Andrew Gilligan

The sound of rockets in the morning

Iraq is a disaster in the making, says Andrew Gilligan, unless the Americans learn to stop playing into the hands of their enemies

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Twelve months after the war which was supposed to return Iraq to the ‘international community’, to open it up for democracy, trade and progress, Baghdad is a city almost totally cut off from the outside world.

Not one of the four main roads linking the capital with its neighbours, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Kuwait, is safe to travel on. At the city approaches from north, south and west, Baghdad has gunmen like London has DIY warehouses. Iraqis are routinely stopped and robbed. As for foreigners, anyone stupid enough to try these roads has, in the last few days, almost always ended up a hostage, or dead.

There is only one comparatively safe way in for Westerners — a single daily flight from Amman with Royal Jordanian, the last civil airline still reckless enough to fly into the war zone. On board, RJ gallantly pretends that everything is normal. There are boarding passes, in-flight magazines, small beige meals on plastic trays. But then you notice that the entire crew seem to be South African. Many of your fellow passengers are wearing stetsons. And when we come in to land, it is with a plummeting, G-force-inducing corkscrew descent, designed to confuse anti-aircraft missiles and keep the insurgents guessing about our final angle of approach until the last possible moment.

On the road in from the airport, all the palm trees have been chopped down to provide clear fields of fire. The parapets of every overbridge are topped with high barbed-wire fences to prevent the grateful locals throwing rocks at us. The terminal itself is a ‘sterile zone’, with no Iraqi and no civilian motor vehicle allowed within two miles of it. The first port of call, after dropping your bags at the hotel, is the Royal Jordanian office to make absolutely sure of your seat out. The scene there is like Saigon, say, two weeks before the fall: not quite open panic just yet, but not far off it. The price of a return ticket for the 80-minute flight has risen to £850.

The Coalition’s loss of the most basic of all possible military necessities — the security of its own supply, not to mention escape, routes — says everything about the terrible mess it now finds itself in. After the final collapse, earlier this year, of the case on weapons of mass destruction, the events of the last ten days have ruthlessly stripped away all Whitehall’s and Washington’s other remaining fantasies, deceptions and pretences about Iraq: that the situation is ‘gradually improving’, that the Iraqi people welcome us, that the resistance is confined to ‘international terrorists’ and Baathist ‘remnants’ determined to recapture the golden days of Saddam. These must be the world’s only known ‘remnants’ which grow bigger every week.

In Britain’s case, there is also loss of the greatest delusion of all — that the British have any control whatever over the actions of the Coalition. British officials have been reduced to complaining to newspapers that they wouldn’t do it like this, never the best of signs.

The main US military spokesman, Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt, is quite clearly a man in denial. As recently as Tuesday, he was still claiming that the fighting in the main battlefield, Fallujah, was all due to foreign fighters, including the ‘key al-Qa’eda linchpin’, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has been linked by the Americans to more terrorist attacks than Semtex. Yet only about 5 per cent of those captured or killed in Fallujah have been foreigners. Kimmitt is the same man who greeted the beginning of the violence last week as a ‘localised uptick’.

Watching Kimmitt’s performance, it suddenly dawned on me that the Coalition is in the same position as Saddam was during the war, living in a bunker, convincing himself that everything was fine when all around the seeds of failure were being sown. What has been lost since 4 April is not territory: that can, and no doubt will, be regained, the supply routes re-secured; the military force facing the Americans is not that great. What has been lost is credibility, both in the eyes of the world and, more importantly, among the Iraqi people themselves.

The loss of credibility is nowhere more apparent than in the promises made, and broken, about the new, postwar Iraq. Waiting in line at the Royal Jordanian ticket counter, I flip through a British government dossier. Not the famous, sexed-up weapons of mass destruction one, nor even the PhD thesis ripped off by Dr Alastair Campbell, but the very final effort, the DeLorean 83 Series, of the legendary Downing Street dossier production line. This dossier, entitled ‘A vision for Iraq and the Iraqi people’, with a foreword by the Prime Minister, plopped on to the newsdesks on 16 March 2003, four days before the outbreak of war. Not surprisingly, it attracted little attention, and was published only on the Foreign Office website, the dossier equivalent of straight-to-video. But it repays reading now.

‘We’ve set out for you that should it come to conflict, we make a pledge to the people of Iraq,’ writes Mr Blair. The pledges were for ‘peace: a unified Iraq living at peace with itself’, for ‘freedom: an Iraq whose people live free from repression and the fear of arbitrary arrest’, and for ‘good government: an Iraq respecting the rule of law, whose government helps rebuild Iraq’s security and provides its people with food, water and high quality public services, especially health and education’. The UN, pledges the Prime Minister, will be heavily involved in Iraq’s reconstruction and will administer the country’s oil revenues.

A year on, none of these reasonably modest promises has been carried out, not even the one about freedom from repression (attacking a civilian city with helicopter gunships, as the Americans did last week, can hardly be described as community policing). Back in Baghdad for the first time since the war, I cannot help feeling the most striking sense of déjà vu. The Palestine Hotel, from which I covered the conflict, is as wretched as ever, down to the last carpet stain and the 15-minute wait for the lifts. The rickety concrete is still shaken by bombs and mortars; the early-morning insurgent rocket attack on the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters across the river, and the blastaway American response, have become so regular that they are known to the Palestine’s inmates as the ‘Dawn Chorus’. Just as in the war, only this time for safety reasons, it is not possible to travel outside Baghdad.

A few things have changed. There are mobile telephones and satellite TV; my Baghdad friends were able to watch my travails last summer on BBC World. Looking at things from a distinctively Iraqi perspective, they all seemed convinced that the British government had put me in prison. I had to reassure them that Lord Hutton did not have quite such impressive powers as Saddam Hussein. But there seems to have been virtually no new construction, or reconstruction — not even always a making good of the depredations of the war. At the Yarmuk hospital, where I spent several messy hours during the bombing, the bloodstains have been cleaned from the walls, but even now not all the medical equipment looted in the days after the liberation has been replaced.

In the Jumhuriya district of Baghdad, temporary home of thousands of refugees from Fallujah, Iraqi hospitality towards foreigners is strained. But I am eventually offered a glass of tea. ‘The problem with the Americans in Fallujah is that they do not distinguish between friend and enemy,’ said Najim Abdullah al-Azzawi, a building contractor. ‘So everyone ends up as an enemy.’

Later, in a different part of town , I have a chance to observe the truth of this maxim for myself. I am at the al-Mustansria University when it is raided by the Americans for the second time that day. Sausen al-Samir, the head of the English department, is showing me the damage they did on their first visit — smashed doors and windows, broken furniture, a trashed photocopier — when the campus is again surrounded and men in boots burst up the stairs. ‘F—ing get out of here,’ screams one of the soldiers, pointing his gun at us. ‘This is a Coalition operation.’

Al-Samir, furious, stands her ground, demanding to be taken to the commanding officer, Major Williams. ‘I want an apology for this morning,’ she says. ‘Ma’am, I’m not in the apology business given what we found here,’ he replies. Later the major takes me aside and shows me the haul: nine Kalashnikovs, a pistol, a rocket-propelled grenade and leaflets calling for violence against the Coalition. The raid is perfectly justified, but you can’t help thinking they could have done it more politely. Was it really necessary to break all the doors down? Don’t the university staff have keys? How do the soldiers know that the leaflets were produced on the photocopier they smashed — and anyway, don’t rather a lot of other people need the copier, too? ‘We will look into all that, sir,’ says the major. ‘But you do see what we’re up against.’ I do, which is why it makes sense not to manufacture even more difficulties for yourself.

The Americans’ new Clerical Enemy No.1, Muqtada al-Sadr, might also come into the category of a manufactured difficulty. He does have a real following, but a minority one. He has no scholarly achievements to his name, no religious qualifications. In a milieu where age and experience is very important, al-Sadr is touchingly sensitive about his extreme youth. Rather like a Western supermodel, though of course in reverse, it is impossible to obtain an accurate report of his age. His followers claim he is 32, but unkind critics say he is only 24. Like so many other kids these days, al-Sadr may be a little low on all that religion stuff, but he does understand the virtue of branding. In a remarkable display of political chutzpah, he capitalised on the power vacuum in the immediate aftermath of war to rename an entire Baghdad district of two million people after himself — or, more properly, his deceased father and uncle, both revered figures in the Shia pantheon. He expanded his large network of social and municipal services in the Shia slums; ‘Sadr City’ contains, among many other things, a Muqtada al-Sadr Orphanage, where the sexes are segregated and the boys get three times more space than the girls. Stern pictures of al-Sadr holding up an admonishing index finger decorate many public buildings in Sadr City. You do wonder how anyone who can allow himself to be depicted in so cheesy a manner can become such a big deal. The answer, of course, is the Americans.

Rather like Mohammed Aideed in Somalia, the Americans have seized on al-Sadr as the embodiment of all that is rotten in the state of Iraq. Just as with Aideed, all they have succeeded in doing is elevating him to a position of greater credibility. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, let it not be forgotten, was mobilised for the ‘final struggle’ last week. But it has ended up withdrawing from almost all the towns it seized. Only a serious attack by the Americans on al-Sadr could give him the catalyst he seeks. As I write, the Americans are surrounding the holy city of Najaf, promising to ‘seize or kill’ the great man. Al-Sadr, quite clearly overjoyed by the prospect, has been giving TV interviews promising to resist to the death.

The Americans are paying dearly for their rush to war and their spurning of the United Nations. If the occupation had been a UN effort, it would not have been an occupation; and last week would probably never have happened.

Withdrawal would be an unthinkable humiliation. As this week’s request for more troops showed, the Coalition’s only possible way forward is to get sucked in deeper. Nobody knows when the Iraqi elections will be. The insurgents, on the other hand, know exactly when the US and British elections are going to be. There are now 40 hostages, of 12 different nationalities, held in Iraq. But the real hostages are George Bush and Tony Blair.

Andrew Gilligan is defence and diplomatic editor of The Spectator.