We could tell something was up as soon as we approached the petrol station. There was an American tank parked amid a big crowd of jerrycan-toting Iraqis. Unusually, the soldiers were down and walking around, guns at the ready. Then I heard shouting and saw the Americans using their carbines like staves to push back some of the customers, who were evidently trying their luck. Just then a black sergeant near me started shouting at an Iraqi. 'You, I've told you to get away from there,' he said, swinging his gun round.
The Iraqi appeared to be a phone technician, with pliers and a handset. He was standing before an open relay box, up to his ears in wire, and trying to repair some of the damage that has left Baghdad for three weeks without telephones, electricity, and in some places without running water and sanitation. The American repeated his command; and again. Still the Iraqi did not move, while others vehemently and incomprehensibly tried to explain what he was doing. Then the American seemed to lose his temper.
'Let me put it this way, buddy,' he shouted, lifting the gun to his shoulder and aiming at the Iraqi's head from a distance of a couple of feet. 'If you don't move, I'm going to shoot you!' At this point, since it did not appear out of the question that there would indeed be a tragedy, I am afraid that I intervened. 'I say, cool it,' I said – or rather, croaked. Three pairs of US army shades turned on me, and a couple of American guns waggled discouragingly in my direction.
There is gunfire the whole time in Baghdad. It barks around every street corner. Every night is enlivened by the rippling and popping, as if someone were tearing a sheet a few feet away. Within the space of the last half-hour, I had slunk past a ten-year-old with an AK47 over his shoulder, chewing the fat with his dad in the door of the shop. Just five minutes ago I had flinched when another shopkeeper cocked his automatic in my face to show how he dealt with the plague of thieves. But in my three days in Baghdad, this was easily the scariest moment, and the one time I really wished I had bothered with the flak jacket kindly loaned to me by Fergal Keane of the BBC. 'You!' screamed an American, whose stitched helmet name-tape proclaimed him to be Kuchma, blood-type A neg. 'Who are you? Go away! No, wait, give me that,' he said, shaking with anger when he saw my camera. 'Give me that or I will detain you.'
I refused; but it was only a couple of minutes before Kuchma and I had calmed each other down. He explained to me the huge pressures his men were under, trying to keep order in a city with no recognised authority, a gun under every Iraqi pillow, and with only a fraction of the troops necessary. I apologised, as we shook hands, for accidentally interfering with his work. I gabbled some congratulations on the amazing achievement of his men and the rest of the American forces.
It wasn't just that he had the gun and I didn't. I meant my congratulations, and I still do. Like everyone in Baghdad, Kuchma asked what the hell I was doing there. I went partly to satisfy my curiosity, but mainly to clear my conscience. I wrote, spoke and voted for the war, and was hugely relieved when we won. But owing, no doubt, to some defect in my character, I found it very hard to be gung-ho. My belligerence never burned with the magnesium brightness of, say, Mark Steyn.
It was troubling that we were preparing war against a sovereign country that had, so far, done us no direct harm. And the longer Blix and co. fossicked around in search of weapons of mass destruction, the more cynical I became about the pretext. If you took it that the WMD business was just a rigmarole, an abortive attempt to rope in the French and others, there was only one good argument for violently removing Saddam Hussein from power; and that was not just that it would be in the interests of world peace and security, but that it would be pre-eminently in the interests of the Iraqi people.
It was, therefore, a piece of utilitarian arithmetic. You had to weigh the disasters of war against the nightmare of life under Saddam. You had to set the misery of old Iraq against the uncertainties of a free country. That is the calculation; and it would be quite easy to construct a powerful case for believing that the exercise has been a disaster. You don't need to be Robert Fisk. You just shut one eye in Iraq, and look around you.
As we drove into Baghdad from Jordan, I saw some sights familiar from Kosovo, like the way a smart bomb deals with a motorway bridge: the writhing steel reinforcements twisted like spaghetti; the concrete shaken free as if it were plaster. But about 50 miles away from the city, in the neighbourhood of Ramadi, it became obvious that this was a much, much bigger deal than Kosovo. The tanks were not just neutralised; they were frazzled and oxidised, and in some cases they had flipped their lids – with the gun turret blown right out – like a biscuit tin. Cars had been crushed like balls of paper, and chucked over the side of the bridges. In every cock-eyed anti-aircraft gun, in every useless and deserted gun emplacement, you could read the humiliation of the Iraqi army.
We drove past the Baghdad Museum, which has still not recovered the Warqa vase and the 300-kilo bronze Akkadian king, and which every Iraqi believes was looted with the collusion of the Americans, or the Kuwaitis, or both. We went by a shopping centre flattened by bombs, as the vast buttocks of an American security guard might accidentally squash a cardboard box of cornflakes on the front seat of his Stingray. My interpreter pointed out the Ministry of Irrigation. Irrigation is the word. The thing was fuller of holes than a watering can.
But it is not the Americans who have done the worst damage to Baghdad. Weeks after the invasion, buildings are still burning, not from missiles but from the looting. Most of the shops are shut. There is glass everywhere, and rubbish all over the streets, because there are no municipal services; and there are no municipal services because civic order has broken down. Little Japanese pick-ups scoot by, laden with copper wires uprooted from the streets; and the very same looters shake their fists and complain that there is no electricity. Like every other reporter in Baghdad, I have done dozens of vox pops, shoving my notebook under the noses of passers-by, virgins to this procedure, and canvassing their opinion on the traumatic change we have made to their cityscape and their political arrangements. With my interpreter, Thomas, I went down to Sadr City, formerly Saddam City, where two million Shiites live in scenes of unremitting squalor, with markets petering out and starting up again on the wide, tank-friendly streets.
'Hello there,' I asked Hamad Qasim. 'How is it for you? Are you happy that Saddam has gone?' The djellaba'd shepherd chopped the air with his hands, as if brushing a fly off each ear, and said, 'We lived for 35 years under oppression and we are very happy that the Americans are here.' He then tried to sell me one of his malodorous brown ewes for $50. Others thought his words needed amplification. 'The Americans have come and purified us [Thomas's translation] from Saddam, but until now we have seen nothing from the Americans,' shouted another man, and the mood of the crowd became more assertive as, finding my Arabic inadequate, they engaged in choleric altercation with Thomas.
'Where is our gas, our electricity? They just make promises!' And as they grew more emphatic in their views I buttoned up my jacket and we found ourselves retreating to the car. A skinny man in a waistcoat stuck his nose through the window. 'I have no job. I have no money. There are gangsters everywhere shooting people. If this goes on,' he cried, flapping his waist coat in ominous demonstration, 'I will make myself a suicide bomber!'
Those are the kind of words that terrify men like Kuchma, the harassed marine at the petrol pump, and which tempt them to blow away someone who might be a phone-repair man, but who also might be about to set something off. Two and a half weeks after toppling Saddam, the American forces are pitifully ill-prepared for the task of rebuilding the country they conquered with such brilliant elan. Behind the scenes, under their breath, Iraqis are starting to make comparisons with the former regime. 'When the last Gulf war ended,' said Thomas, whom I suspect of being a bit of a Baathist, 'it took only a week before Saddam restored everything.'
Yes, agreed Mohamed, his colleague, you needed two Saddams to run this country. 'Your William Shakespeare has written in his novel Julius Caesar,' said Thomas, rolling his eyes and waving his finger, 'a country with a tyrant is better than a country with no leader at all.' Indeed, said someone else, Saddam may have been a thug and a killer, but at least he had a policy on law and order. Somehow, perhaps because we have so far failed either to capture him or to produce his moustachioed corpse, the shadow of the dictator still hangs over this town like a djinn. Where is he? What happened to him?
Some say he was seen at the Adamiya mosque on the day that American column sliced through Baghdad's pathetic Maginot Line. Some say he is holed up in Ramadi, the badlands to the west of town which fought on for six days; others that he is being ferried between the many households prepared to give him hospitality. I'll tell you where he is not. He is not at the bottom of that enormous hole made by the US air force in the posh district of Al-Mansour, when they had a tip-off that he was having a working dinner with his henchmen. He may indeed have been at the Al-Saab restaurant, a fine establishment that gave me a top-flight Shoarma and chips, but the bomb landed about 100 metres away from the joint, doing it no damage whatever. There were twisted bedsteads, snatches of curtain and other remnants of four civilian houses. But there was no Saddam.
It was theoretically his birthday on Monday (actually, no one knows when he was born, in the miserable village of Ouja near Tikrit; like everything else in his life, Saddam swiped his birthday from someone else), and everyone was gripped by a delicious paranoia that he would pop up, like some awful Saddamogram, with a special birthday commemoration. Almost all his images have been shot up, or defaced, and Mohamed, my driver, was very happy to join in, jumping up and down on a fallen statue. But the image is still there, on every corner, the grin still visible beneath the bazooka holes.
It is obvious why the name Saddam is still potent, and can still, incredibly, be spoken of in terms of grudging respect; and that is because no one else has taken power, at least not in the way that Iraqis appreciate. A charming Foreign Office man briefed the international press on Monday night, flying in and out on a lightning visit with his minister, Mike O'Brien. He sat on a desk in his salmon-pink tie, blue shirt, chinos, and twirled the toes of his brown brogues. Asked about law and order, and the creation of a new government, he said we were on a 'process' or a 'journey' in which he hoped the Iraqi police would shortly start to do the job themselves.
So far the Iraqi police are finding themselves unavailable for work, no doubt owing to heavy looting commitments. The Americans roll by in their Humvees, or sit behind their shades and their razor wire. They do not have the numbers to mount foot patrols; they have abandoned any attempt to confiscate the guns of the population, since it is a bit like trying to confiscate all the cannabis in Brixton. The result is that they do not control the streets. No one does. Iraq in 2003 will be studied for generations by anyone interested in power, and the emergence of authority in human society. Into the vacuum have flooded competing hierarchies – religious, military, secular – and a hilarious range of political parties, already exhibiting Monty Pythonesque mutual loathing.
Saddam's palaces are now controlled by the Americans, and I was repeatedly frustrated in my attempts to gain admission. But there are plenty of other looted palazzos, formerly belonging to Baathist kingpins, and all sorts of people seem to be in charge. A sign outside the home of Saddam's half-brother, Watban Al-Tikriti, proclaimed that it was now the headquarters of the Democratic and Liberation party. What were their political aims, I asked the shuffling men who allowed me in. They grinned. The charter of the Democratic and Liberation party is to liberate, in the most democratic fashion possible, the possessions of Watban Al-Tikriti.
Then I went to the villa of Tariq Aziz, in a hopeless attempt to emulate David Blair and find some documents incriminating Western politicians. My fingers clutched greedily at some papers scrumpled outside; and – yes! – they were indeed communications between Iraq and a foreign power. They were letters from the Swedish ambassador, dated 1982, complaining about the mugging of his au pair, and registering the import, to Baghdad, of a Ford Capri. I decided not to trouble the Telegraph copytakers. Apathetically overseeing me was a group called 'The Military Liberation Force of Officers'. Their aim, they said, was to purge the army of corruption.
They might as well have had 'looter' tattooed on their foreheads. I went to the next looted palace, formerly owned by a Baathist vice-president. Yet another gang was in charge. 'We are a new party but we do not want to give you the name,' said a raffish, amply constructed fellow. Oh, all right, I said, what is the name of your leader? 'He is a religious man. I do not want to give his name.' I see, and what does he want? 'He wants a government.' What sort of government? 'He wants a patriotic government. He wants freedom.' These are some of the Shias who make up 60 per cent of the population, who were repressed by Saddam, and the people Thomas, the Christian Baathist, fears most.
Everyone has seen the pictures of the nutty head-cutters of Karbala. But what makes the Shia clerics dangerous is their appetite for power, and their shrewd understanding of how to get it. The leading mullah in Baghdad is the evocatively named Mohamed Al-Fartusi, who has already been arrested once by the Americans. On Monday night the coalition convened an extraordinary meeting of all those who might have a political role in rebuilding Iraq. There were perhaps 250 in all, including 50 sheikhs, tribal leaders in full head-dress; there were Iraqi intellectuals who had suffered under Saddam, and there were émigrés who had come back to help.
But there was no Fartusi. Not only had he not been invited; he would have boycotted the proceedings anyway. Nor was he available for interview when I turned up at his mosque. But as you studied the crowd at his gates, begging for arbitration from the holy men on questions of usury, theft or divorce, you could see why Thomas the Christian feels so threatened. They want to close down the booze shops, he said. They are mediaeval, he said, and he is exactly right. Sharia law means that there is no separation between church and state. The clerics are doing the job of the civil courts, and in the absence of any other authority their influence will surely grow. And who is there to rival them?
No one thinks much of Dr Ahmed Chalabi, whose Free Iraqi Fighters are in the pay of the Americans. For a couple of days Baghdad had a Chalabi-backed mayor called Zubeidi. Unfortunately, his first act as mayor was to loot $3 million-worth of TV production equipment, and the red-faced Americans put him under arrest on the charge of 'exercising power that wasn't his'. So who does have power? Not Jay Garner. 'Who's Jay Garner?' asked one marine, guarding the building in which I was told the proconsul resided.
Power is being contested on every corner, between Shia moderates and extremists. It is being fought for by umpteen Kurdish parties, Assyrian parties, secular parties. Of course there was something absurd about the conference organised by the Americans, the endless jabbering of groupuscules under a mural of a semi-naked Saddam repelling American jet bombers. There was a priceless moment when Mr Feisal Ishtarabi could not remember whether his party was called the Iraqi Independent Democratic party or the Iraqi Democratic Independent party. But does it matter?
There was also something magnificent about the process. It was a bazaar, a souk, in something the Iraqis have not been able to trade for 30 years. It was a free market in politicians. In a word, it was democracy. Sooner or later there will be elections in Iraq; and no, funnily enough, most people do not think that the Shiite extremists will sweep the country, or that government will be handed over to Tehran. There will be no more torture victims, like the man who showed me the ivory-white sliced cartilage of his ear, cut off by Saddam to punish him for deserting from the army, or the stumbling old man who claimed his three sons had all been killed by the Baathists.
If there are any weapons of mass destruction, the good news is that they will not be wielded by Saddam or any group of terrorists. And since it is time to put the good news into our utilitarian scales, here is a statistic that you should be aware of, all you Fisks and Pilgers and Robin Cooks, who prophesied thousands and thousands of deaths. I went to see Qusay Ali Al-Mafraji, the head of the International Red Crescent in Baghdad. Though some name-tags have been lost, and though some districts have yet to deliver their final tally, guess how many confirmed Iraqi dead he has listed, both civilian and military, for the Baghdad area? He told me that it was 150, and he has no reason to lie.
Of course it is an appalling sacrifice of life. But if you ask me whether it was a price worth paying to remove Saddam, and a regime that killed and tortured hundreds of thousands, then I would say yes. What do you see now when you walk past Iraqi electrical stores, which are opening with more confidence every day? You see satellite dishes, objects forbidden under Saddam. One man told me he had sold ten in the last four days, at between $200 and $300 a go.
Snooty liberals, and indeed many Tories, will say that this is vulgar and tawdry, and make silly, snooty jokes about the poor Iraqis now being subjected to Topless Darts and Rupert Murdoch. What such anti-war people don't understand is that the Iraqis are not only being given their first chance to learn about other countries. They can now learn about their own. They can now watch channels not wholly consecrated to the doings of Saddam.
There have been terrible mistakes in this campaign, though those who followed the cataclysm at the Baghdad Museum may be interested to know that, when I went there, three big boxes of artefacts were being handed over, having been recovered from the looters. I suppose that, with 170,000 objects stolen, there was a slight glut in the market for cuneiform seals, no matter how old.
As George Bush gave his speech on Tuesday night, I happened to be watching it with three Iraqis. When he said that 'the windows are open in Iraq now', meaning that people could talk without fear for their lives, they laughed and banged the table. I can imagine the anti-war lot in Britain, with their low opinion of Bush, also laughing at his folksy rhetoric. But when I asked the Iraqis what they thought of the speech, I found I had completely misunderstood their laughter.
'We agree with Bush 100 per cent,' said one, and they all passionately agreed. Really? I said. 'Yes,' he said. 'We are free now.' Iraq has huge problems, including colossal debts. It is barely governable. It would be unthinkable for America and Britain to pull out. But he says that his country is now free, and that, to me, is something that was worth fighting for. Saddam may be a ghost, but that is all.