Patrick Cockburn: In Iraq it is still easy to become accidentally dead

Suddenly, half a dozen US soldiers rushed at our car with guns, shouting 'Hands up!'

13 January 2004

The shooting dead of at least five demonstrators by Iraqi police and British soldiers during a protest over high unemployment in the southern city of Amarah over the weekend shows just how far the country is from returning to any form of stability.

Anybody who thinks that life is improving in Iraq should take the short journey down the highway from the centre of Baghdad to the town of Fallujah some 25 miles away on the Euphrates. This is the main road to Jordan and it used to take about half an hour to get there.

Last Friday, I decided to go to Fallujah to look at the place where an American Blackhawk helicopter had been shot down by guerillas the previous day. We were first of all delayed by an enormous US convoy of armoured vehicles on flatbed trucks, stalled while soldiers tried to defuse a bomb further down the road.

We diverted on to an unsurfaced side road beside an evil-smelling canal to get to the market town of Abu Ghraib. Just after we arrived, I got out of the car to make a call to London on a Thuraya satellite phone, which looks like a large mobile.

While I was talking, a US patrol drove by and some officer obviously thought I might be a guerilla intelligence officer giving away the US position. Suddenly, half a dozen American soldiers rushed at the car with guns pointing at our chests shouting "Hands up!" and forced us down on our knees in the dust beside the car. My phone was snatched away. Then, just as quickly, the soldiers decided we were not a threat and released us.

It is difficult to spend long in Iraq without realising that it is very easy to become accidentally dead. At about the same time as we were stopped in Abu Ghraib, US soldiers in Tikrit shot dead two Iraqi policemen who ignored orders to stop and identify themselves. What the US military never explains in these circumstances is that orders by US troops are almost invariably barked in English.

US soldiers are not the only ones suspicious of anybody using a satellite phone. Soon after being stopped in Abu Ghraib, I was in Fallujah talking to a shop keeper who was doing a roaring trade selling cassettes of songs or chants in praise of the resistance.

I asked him if it would be safe for me to use my satellite phone outside his shop. "No it wouldn't," he said hurriedly. "People around here have suspicious minds and might think you are telling the Americans something."

Overall, the capture of Saddam Hussein seems to have made little difference to the level of resistance. This is not immediately obvious, because the number of attacks on US forces is down to about 17 a day now, compared with twice that two months ago. But this is in large part because, eager to cut their casualties, US commanders cut the number of patrols they carry out by two thirds from 1,500 a day in November to 500 a day in December.

None of the underlying causes of instability in Iraq have been effectively addressed. The bloody demonstration in Amarah at the weekend shows the terrible desperation for jobs. About 12 million people or 70 per cent of the workforce are out of a job. One Russian company in Baghdad looking for a driver was alarmed when one of the several hundred applicants produced a live grenade during his interview and threatened to remove the pin unless he was hired.

In the months after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqis felt that, however exaggerated their expectations, there was some excuse for the lack of electricity and petrol. But nine months later, there are still lengthy black-outs and over the New Year people would sit in their cars overnight queuing for petrol.

It remains one of the mysteries of the last year that, given that the fortunes of the Bush White House are so dependent on Iraq, it has established such a dysfunctional administration in Baghdad.

For instance, it is vital for the US to raise a new Iraqi army. But it succeeded in paying the soldiers of the first battalion of this army so badly that half of them deserted. It was also essential for the US to establish a television station devoted to giving its point of view. Unfortunately, the contract went to a company close to the Pentagon which had never set up a television station before. As a result, Iraqis watch Arab satellite television deeply hostile to the occupation.

In theory, the US is now on course to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government selected by a transitional assembly which will, in turn, be elected by regional committees or caucuses.

Full elections will only take place in 2005. But at the weekend, Ali Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric, repeated his demand for direct elections, saying that the US plan would lead to an illegitimate Iraqi government. The fear of the Shia clergy is that the US and their local Iraqi allies will simply fix the outcome of the regional committee meetings to produce an assembly they like.

The US would be well advised to allow a transitional assembly to be selected which is as democratic as possible. It has to accept that a democratic Iraq will reflect the country's Shia majority. The Kurds will have a near independent mini-state and the Sunni Muslims cannot be denied a share in the government. But the record of the last nine months is that the US in Iraq has great difficulty in ceding power to anybody else.