The American Humvee had burnt out, the US troop transporter had been smashed by rockets and an Iraqi lorry – riddled by American bullets in the aftermath of the attack – still lay smoldering on the central reservation.
“I saw the Americans flying through the air, blasted upwards,” an Iraqi mechanic with an oil lamp in his garage said – not, I thought, without some satisfaction. “The wounded Americans were on the road, shouting and screaming.”
The US authorities in Iraq – who only report their own deaths, never those of Iraqis – acknowledged three US soldiers dead. There may be up to eight dead, not counting the wounded. Several Iraqis described seeing arms and legs and pieces of uniform scattered across the highway.
It may well turn out to be the most costly ambush the Americans have suffered since they occupied Iraq – and this on the very day that George Bush admitted for the first time that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and the 11 September assault on the United States. And as American Abrams tanks thrashed down the darkened highway outside Khaldiya last night – the soft-skinned Humvee jeeps were no longer to be seen in the town – the full implications of the ambush became clear.
There were three separate ambushes in Khaldiya and the guerrillas showed a new sophistication. Even as I left the scene of the killings after dark, US army flares were dripping over the semi-desert plain 100 miles west of Baghdad while red tracer fire raced along the horizon behind the palm trees. It might have been a scene from a Vietnam movie, even an archive newsreel clip; for this is now tough, lethal guerrilla country for the Americans, a death-trap for them almost every day.
As usual, the American military spokesmen had “no information” on this extraordinary ambush. But Iraqis at the scene gave a chilling account of the attack. A bomb – apparently buried beneath the central reservation of the four-lane highway – exploded beside an American truck carrying at least 10 US soldiers and, almost immediately, a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Humvee carrying three soldiers behind the lorry.
“The Americans opened fire at all the Iraqis they could see – at all of us,” Yahyia, an Iraqi truck driver, said. “They don’t care about the Iraqis.” The bullet holes show that the US troops fired at least 22 rounds into the Iraqi lorry that was following their vehicles when their world exploded around them.
The mud hut homes of the dirt-poor Iraqi families who live on the 30-foot embankment of earth and sand above the road were laced with American rifle fire. The guerrillas – interestingly, the locals called them mujahedin, “holy warriors” – then fired rocket-propelled grenades at the undamaged vehicles of the American convoy as they tried to escape. A quarter of a mile down the road – again from a ridge of sand and earth – more grenades were launched at the Americans.
Again, according to the Sunni Muslim Iraqis of this traditionally Saddamite town, the Americans fired back, this time shooting into a crowd of bystanders who had left their homes at the sound of the shooting. Several, including the driver of the truck that was hit by the Americans after the initial bombing, were wounded and taken to hospital for treatment in the nearest city to the west, Ramadi.
“They opened fire randomly at us, very heavy fire,” Adel, the mechanic with the oil lamp, said. “They don’t care about us. They don’t care about the Iraqi people, and we will have to suffer this again. But I tell you that they will suffer for what they did to us today. They will pay the price in blood.”
Jamel, a shopkeeper who saw the battle, insisted – and in Iraq, it is what people believe that governs emotion, not necessarily reality – that 60 Americans were killed or wounded in a mortar attack on the former Iraqi (and former RAF) air base at Habbaniyeh last week. Untrue, of course. But as we spoke, mortar fire crashed down on Habbaniyeh, its detonation lighting up the darkness as explosions vibrated through the ground beneath our feet. This was guerrilla warfare on a co-ordinated scale, planned and practiced long in advance. To set up even yesterday’s ambush required considerable planning, a team of perhaps 20 men and the ability to choose the best terrain for an ambush.
That is exactly what the Iraqis did. The embankment above the road gave the gunmen cover and a half-mile wide view of the US convoy. They must have known the Americans would have opened fire at anything that moved in the aftermath – indeed, the guerrillas probably hoped they would – and angry crowds in the town of Khaldiya were claiming last night that 20 Iraqi civilians had been wounded.
Six days ago, American soldiers killed eight US-trained Iraqi policemen and a Jordanian hospital guard 14 miles away in Fallujah, claiming at first that they had “no information” on the shootings, and then apologizing – but without providing the slightest explanation for the killings. Several Iraqis in Khaldiya suggested that yesterday’s ambush may have been a revenge attack for the slaughter of the policemen.
True or false, that is what the guerrillas may well claim. Do they, many Iraqis wonder, follow the political trials of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair? Was the devastating attack timed to coincide with Mr Bush’s increasing embarrassment over the false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction? Unlikely. But yesterday when the former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix condemned the “culture of spin, the culture of hyping” – in reference to the Anglo-American exaggeration of Saddam Hussein’s threat to the world – some of his words may have found their mark in Iraq. “In the Middle Ages,” Mr Blix said, “when people were convinced there were witches, they certainly found them.”
Now Mr Bush is convinced he is fighting a vast international “terrorist” network and that its agents are closing in for a final battle in Iraq. And the Iraqi mujahedin are ready to turn the American President’s fantasies into reality.
I couldn’t help noticing the graffiti on a wall in Fallujah. It was written in Arabic, in a careful, precise hand, by someone who had taken his time to produce a real threat.
“He who gives the slightest help to the Americans,” the graffiti read, “is a traitor and a collaborator.”