Four missiles, 14 deaths and the crisis of information in Baghdad

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent

19 July 2004

This is how they like it. An American helicopter fires four missiles at a house in Fallujah. Fourteen people are killed, including women and children. Or so say the hospital authorities.

But no Western journalist dares to go to Fallujah. Video footage taken by local civilians shows only a hole in the ground, body parts under a grey blanket and an unnamed man shouting that young children were killed.

The US authorities say they know nothing about the air strike; indeed, they tell journalists to talk to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence - whose spokesman admits that he has "no clue what is going on".

And by the time, in early afternoon yesterday, that the American-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, said that he had given permission for the attack - even though US rules of engagement give him no such right - there had been car bombs in Tikrit in which two policemen died, one of Saddam's former generals was captured, and Fallujah became just another statistic, albeit a deeply disturbing one: this is the sixth air strike on the insurgent-held city in less than five weeks.

None of the six was independently reported. The dead were "terrorists", according to Mr Allawi's office. So were the doctors lying?

As in Afghanistan, so in Iraq. US air strikes are becoming "uncoverable", as the growing insurgencies across the two countries make more and more highways too dangerous for foreign correspondents. Senior US journalists claim that Washington is happy with this situation; bombing wedding parties and claiming the victims were terrorists - as has happened three times in a year - doesn't make good headlines. Reporters can't be blamed for not travelling - but they ought to make it clear that a Baghdad dateline gives no authenticity to their work. Fallujah is only 25 miles from Baghdad but it might as well be 2,500 miles away. Reports of its suffering could be written in Hull for all the reliability they convey.

Here, then, is the central crisis of information in Iraq just now. With journalists confined to Baghdad - several have not left their hotels for more than two weeks - a bomb-free day in the capital becomes a bomb-free day in Iraq. An improvement. Things might be getting better. But since most journalists don't tell their viewers and readers that they cannot travel - they certainly don't reveal that armed "security advisers" act as their protectors - they do not see the reality of cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Samara, which are now outside all government control. Indeed, US Marines are no longer allowed into the centre of Fallujah, which is now run by the Fallujah Brigade, made up of former Baathists and current insurgents. The Independent does not use security advisers in Iraq, armed or otherwise.

So what happened in Fallujah? The US attack on the house at 2am yesterday turned the building into a pit of earth in which small bomb fragments and arms and legs were found. Locals described the building as the home of poor people. Angry crowds of men cried "God is Great" at the site. And then an official in Mr Allawi's office announced that "the multinational forces [ie the Americans] asked Prime Minister Allawi for permission to launch strikes on some specific places where terrorists were hiding and Allawi gave his permission."

Precisely the same formula was used by Iraqi authorities 84 years ago when RAF aircraft made "precise" attacks on Iraqi towns and villages supposedly sheltering insurgents opposed to British occupation. Ironically, one of the US bases near Fallujah currently under constant nightly attack by Iraqi gunmen is Habbaniya - the very air base from which British bi-planes had staged their air strikes.

On an Islamist website - and, in truth, no one knows who controls it - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of Osama bin Laden's junior fighters, claimed that Saturday's suicide attacks on the Iraqi Justice Minister and a military recruitment centre in Mohammediya, which killed a total of eight Iraqis, were his work. The US military blamed the bombings on "people who want to stop the progress of democracy in this country" - which is an odd way of describing an organisation that allegedly wants to destroy not just the US-appointed government here but the United States itself.

The capture in Tikrit of General Sufian Maher Hassan of Saddam's Republican Guard was being portrayed as another success by the US army. However, since General Hassan was in charge of the defence of Baghdad in 2003 and is mockingly regarded as the man who turned a potential Stalingrad into one of the easiest American military victories of modern times - which is not exactly correct, but that is another story - his capture is not going to change the deteriorating security crisis in Iraq.

With ghoulish relish, meanwhile, Saudi Wahabists posted the execution of an American captive in Saudi Arabia on a website. The pictures showed a man in a white apron sawing at the neck and vertebrae of John Palmer before eventually placing his severed head on the back of his torso.

Given such gruesome proof of Western vulnerability, it's no surprise that journalists in Iraq - where similar videos have been made - want to avoid the same fate. But it's not just the killers who want to keep the reporters indoors.