01 April 2004
What has happened to the Coalition Provisional Authority, also known as the occupying power?
Things are getting worse, much worse in Iraq. Yesterday's horrors proved that. Yet just a day earlier, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, America's deputy director of military operations, assured us that there was only an "uptick" in violence in Iraq.
Not a sudden wave of violence, mark you, not a down-to-earth increase, not even a "spike" in violence - another of the general's favourite expressions. No, just a teeny-weeny, ever-so small, innocent little "uptick". In fact, he said it was a "slight uptick".
Our hands were numb, recording all this, so swiftly did General Kimmitt take us through the little uptick.
A marine vehicle blown off the road near Fallujah, a marine killed, a second attack with small-arms fire on the same troops, an attack on an Iraqi paramilitary recruiting station on the 14th July Road, a soldier killed near Ramadi, two Britons hurt in Basra violence, a suicide bombing against the home of the Hillah police chief, an Iraqi shot at a checkpoint, US soldiers wounded in Mosul ... All this was just 17 hours before Fallujah civilians dragged the cremated remains of a Westerner through the streets of their city.
When you go to the manicured lawns and villas of the so-called "Green Zone" in Baghdad, you get this odd, weird feeling; that here is a place so isolated, so ostentatiously secure - it is not secure of course, since mortars are regularly fired into the compound - that it has no contact with the outside world. Here the US proconsul. Paul Bremer. lives in Saddam Hussein's former palace. There are fewer than 100 days before he supposedly hands over the "sovereignty" of Iraq to America's own new hand-picked Iraqi government, which will hold elections at an unknown date. And so within the palace walls, the occupying power believes in optimism, progress and political development.
When someone asked - just a few hours before yesterday's horror - about the deteriorating security in Mosul, General Kimmitt snapped back that this was only "an assessment that you may be making".
Every week, it is like this. From the hot, dangerous streets of Baghdad with their electricity cuts and gunfire - and an awful lot of "upticks" which never get recorded - we make our way through palisades of concrete drums, US Army checkpoints and searches, into a vast, air-conditioned conference centre, a cavernous Saddamite structure built in 1981 for presidential summits.
Next to General Kimmitt often stands Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority who, with his frameless glasses, unsmiling demeanour and his occasional, fearful glances at the general when the latter faces a dodgy question, resembles the kind of doctor who clears his throat and quietly advises his patients to settle their affairs. He almost smiled when General Kimmitt announced his army's intention to conduct "precision operations" against "anti-Coalition elements and enemies of the Iraqi people". But wasn't this all a bit Soviet? Didn't the Red Army conduct operations against "anti-socialist elements and enemies of the Afghan people"?
But there was an interesting twist - horribly ironic in the face of yesterday's butchery - in General Kimmitt's narrative. Why, I asked him, did he refer sometimes to "terrorists" and at other times to "insurgents"? Surely if you could leap from being a terrorist to being an insurgent, then with the next little hop, skip and jump, you become a "freedom-fighter". Mr Senor gave the general one of his fearful looks. He needn't have bothered. General Kimmitt is a much smoother operator than his civilian counterpart. There were, the general explained, the Fallujah version who were insurgents, and then the al-Qa'ida version who attack mosques, hotels, religious festivals and who were terrorists.
So, it seems, there are now in Iraq good terrorists and bad terrorists, there are common-or-garden insurgents and supremely awful terrorists, the kind against which President George Bush took us to war in Iraq when there weren't any terrorists actually here, though there are now. And therein lies the problem. From inside the Green Zone on the banks of the Tigris, you can believe anything. How far can the occupying powers take war-spin before the world stops believing anything they say?
At Wednesday's Five o'Clock Follies, two armed American soldiers stood guard at both doors - watching us, not the approach to the doors - while a backdrop carried a vast shield with the words "Equality, Security, Liberty, Justice". Did I detect, among my colleagues, a quickening of our step as we headed back through the thousands of tons of concrete to the smog and fear of the streets outside? Baghdad may be dangerous. But at least it's on Planet Earth.