The Allied Grip Tightens on Baghdad

The aftermath of battle was everywhere. Burning trucks and armoured personnel carriers, overturned Iraqi field guns, craters and blackened palm trees and, right in the middle of the motorway, just to the right of a cloverleaf interchange, the unmistakable hulk of an American Abrams M1A1 battle tank, barrel pointing impotently towards the highway, its turret a platform for grinning Iraqi soldiers. There were five other US tanks destroyed, the Iraqi Minister of Information insisted later. So, to the Iraqis who drove through the streets of Baghdad, firing their automatic weapons into the air in joy, t’was a famous victory.

And one with a heavy price to be paid in blood and life. By the time I turned up yesterday, the more obvious and terrible detritus of battle – the corpses and the blood and vomit – had been cleared away, but the Iraqi army and the Pentagon did their best to cloak this little killing field with lies. Two thousand Iraqis killed, crowed the Pentagon. Fifty Americans killed, boasted the Iraqis, rather more modestly. Both sides admitted “casualties” and it must be for the reader to judge what these might have been.

A 106mm Iraqi anti-tank gun, three armoured personnel carriers, again Iraqi, and more than 25 military trucks and Katyusha launchers, yes, once more Iraqi, were scattered in burning embers on the plains of dust and earth around the motorway just seven miles from the centre of Baghdad.

Even as I clambered over this mass of tortured and still red-hot metal, the American pilots came back, their invisible jets howling through the air above the battlefield. Then there was the American tank.

It had a neat hole in its armour, almost certainly made by a 106mm gun, perhaps the very Iraqi artillery piece I had seen upside down in the muck 200 metres away. I climbed on to the tank’s sunken turret – the Abrams has a gun almost on a level with its hull to lower its target profile – and padded around the vehicle, peering into its hatch. No, there were no dead Americans inside. An Iraqi lieutenant claimed his men had taken three dead crew members from the vehicle earlier in the morning but there was no sign of human remains. There was just the name on the barrel. “Cojone EH,” it said. This caused cultural diversity in our conversation with Iraqi civilians, some of whom had driven from their villas this hot Sunday morning for a bit of real life, very dangerous battlefield tourism. There was a little difficulty in translating cojones as “balls”. We wondered why “EH” – if they were indeed the tank commander’s initials – would name his tank after only one testicle. The Iraqis wanted to know why a soldier would call his tank a ball at all. It was about this time an American pilot decided to have a look at us all.

The orchestra of high-flying jets above the heat haze suddenly changed key as the sound of an attack aircraft increasing its speed turned all our eyes to the sky. I saw Ramseh, an old Beirut photographer friend from the Lebanese civil war, running for his life down the road. And I knew that when Ramseh ran, it was time to do the same. I jumped off the wreckage of the American tank and ran for my life down the highway, along with more than a dozen Iraqi soldiers and journalists. The jet thundered over us. Was he just taking a look? Was he, perhaps, not too keen on journalists prowling over one of his country’s crippled tanks?

But what really happened here? The hole in the tank’s armour was clearly caused by a small missile. But the tank’s right track had been virtually torn off by a massive explosion below the vehicle that had gouged a 5ft crater in the road. At first I thought the tank’s ammunition had exploded. But that would have torn the Abrams apart. So here’s a battlefield guess. During the “probing mission” into the Baghdad suburbs, a mission that didn’t actually reach the suburbs before it got ambushed by the Iraqis, “Cojone” was hit and its crew was rescued by another vehicle.

Unwilling to leave their crippled but perhaps repairable tank to the Iraqis, the Americans ordered a US air strike to destroy it. This would account for the crater and the massive hunks of asphalt thrown up around the vehicle. Maybe the crew were not saved. Maybe they were captured, though surely the Iraqis would have told us. But there were two tactical lessons to be learnt from all this. First, the American mission, whatever its original intention, was a failure. Their tank column did not “break into” the city as the Anglo-American headquarters originally stated. Iraqi resistance turned it back. The US response – air assaults on individual Iraqi vehicles – was presumably committed by Apache helicopters, because each smouldering wreck had been hit by a small rocket at close range. The second lesson was one for the Iraqis: they should never have brought their armour and military lorries so close to the front.

And even if they did destroy six American tanks as the minister ambitiously claimed, they did so at a cost of more than five-to-one to their own vehicles and guns. Artillery pits lay blackened, long-range guns blown apart and scattered over the mud and dust. I had to drive gingerly around the iron bones of an Iraqi munitions truck that had suffered a direct hit, its carcase surrounded by hundreds of exploded, blackened shell cases.

So in military terms – and despite all the waffle from the Americans about the “success” of the aborted US incursion – the Iraqis have so far held their ground in the Battle of Baghdad. But they must have sustained hundreds of casualties.

These are desperate days, something that even the loquacious Iraqi Minister of Information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, could not really conceal from the world yesterday. His afternoon press conference – a 2.30pm version of Centcom’s own follies – was conducted against the roar of missile explosions and what sounded like shell and mortar fire. “How do you know that is the sound of shellfire?” asked one persistent reporter. “It could be the sound of the continued air attacks by these villains and mercenaries.” But there was one very interesting theme to the minister’s daily peroration: his constant reference to the American tactic of testing Iraq’s military defences, only to retreat the moment the Iraqis counter-attacked.

“This happened at the airport,” he said. “They came in and we pushed them back and pounded them with our artillery and they disappeared back to Abu Ghoraib. But when we stopped, they came back again.” The American occupation of the airport, he insisted, was “for filming and propaganda”. But twice more came that intriguing admission: “They come, we stop them and we pound them and they go and when we stop they return.” Could US spokesmen have put it any better? There were reports late yesterday that the Americans were trying the same tactics again, this time in the middle-class suburb of Mansour. Certainly, air activity over the city increased to a new intensity at dusk as jets swept low over Baghdad, dropping ordnance on areas to the west of the Tigris river, only a few hundred metres from the scene of Saturday and Sunday’s battles.

Indeed, so great was the dust and smoke of explosions that, mixed with the Iraqi-lit oil fires around Baghdad, visibility was reduced to only a few hundred metres. But through the city streets, civilian cars could be seen, piled high with bedding, linen, saucepans and boxes. The better-off, those with villas in other, more peaceful provinces of Iraq, were leaving their homes in anticipation that there was worse to come.

Another sign of more dangerous days was the absence of Baghdad’s daily newspapers. No one could – or would – explain why Qaddasiyeh and Al-Iraq or even the execrable Iraq Daily failed to make the news-stands. Or, far more importantly, why Babel, the daily that belongs to Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, was not printed. This was, indeed, a sign of the times.

Robert Fisk

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