New Iraq? Hooded protest and masked statistics

By Robert Fisk in Terbil, Iraq

20 March 2004

Exactly a year after the Anglo-American armies invaded Iraq, I found five young men yesterday busy smashing up what was left of a Saddam statue in this little dusty border village. The torso and head of the dictator had long disappeared from his plinth at the frontier station but his legs and one arm and a battery of monumental missiles still lay on the ground in gleaming steel. Two American attack helicopters were racing up the border - still trying to find Donald Rumsfeld's al-Qa'ida hordes as they supposedly swarm into Iraq - but what caught my eye were the heads of the five young men, so assiduously hammering and sawing and hacking at the remains of the statue. Four of them were wearing black face masks, the fifth had a black hood over his head. A year after the fall of Saddam, Iraqis have to hide their identity when they attack his image. What does that tell us about "new Iraq"?

If you are in Iraq, in Baghdad, driving its dangerous roads, the evidence of collapse and failure is everywhere. The few unarmed NGOs are marooned in the cities, unable to travel on the highways, which have become the domain of assassins and bandits. Now even the road south of Kerbala is the haunt of armed gangs. When I drive these highways, I now wear a keffiyeh and thobe on my head. My driver wears western trousers and shirt but I am in Arab clothes to avoid being attacked. Other westerners are doing the same thing. What does that tell us about Iraq a year after its "liberation"?

Many drivers now refuse to work for western reporters - and who can blame them? Yesterday, another journalist from the "Arabia" television station died of wounds after being shot by US troops - no wonder his colleagues walked out of Colin Powell's boastful Baghdad press conference yesterday. Three journalists working for the American- funded television station have been killed by insurgents. An old Iraqi friend of mine - one of Saddam's most trenchant critics - approached me this week. He had wanted to work for a "democratic" Iraq. Now he wanted my help in obtaining a second passport. Could I speak to the Australian embassy, he asked? He no longer believed that he would live in a stable country. What does this also tell us about "new Iraq"?

For those who spend time in Iraq, it is difficult to know whether to laugh or to cry when the pro-war chorus bangs its drums again. Richard Perle, one of the war's American neo-conservative Vulcans who did more than most to push the Bush administration into this invasion, was arguing with me on a radio show, praising the resumption of 24-hour electrical power in the Iraqi capital. Alas, I could hear little of what he was saying because of the roar of emergency generators around me in night-time Baghdad.

How do we explain now the armies of truculent, often ill-disciplined mercenaries now roaming Iraq on behalf of the Anglo-American occupation authorities. Many thousands of them British, some are well trained, many are not. In my own hotel, dozens of them swagger through the lobby with rifles and pistols, all talking "security", all working for private security firms hired by the occupation power or by private companies. They have no rules of engagement and many of them drink too much. When I pleaded with one British gunman in sunglasses last week to at least put a shirt over his gun to conceal it when walking in and out of our hotel, he pointed a finger at me. "Listen mate," he shouted. "If I see someone with a gun come to shoot you, I am going to walk right past and do nothing." But he is the risk to our security. The Iraqis, of course, watch the coming and going of these young men and draw their own conclusions. I fear I know what they are.

Attacks against US troops and western civilians are daily increasing in Mosul. Two days ago, three Iraqis were killed in Basra by a car bomb intended for a British military patrol. Western troops will now only drive at night north of Najaf in companies 200-strong. What happened to that nice little neatly defined "Sunni triangle"? No wonder Spanish troops are so keen to go home. Now that Poland's Prime Minister says he was "deceived" about weapons of mass destruction, how soon before the Polish contingent follow the Spanish? Never is it reported that Polish troops are attacked almost every night around the city of Hilla. David Kay's astonishing interview in yesterday's Le Figaro - "we must recognise our mistakes in order to restore our credibility" - is being widely broadcast in Baghdad. "I don't think there was any serious chance of proving the existence of weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Because the best evidence suggests they did not exist."

Still, the occupying power, the "Coalition Provisional Authority", refuses to keep statistics on the dozens of innocent Iraqis dying each week under their mandate, in massive car bombs and in roadside killings. The US military searches of Iraqi Sunni villages, the Israeli-style battering down of doors and houses, the constant American killing of innocents is embittering a new generation of Iraqis. And soon we will have "democracy" in Iraq.