We’ll go on cheering ‘democracy’ – and the Iraqis will go on dying

In Baghdad yesterday, they were supposed to be preparing for an election. But they were preparing for war.

The American Bradley armoured vehicles on the streets, the old Russian personnel carriers that Saddam Hussein bought on the cheap from the Soviet Union – now dressed up in the dull camouflage paint of the “new” Iraqi army – the hooded and masked policemen; they don’t look like the prelude to an experiment in democracy. They are waiting for the rivers of blood of which the insurgents have warned. But there will be democracy in Iraq.

The mortars rained down yesterday morning on the Green Zone where the US and British embassies are located. A “thumped-thump-thump” brought the American Apache choppers over the surrounding highways in less than thirty seconds, but the insurgents had disappeared. Then a fierce gun battle broke out in the centre of Baghdad between Americans and insurgents. Too late again, the gunmen got away. Fantasy attacks before a fantasy election. Many Iraqis do not know the names of the candidates, let alone their policies. But there will be democracy in Iraq.

The media boys and girls will be expected to play along with this. “Transition of power,” says the hourly logo on CNN’s live coverage of the election, though the poll is for a parliament to write a constitution and the men who will form a majority within it will have no power.

They have no control over their oil, no authority over the streets of Baghdad, let alone the rest of the country, no workable army or loyal police force. Their power is that of the American military and its 150,000 soldiers whom we could see at the main Baghdad intersections yesterday.

The big television networks have been given a list of five polling stations where they will be “allowed” to film. Close inspection of the list shows that four of the five are in Shia Muslim areas – where the polling will probably be high – and one in an upmarket Sunni area where it will be moderate. Every working class Sunni polling station will be out of bounds to the press. I wonder if the television lads will tell us that today when they show voters “flocking” to the polls.

In the Karada district, we found three truckloads of youths yesterday, all brandishing Iraqi flags, all – like the unemployed who have been paid by the government to “advertise” the election. And there was a cameraman from Iraqi state television which is controlled by Iyad Allawi’s “interim” government.

The “real” story is outside Baghdad, in the tens of thousands of square miles outside the government’s control and outside the sight of independent journalists, especially in the four Sunni Muslim provinces which are the heart of Iraq’s insurrection.

Right up to election hour, US jets were continuing to bomb “terrorist targets”, the latest in the city of Ramadi – which, though Messrs Bush and Blair do not say so – is now in the hands of the insurgents as surely as Fallujah was before the Americans destroyed it.

Ever month since Mr Allawi, the former CIA agent, was appointed premier by the US government, American air strikes on Iraq have been increasing exponentially. There are no “embedded” reporters on the giant American air base at Qatar or aboard the US carriers in the Gulf from which these ever-increasing and ever more lethal sorties are being flown. They go unrecorded, unreported, part of the “fantasy” war which is all too real to the victims but hidden from us journalists as we cower in Baghdad.

The reality is that much of Iraq has become a free-fire zone – for reference, see under “Vietnam” – and the Americans are conducting this secret war as efficiently and as ruthlessly as they conducted their earlier bombing campaign against Iraq between 1991 and 2003, an air raid a day, or two raids, or three. Then they were attacking Saddam’s “military targets” in Iraq. Now they are attacking “foreign terrorist targets” or “anti-Iraqi forces”. I especially like this one since the foreigners involved in this violence happen in reality to be Americans who are mostly attacking Iraqis.

And not only in Sunni areas. Just this month, for example, US aircraft fired missiles at a students’ dormitory at the University of Erbil in the Kurdish north of the country. Among the wounded Kurds was a survivor of Saddam’s gassing of Halabja – one of the reasons Mr Bush and Mr Blair supposedly invaded this wretched place. No explanation from the Americans.

So why were they bombing Kurds? To warn them that they will not be given independence? Or to stop them feuding over the city of Mosul, which “new” Iraq wants to keep inside the national territory, not surrender to some future “Kurdistan”?

Yes, I know how it’s all going to be played out. Iraqis bravely voting despite the blood-curdling threats of the enemies of democracy. At last, the American and British policies have reached fruition – a real functioning democracy will be in place so we can leave soon. Or next year. Or in a decade or so. Merely to hold these elections – an act of folly in the eyes of so many Iraqis – will be a “success”.

The Shias will vote en masse, the Sunnis will largely abstain. Shia power will be enshrined for the first time in an Arab country. And the manipulation will begin and the claims of fraud and the admissions that the elections might be “flawed” in some areas.

But we’ll go on saying “democracy” and “freedom” over and over again, the insurgency will continue and grow ever more violent, and the Iraqis will go on dying. But there will be democracy in Iraq.