Iraqis now endure the anarchy we call freedom

For mile after mile south of Baghdad yesterday, the story was the same: empty police posts, abandoned Iraqi army and police checkpoints and a litter of burnt-out American fuel tankers and rocket-smashed police vehicles down the main highway to Hillah and Najaf. It was Afghanistan Mk2.

Iraqi government officials and Western diplomats tell journalists to avoid driving out of Baghdad; now I understand why. It is dangerous. But my own fearful journey far down Highway 8 – scene of the murder of at least 15 Westerners – proved that the US-appointed Iraqi government controls little of the land south of the capital. Only in the Sunni Muslim town of Mahmoudiya – where a car bomb exploded outside an Iraqi military recruiting centre last week – did I see Iraqi policemen.

They were in a convoy of 11 battered white pick-ups, pointing Kalashnikovs at the crowds around them, driving on to the wrong side of the road when they became tangled in a traffic jam, screaming at motorists to clear their path at rifle point. This was not a frightened American column – this was Iraq’s own new blue-uniformed police force, rifles also directed at the windows of homes and shops and at the crowd of Iraqis which surged around them. In Iskanderia, I saw two gunmen near the road. I don’t know why they bothered to stand there. The police had already left their post a few metres away.

Yes, it is a shameful reflection on our invasion of Iraq – let us solemnly remember “weapons of mass destruction” – but it is, above all, a tragedy for the Iraqis. They endured the repulsive Saddam. They endured our shameful UN sanctions. They endured our invasion. And now they must endure the anarchy we call freedom.

In Baghdad, of course, it was the usual story yesterday; a suicide bomber killing 15 Iraqis and wounding another 62 when he blew up his fuel tanker bomb next to a police station (pictured above), and an Iraqi defence ministry official murdered outside his home. And true to the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the new Iraqi government, 43 new Iraqi ambassadors were appointed around the world. But who did they represent? Iraq? Or just Baghdad?

After the city of Hillah, I came across the police and a scattering of new Iraqi army soldiers. At Kufa, they insisted on escorting my car into the holy city of Najaf. But miles from the city centre, they turned round and told me that under the terms of the ceasefire with Muqtada Sadr’s “Mehdi Army”, they could drive no further. They were right. Sadr’s militia – which the US army promised to “destroy” last April – guards the old city, the main roads to the mosque and the entrance to the great Shrine of the Imam Ali.

Indeed, deep inside this wondrous and golden tiled contribution to Islamic architecture – in an air-conditioned office heavy with Chinese pots and Iranian carpets – I found the man who helped draw up the map for the US military to retreat after they abandoned their siege of Sadr’s forces.

“The Americans gave us a map and asked us which roads they could patrol,” Sadr’s right-hand man, the turbaned Sheikh Ali Smaisin, told me in the Najaf shrine yesterday. “I sat with the other members of the Beit Shia’ (the Shia House, which combines a number of local political groups, including the Dawa party) and we set out the roads on which the Americans would be permitted to make their patrols. This map was then returned to the American side and they accepted our choices for roads they could control.”

I was not surprised. US forces are under so many daily guerrilla attacks that they cannot move by daylight along Highway 8 or, indeed, west of Baghdad through Falujah or Ramadi. Across Iraq, their helicopters can fly no higher than 100 metres for fear of rocket attack. Save for a solitary A1M1 Abrams tank on a motorway bridge in the Baghdad suburbs, I saw only one other US vehicle on the road yesterday: a solitary Humvee driving along a patrol road in Najaf agreed by the Mehdi Army. Three faraway Apache helicopters were hedge-hopping their way towards the Euphrates.

That the “muqawama” – the resistance – controls so many hundreds of square miles around Baghdad should be no great surprise. The new US-appointed government has neither the police nor the soldiers to retake the land. They announce martial laws and telephone tapping and bans on demonstrations and a new intelligence service – but have neither the manpower nor the ability to turn these institutions into anything more than propaganda dreams for foreign journalists and a population that desperately craves security.

Even the ceasefire agreement set out between the Americans and the Mehdi Army is astonishing in its breadth. According to Sheikh Smaisin, it allowed the police to return to their checkpoints outside the city and the abandonment of official buildings by members of the Mehdi Army. I found the police back in control of their station at Kufa, a large American tank shell-hole through the wall as a reminder of the recent fighting. Article Three states that no one can be arrested or captured, Article Four that there should be no public carrying of weapons – the Mehdi Army certainly appeared to be abiding by this clause yesterday. Articles Five and Six say that “occupation forces” – the Americans – must remain in their bases except for small patrol routes which they can use to reach these fortifications.

Astonishingly, the final clause – still under debate when the Americans “transferred” power on 28 June – calls for the withdrawal of all legal charges against Muqtada Sadr for the murder of Sayed Abdul-Majid al-Khoi last year. When revealed by the occupation authorities more than six months after they had been secretly drawn up, the second most senior US officer in Iraq said that as a result of the accusations, his forces would “kill or capture” Sadr.

But it was Sadr’s men who courteously greeted me at their checkpoint in Najaf yesterday and took me to speak to Sheikh Smaisin at the Imam Ali shrine. He complained that US troops had several times broken the ceasefire. “Two weeks ago, two of their Humvees turned up outside Sadr’s home and the soldiers began questioning people. We told our forces not to open fire and we complained and then these soldiers were withdrawn.”

Sadr’s forces – “a public current”, Sheikh Smaisin calls them with unexpected discretion – supposedly suffered less than a hundred casualties in the US attack; the Americans say they killed 400 of them.

Smaisin has little time for such statistics. “What we see in the occupation is American force with a British brain,” he says. “This is just the same as the British occupation of Basra in 1914 and Baghdad in 1917. Our movement cannot be overcome because we are patriotic and Islamic, just like the forces opposing the occupation in the Sunni areas of Iraq. The westerners want to set up a sectarian government but we don’t accept this. Now they have an insurrection from Fao in the south to Kirkuk in the north. Shia and Sunni are together. And any government that is not elected in free and honest elections – well, there’s a problem there.”

So much, then, for the Allawi government, even if the Shia insurrection is a shadow of the Sunni version. But the evidence of my journey yesterday – through the southern Sunni cities which long ago rejected American rule, to the holiest Shia city where its own militia controls the shrines and the square miles around them – suggested that Mr Allawi controls a capital without a country.

It took two weeks to arrange my trip, and I travelled with a Muslim cleric in my car who urged me to read my Arabic newspaper whenever urchins approached to urge my driver to buy window sponges. They would run their sponges over the windows of the car and stare inside, looking – so we believed – for foreigners. They were spotters. And they didn’t see me.

But what I saw was infinitely more disturbing: a nation whose government rules only its capital, a country about which we fantasise at our peril.

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there