In Iraq, the killing of 18 teenagers is a horrible routine

This is a story with a caution. Eighteen teenagers were killed on Monday at a football field east of Baghdad. On Sunday, equally young students of Mustansiriya University – the oldest in Baghdad – were blown up by a suicide bomber. It has become a routine, at one and the same time more horrible and more normal each day. Only two years ago, a suicide bomber drove into an American convoy in Baghdad, killing 27 civilians, half of them children taking sweets from American soldiers. What price innocence?

Well, as usual, nothing is as it seems in Iraq. Within hours of the mass deaths in Ramadi yesterday came a disturbing statement by the US military. They knew of no deaths in Ramadi, although – and here was the sinister part of the whole thing – it was true, the Americans said, that 30 people had been “slightly wounded” in Ramadi when US troops set off a “controlled explosion” near a football field. “I can’t imagine there would be another attack involving children without our people knowing,” an American officer announced. Quite so.

Then he apparently half-acknowledged that there was another explosion near the soccer field, a “barbaric crime” by al-Qa’ida. The police said it was a car bomb. The American-funded Iraqi television service said it was a roadside bomb. A local tribal leader said that of the 18 dead, six were women – not, presumably, football players.

In Iraq, as we all know now, they go for the jugular. The old, the young, pregnant women, infants, soldiers, gunmen, murderers. They all die violently, the innocent along with the guilty. One of the insurgents’ principal financial supporters – we had met in Amman, of course, not in Baghad – put it very succinctly to me. “A decision was made that we have to accept civilian casualties. If we attack the Americans, the innocent will die. We know that. What do you people call it when you kill women and children? Collateral damage?”

But exactly what happened in Ramadi remained suspiciously unclear. The football stadium where the 18 youths were reported to have been killed was near a US base. But there are no American troops on the campus at Mustansiriya. There was talk yesterday that a local Sunni imam in Ramadi had denounced al-Qa’ida – which operates in loose co-operation with Sunni insurgent groups – and that this might have prompted a revenge attack by the organisation.

But such is the level of violence and anarchy in Iraq today that all such events are filtered through pro-American Iraqi security officials or through the US army or through insurgents’ websites. Insurgents’ victims are claimed to have been killed by the Americans, civilians killed by US troops are said to have been murdered by insurgents. Who knows if that did not happen in Ramadi? In fear of their lives, Western journalists can no longer investigate these atrocities. The Americans like it that way. So, one suspects, do the insurgents. Accurate information in Iraq is like water in the desert: precious, rare, often polluted.

Ramadi is a no-go area for every Westerner, including most US troops. So who set off the truck bomb near a mosque in the city which killed 52 people on Saturday? Or the ambulance outside a police station near Ramadi, which killed 14 people on Monday? Shia militiamen seeking further blood in their war on Sunni fighters? Sunni groups trying to implicate Shia? Al-Qa’ida? Or the other shadowy groups who have affiliations with the American-supported Iraqi government, with the ministries of interior or health or “defence”?

The reality is that Iraq’s war now exists in a fog through which we can see only vague figures. They may be insurgents or they may be soldiers. Or they may, for all the Iraqis know, be units from the 120,000 – yes, 120,000 – Western mercenaries now believed to be operating in Iraq for any number of legal and quasi-legal organisations. These hired gunmen constitute a force almost equal to the entire US contingent in Iraq. Who do they work for? What are their rules? The answer to the first may be “everyone”. The answer to the second question? None.

Besides these great mysteries, what did the lives of 18 teenagers matter to the world yesterday, let alone who killed them?

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