05 December 2003
It was a famous victory in a war that was declared over more than seven months ago. No wonder the world was puzzled when, on Sunday, the US authorities announced that 46 militia fighters had been killed in a successful action to repulse an attempted ambush in the central Iraqi town of Samarra.
The world's journalists were told that the battle marked a new phase in the occupation. The US accepted that the resistance to its presence in Iraq was more organised than it thought and had adjusted its response accordingly.
That was an important admission, rendering inoperative the previous assertions that the continuing killings of US forces and other western officials were the work of "remnants" of the Saddam regime and foreign fighters who had slipped across the borders from Syria or Iran - with the implication that they would fade over time as the occupying forces consolidated their grip.
It was something of a coincidence, then, that such an embarrassing admission came in the form of a much-trumpeted victory against "the enemy". The enemy no longer consisted of lone snipers and suicide bombers but of organised guerrilla forces in uniform.
Yet from the start the American account of the engagement lacked basic plausibility. According to a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, all 46 dead, later revised upwards to 54, were combatants. In a clash that took place in daylight, most of those killed were said to be wearing militia uniforms. The spokesman had "no information" on civilian casualties.
It might be expected that such a surprising claim would be reported carefully until corroborated. Instead it was picked up and reported as fact by US networks and even the BBC. Within hours, however, the US military's account started to fall to pieces. Local Iraqis agreed that a US convoy delivering Iraqi currency to banks in Samarra had come under fire, and that US forces had opened fire in return. But beyond that, accounts differ. Hospital officials and police reported only eight dead - all civilians - and 55 injured.
There has been no evidence of the other bodies, or of anyone in uniform. The US forces said they thought the bodies had been removed by "the enemy".
It is not anti-American or even anti-war to point out that the US military's story is unconvincing. Everyone accepts that it is in the best interests of the Iraqi people and the world for the occupying forces to remain for the time being and to try to ensure minimal security as best they can. But those who supported the war are quite desperate to insist that the occupation is a success, when the evidence is that the situation is getting worse.
And many in the American media have fallen for the spin, writing learned-seeming articles about the supposed shift in the US forces' tactics. Over here, David Howell, the Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in the House of Lords, this week welcomed the "excellent victory" of our US friends over the guerrillas and said: "I am told that they came within one hour of catching Saddam." The gullible acceptance of such propaganda helps no one.
George Bush's Thanksgiving turkey that was never fed to the troops is turning out to be a symbol, trivial in itself, of a wider gap between appearance and reality. Yesterday, our correspondent reported an e-mail from one of the soldiers involved in the incident telling a friend: "Most of the casualties were civilians." The anonymous soldier continued: "We are probably turning many Iraqis against us and I am afraid instead of climbing out of the hole, we are digging ourselves in deeper." It was inevitable that many of the Iraqis would resent the occupation, but the Americans seem determined to dig deeper and make a bad situation ever worse. Responding to attacks with what looks like indiscriminate fire power, and then claiming to have killed combatants without evidence, when the only verifiable casualties are civilians, must be the worst way to win Iraqi "hearts and minds".