14 December 2003
Saddam Hussein's massive presidential palace in Baghdad - with its imperial domes and marble columns and swimming pools - may soon be turned into America's new embassy in Iraq.
Yet outside its protective walls of reinforced concrete, the petrol queues now stretch for two miles and the power still flickers on for just 12 hours a day. In Baghdad these days, hubris and folly go hand in hand.
Is it a product of empire, this aggrandisement of authority? The echoing conference rooms and chambers of Saddam's former palace, the banqueting halls with their grape-clusters of chandeliers, the velvet lawns and fountains and hundreds of square yards of roses are redolent of the Raj. Even the triumphal entrance arch, guarded by 30ft-high concrete walls and squads of American soldiers, speaks more of Lutyens and New Delhi than "New Iraq". The State Department - the real one, back in Washington - confirms that the presidential keep is one of its options for a new embassy.
So when the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority dissolves itself next July to be replaced by an Iraqi government - and such promises must be fulfilled here before they can be believed - everyone in Baghdad will come to the conclusion that America intends to remain the true power in Iraq. No one knows, of course, where the Iraqi "government" will be headquartered. In a smaller palace, no doubt; perhaps the Ozymandias-style villa once owned by Saddam's vicious son Uday.
Yet Iraqi history is made outside the walls of its rulers; the gas lines, the power cuts, the growing numbers of attacks on policemen and "collaborators" and the growing insurgency against US forces are driving history here. So is the sheer violence of events. In the Hurriyah area of Baghdad, for example, a Sunni mosque was bombed last week and the local Sunni community immediately blamed the Shia. Sunni and Shia Muslims are almost equal in number in Baghdad but this week an unprecedented and frightening new precedent was set.
Three Sunnis were killed in the bombing and after their community blamed the Islamic - and Shia - Dawa party for the attack, hundreds of Sunnis took over a Shia mosque where they offered ritual prayers before the coffins of the dead men. Several Shias claimed later that the invaders of the mosque tore down portraits of Imam Ali, founder of their faith and a cousin of the Prophet Mohamed. This does not mean that Iraq is on the edge of civil war. But both communities blamed the Americans in the aftermath of the bombing - because there is no security in Baghdad, because the Dawa party was given legality in Iraq, because the Americans "allowed" gangs of Sunnis into the Shia mosque.
In fact, the Americans are far too busy protecting themselves in Baghdad these days to worry about the lives of the millions of Iraqis whom - under the laws of occupation - they have an obligation to protect. Two days ago, there was another mortar attack on the presidential compound where the American proconsul works and the Baghdad night was shattered by three huge explosions so powerful that they rattled the windows of my room three miles away.
The result? More aggressive raids on Sunni Muslim homes across the country, more cowboy talk of rounding up the bad guys and - more disturbing - the increasing use of Iraqi militiamen, carrying AK-47 rifles and in many cases cowled with scarves or semi-hooded so that their identity is concealed. When they turn up with American troops, the response of Iraqi civilians is not hard to imagine. When was the last time their homes were raided by soldiers and hooded men? Indeed, when was the last time that their roads were sealed off for "security" and their rulers lived in palaces behind concrete walls?
The militias, some hired from the party gangs of those now on the Governing Council, others ex-Iraqi soldiers or intelligence men, are another sign of desperation. Who would believe that only nine months after the "de-Baathification"of Iraq had begun, some of the very same intelligence men who served Saddam so faithfully would be working with the "liberators"? Who would believe that the same soldiers would be back on the streets?
So the resignation of one-third of Iraq's new American-trained army battalion last week was not surprising. New graffiti have been spray-painted on the walls of the Baghdad slums, promising that collaborators will have their throats cut.
And all the while, the Americans tell us of their greater success against "terrorism". Colonel Steve Russell of the 4th Infantry Division allegedly found enough weapons in Tikrit last week to launch 50 guerrilla attacks. The arms cache, he announced, was "a Fedayeen candy shop ... They are not moving weapons here - this is the head of the snake." The only problem is that there are now more than 50 attacks against the Americans every night, almost all of them unreported. Another American plane was hit over Baghdad by ground fire last week, a transport that landed back at an international airport that no longer takes civilian passengers.
Indeed, Royal Jordanian's (Alia) "Silver Wings" - the only civilian airline to serve post-invasion Baghdad - has suspended all its services to Baghdad after a DHL airliner was hit by a ground-to-air missile. In any event, some of Alia's pilots were already refusing to fly into Baghdad airport; an act of revolt that tells its own story.