Deaths mount on both sides on Christmas Day in Iraq

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

26 December 2003

How the artillery thundered. How the jets roared. How the machine-gun fire vibrated in the night. If the Americans were playing Santa to children on the streets of Baghdad yesterday, they were playing "Operation Iron Hammer" much more seriously.

"We cannot comment on ongoing military operations," an American military spokeswoman said. Even the operation kept changing its name ­ from "Iron Grip" to "Iron Justice", nowIron Hammer.

Much more obvious was the insurgents' own little operation in the centre of the capital. First they fired rockets into the palace from which the United States proconsul, Paul Bremer, and his officials rule Iraq. Then gunmen fired mortars at the Sheraton hotel, the prestigious, Baathist-constructed pile in which American businessmen, journalists and occupation authorities like to sleep.

In the 24 hours up to midday on Christmas Day, four more American soldiers were killed, three by a roadside bomb near Samarra, which US forces hoped they had pacified after a series of aggressive raids last week, and another by a bomb in Baghdad. Four Iraqis, including a 13-year-old girl, were killed by a suicide bomber in his car who detonated explosives outside a Kurdish office in Arbil, while another two civilians were killed in Baghdad by a bomb apparently intended for an American patrol.

At the Baghdad city mortuary, the medical director, Dr Faik Amin Bakr, told me that up to 20 dead, all of them Iraqis and most of them victims of violence, had been received on Christmas Day morning.

The occupying powers here only keep a daily count of westerners who have been killed. Strangely none of the bodies at the Baghdad morgue yesterday were brought in from the area of Khor Rajab, the Rajab Marshes, which were supposed to have been the centre of America's overnight anti-guerrilla raids. A drive through the slums and dirt fields along Highway 8 south of the city showed why.

Highway 8 from Baghdad to Hillah is a dangerous dual carriageway, scene of the murder of Spanish intelligence officers, Red Cross personnel and other westerners. It's also been the location of several attacks on US bases south of the capital. But yesterday afternoon, there was little to be seen of the overnight battle save some churned up fields and a fortress where US troops were firing blank shells from heavy artillery pieces. "The Americans were attacked twice from the fields," a tea-vendor said at his shack beside the highway. "They shot the place up later but didn't kill a soul. The men with the mortars had left long before."

A group of trainees in the new Iraqi army, walking home from boot camp across the fields of Khor Rajab, confirmed that US forces were firing blank rounds. "It sounds good, doesn't it?" one of them said. So much then, it seems, for "Operation Iron Grip/Justice/Hammer".

The phantoms of earlier military combatants might have been present in the old British garrison church of St George as members of Iraq's Christian community, at most 5 per cent of the population, gathered at dusk to sing carols. An Iraqi child with giant angels' wings sang "Jingle Bells" and adults ­ including three tall and balding Americans, the church guard and my hotel cook ­ led the congregation in "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in Arabic.

On the wall of the church nave still stood a memorial "to the Glory of God and to the Memory of One Million Dead of the British Empire who fell in the Great War 1914-1918. They died in every quarter of the earth and ..." Here the memorial broke off in gashed paint and plaster. The British Army occupied Baghdad in 1917 but a more recent assault on the capital had sent shrapnel smashing into the old plaque. Underneath, you could just make out the words "in honour for ever".