Americans draw a veil of secrecy as casualties grow

No comment from the authorities while more and more US servicemen and their families are demanding answers from George Bush

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

20 September 2003

A culture of secrecy has descended upon the occupation authorities in Iraq. They will give no tally of the Iraqi civilian lives lost each day. They will not comment on the killing by an American soldier of one of their own Iraqi interpreters yesterday - he was shot dead in front of the Italian diplomat who was the official adviser to the new Iraqi Ministry of Culture - and they cannot explain how General Sultan Hashim Ahmed, the former Iraqi minister of defence and a potential war criminal, should now be described by one of the most senior US officers in Iraq as "a man of honour and integrity".

On Thursday, in an ambush outside Khaldiya, 100 miles west of Baghdad, a minimum of three US soldiers were reported dead and three wounded - local Iraqis claimed eight dead. Yet within hours, the occupation authorities were saying that exactly the same number were killed and wounded in an ambush on Americans in Tikrit. This incident was partly captured on videofilm. Only two soldiers were wounded in the earlier attack, they said.

And for the second day running yesterday, the mobile telephone system operated by MCI for the occupation forces collapsed, in effect isolating the "Coalition Provisional Authority" from its ministries and from US forces. An increasing number of journalists in Baghdad now suspect that the US proconsul Paul Bremer and his hundreds of assistants ensconced in the heavily guarded former presidential palace, have lost touch with reality. Although an inquiry was promised into the shooting of the Iraqi interpreter, details of the incident suggest that US troops now have carte blanche to open fire at Iraqi civilian cars on the mere suspicion that their occupants may be hostile.

Pietro Cordone, the Italian diplomat, was travelling to Mosul with his wife, Mirella, when their car approached an American convoy. According to Mr Cordone, a soldier manning a machine gun in the rear vehicle of the convoy appeared to signal to Mr Cordone's driver that he should not attempt to overtake. The driver did not do so but the soldier then fired a single shot at the car, which hit the interpreter who was in the front passenger seat.

The incident was only reported because Mr Cordone happened to be in the car. Every day, Iraqi civilians are wounded or shot dead by US troops. Just five days ago, a woman and her child were killed in Baghdad after US forces opened fire at a wedding party that was shooting into the air. A 14-year-old boy was reported killed in a similar incident two days ago. Then on Thursday, several Iraqi civilians were wounded by US troops after the Khaldiya ambush.

During an arms raid around Saddam's home town, guerrillas attacked not only the American raiders but two of their bases along the Tigris river. It was, an American spokesman said, a "co-ordinated" attack on soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division. Up to 40 men of "military age" were then arrested.

In what must be one of the more extraordinary episodes of the day, General Sultan Ahmed handed himself over to Major General David Petraeus - in charge of the north of Iraq - after the American commander had sent him a letter describing him as "a man of honour and integrity". In return for his surrender - or so says the Kurdish intermediary who arranged his handover - the Americans had promised to remove his name from the list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis.

I last saw the portly General Ahmed in April, brandishing a gold-painted Kalashnikov in the Ministry of Information and vowing eternal war against the American invaders. It was General Ahmed who persuaded Norman Schwarzkopf to allow the defeated Iraqi forces to use military helicopters on "official business" after the 1991 US-Iraqi ceasefire agreed at Safwan. These helicopters were then used in the brutal repression of the Shia Muslim and Kurdish rebellions against Saddam. Afterwards, there was much talk of indicting General Ahmed as a war criminal, but General Petraeus seems to have thrown that idea into the wastebin. In his quite extraordinary letter to General Ahmed the US officer says that "although we find ourselves on different sides of this war, we do share common traits. As military men, we follow the orders of our superiors. We may not necessarily agree with the politics and bureaucracy, but we understand unity of command and supporting our leaders [sic] in a common and just cause." Thus far have the Americans now gone in appeasing the men who may have influence over the Iraqi guerrillas now killing US soldiers.

What is presumably supposed to be seen as a gesture of compromise is much more likely to be understood as a sign of military weakness - which it clearly is. Historians will also have to ruminate upon the implications of the meaning of "supporting our leaders in a common and just cause". Are Saddam and Mr Bush supposed to be these "leaders"?