American troops step up searches as death toll rises

Robert Fisk in Baghdad

28 July 2003

Even to the Amariya bunker they came. So determined - or desperate - are the Americans to staunch the killing of their soldiers in Iraq that they even turned up at the weekend at the ruins of the air-raid shelter in which more than 400 civilians were killed by US missiles in the 1991 war, to search for weapons.

"They wouldn't let us go with them," said Mohamed Naimi, who works at the offices of the Iraqi Islamic Party next to what has become a shrine. "They went in alone and when we asked them if they knew who killed all the civilians inside, one of the officers said, 'We didn't take part in that war'."

After the killing of another US soldier near Hillah yesterday morning, bringing to five the number of troops killed in just 24 hours, and the number killed in this war to 163, the Americans are in no mood to heed the sensitivities of the people they claimed to be liberating less than four months ago. All across Iraq yesterday, the American army was storming on to farms, raiding refugee houses, even, according to Arab reports, trying to enter the Shrine of the Imam Hussain in Karbala. However inaccurate this may be, one of the shrine's guards was shot dead by the Americans and bullet holes were later filmed in a marble wall beside the mosque.

The claims of potential victory may have been intended to obscure the near-total opposition to the Americans which is now becoming apparent across all but Kurdish areas.

Saddam Hussein was only 24 hours from being caught by soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division after they raided three farmhouses near the former leader's home city of Tikrit and arrested 25 occupants. Or so officers of the unit said. Another of Saddam's senior bodyguards just escaped. Or so the American officers said. But Saddam was not there and all 25 prisoners were later freed.

At the Amariya bunker, too, the Americans found nothing. They walked through the blackened interior with its photographs of the hundreds of slaughtered civilian dead, its wreaths, its scorched iron doors and its glass-covered walls of burnt skin. Then they left. The Americans were said to have been polite, but not their Iraqi interpreters. It's a familiar story. If the Americans are not offensive in word or deed, their interpreters, usually Iraqi exiles who have spent years in the United States, are often rude or arrogant, say the thousands of Iraqis who have had their homes raided.

Late on Saturday night, it was the turn of the refugee poor who live in the broken houses of the old secret police headquarters in Mansur Street. Here, hundreds of Iraqi Shias from the super-heated slums of Sadr City - formerly Saddam City - were woken by a raiding party of US troops who seized guns and rifles from their makeshift homes amid the sinister ruins of Saddam's most frightful intelligence organisation.

"They tied up all the men with plastic and steel cuffs around their wrists and took all our guns," one of the residents complained. "A soldier pointed his rifle at this child here and his Iraqi translator said in Arabic that they'd count to 10 to be told where our guns were. Yes, of course we have guns: we have to defend ourselves from thieves who come in the night. Everyone in Baghdad has a gun now because there is so much robbery and killing."

The guns were taken but, according to a middle-aged woman in a black abaya, the men were left handcuffed when the soldiers departed. "We had to find knives to cut them free," she said.

Again, it's becoming a familiar pattern, these stories of mistreatment and abuse. Even if only 10 per cent were true - and this does not mean the percentage may not be much higher - the American military is acquiring a cursed reputation in Iraq. One of the men in the old intelligence compound complained that an American soldier had stolen money from him. Again, this may be a lie - all questions about such claims are routinely dismissed by the military - but far too many reports are now coming in of identical theft in other American raids for them all to be dismissed as exaggeration.

Nor should one be romantic about the behaviour of all Iraqi civilians. If the Americans were dismissive of the mass killing at Amariya when they visited the underground bunker at the weekend, Iraqi looters had stormed into the Baathist-constructed shrine after the "liberation" of Baghdad in April and stole the gold rings of the victims which had been stored in glass cases in the neighbouring exhibition hall.

As for the Americans, their death toll is rising. US forces have lost 11 men since the deaths of Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, the latest a soldier attached to the Marine Expeditionary Unit based south of Baghdad. And, since they are so keen to kill or capture Saddam, one can only guess how high the statistics of American deaths will climb if they are successful.