15 September 2003
We had to walk through a quarter of a mile of barbed wire to reach Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, last night. We had to pass through four checkpoints, including three body searches. Apache helicopters circled the conference centre and Bradley fighting vehicles sat in the darkness outside.
But inside was air conditioning, brightness, optimism and Secretary Powell. He had just had a "very exciting meeting" with the new "Governing Council". He was "deeply impressed" by what he saw in Baghdad - "people hard at work rebuilding a nation, rebuilding a society". So forget the $87bn (£55bn) President George Bush needs to run Iraq for the next year, forget the dead Americans and the far greater number of dead Iraqis who pay the price each day for the folly of this occupation. Forget the American soldier killed near Fallujah yesterday when a bomb blew up beneath his Humvee, wounding seven of his colleagues. He didn't rate a mention from ex-General Powell. It was the Coalition of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Sure, there was the briefest of mentions of the latest catastrophe - the killing of nine Iraqi policemen by US forces outside Fallujah - and of the compensation that might be paid to their families. It was, as America's proconsul, Paul Bremer, put it mildly "a very regrettable incident" which "is still under investigation by our military". Tell that to the people of Fallujah who want revenge.
And so we got the same old story. There would be a "free, democratic Iraq that will be a friend and partner of the United States ... and a responsible player on the world stage". It will be "some time" before a new Iraqi government can take over, Mr Powell told us - so much for the message from the French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, to Mr Powell in Geneva - and there was still "instability" in the country. He could say that again.
"But in many parts of the country, things are quite secure and stable." Unfortunately for Mr Powell, however, the Americans happen to be running the unstable bit; and even the Secretary of State was forced to admit - though no one has actually produced any proof of this - that "we have acknowledged that some terrorists have started to come into the country".
Mr Bremer, who is regarded as an "anti-terrorist" expert back in Washington, kept to the local scene, enjoying the precision of his economic statistics.
On Saturday, he announced that Iraq had produced 1,624,000 barrels of oil, 95 per cent of the revenue of which goes to the Iraqi Development Fund and 5 per cent for the 1991 Kuwaiti reparations. No mention, of course, of the amount Iraq is supposed to pay for its own invasion. Mr Powell talked about the $20bn Mr Bush plans to spend on Iraq. The far more frightful figure of $87bn that the US taxpayer is supposed to doll out for this occupation didn't rate a mention.
It was, in fact, the same story the Americans have stuck to since they arrived in Baghdad. Or more or less the same story. There would have to be a constitution. It would have to be ratified. There would have to be free elections. There would be a "leadership dedicated to democratic principles". Mr Powell - who never ventured outside the barbed wire and checkpoints yesterday - had apparently noticed "a vibrancy [in Iraq] that I attribute to the understanding of freedom ... through this land". America had "liberated" Iraq, he said several times. The word "occupation" didn't cross his lips.
He wanted good news, not the stories that were "more visual [sic] and more negative in nature". He wanted "a little more time, attention and energy" directed at "the more positive stories". And so say all of us. Which is presumably why the occupation authorities no longer even distribute their overnight security warnings to humanitarian organisations in Baghdad. If they did, the reports would show that US forces are now being attacked up to 50 times every night, that missiles are being fired at US planes almost every day, that neither Baghdad nor Basra airports are safe enough to open.
There wasn't even a word about Mr Powell's disastrous meeting in Geneva, which has left the Americans - for now - with no hope of seeing foreign armies riding to their rescue in Iraq. There was just lots of good news, along with one memorable soundbite, which all occupying powers announce. "We don't want to stay here a day longer," Mr Powell said. "We are hanging on because it's necessary to stay with the task. We came as liberators ... we've liberated a number of countries and we don't own a square foot of one of them except where we bury our dead."
These days the dead go back to the US and while Mr Powell was in Baghdad, the comrades of the soldier blown up in Fallujah yesterday were preparing his last journey home.