The surviving Iraqi employees of the United Nations fearfully changed the plates on their white, unmarked vehicles last week. From now on, there will be no “UN” next to the registration number. When I visited the headquarters of the Muslim Red Crescent society to talk to the lone representative of the Red Cross, the man at the desk fingered my business card and looked into my eyes with palpable fear – as if an Englishman was a potential suicide bomber.
At night, in my grubby hotel, I listen for gunfire and fear the attack which so many of the guests have been predicting for weeks. Will the bombers arrive at dinner-time when the South African and British mercenaries come clanking back from their “security duties”, all Heckler and Koch automatics, silver pistols and black flak jackets, ready for their beers and cheap French vin rouge? Or at 6am, just after the fajr dawn prayers, their Islamic souls cleansed for self-immolation amid the infidels and crusaders? I count the minutes between 6am and 8am, the hours when they most often strike. I’ve lost count of the number of times my bedroom windows have rattled at breakfast-time.
When Haidar and Mohamed arrive to take me off to Mosul or Basra or Najaf, I feel relief. On the road south, we all wear kuffiah scarves round our heads now, two Iraqis and an Englishmen pretending to be tribal toughs to avoid the killers on Highway 8. We were driving down there at first light last week – ah, the relief to be away from my hotel at that hour of the morning – when the US presidential envoy to Iraq, Paul Bremer, came on the car radio. We were just approaching the spot where two American civilians working for the occupation authorities had been shot dead by men in Iraqi police uniform. The car radio crackled away. Things are improving in Iraq, Bremer told us. Haidar and Mohamed and I exchanged glances, eyes crinkling beneath our scarves. Then our car was filled with hollow laughter.
A year ago, there were no problems on Highway 8. The monstrous old tyrant Saddam had seen to that. If robbers had been looting and raping north of Basra since the 1991 Gulf War, Baghdad was law-and-order land. There the looting and raping was done by the government, not the people. Now it’s the other way round. I still have a souvenir of my last pre-war flight into Baghdad, my baggage tag on the last Royal Jordanian aircraft into pre-invasion Iraq, the very final airliner to touch down in the dictatorship. “Saddam Hussein International Airport,” it says. We passengers were fleeced as usual at the terminal. Ten dollars to immigration, $20 to the man who checked my computer, $40 to the guy who accepted the paper from the man who had taken the $20, and another $20 to the soldiers at the gate.
It was raining outside and our tyres hissed on the highway, but Baghdad was illuminated like a Christmas tree. The mosques were floodlit, the Iraqi police cars dozing beneath the palm trees, the foliage rich and sweet-smelling under the street lamps. Didn’t they know, I kept asking myself? Didn’t they realise what was coming?
I remember the last night before war. I had gone to buy toilet rolls and bandages, observing a soldier in uniform carrying his young son on his shoulders. Last leave, I thought. Did Iraqi soldiers write poems like Sassoon and Owen? Or was it just Saddam’s infantile novels that they read on their way to the front? In the pharmacy, I joked with the chemist that he was kind to sell me bandages when the RAF might be bombing him within hours.
“Yes,” he said. “I rather think they will.”
We all had our “minders” then, Saddam’s lads from the corrupt old ministry of information whose job was to steer us away from the paths of political unrighteousness and towards the sclerotic anti-American street demonstrations and the interminable press conferences of junior ministers. But after a while, once their own bosses had been paid off, we paid the minders too, bought them from their government allegiance until they were taking us where we wanted to go, even into the firestorm of America’s armour, the Iraqi army dead bouncing in the back of the pick-ups in front of us.
The first bombs struck 20 miles from Baghdad, orange glows that wallowed along the horizon. They came for Baghdad next day, and the Cruise missiles swished over our heads to explode around the presidential palace compound, the very pile where Paul Bremer, America’s supposed expert on terrorism, now works and hides as occupation proconsul over the Anglo-American Raj.
The illusions with which the Americans and British went to war seem more awesome now than they did at the time. Saddam, the man the British and Americans loved when he invaded Iran and hated when he invaded Kuwait (pet dictators have got to learn that only our enemies can be attacked), had already degenerated into senility, writing epic novels in his many palaces while his crippled son Uday drank and whored and tortured his way around Baghdad; a classic Middle East tale from the city of a thousand and one nights but hardly the target for the world’s only superpower.
As the American 101st Infantry Division approached Baghdad, one of the last editions of the Baathist newspapers carried a telling photograph on its back page. A uniformed, tired, fat Saddam stood in the centre, on his left his smartly dressed son Qusay but on his right Uday, his eyes dilated, shirt out of his trousers, a pistol butt above his belt, the beloved son gone to seed and drugs. Who would ever fight to the death for these triple pillars of the Arab world?
Yet Saddam thought he could win; that destiny – a dangerous ally for all “strongmen” – would somehow lay low the Americans. It was always fascinating to listen to Mohamed al-Sahaf, the information minister, predicting America’s doom. It was not just Iraqi patriots who would destroy the great armies invading Iraq; the heat would burn them; the desert would consume them; the snakes and rabid dogs would eat their bodies. Not since the Caliphate had such curses been called down upon an invader. Was it not Tariq Aziz who warned Washington in 1990 that 18 million Iraqis could not be defeated by a computer? And then the computer won. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair had a remarkably parallel set of nightmares and dreams, encouraged by the right-wing, neo-conservative, pro-Israeli American Vulcans, who did so much to bring about this catastrophe and who – now that everything is falling to pieces – are working so hard to minimise their pre-war ideological importance. To them Saddam was the all-powerful, evil state terrorist whose non-existent weapons of mass destruction and equally non-existent connections to the perpetrators of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington must be laid low.
Liberation, Democracy, a New Middle East. There was no end to the ambitions of the conquerors. I remember how anyone who attempted to debunk this dangerous nonsense would be set upon. Try to explain the crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001, and you were anti-American. Warn readers about the crazed alliance of right-wingers behind President Bush and you were anti-Semites. Report on the savagery visited upon Iraqi civilians during the Anglo-American air bombardment and you were anti-British, pro-Saddam, sleeping with the enemy. When Blair’s first “dossier” was published – most of it, anyway, was old material on Saddam’s human rights abuses, not weapons of mass destruction – the beast’s weapons capability was already hedged around with “mights” and “coulds” and “possiblys”. When a day after Baghdad’s “liberation” I wrote in The Independent that the “war of resistance” was about to begin, I could have papered my bathroom wall with the letters of abuse I received. Letters like those no longer arrive.
But such venom usually accompanies broken dreams. Saddam thought he was fighting the Crusaders. Bush and Blair played equally childish games, dressing themselves up as Churchill, abusing their domestic enemies as Chamberlain and fitting Saddam into Hitler’s uniform. I remember the sense of shock when I was watching Iraq’s literally fading television screen and heard the first news of an Iraqi suicide bomber attacking US troops – during the invasion. It was a young soldier, a married man, who had driven his car bomb at the Americans near Nasiriyah. Never before had an Iraqi committed suicide in battle like this – not even in the Somme-like mud of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Then two women drove their car into the Americans in southern Iraq. This was astonishing.
The Americans dismissed it all. They were cowardly attacks which only showed the desperation of the regime, journalists were told. But those three Iraqis were not working for the regime. Even the Baathists were forced to admit that these attacks were unique and solely instigated by the soldier and the two women themselves.
What did this mean? Of course, we did not pause to ask. Then a new myth was created. The Iraqi army had melted away, abandoned Baghdad, changed into jeans and T-shirts and slunk off in cowardly disgrace. Baghdad was no Stalingrad. Yet that was to alter, dangerously, the narrative of Baghdad’s last days. There was a fearful battle along Highway 1 on the western bank of the Tigris where Saddam’s guerrillas fought off an American tank column for 36 hours, the US tanks spraying shellfire down a motorway until every vehicle – military and civilian – was a smouldering wreck. I walked the highway as the last shots were still being fired by snipers, peering into cars packed with the blackened corpses of men, women, children. Carpets and blankets had been thrown over several piles of the dead. In the back of one car lay a young, naked woman, her perfect features blackened by fire, her husband or father still sitting at the steering wheel, his legs severed below the knees. Sure, the Iraqi military had mixed themselves up amid the civilians; so in the end the Americans had fired at all of them. It was a massacre. Did we think the Iraqis would forget it?
What do we remember most now about those few terrible weeks a year ago? In war, all day you try to stay alive and all night you lie awake because the roar and explosion of aircraft and bombs are too loud for sleep. And then you have to stay awake and alive all next day. Is it any surprise that there comes a moment – when a man holds out to you what you think is half a loaf of bread and which turns out to be half a baby – that anger is the only integrity left? Cluster bombs are our creation. And I recall with a kind of raw amazement how, as American gunfire was swishing across the Tigris, I somehow reached the emergency room of Baghdad’s biggest hospital and had to slosh through lakes of blood amid beds of screaming men, one of whom was on fire, another shrieking for his mother. Upstairs was a man on a soaked hospital trolley with a head wound that was almost indescribable. From his right eye socket hung a handkerchief that was streaming blood on to the floor.
For days, we in the city had seen the news tapes of Basra and Nasiriyah after “liberation”. We had seen the looting and pillage there, benignly watched over by the British and Americans. We knew what would happen when the fighting stopped in Baghdad. And sure enough, a medieval army of looters followed the Americans into the city, burning offices, banks, archives, museums, Koranic libraries, destroying not just the structure of government but the identity of Iraq. The looters were disorganised but thorough, venal but poor. The arsonists came in buses with obvious pre-arranged targets, did not touch the contents of that which they destroyed. They were paid.
By whom? If by Saddam, then why – once the Americans were in Baghdad – did they not just pocket the money and go home? If they were paid post-burning, who paid them?
Of course, we found the mass graves, the hecatombs of Saddam’s years of internal viciousness – for many of which the Western powers were his allies – and we photographed the tens of thousands of corpses, most of whom had been buried in the desert sand after the West failed to support the Kurdish and Shia uprisings. The “liberation” had come, as their grieving relatives never stopped telling us, a little late. About 20 years late, to be precise. Into this chaos and lawlessness, we arrived. Dissent was not to be tolerated among the victors. When I pointed out in The Independent that the “liberators” were “a new and alien and all-powerful occupying force with neither culture nor language nor race nor religion to unite them with Iraq”, I was denounced by one of the BBC’s commentators. See how the people love us, the Westerners cried – much as Saddam used to say when he took his fawning acolytes on visits to the people of Baghdad. There would be elections, constitutions, governing councils, money … there was no end to the promises made to this tribal society called Iraq. Then in came the big American contractors and the conglomerates and the thousands of mercenaries, British, American, South African, Chilean – many of the last were soldiers under Pinochet – Nepalese and Filipino.
And when the inevitable war against the occupiers began, we – the occupying powers and, alas, most of the journalists – invented a new narrative to escape punishment for our invasion. Our enemies were Saddam’s “diehards”, Baathist “remnants”, regime “dead-enders”. Then the occupation forces killed Uday and Qusay and pulled Saddam from his hole in the ground and the resistance grew fiercer. So our enemies were now both “remnants” and “foreign fighters” – al-Qa’ida – since ordinary Iraqis could not be in the resistance. We had to believe this. For had Iraqis joined the guerrillas, how could we explain that they didn’t love their “liberators”?
At first, journalists were encouraged to explain that the insurgents came only from a few Sunni cities, “previously loyal to Saddam”. Then the resistance was supposedly confined to Iraq’s “Sunni triangle”, but as the attacks leached north and south to Nasiriyah, Karbala, Mosul and Kirkuk, it turned into an octagon. Again, journalists were told about “foreign fighters” – a failure to grasp the fact that 120,000 of the foreign fighters in Iraq were wearing American uniform.
Still there was no end to the mendacity of the occupation’s “success”. True, schools were rebuilt – and, shame upon the Iraqis involved, often looted a second time – and hospitals restored and students returned to college. But oil output figures were massaged and exaggerated and attacks on the Americans falsified. At first, the occupying power only reported guerrilla attacks in which soldiers were killed or wounded. Then, when no one could hide the 60 or so assaults every night, the troops themselves were ordered not to make formal reports on bombings or attacks which caused no casualties. But by the war’s first anniversary, every foreigner was a target.
In the meantime, the suicide bomber came into his own. The Turkish embassy, the Jordanian embassy, the United Nations, police stations across the land – 600 new Iraqi cops slaughtered in less than four months – and then the great shrines of Najaf and Karbala. The Americans and British warned of the dangers of civil war – so did the journalists, of course – although no Iraqi had ever been heard to utter any demand for conflict with their fellow citizens. Who actually wanted this “civil war”? Why would the Sunnis – a minority in the country – allow al-Qa’ida to bring this about when they could not defeat the occupying power without at least passive Shia support?
While I was writing this report, my phone rang and a voice asked me if I would meet a man downstairs, a middle-aged Iraqi and a teacher at Cardiff College who had recently returned to Iraq, only to realise the state of fear and pain in which his country now existed. His mother, he said, had just raised a million Iraqi dinars to pay a ransom for a local woman whose daughter and daughter-in-law were kidnapped by armed men in Baghdad in January. The two girls had just called from Yemen where they had been sold into slavery. Another of his neighbours had just received her 17-year-old son after paying $5,000 to gunmen in the Karada area of Baghdad. Two days ago – it is Friday as I am writing this – kidnappers grabbed another child, this time in Mansour, and are now demanding $200,000 for his life. A close relative of my visitor – and remember this is just one man’s experience out of a population of 26 million Iraqis – had also just survived a bloody attack on his car outside Karbala. Driving south after winning a contract to run a garage in the city, he and his 11 companions in their AKEA vehicle were last week overtaken by men firing pistols at the car. One man died – he had 30 bullets in his body – and the relative, swamped in the blood of his friends, was the only man unwounded.
Not surprisingly, the occupation authorities decline to keep statistics on the number of Iraqis who have died since the “liberation” – or during the invasion, for that matter – and prefer to talk about the “handover of sovereignty” from one American-appointed group of Iraqis to another, and to the constitution which is only temporary and may well fall apart before real elections are held – if they are held – next year. If we could have foreseen all this – if we could have been patient and waited for the UN arms inspectors to finish their job rather than go to war and plead for patience later, when our own inspectors couldn’t find those oh so terrible weapons – would we have gone so blithely to war a year ago?
For that war has not ended. There has been no “end of major combat operations”, just an invasion and an occupation that merged seamlessly into a long and ferocious war for liberation from the “liberators”. Just as the British invaded Iraq in 1917, proclaiming their determination to bring Iraqis liberation from their tyrants – General Maude used those very words – so we have repeated this grim narrative today. The British who died in the subsequent Iraqi war of resistance lie now in the North Gate Cemetery on the edge of Baghdad, an enduring if largely neglected symbol of the folly of our occupation.