Fear stalks city where the police hide behind masks

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent

12 January 2005

Journalism yields a world of clichés but here, for once, the first cliché that comes to mind is true. Baghdad is a city of fear. Fearful Iraqis, fearful militiamen, fearful American soldiers, fearful journalists.

That day upon which the blessings of democracy will shower upon us, 30 January, is approaching with all the certainty and speed of doomsday. The latest Zarqawi video shows the killing of six Iraqi policemen. Each is shot in the back of the head, one by one. A survivor plays dead. Then a gunman walks up behind him and blows his head apart with bullets. These images haunt everyone. At the al-Hurriya intersection yesterday morning, four truckloads of Iraqi national guardsmen - the future saviours of Iraq, according to George Bush - are passing my car. Their rifles are porcupine quills, pointing at every motorist, every Iraqi on the pavement, the Iraqi army pointing their weapons at their own people. And they are all wearing masks - black hoods or ski-masks or keffiyahs that leave only slits for frightened eyes. Just before it collapsed finally into the hands of the insurgents last summer, I saw exactly the same scene in the streets of Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. Now I am watching them in the capital.

At Kamal Jumblatt Square beside the Tigris, two American Humvees approach the roundabout. Their machine-gunners are shouting at drivers to keep away from them. A big sign in Arabic on the rear of each vehicle says: "Forbidden. Do not overtake this convoy. Stay 50 metres away from it."

The drivers behind obey; they know the meaning of the "deadly force" which the Americans have written on to their checkpoint signs. But the two Humvees drive into a massive traffic jam, the gunners now screaming at us to move back.

When a taxi which does not notice the US troops blocks their path, the American in the lead vehicle hurls a plastic bottle full of water on to its roof and the driver mounts the grass traffic circle. A truck receives the same treatment from the lead Humvee. "Go back," shouts the rear gunner, staring at us through shades. We try desperately to turn into the jam.

Yes, the Russians would probably have chucked hand grenades in Kabul. But here were the terrified "liberators" of Baghdad throwing bottles of water at the Iraqis who are supposed to enjoy an American-imposed democracy on 30 January.

The rear Humvee has "Specialist Carrol" written on the windscreen. Specialist Carrol, I am sure, regards every damn one of us as a potential suicide bomber - and I can't blame him. One such bomber had just driven up to the police station in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, and destroyed himself and the lives of at least six policemen.

Round the corner, I discover the reason for the jam: Iraqi cops are fighting off hundreds of motorists desperate for petrol, the drivers refusing to queue any longer for the one thing which Iraq possesses in Croesus-like amounts - petrol.

I drop by the Ramaya restaurant for lunch. Closed. They are building a 20-floor security wall around the premises. So I drive to the Rif for a pizza, occasionally tinkling the restaurant's piano while I watch the entrance for people I don't want to see. The waiters are nervous. They are happy to bring my pizza in 10 minutes. There is no one else in the restaurant, you see, and they watch the road outside like friendly rabbits. They are waiting for The Car.

I call on an old Iraqi friend who used to publish a literary magazine during Saddam's reign. "They want me to vote, but they can't protect me," he says. "Maybe there will be no suicide bomber at the polling station. But I will be watched. And what if I get a hand-grenade in my home three days' later? The Americans will say they did their best, Allawi's people will say I am a 'martyr for democracy'. So, do you think I'm going to vote?"

At Mustansiriya university - one of Iraq's best - students of English literature are to face their end-of-term exam. January marks the end of the Iraqi semester. But one of the students tells me that his fellow students had told their teacher that - so fraught are the times - they were not yet prepared for the examination. Rather than giving them all zeros, the teacher meekly postpones the exam.

I drive back through the al-Hurriya intersection beside the "Green Zone" and suddenly there is a big black 4x4, filled with ski-masked gunmen. "Get back!" they scream at every motorist as they try to cut across the median. I roll the window down. The rear door of the 4x4 whacks open. A ski-masked Westerner - blond hair, blue eyes - is pointing a Kalashnikov at my car. "Get back!" he shrieks in ghastly Arabic. Then he clears the median, followed by three armoured pick-ups, windows blacked, tyres skidding on the road surface, carrying the sacred Westerners inside to the dubious safety of the "Green Zone", the hermetically-sealed compound from which Iraq is supposedly governed. I glance at the Iraqi press. Colin Powell is warning of "civil war" in Iraq. Why do we Westerners keep threatening civil war in a country whose society is tribal rather than sectarian? Of all papers, it is the Kurdish Al Takhri, loyal to Mustafa Barzani, which asks the same question. "There has never been a civil war in Iraq," the editorial thunders. And it is right.

So, "full ahead both" for the dreaded 30 January elections and democracy. The American generals - with a unique mixture of mendacity and hope amid the insurgency - are now saying that only four of Iraq's 18 provinces may not be able to "fully" participate in the elections.

Good news. Until you sit down with the population statistics and realise - as the generals all know - that those four provinces contain more than half of the population of Iraq.