You might have thought that sitting down to watch a series of filmed executions would become tedious after the tenth unfortunate victim is dragged before the camera to be slaughtered like a sheep. After all, most of the characters do not change much. There are the hooded Islamic holy warriors standing to attention, as the charges are read out to the accused, usually a man in an orange jumpsuit kneeling and blindfolded on the floor before them. The sets are the same too, often a dingy cement backroom in a house probably on the outskirts of Baghdad. The build-up is tedious. A martial song in Arabic exhorts the faithful to fight and then the commander reads out a statement, often a hammy delivery that even a B-movie Egyptian actor would not get away with. But the closing scenes never fail to shock, no matter how often you witness the sight of a man gasping his last breath as his head is hacked off with a knife. After two or three of these savage episodes you begin to feel physically sick and somehow complicit in these terrible acts.
So why is it that the snuff movies, which are being deliberately distributed by the killers, are being snapped up in their thousands on DVDs across Iraq? A year ago Iraqis liked nothing better than buying illicit pornography or video footage of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen torturing and killing their victims. It was assumed that this lurid fascination would wear off now that, after 40 years of state television, Iraqis have access to 24-hour satellite television. But no, something more disturbing is at work here. In the latest video to hit the streets an Egyptian man, accused of spying for the Americans, is paraded before a camera and has his head severed in a matter of seconds by a powerfully built executioner. Before the murder the video shows footage filmed from the camera of an American warplane that fires a missile into a crowded street; and then pictures of Iraqi civilian victims of the fighting.
The unmistakable message, sent by the fanatical Tawhid wal Jihad (Unity and Holy War) group, is clear. All non-Muslims and even their Muslim collaborators deserve to be executed in the most brutal manner conceivable as punishment for occupying Iraq. A year ago most Iraqis would dismiss these actions as the work of fanatics bent on plunging the country into civil war. After all, the same group is responsible for blowing up the United Nations building a year ago and killing scores of Shia Muslims during their pilgrimage earlier this year in an attempt to spark sectarian strife.
Worryingly the group, led by Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, a Jordanian with links to al-Qa’eda, is no longer a fringe movement but is finding a receptive audience for its message. This month, when heavy fighting erupted on Haifa Street — a main artery through central Baghdad where the old British embassy is located — the group’s distinctive black flag with a yellow circle suddenly sprang up on balconies and lampposts throughout the neighbourhood. Where once the group was accused of being a front for foreign fighters from Syria and Saudi Arabia, now it is clear that Iraqis too are joining the call, or at least adopting the same tactics.
Beheadings and executions of Nepalese contract workers, Turkish truck drivers, American civilians and ordinary Iraqis accused of collaborating with the Americans are now commonplace. The lucky ones are shot, but many turn up with their severed heads bound to their bodies.
The brutality of this struggle, which seems likely to intensify as the date approaches for the first elections in January, completely dominates working life. Correspondents no longer bother writing about the failure of reconstruction, electricity cuts or even attacks on American troops. There is no reconstruction to speak of and the chronic crime, grinding traffic and other grim aspects of life go largely unnoticed. A colleague came within a second of being blown to pieces by a roadside bomb detonated in front of his car on a major motorway in the city earlier this week. The incident was simply another delay to his journey and he did not even bother writing about it. Although several Americans and Iraqis were injured in the blast, it no longer makes news. The car bombs, which explode almost daily and have killed more than 100 Iraqis in the past week, are barely worth a mention unless the death toll climbs into double figures.
Today, living in Baghdad is a simple fight for survival, particularly for the small band of Westerners who still inhabit the city alongside the Iraqi residents. In a year the response to a foreign face in Baghdad has evolved from a smiling ‘hello, Mister’, to a sulky stare and the odd obscene gesture, to today’s look of disbelief or even open hostility. A Westerner walking the street in Baghdad today is a conversation-stopper, which is why we move as little as possible through the city. After the abduction in Baghdad of one British and two American engineers living in the fashionable Mansour area of the city, the few Westerners still living among Iraqis now find themselves in the frontline of this ghastly new twist to the conflict. The Times house was abandoned some time ago because of security scares. Others who had hung on hoping the situation might improve have finally given up. They have been checking into the relative safety of my hotel all week like refugees in search of sanctuary. Others have simply left the country. Even those with contacts in the Iraqi resistance against the Americans are not immune. Two journalists recently had to flee the scene of fighting to avoid being abducted by gangs of gunmen. In both cases they were helped by commanders in the Iraqi insurgency who stalled the militant Islamic jihadists and allowed the foreigners to flee.
The only real defence is to remain inconspicuous. My driver’s car, for instance, has blacked-out windows. We leave the hotel at different times every day and make sure to vary our routes. If we are visiting someone at home or in an office, we drive around the streets first to make sure no one is lying in wait. Some areas of the country and even Baghdad are completely off limits, like the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, certain militant Sunni Muslim mosques and notorious neighbourhoods. Most interviews are limited to 15 minutes before we are back on the road. I last had to employ these techniques when I lived in Beirut 20 years ago and abducting Westerners was fashionable. But, with a few exceptions, most of those abductions were conducted in order to get ransoms. Many hostages were held for years but most were eventually freed. In Lebanon kidnapping was business, not personal. Here your life expectancy in the hands of al-Zarkawi’s group is probably a few days at best.
In the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq there are few certainties. But now, on my sixth visit to Baghdad since the war, one simple rule seems valid: things only get worse.
Richard Beeston is the diplomatic editor of the Times.