Iraq through the American looking glass

Insurgents are civilians. Tanks that crush civilians are traffic accidents. And civilians should endure heavy doses of fear and violence

Robert Fisk

26 December 2003

Something very unpleasant is being let loose in Iraq. Just this week, a company commander in the US 1st Infantry Division in the north of the country admitted that, in order to elicit information about the guerrillas who are killing American troops, it was necessary to "instill fear" in the local villagers. An Iraqi interpreter working for the Americans had just taken an old lady from her home to frighten her daughters and grand-daughters into believing that she was being arrested.

A battalion commander in the same area put the point even more baldly. "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them," he said. He was speaking from a village that his men had surrounded with barbed wire, upon which was a sign, stating: "This fence is here for your protection. Do not approach or try to cross, or you will be shot."

Try to explain that this treatment - and these words - offend the very basic humanity of the people whom the Americans claimed they came to "liberate" and you are met in Baghdad with the same explanation: that a very small "remnant" of "diehards" - loyal to the now-captured Saddam Hussein, etc, etc - have to be separated from the civilians whom they are "intimidating".

To point out that the intimidation is largely coming from the American occupation force - to the horror of the British in southern Iraq who fear, understandably, that Iraqi revenge will be visited upon them as it was on the Italians and the Spanish - is useless.

Instead, we are told that American troops are winning those famous hearts and minds with the spirit of Christmas. There was a grim example of this - and the inherent racism that pervades even reporting of such events - on the Associated Press wire agency just this week.

Describing how an American soldier in a Santa Claus hat was giving out stuffed animals to children, reporter Jason Keyser wrote that one 11-year- old child "looked puzzled, then smiled" as the soldier gave him a small, stuffed goat. Then the report continued: "Others in the crowd of mostly Muslims grabbed greedily at the box," adding the soldier's remark that: "They don't know how to handle generosity."

I don't doubt the soldier's wish to do good. But what is one to make of the "mostly Muslims" who "grabbed greedily" at the gifts? Or the soldier's insensitive remarks about generosity? Iraqi newspapers have been front--paging a Christmas card produced by US troops in Baghdad: "1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Wishes you a very Merry Christmas!" it says.

But the illustration is of Saddam Hussein in his scruffy beard just after his capture, with a Santa hat superimposed on top of his head. Funny enough for us, no doubt - I can't personally think of a better fall-guy for St Nicholas - but a clear insult to Sunni Arabs who, however much they may loathe the beast of Baghdad, will see in this card a deliberate attempt to humiliate Muslim Iraqis. It is for Iraqis to demean their ex-president - not their American occupiers.

It's almost as if the occupying powers want to look through Alice's looking glass. This week, we had the odd statement by British General Graeme Lamb that Saddam could be compared to the Emperor Caligula. Now the good general was probably relying on Suetonius's Twelve Caesars for his views on Caligula. But if anything, the Roman was a good deal more insane than Saddam and even more heedless of human life.

The crazy Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, might have been a more appropriate parallel. But what was all this supposed to achieve? A serious war crimes trial - preferably outside Iraq and far from the country's contaminated judiciary - is the way to define the nature of Saddam's repulsive regime.

All references to the ex-dictator as Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun or Caligula - like all suggestions that Tony Blair or George Bush are Winston Churchill - are infantile. And again, they will appear insulting to the Sunni Muslims of Iraq, the one community which the Americans should be desperate to placate, since it is the Sunnis who are primarily resisting the occupation.

But the looking-glass effect seems to have taken hold of US pro-consul Paul Bremer's entire authority. Like President George Bush, Bremer has now taken to repeating the absurdity that the greater the West's success in Iraq, the more frequent will be the attacks on American troops.

"I personally feel that we'll actually have more violence in the next six months," he said a couple of week ago, "and the violence will be precisely because of the fact that we're building momentum toward success." In other words, the better things become, the worse they're going to get. And the greater the violence, the better we're doing in Iraq.

I wouldn't worry about this nonsense so much if it wasn't mirrored on the ground in Iraq. Take the US claim - now regarded as an absurdity - that they killed "54 insurgents" in Samara a month ago. The truth is that they killed at least eight civilians and there's not a smidgen of evidence that they killed anyone else. But still they insist on sticking to the story of their great victory.

Last week, they pushed out a similar version of the same story. This time there were 11 dead "insurgents" in Samara. But when The Independent investigated, it could only find records of four dead civilians and a lot of wounded. None of the wounded - presumably "insurgents" if the Americans believe their own story - had been visited in hospital by US forces who might, if they didn't question them, at least have apologised.

An even more peculiar habit has now manifest itself among spokesmen for the occupation authorities. When a tank drove over a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City three weeks ago, they claimed this was a "traffic accident", as if driving an M1A1 Abrams tank over a car and a robed prelate is the kind of thing that can happen on any downtown street.

A few days later, after a truck-bomber crashed into a car and killed 17 civilians, the occupation lads churned out the same rubbish again. It was, they said, a "traffic accident" involving a petrol tanker. But there was no tanker attached to the lorry.

The first American troops on the scene found the grenades intended to detonate the bomb and the victims were all blasted to bits - not burned, as they would have been if the petrol tanker had simply caught fire. Those of us who reached the scene shortly after the slaughter could still smell the explosives. But it was a "traffic accident".

Only yesterday we had an equally bizarre event. Jets, C-130 aircraft mounted with chain guns, and heavy artillery were all reported to be striking "guerrilla bases" in Operation Iron Hammer south of Baghdad. But investigation proved that the targets were empty fields and that some of the heavy guns were firing blank rounds as part of an artillery maintenance routine.

So let's get this right. Insurgents are civilians. Truck bombs and tanks that crush civilians are traffic accidents. And the "liberated" civilians who live in villages surrounded by razor wire should endure "a heavy dose of fear and violence" to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Somewhere along the way, they will probably be told about democracy as well.