14 September 2003
In the Pentagon, they've been re-showing Gillo Pontecorvo's terrifying 1965 film of the French war in Algeria. The Battle of Algiers, in black and white, showed what happened to both the guerrillas of the FLN and the French army when their war turned dirty. Torture, assassination, booby-trap bombs, secret executions. As the New York Times revealed, the fliers sent out to the Pentagon brass to watch this magnificent, painful film began with the words: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas..." But the Americans didn't need to watch The Battle of Algiers.
They've already committed many of the French mistakes in Iraq, and the guerrillas of Iraq are well into the blood tide of the old FLN. Sixteen demonstrators killed in Fallujah? Forget it. Twelve gunned down by the Americans in Mosul? Old news. Ten Iraqi policemen shot by US troops outside Fallujah? "No information," the occupation authorities told us last week. No information? The Jordanian embassy bombing? The bombing of the UN headquarters? Or Najaf with its 126 dead? Forget it. Things are improving in Iraq. There's been 24-hour electricity for three days now and - until two US soldiers were killed on Friday - there had been five days without an American death.
That's how the French used to report the news from Algeria. What you don't know doesn't worry you. Which is why, in Iraq, there are thousands of incidents of violence that never get reported; attacks on Americans that cost civilian lives are not even recorded by the occupation authority press officers unless they involve loss of life among "coalition forces". Go to the mortuaries of Iraq's cities and it's clear that a slaughter occurs each night. Occupation powers insist that journalists obtain clearance to visit hospitals - it can take a week to get the right papers, if at all, so goodbye to statistics - but the figures coming from senior doctors tell their own story.
In Baghdad, up to 70 corpses - of Iraqis killed by gunfire - are brought to the mortuaries each day. In Najaf, for example, the cemetery authorities record the arrival of the bodies of up to 20 victims of violence a day. Some of the dead were killed in family feuds, in looting, or revenge killings. Others have been gunned down by US troops at checkpoints or in the increasingly vicious "raids" carried out by American forces in the suburbs of Baghdad and the Sunni cities to the north. Only last week, reporters covering the killing of the Fallujah policemen were astonished to see badly wounded children suddenly arriving at the hospital, all shot - according to their families - by an American tank which had opened up at a palm grove outside the town. As usual, the occupation authorities had "no information" on the incident.
But if you count the Najaf dead as typical of just two or three other major cities, and if you add on the daily Baghdad death toll and multiply by seven, almost 1,000 Iraqi civilians are being killed every week - and that may well be a conservative figure. Somewhere in the cavernous marble halls of proconsul Paul Bremer's palace on the Tigris, someone must be calculating these awful statistics. But of course, the Americans are not telling us. It's like listening to Iraq's American-run radio station. Death - unless it's on a spectacular scale like the Jordanian or UN or Najaf bombings - simply doesn't get on the air. Even the killing of American troops isn't reported for 24 hours. Driving the highways of Iraq, I've been reduced to listening to the only radio station with up-to-date news on the guerrilla war in Iraq: Iran's "Alam Radio", broadcasting in Arabic from Tehran.
It's as if the denizens of Mr Bremer's chandeliered chambers do not regard Iraq as a real country, a place of tragedy and despair whose "liberated" people increasingly blame their "liberators" for their misery. Even when US troops on a raid in Mansour six weeks ago ran amok and gunned down up to eight civilians - including a 14-year-old boy - the best the Americans could do was to say that they were "enquiring" into the incident. Not, as one US colonel quickly pointed out to us, that this meant a formal enquiry. Just a few questions here and there. And of course the killings were soon forgotten.
What is happening inside the US occupation army is almost as much a mystery as the nightly cull of civilians. My old friend Tom Friedman, in a break from his role as messianic commentator for the New York Times, put his finger on the problem when - arranging a meeting with an occupation official -- he reported asking an American soldier at a bridge checkpoint for his location. "The enemy side of the bridge," came the reply.
Enemy. That's how the French came to see every native Algerian. Talk to the soldiers in the streets here in Baghdad and they use obscene language - in between heartfelt demands to "go home" - about the people they were supposedly rescuing from Saddam Hussein. A Polish journalist in Karbala saw just how easily human contact can break down. "The American guards are greeting passers-by with a loud 'Salaam aleikum' [peace be with you]. Some young Iraqi boys with a donkey and cart say something in Arabic and suddenly, together, they run their fingers across their throats.
"'Motherfucker!" shout the Marines, before their translator explains to them that the boys are just expressing their happiness at the death of Saddam Hussein's sons ..." Though light years from the atrocities of Saddam's security forces, the US military here is turning out to be as badly disciplined and brutal as the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Its "recon-by-fire", its lethal raids into civilian homes, its shooting of demonstrators and children during fire-fights, its destruction of houses, its imprisonment of thousands of Iraqis without trial or contact with their families, its refusal to investigate killings, its harassment - and killing - of journalists, its constant refrain that it has "no information" about bloody incidents which it must know all too much about, are sounding like an echo-chamber of the Israeli army.
Worse still, their intelligence information is still as warped by ideology as was the illegal Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Having failed to receive the welcome deserved of "liberators", the Americans have to convince themselves that their tormentors - save for the famous Saddam "remnants" - cannot be Iraqis at all. They must be members of "al-Qa'ida", Islamists arriving from Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan ... Among its 1,000 "security" prisoners at Baghdad airport - the total number of detainees held without trial in Iraq is around 5,500 - about 200 are said to be "foreigners". But in many cases, US intelligence cannot even discover their nationalities and some may well have been in Iraq since Saddam invited Arabs to defend Baghdad before the invasion.
In reality, no one has produced a shred of evidence al-Qa'ida men are streaming into the country. Not a single sighting has been reported of these mysterious men, save for the presence of armed Iranians outside the shrines of Najaf after last month's bombing. Yet President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have talked up their supposed presence to the point where the usual right-wing columnists in the US press and then reporters in general write of them as a proven fact. With powerful irony, Osama bin Laden's ominous 11 September tape suggests that he is as anxious to get his men into Iraq as the Americans are to believe that they are already there.
In practice, fantasy takes over from reality. Thus while the Americans can claim they are being assaulted by "foreigners" - the infamous men of evil against whom Mr Bush is fighting his "war on terror" - they can equally suggest that the suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad was the work of the Iraqi security guards whom the UN had kept on from the Saddam regime. Whatever the truth of this - and the suicidal expertise of the UN attack might suggest a combination of both Baathists and Islamists - the message was simple enough: Americans are attacked by "international terrorists" but the wimps of the UN are attacked by the same Iraqi killers they helped to protect through so many years of sanction-busting.
There are foreign men and women aplenty in Baghdad - Americans and Britons prominent among them - who work hard to bring about the false promises uttered by Messrs Bush and Blair to create a decent, democratic Iraqi society. One of them is Chris Woolford, whose account of life in Bremer's marble palace appeared only in the internal newsletter of the UK regulatory Office of Telecommunications, for whom he normally works. Mr Woolford insists that there are signs of hope in Iraq - the payment of emergency salaries to civil servants, for example, and the reopening of schools and administrative offices.
But it's worth recording at length his revealing description of life under Bremer. "Life in Baghdad can only be described as bizarre," he writes. "We are based within a huge compound... in Sadam (sic) Hussein's former Presidential Palace. The place is awash with vast marble ballrooms, conference rooms (now used as a dining room), a chapel (with murals of Scud missiles) and hundreds of function rooms with ornate chandeliers which were probably great for entertaining but which function less well as offices and dormitories ... I work in the 'Ministries' wing of the palace in the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Within this wing, each door along the corridor represents a separate ministry; next door to us, for example, is the Ministry of Health and directly across the corridor is the Finance Ministry. Behind each door military and civilian coalition members (mainly American with the odd Brit dotted about) are beavering away trying to sort out the economic, social and political issues currently facing Iraq. The work is undoubtedly for a good cause but it cannot but help feel strange as our contact with the outside world - the real Iraq - is so limited." Mr Woolford describes how meetings with his Iraqi counterparts are difficult to arrange and, besides, "key decisions are still very much taken behind the closed doors of the CPA (the Coalition Provisional Authority), or for the most significant decisions, back in Washington DC". So much, then, for the interim council and the appointed Iraqi "government" that supposedly represents the forthcoming "democracy" of Iraq. As for contacting his Iraqi counterparts, Mr Woolford admits that Iraqi officials are sometimes asked to "stand outside in their garden between 7pm and 8pm so that we can ring them on satellite phones" - a process that is followed by the departure of CPA staff for their meeting with "bullet-proof vests and machine-gun mounted Humvees (a sort of beefed-up American Jeep) both in front and behind our own four-wheel drive..." Thus are America and Britain attempting to "reconstruct" a broken land that is now the scene of an increasingly cruel guerrilla war. But there is a pervading feeling - among Iraqis as well as journalists covering this conflict - that something is wrong with our Western response to New Iraq. Our lives are more valuable than their lives. The "terrible toll" of the summer months - a phrase from a New York Times news report last week - referred only to the deaths of Western soldiers.
What is becoming apparent is that we don't really care about the Iraqis. We may think we want to bring them democracy but, on an individual level, we don't care very much about them or their lives. We liberated them. They should be grateful to us. If they die now, well, no one said democracy was easy.
Donald Rumsfeld - who raged away about weapons of mass destruction before the invasion - now admits he didn't even discuss WMD with David Kay, the head of the US-led team looking for these mythical weapons, on his recent visit to Baghdad. Of course not. Because they don't exist. Mr Rumsfeld is equally silent about the civilian death toll here. It's the followers of his nemesis Bin Laden that now have to be publicised.
Bin Laden must be grateful. So must the Palestinians. In the refugee camps of Lebanon last week, they were talking of the events in Iraq as a form of encouragement. "If Israel's superpower ally can be humbled by Arabs," a Palestinian official explained to me in one of the Beirut camps, "why should we give up our struggle against the Israelis who cannot be as efficient soldiers as the Americans?" That's the lesson the Algerians drew when they saw France's mighty army reduced to surrender at Dien Bien Phu. The French, like the Americans, had succeeded in murdering or "liquidating" many of the Algerians who might have negotiated a ceasefire with them. The search for an interlocuteur valable was one of de Gaulle's most difficult tasks when he decided to leave Algeria. But what will the Americans do? Their interlocuteur valable might have been the United Nations. But now the UN has been struck off as a negotiator by the suicide bombing in Baghdad. And the Bin Ladens and the adherents of the Wahabi sect are not interested in negotiations of any kind. Mr Bush declared "war without end". And it looks as though Iraqis - along with ourselves -- are going to be its principal victims.