Bloodshed in Baghdad as insurgents try to isolate government

Lord Butler told us yesterday that Tony Blair acted in good faith. So that’s all right then. At the al-Yarmouk hospital in Baghdad yesterday morning, there was blood on the walls, blood on the floor, blood on the doctors, blood on the stretchers. In the dangerous oven of Baghdad, 10 more lives had just ended. So what was it Tony Blair said in the Commons yesterday afternoon? “We are not killing civilians in Iraq; terrorists are killing civilians in Iraq.” So that’s all right then. Question: Are Baghdad and London on the same planet?

The suicide bomber blew up his 1,000lbs of explosives at 10 to nine. Between six and nine in the morning are the most dangerous hours in Baghdad – after the fafr dawn prayers which the killers attend – and my window rattled in its frame several times, an Iraqi heartbeat that signals death.

A great draft of grey-black smoke drifted up from the walled-off, Tigris-side compound where the Americans and the British and the new American-chosen Iraqi government have their headquarters. By the time I crossed the river it was the same old story; body parts, blood congealing on the hot road – Iraqi blood, of course – smouldering cars and smashed concrete, and policemen and soldiers shooting wildly in the air.

“I saw the suicide bomber,” a driver told me in a bland, disinterested sort of way. “He was driving an old Land Cruiser and weaving through the cars at the checkpoint and people thought he was queue-jumping, trying to get to the checkpoint in front of them. No one fired at him; the shooting came after the explosion, and then it was too late.”

Most of those who died were Iraqis seeking work from the Iraqi authorities. Two were Iraqi policemen (salary: £118 a month). And one, of course, was the bomber. So whose severed hand lay on the road beside the blasted concrete walls?

“The forces of evil,” was how Iraq’s Prime Minister, the former CIA operative Iyad Allawi, described the murderer yesterday. He visited the scene, though he was mercifully spared a visit to the Yarmouk hospital where one Iraqi arrived with his arm a mangled stump (was it his hand in the road?) and another with blood seeping from a fearful gash in his neck. There were more than 50 wounded.

Colonel Robert Campbell, of the US Army’s “Task Force 3/8” said the blast-proof barriers – where his men were protecting Iraq’s young government – saved other lives. He may have been right.

But the real reason for yesterday’s little bloodbath was about the isolation of Iraq’s new government. This is the fourth checkpoint bombing around the same compound and the reason is obvious. Iraqi officials cannot leave their Crusader-style fortress with its massive ramparts and walls. Ordinary Iraqis must go to them. And queue. And wait. And walking up to those checkpoints is becoming a macabre, frightening experience.

If the insurgents cannot get inside the walls, they can at least imprison those inside by attacking the perimeter, cut them off from the rest of Iraq, make the government’s presence irrelevant to the millions of Iraqis who, so Mr Blair was assuring us yesterday, are going to enjoy “democracy”.

But in truth, the authorities are already cut off from the rest of Iraq. Baquba is run by armed men. Insurgents control Samara and Fallujah and Ramadi, and Muqtada Sadr’s militia control the centre of Najaf.

The Phillipine army’s humanitarian unit is withdrawing under the threat of insurgents, who threatened to cut off a Filipino hostage’s head, just as the Spanish contingent withdrew this year. And the Honduran contingent.

And after the beheading on Tuesday night of a Bulgarian hostage – the videotape quickly made available by his killers for those who want to know what it looks like when a man has his head sliced off with a knife – perhaps the Bulgarian army will go.

There is one Bulgarian hostage left, his execution date set for last night. And two more Iraqi officials were murdered last night: an industry ministry official, Sabir Karim and, reportedly, the governor of Mosul, Yusef Qashmullah.

But we acted in good faith. Invading Iraq was the right thing to do. And over and over again, in London yesterday, officials and ministers referred to the Iraqi war in the past tense. About the only thing Iraqis could have agreed with was Lord Butler’s remark about the search for Saddam’s weapons, that “Iraq is a very big place and there is lots of sand….”

The al-Yarmouk hospital, needless to say, was the one place not to quote Tony Blair’s assertion that although terrorists were killing Iraqis today, “people were being killed in Iraq, thousands of them, under Saddam.”

Forgetting that up to 11,000 Iraqis appear to have been killed since our invasion, it seems that it’s better to be killed post-Saddam than pre-Saddam. So that’s all right then.

Robert Fisk

Middle East correspondent for London’s Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media