No joy to greet allies in Iraq

March 31 2003

I got it wrong - very wrong. True, I wasn't the only one and if the American tactics had been different I might not have been so wrong after all. But Saddam Hussein's forces have not crumbled quickly, and ordinary Iraqis have not greeted the coalition as their liberators. Instead, there is a growing danger they will see the allies as enemies - as bad, indeed, as Saddam himself.

This, you will remember, was the war which was fought because (as US Vice-President Dick Cheney told the Saudi Foreign Minister) it was "do-able". And although American spokesmen insist President George Bush himself never said the war would be quick, a leading Israeli journalist has reported that Washington assured the Israeli Government it would be over in five days.

Well, I thought it would be seven, so I'm in no position to carp.

But it is clear hubris played a greater part in the initial planning of this campaign than it should have. And the hubris came not from the American military, who like most senior soldiers are a cautious lot, but from the politicians.

"An explosion of joy will greet our soldiers," said the US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. There has been nothing joyful about the explosions that have greeted the allied forces in Iraq.

Why? All my experience in Saddam's Iraq assured me that people longed to be free of him. The analogy, I felt, was with Nicolae Ceaucescu's Romania - when people saw his power was collapsing, they came out to claim their freedom.

The trouble is, Saddam's power isn't collapsing. Everyone knows he is still in charge and that his elaborate Stalinist system of control, which operates right down to the level of workplace and home, remains fully intact. No sane person is going to rise up against him under these circumstances.

There is an instinct in all of us that resists invaders, even invaders who believe they are there for our own good. People whose cities are being bombed, and who see women and children being blown apart daily, are going to be angry about it.

So what do the soldiers on the Iraqi front line think, as they dig their foxholes and prepare their defences? According to intelligence reports, and to the deserters who come across to the Kurdish side, it is something that has probably never occurred to the Americans: they seem to believe Washington doesn't really want to get rid of Saddam at all, but merely to weaken him and keep him in place, just as happened in 1991.

You and I know this isn't true, but it is a view that is becoming widespread within the territory Saddam still controls. Iraqis share the assessment of American power that Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz have: that the US can do anything. If the Americans haven't destroyed Saddam's power structure, it's because they don't want to.

The origins of this, like so much else, go back to the last Gulf War. The decision George Bush snr took in March 1991 to withhold coalition help from the Kurds, the Shiites and the Sunni Muslims who rose up against Saddam after Bush himself had called on them to rebel is something no one in Iraq has forgotten.

If, Iraqis reason, the father decided that he wanted, on balance, to keep Saddam in power 12 years ago, maybe the son will want the same thing, whatever he may say now.

So they watch the bombs falling and they keep their own counsel. They hear fumbling characters at coalition press conferences insisting that they were investigating whether American bombs were responsible for the latest horrible massacre, or suggesting Saddam might deliberately have targeted his own citizens, and it makes them angry.

Whoever drops the bombs, they're only falling because there is a war; and they don't blame Saddam for that war, they blame the Americans and the British.

John Simpson is world affairs editor of the BBC.