal raids by American troops around Mosul and Tikrit and Falluja.
Gen. Sanchez now brazenly talks about the “rot” in central authority created by decades of Saddam’s misrule, because Iraqi ministries were not up and running when the Americans arrived. Erased are the 158 government offices looted and burned under the eyes of US occupation troops in April.
Yet everywhere are signs of collapse. America’s tanks and armor protect Baghdad’s banks — but only from behind barbed wire and “gabions” of steel and stone. US soldiers patrol the streets of Baghdad Israeli-style, one vehicle in front with a heavy machine gun trained on the road, one vehicle behind with a heavy machine gun to prevent anyone approaching at speed.
Lesson No. 1: Slow down and let the convoy pass. Lesson No. 2: Don’t get entangled in an American convoy because the new roadside bombs usually explode between the fifth and sixth vehicles. Civilian drivers have no immunity.
Every Iraqi police station is piled high with sandbags and barbed wire, American soldiers peering through the loopholes and over palisades. For this is not an army of liberation but an army of occupation, already deeply mired in a wilderness of ideology dreamt up by the sinister friends of the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — those who would “liberate” Iraq and create democracy as America changed the map of the Middle East, and help Israel into the bargain. In the sweltering heat of Baghdad, American soldiers are ready to elicit sympathy. “All I want to do is go home,” a Third Infantry Division man lamented to me last week when his patrol stopped to buy juice at a shop near Hourriya Square. “I never thought when I came here that this would happen. I tell my wife I’m OK, but we all ask ourselves ‘Who’s next?’” Indeed. Two months ago, one American soldier died a week. Three weeks ago, it was one a day. Now it’s often two or three a day.
Sniper fire has changed to rocket-propelled grenade fire, which has turned into grenade and rifle fire, which has, in turn, changed to more and more sophisticated land-mines — mortars strung together and buried in the central reservation of the two-lane motorways that are America’s main military supply routes across Iraq. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) — a name which just reeks of apologies for its own existence — issues edicts like a Roman emperor with the Goths, Visigoths and Ostrogoths at the gates of the capital. Tons of razor wire now surround the marble Saddamite palace from which Bremer’s whiz kids and anti-terror advisers try to govern Iraq. The coalition — essentially America and its British ally during the war — seems less and less provisional and equally less an authority as the weeks go by.
The Interim Council — the parallels between “provisional” and “interim” are ever more painful — has earned no points. Its 25 members, all representing a dutiful balance between Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and secular population (one cannot but be reminded of all those intensely fair power-sharing governments in Cyprus and Northern Ireland), is already the subject of the deepest cynicism. Its first act — at the behest of the Pentagon’s Shiite acolyte Ahmed Chalabi was to declare a national holiday for April 9, marking the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Or at least, that is how it looked in the West. For Iraqis, their first new national holiday marked the first day of foreign occupation of their land.
In the days before the March-April war, the Baathists claimed that one of the first acts of American occupiers would be the installation of an Israeli embassy in Baghdad. Now Adnan Pachachi, a former Sunni foreign minister on the council, has met the former Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in Rome, who asked for — you guessed it — an Israeli embassy in Baghdad. Pachachi dutifully said that this would have to be preceded by an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied during the 1967 war — essentially compliance with UN Resolution 242 — though perhaps he did not realize that Israel does not have to abide by UN resolutions in the same way as Iraq was supposed to. But the discourse about an embassy has begun. Many Iraqis now predict increasing American support for Pachachi as well as for Chalabi. On to all this is grafted the illusion of global stability. The Poles are here, and the Japanese are coming. Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, turns up in Baghdad to announce that tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees will return next year. There are 204,000 Iraqis in Iran, 300,000 in Jordan, 22,200 in Saudi Arabia, up to 72,000 in Syria, 50,900 in Germany (not to mention 20,000 asylum-seekers) and 38,500 in the Netherlands. But is it safe to come back to Iraq, someone asks? “Well, we are here,” he smilingly replies.
But even as he leaves his press conference last week, the UN radios crackle with static and fear. A convoy has been attacked on the Hilla Road, with one UN Iraqi employee killed. Hours later, a US colonel tells journalists this only proves how “low” Saddam’s “remnants” have become.
In the conference hall that now serves as the press centre for the occupation authorities in Baghdad, sets of handouts are laid carefully on a table for journalists to peruse. They lurch from good news to bad.
“Al-Saydia Public Health Clinic Grand Opening” says one. “Soldier Killed in Explosion” says the next. “Iran National Vaccination Day for Children” says a third, just an inch from another flyer recording the killing of two more US troops. “4th Infantry Division Successful in Operation Ivy Serpent” announces another report from the “CJTF-7 Coalition Press Information Center”. Only fatal attacks on US troops are recorded nowadays. Other ambushes, on the men and women of the occupation authorities, simply do not exist.
And the reality? Yes, there are good men and true trying to help Iraqis. There are NGOs aplenty, and universities have all reopened, and Iraqis with outdated passports will be welcomed back to Iraq, and 9,000 young Iraqi men have offered to join the new army — how scrupulous, one asks oneself, will their screening be — and now there’s even talk of an Iraqi “militia” as well as an army. Anything — anything — to stop the attacks on US troops. There’s an election coming in the States and Blair needs help, too. Let’s get this thing wrapped up.
What was it Paul Wolfowitz, one of Rumsfeld’s pro-Israeli advisers who pushed for war in Iraq, said last week? “Some of our assumptions turned out to be wrong.” Quite so.