Boris Johnson

Out of the ashes

Terror is putting up a good fight in Iraq, says Boris Johnson, but the opening of the new Transitional National Assembly is an indication that the democratic revolution is working

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As the Puma chugs over Baghdad I look out over the machine gun and I have to admit I am full of a sudden wistfulness. I have been here before, almost two years ago exactly.

It was a week after the end of the war, and in those days my feelings were of nervous hope. I jogged by the twinkling Tigris. I ate out in restaurants — shoarma and chips, served with every sign of friendliness. I wandered around without a flak jacket and shoved my notebook under people’s noses, and said things like, ‘What do you think of George Bush, hmmm?’ And now look at the dear old place. We have been here for two years. We have spent something like £5 billion of UK taxpayers’ money, and the Americans have spent $400 billion. We have invested this country with 150,000 foreign troops, and built bases so big that it takes a chopper minutes to overfly the prairies of Humvees and half-tracks. We have tried bullying and kindness, bribery and bullets, and look at the state to which we would seem to have reduced Iraq.

Last time I was here I drove in from Jordan. These days the danger is so extreme that even the troops give the road a miss, and fly from the airport by helicopter. Our first helicopter is apparently shot at in Basra, causing the pilot to emit some missile-fooling ‘chaff’. The next is crippled by a homicidal pigeon. We are waiting at Baghdad airport for a third helicopter — in fact, I am taking my ease in a chemical toilet — when a mortar bomb crumps a few hundred yards away. By Baghdad standards, of course, I have seen nothing. There are about 23 attacks per day, many of them fatal, and in the 24 months since my blissful first visit the Americans have responded with a thoroughness bordering on mania. Everywhere you go in the ‘Green Zone’ there are huge concrete lithons the size of the Stonehenge sarsens blocking out the view, and GIs with beads of sweat on their noses asking your business, and signs reminding you that the slightest disobedience will be greeted with ‘deadly force’. There is no question of nipping out to buy a carpet or a packet of fags. If you want to go outside the Green Zone, you need a helicopter, and though there was a souk in the Green Zone, someone blew himself up in it.

Shortly before sitting down to write this I ask His Excellency the British ambassador whether I may go for a jog, just around the embassy, and am regretfully told that this would entail the company of two bodyguard-joggers and an armoured car. As a cost-cutting Tory, I decide this is not a good use of government resources. If this is the war on terror, it seems that terror is putting up a decent fight.

Of course things are better in Basra; but far from perfect. Two weeks ago a British embassy car was written off by a roadside explosive. I am sitting talking to a gloomy old Shiite politician in the southern city when he clicks his Biro and announces, ‘Five days ago they beheaded two of my relatives. They are beheading dozens of people every day.’ Even if you are one of those few Iraqis who has no direct experience of beheadings, bombings, kidnappings or shootings, you have plenty of other grievances against the multinational forces. Two years ago — only a week after the war — the Iraqis were already scathing about the relative abilities of Saddam Hussein and the Americans in the matter of getting the lights to work.

Here we are in 2005, and not only are all the main public buildings still twisted and pancaked and full of gaping cruise-holes, but the lights are still intermittent, sanitation mediaeval, inflation at 30 per cent, petrol queues lasting two days and corruption — without the restraint of Baathist terror — worse than ever. Do they blame us? The evidence is that they do. According to Mr Abed Jassim, a very brave pollster, the percentage of the population thinking of the coalition forces as ‘occupiers’ rather than liberators has risen from 48 per cent to 85 per cent. Asked to whom they looked for authority, the people of Basra ranked first ‘tribal forces’, then ‘terrorists’, then ‘the Iraqi police’ and last the ‘British army’. Eighty per cent of Iraqis think the war was a bad thing, and fully 30 per cent want Saddam to come back.

Was this, my friends, the cause I voted for? Was it for this that we have expended 60 British lives, 1,500 Americans and about 17,000 Iraqi civilians? It seems a pretty poor return so far.

We are trapped in a vicious circle. Life in Iraq is in some respects so bad that it gives the insurgents and recusants the perfect rallying cry for terror: look at what a world the Americans have brought you! Death to the foreigners! And the more terror they inflict on the coalition, the more difficult it is for us to do anything to make their lives better. Who would want to come and work here? In Basra the British officials live in post-holocaust ‘pods’, swaddled with sandbags and girt with Hescos (extra large steel-reinforced sandbags). Here in Baghdad I am writing next to a table lately sliced in two by a falling pane of glass, and am told by the seraphic ambassador that we could be shelled again at any time.

If you are a DFID official, and you want to go out and help with the power station, the finances work like this. You have to travel with three armoured Land Cruisers and eight private security guards from a firm called ‘Control Risk Group’. These are a fine body of men, tanned and tattooed, bristling with weapons, ear-mikes and experience. They say things like ‘go firm’, meaning stay where you are; ‘we are leaving in figures five’, meaning five minutes; and, in a New Zealand accent, ‘Jinnlemin, please fasten your seat restraints.’ They are paid about £500 per day and make up roughly half the total UK presence in the theatre. The security problem is not only life-threatening, therefore. It is also cripplingly expensive.

How can we break this cycle of terror and dissatisfaction? The first thing is to realise that many things are in fact not our fault. The economic disaster is little or nothing to do with the Coalition, and stems from the ludicrous attachment of Iraqis to Baathist subsidies and state planning. Do you know how much the Iraqis pay for petrol? Less than a penny a litre. The same goes for food. Electricity is entirely free, subsidised by the state. But as you fly over Baghdad you see the roofs mollusc-encrusted with brand new satellite dishes, the bane of freedom, and there is a similar boom in white goods of all kinds. The electricity problem, in other words, is caused not so much by coalition incompetence, but by the surge in demand that has followed the war, and which the clapped-out Saddam-era power stations could not match.

In spite of the logistical difficulties, moreover, we are doing some good. No doubt the Foreign Office is careful to show us the more moving schemes, but I was very impressed by the patient efforts of British prison officers to bring law and hygiene to a fetid Basra clink, where 34 blue-boilersuited teenage thieves and killers sat in a single room. They clawed me, begged me for ‘forgiveness’, which I was happy to give them, in principle; more usefully, the British are introducing their jailers to concepts like allowing suspects to keep silent until a lawyer is present.

But if you want to make your heart burst with patriotic pride, then I recommend that you go by Black Hawk about 10km east of the Green Zone. There you will find a large compound built by — choke, gulp — us, the British, in 1924. It is the Al Rustamiyah Military Academy, the ‘Sandhurst of the desert’, and here you will see the beginnings of a new Iraqi army, and a new officer corp s, created by the British. It was a cardinal mistake, no doubt, that the coalition decided in May 2003 to disband the entire army, causing thousands of disgruntled troops to take their AK47s and join the ranks of potential insurgents. (Just as it was a mistake to kick out 30,000 Baathist civil servants, in an act of professional ethnic cleansing that made the country ungovernable.) But we are now at last making amends, and on this muddy alluvial flat you can see tadpole-shaped Iraqi cadets — runty bodies and outsize helmets — being drilled by British officers.

The 90 recruits are being tested for leadership, passing each other through a kind of rope spiderweb. Then they attempt an assault course, and they square-bash with convincing shouts of ‘hwaaargh’. ‘This is new drill,’ says Major Akram proudly. ‘We did not have anything like it in the past. We used to have bad officers because the person who pays more gets accepted, but now there is fair selection, under the command of the British,’ he says, admittedly with several beaming British officers within earshot. He used to be an officer in the Republican Guard, he says, with responsibility for ‘chemicals’, but is very pleased with his army’s new ‘chocolate chip cookie’ uniform, so called because of its brown splodges, and new cap badge with crossed rifles. ‘I am here to serve my country and to give my whole life for this,’ he says; and what he is doing is certainly brave.

In the last three months more than 250 rounds have been fired at them over the fence, and a lieutenant was assassinated two weeks ago. Major Akram has received death threats by phone and by letter, but he is undaunted. ‘I have no doubt that one day they will kill me, because they are not stupid and I have only one neck. But I will take one of them with me,’ he says. He is a keen fan of Hollywood, and his favourite film is The Last of the Mohicans.

Of course, it is extraordinary that all this is happening only now, two years later, and it seems a painfully modest response to the scale of the problem. But then the Coalition would argue that a new army, complete with Sandhurst drill and NCO-oriented culture, is the beginning of real civil stability, and that you have to start somewhere. Huge sums are now being spent on beefing up the Iraqi police and security forces, now standing at 142,472 — down from half a million. If you sit in the canteens in Basra or Baghdad, you can hear British top brass musing on which beneficent act to perform next, building bridges, establishing ferries or perhaps cracking down on smuggling. But there are limits to neocolonialism, and they are imposed by terror.

In the words of a UN official, you can’t build a hospital if you can’t go out and monitor it. And if you do go out to monitor it, the cost is insane. Of the $1.2 billion recently spent by the Americans on development, $750 million went on the security men, of whom there are now 38,000 in Iraq. That is where to buy your shares, that is where the money is going; and that is why we need an Iraqi solution, and that means a new and credible Iraqi government.

Amazing though it may seem, some parts of the economy are thriving. Salaries have risen. The private sector now outnumbers the public for the first time in decades. Since the war, car ownership has risen to the point where 50 per cent of Iraqi families have at least one car. Insurgency violence is still bad, but has declined since the elections on 30 January, and diplomats are emitting the first faint cheeps of optimism. They say it is up to the Iraqis to push on with reform, and make the most of it.

This week we saw the opening of the new Transitional National Assembly, hailed by the Coalition forces as a historic event. The British and the Americans are now desperately hoping that the Shias and the Sunnis and the Kurds will get their act together, and make use of the democratic institutions they have laboriously constructed, like exhausted adults inviting their apathetic children to use an Early Learning Centre climbing frame.

Yes, there is a risk that the Shia groups will want to hijack the process of writing the constitution, due by 15 August, and turn the place into an Iranian-style theocracy. But the Sunnis have a veto, and since 70 per cent of Iraqis want a clear separation of religion from politics, this outcome seems unlikely. Yes, the Sunnis have been seething ever since the governmental baby was thrown out with the Baath; but all the Sunnis I spoke to regretted boycotting the elections in January, and the signs are that they will turn out at the next elections at the end of the year.

It could all still just about work, and if it does, I think it will still be possible to draw a positive balance on this venture. Yes, it has been destructive, far more destructive than those of us who voted for it imagined. But in a phrase now voguish in British politics, the war has been a piece of creative destruction. It is at least arguable that what has happened here is the beginning of something big and fine, not just here but across the Middle East. As I look at the smashed-up Iraqi government buildings, I am reminded of the fire of London, without which there would have been no St Paul’s.

I have innumerable quotations in my notebook from Iraqis of all kinds who are genuinely thankful that we removed Saddam (and quite a few from those who loathe George Galloway; it is funny how large he has bulked in their imaginations). But I leave you with the words of an Iraqi minister who shouted at us with great vehemence as he left the room, ‘Thank you, people of Britain, for what you have done! We give you our thanks and our praise and our love. You built this country eight decades ago, and it didn’t work. Now you are rebuilding it and it has to work.’

To read the original article from the 3rd May 2003 issue about Boris Johnson's previous visit to Baghdad, click here