Baghdad: The true picture

As Tony Blair flies to meet British troops in the Gulf, there is growing chaos and resentment in Iraq

Robert Fisk, in Baghdad

28 May 2003

Two Americans shot dead and another nine wounded by unidentified gunmen in Fallujah, two US military policemen badly wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade at a north Baghdad police station, a grenade thrown at American soldiers near Abu Ghurayb. That was yesterday's little toll of violence - not counting the Muslim woman who approached American troops with a hand grenade in each hand, was shot before she could throw the first and then, as she tried to hurl her second grenade from the ground, was finally killed by the Americans. Isn't it time we called this a resistance war in Iraq?

Tony Blair flies out to Kuwait today as part of a six-day tour that will see him become the first Western leader to visit post-war Iraq. George Bush is also expected to make a triumphal visit to "liberated" Iraq in the next two or three days. In Kuwait today, Mr Blair will meet British troops and congratulate them on their success.

But both leaders would do well to keep the rhetoric to the minimum. I know, of course, how the official briefings will go. Fallujah was a Saddam stronghold where the Americans could expect "remnants" of the old regime to fight on - "remnants", like the "remnants" of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida who are flooding back into Afghanistan and who appear to be arriving in battalion strength. More troops are on the way, Messrs Blair and Bush will be told. Order is being restored.

Most people in Baghdad get only two hours of electricity a day. The petrol queues - in a country whose oilfields have already been corralled by the US military, with the lucrative clean-up contracts given to American companies - stretch for up to two miles.

Driving down some streets necessitates a journey over solid garbage, muck crunching between the tyres. In some parts of Baghdad, the stench of open sewers is overpowering.

Children are being withdrawn from newly opened schools after reports of child kidnapping and rape. The police stations, now guarded by US troops, look like the RUC's old blockhouses in Andersonstown and Derry: surrounded by armour and guards with heavy machine-guns and netting.

Yes, there are free newspapers in the streets. Yes, electricity workers are now being paid. Yes, there's a little economic miracle in internet cafés. Yes, political parties are issuing tracts and claims and threats. Yes, you can even buy booze in the streets although Shia clerics are promising to burn down every shop that sells it. Prostitution - the most obvious free-market symbol in town - is back (the Saddam Fedayeen had a propensity for chopping off prostitutes' heads). And you can say what you like about anyone. Isn't that freedom?

But three days ago, near the site of one of Saddam's mass graves, I asked directions from a group of men in a car. Only when I leant through the window did I see that two of them nursed Kalashnikov rifles on their knees. Why the guns, I asked innocently? "Because we're not going to let thieves steal our car," one of them replied. Was this the only reason? They were sitting in their vehicle alongside the American army's main supply route to Baghdad.

A week ago, two American soldiers were shot dead in Baghdad. It was reported in the United States as if they were victims of some natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a minor traffic accident.

There is a willing suspension of disbelief in which all here have to live. Caged inside the marble halls of Saddam's finest palace, thousands of American officers and civil servants - utterly cut off from the five million Iraqis around them - battle over their laptops to create the neo-conservative "democracy" dreamed up by Messrs Rumsfeld, Perle and the rest. When they venture outside, they do so in flak jackets, perched inside armoured vehicles with heavily armed troops as escorts.

In Iraq, the anti-American attacks have begun within a month of the arrival of US forces who are now being assaulted almost daily. It was like this back in Beirut in 1982. First came the US Marines and the French and Italians to protect the Palestinians and support the new right wing Lebanese government. The first little hint of trouble came about six months later when Shia Muslim school children began throwing stones at American troops along a disused railway line. Then "Death to America" was painted on the walls. It was almost a year before the first Americans were shot at, the first grenades thrown. It was more than a year before the US Marine base was blown up by a suicide bomber with the loss of 241 Americans.

What, does that tell us? "Death to America" can already be seen on walls of Baghdad.

The Fallujah shooting yesterday was about the most serious to date. The Americans said they came under fire from many directions, including a mosque, although witnesses spoke of two men climbing from a pick-up truck and opening fire on the troops, all from the US Third Armoured Cavalry Regiment. The soldiers returned fire with machine-guns mounted on Bradley Fighting Vehicles, one of which - in the chaos of the battle - smashed into a helicopter that had arrived to evacuate the wounded. Fallujah has been the most dangerous town in Iraq ever since soldiers fired on a crowd of protesters last month, killing 18 Iraqis and wounding 78. On that occasion, the Americans claimed they were shot at from the crowd, though not a single bullet appeared to hit the US position.

American forces now drive through Baghdad ordering motorists to stay away from the military vehicles and make no attempt to overtake them into the same lane. But it's other features of their behaviour Iraqis don't like. Yesterday, for example, I found a Bradley Fighting Vehicle parked on Yasser Arafat Street with a crowd of children in front. On top stood an American soldier in shades, staring over their heads, hands on hips and puffing on a huge cigar while his colleagues pointed their guns at passing cars. What was the message here supposed to be? I know how it can be made to look different.

There's even a story that the new US ambassador to Iraq took a helicopter flight to the south of the country last week and asked to view the archeological sites of Mesopotamia from the air. When they saw an army of looters at one of the locations, the ambassador's guards allegedly fired warning shots. And what did the looters do? They fired back.