FROM HIGH over Iraq yesterday, President George Bush cast his Olympian eye over ancient Mesopotamia after praising the Americans in Qatar who had “managed” the war against Saddam Hussein. But far below him, on a dirty street corner in a dirty town called Fallujah that Mr Bush would prefer not to hear about, was a story of American blood and American power and American boots smashing down the front gates of Iraqi homes.
“She’s got a gun,” an American soldier shouted when he caught sight of a woman in her backyard holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle. “Put it down! Put the gun down!” he screamed at her. The soldiers were hot and tired and angry. They’d been up since 3am, ever since someone fired a grenade at a lorry-load of troops from the 101st Airborne. You could see why Mr Bush chose to avoid any triumphal visits to Iraq.
Survivors of the ambush were among the soldiers yesterday, remembering the early hours as only soldiers can. “They fired a grenade at a two-and- a-half ton truck full of the 101st Airborne and then straffed it with AK fire and then just disappeared into the night,” one of them told me. “The guys were in a terrible state. One of our soldiers was dead with his brains hanging out of his head and his stomach hanging out, and there were eight others in the back shouting and pulling bits of shrapnel out of their legs.”
Before dawn, the Americans came back to wash their comrades’ blood off the street. Then they returned once more to deal with the people who live in this scruffy corner of the old Baathist city of Fallujah.
In Qatar – before his 75-minute flight through Iraqi airspace – Mr Bush did his best to lay down an appropriately optimistic narrative of the Iraq war. Iraq was a better place now that Saddam had gone – “a great evil has been ended,” he said – and praised the “humanitarian work of US troops”.
On weapons of mass destruction, he was understandably a little more circumspect. “We are on the look. We will reveal the truth … But one thing is certain. No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the Iraqi regime is no more.” But of course, no weapons of mass destruction have been found.
If Mr Bush thought his soldiers should be proud of what they had done in Iraq – that was what he told his commanders in Qatar yesterday – in Fallujah it was all sweat and fear and loudspeakers ordering civilians from the streets. Would the gunmen who “disappeared into the night” have really hidden in the nearest houses to the main road, right next to their ambush? Only if they were mad.
But someone in the 3rd Infantry Division decided yesterday to send the American 115th Military Police Company to capture a few guns and round up the usual suspects. It didn’t make for happy viewing.
Ever deeper into the wilderness of occupation, these soldiers were confused about the people they had just “liberated”. Some were good men. Take Sergeant Seth Cole, who once lived in Northampton and who worked out that if just 10 per cent of the people of Fallujah didn’t like Americans, “that is an awful lot of people”.
Take Sergeant Phil Cummings, a big cheerful cop from Rhode Island who talked to the Iraqis glowering at him from the pavement. “Some of these people don’t like us even though we came to save them,” he said. “But I always smile at them. At the schools, the kids throw rocks at us and I give them candy. I give them candy – they give me rocks.”
But it did not take long to see why children might throw rocks. There was another American soldier 40 metres away who was busy losing hearts and minds. “Tell them to get the fuck out of here,” he told a private, pointing at a group of teenagers. Then he turned to a middle-aged man sitting on a chair on the pavement. “You stand up and I’ll break your neck,” he screamed at him.
“Figures on the roof!” an MP shouted and 30 automatic rifles pointed to the top of a yellow-painted house. A sergeant pressed binoculars to his eyes. “It’s OK! It’s a woman with her little girl.” And there was a child with long black hair staring at the soldiers. That’s when they saw the woman with the AK. “She’s got a gun! There’s a woman with a gun.” The cry rippled down the lines of American troops. A few hours with soldiers who are as likely to be victims as they are victors and you realise why they have to shout information to each other like street vendors. “She’s got a gun!” “She’s got a gun!” “She’s got a gun!” went up and down the street again.
Three soldiers pushed their rifles through the iron laticework of the gate, all shouting: “Put the gun down!” until a tall, sweating MP kicked the gate and it swung open. “She’s put the gun down – we’ve got the gun!” Three soldiers ran into the yard and came back with a Kalashnikov. Then two female officers brought out the woman, a teacher in the local high school, veiled and dressed all in black. “Why did you hold the gun?” one asked. The woman’s eyes stared back through the slit in her veil. Then she folded her arms in a gesture of defiance and refused to speak.
“Please sir, you’re taking my son away – he’s done nothing wrong.” There had been the crashing of another door down the street and I just caught sight of a young man in a brown shirt being driven away in a Humvee between two American MPs. An elderly man was pleading with a medical officer. “Why my son? Why my son?”
Things were no better two metres away. A tall soldier from Massachusetts – how eerily the state sounded here in this heat-blasted town – was listening to a man who spoke good English and wanted to help. Over the road, three soldiers were hammering on a metal screen. “It’s an old, sick man who lives there; it’s only his shop, he sells candies to kids,” the Iraqi was telling the soldier. He did not reply.
So we stood in the oven-like sun until the shop’s front door opened. Three soldiers pointed their guns at the slowly widening crack in the door. And then behind it we saw a very old man with a long white beard and white hair in all directions, a frail creature in a long white gown – ancient was the word that came to mind – who had to lean on his refrigerator of ice-creams to steady himself. He looked like a prophet and for a moment the Americans paused. “I’m sorry sir, we have to search your shop,” one of them said. And the three went inside while the old man stood in the street and looked at us and at the shop and then hobbled back into the darkness.
There was some shooting a few hundred metres away and the soldiers ran for cover behind walls and gardens. Then a gate was booted open and a man in a grey dishdash came out and sat by the gatepost with his hands on his head and his family sitting on the porch beneath the bougainvillaea while the Americans went through their home. Another AK was produced – almost every family in Iraq has two or three guns. They were, for the most part, what we would call middle-class people, educated and with homes that might pass for villas in this run-down city with its broken munitions factories and its Baath party apparatus so deep that it’s hard to find an official uncontaminated by the stain of Saddam.
Yesterday, the Americans made a hundred more enemies among them. One young man told me that a few nights ago, gunmen had arrived at their homes and asked them to join a new resistance movement. “We turned them down,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d say if they came again.” Perhaps the same questions were once asked of the men who opened fire and wounded two American soldiers outside a Baghdad bank yesterday.
In Fallujah, one of the US MPs turned to me as his search was called off. “The Third Infantry Division are coming in here to go through this place tomorrow,” he said. It will be interesting to see what “going through” means. But remember the name Fallujah.