Iraq's occupiers suspected of losing touch with reality 

Robert Fisk: 

09/20/03: BAGHDAD - A culture of secrecy has descended upon the Anglo-American 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 on Thursday he was shot dead in front of the Italian diplomat who was 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 a three-stage ambush that destroyed an American military truck and a Humvee jeep almost a hundred miles west of Baghdad, a minimum of three US soldiers were reported dead and three wounded local Iraqis claimed the fatalities numbered eight yet within hours, the occupation authorities were saying that exactly the same number were killed and wounded in a sophisticated ambush on Americans in Tikrit. 

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, effectively isolating the 'Coalition Provisional Authority' from its ministries and from US forces. 

An increasing number of journalists in Baghdad now suspect that US proconsul Paul Bremmer and his hundreds of assistants ensconced in the heavily guarded former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein in the capital, have simply lost touch with reality. 

Although an enquiry was promised yesterday 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 whom Bremmer appointed special adviser to the Iraqi ministry of culture, 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 penetrated the windscreen and hit the interpreter who was sitting in the front passenger seat. 

A few minutes later, the man died in Mr Cordone's arms. 

The Italian diplomat later returned to Baghdad. 

Yet 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 in Iraq. 

Just five days ago, a woman and her child were killed in Baghdad by an American soldier 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 afternoon, several Iraqi civilians were wounded by US troops after the Americans were ambushed outside the town of Khaldiya. At least two American vehicles were destroyed and eyewitnesses described seeing body parts on the road after the ambush. 

Yet 12 hours later, the authorities said that the Americans had suffered just two wounded even though at least three Americans were first reported to have died and witnesses said the death toll was as high as eight. 

Then came the ambush at Tikrit almost identical if the authorities are to be believed -- in which exactly the same casualty toll was produced: three dead and two wounded 

On this occasion, the incident was partly captured on videofilm. 

During an arms raid around Saddam's home town, guerrillas attacked not only the American raiders but two of their bases along the Tigress river. It was, an American spokesman said, a "coordinated" attack on soldiers of the US 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 Ahmad, the former Iraqi ministry of defence, 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 to US forces the Americans had promised to remove his name form the list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis around Saddam. 

I last saw the portly General Ahmed in April, brandishing a gold-painted Kalashnikov in the Baghdad ministry of information and vowing eternal war against his country's American invaders. 

It was Ahmed who persuaded now retired General 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 which had been encouraged by President George Bush's father. 

Afterwards, there was much talk of indicting General Ahmed as a war criminal, but US General Petraeus seems to have thrown that idea in to the waste-bin. 

His quite extraordinary letter to Ahmed which preceded the Iraqi general's surrender and was revealed by the Associated Press news agency described the potential war criminal as "the most respected senior military leader currently residing in Mosul" and promised that he would be treated with "the utmost dignity and respect." 

In the same letter which may be studied by war crimes investigators with a mixture of awe and disbelief -- the US officer said 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 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 in Iraq. 

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 and history will have to decide what would have happened if similar letters had been sent to Nazi military leaders before the German surrender in 1945. 

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'? 



Another Day, Another Death-Trap For The US 

by Robert Fisk 

09/19/03: (The Independent: UK) The American Humvee had burnt out, the US troop transporter had been smashed by rockets and an Iraqi lorry - riddled by American bullets in the aftermath of the attack - still lay smoldering on the central reservation. 

"I saw the Americans flying through the air, blasted upwards," an Iraqi mechanic with an oil lamp in his garage said - not, I thought, without some satisfaction. "The wounded Americans were on the road, shouting and screaming." 

The US authorities in Iraq - who only report their own deaths, never those of Iraqis - acknowledged three US soldiers dead. There may be up to eight dead, not counting the wounded. Several Iraqis described seeing arms and legs and pieces of uniform scattered across the highway. 

It may well turn out to be the most costly ambush the Americans have suffered since they occupied Iraq - and this on the very day that George Bush admitted for the first time that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and the 11 September assault on the United States. And as American Abrams tanks thrashed down the darkened highway outside Khaldiya last night - the soft-skinned Humvee jeeps were no longer to be seen in the town - the full implications of the ambush became clear. 

There were three separate ambushes in Khaldiya and the guerrillas showed a new sophistication. Even as I left the scene of the killings after dark, US army flares were dripping over the semi-desert plain 100 miles west of Baghdad while red tracer fire raced along the horizon behind the palm trees. It might have been a scene from a Vietnam movie, even an archive newsreel clip; for this is now tough, lethal guerrilla country for the Americans, a death-trap for them almost every day. 

As usual, the American military spokesmen had "no information" on this extraordinary ambush. But Iraqis at the scene gave a chilling account of the attack. A bomb - apparently buried beneath the central reservation of the four-lane highway - exploded beside an American truck carrying at least 10 US soldiers and, almost immediately, a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Humvee carrying three soldiers behind the lorry. 

"The Americans opened fire at all the Iraqis they could see - at all of us," Yahyia, an Iraqi truck driver, said. "They don't care about the Iraqis." The bullet holes show that the US troops fired at least 22 rounds into the Iraqi lorry that was following their vehicles when their world exploded around them. 

The mud hut homes of the dirt-poor Iraqi families who live on the 30-foot embankment of earth and sand above the road were laced with American rifle fire. The guerrillas - interestingly, the locals called them mujahedin, "holy warriors" - then fired rocket-propelled grenades at the undamaged vehicles of the American convoy as they tried to escape. A quarter of a mile down the road - again from a ridge of sand and earth - more grenades were launched at the Americans. 

Again, according to the Sunni Muslim Iraqis of this traditionally Saddamite town, the Americans fired back, this time shooting into a crowd of bystanders who had left their homes at the sound of the shooting. Several, including the driver of the truck that was hit by the Americans after the initial bombing, were wounded and taken to hospital for treatment in the nearest city to the west, Ramadi. 

"They opened fire randomly at us, very heavy fire," Adel, the mechanic with the oil lamp, said. "They don't care about us. They don't care about the Iraqi people, and we will have to suffer this again. But I tell you that they will suffer for what they did to us today. They will pay the price in blood." 

Jamel, a shopkeeper who saw the battle, insisted - and in Iraq, it is what people believe that governs emotion, not necessarily reality - that 60 Americans were killed or wounded in a mortar attack on the former Iraqi (and former RAF) air base at Habbaniyeh last week. Untrue, of course. But as we spoke, mortar fire crashed down on Habbaniyeh, its detonation lighting up the darkness as explosions vibrated through the ground beneath our feet. This was guerrilla warfare on a co-ordinated scale, planned and practiced long in advance. To set up even yesterday's ambush required considerable planning, a team of perhaps 20 men and the ability to choose the best terrain for an ambush. 

That is exactly what the Iraqis did. The embankment above the road gave the gunmen cover and a half-mile wide view of the US convoy. They must have known the Americans would have opened fire at anything that moved in the aftermath - indeed, the guerrillas probably hoped they would - and angry crowds in the town of Khaldiya were claiming last night that 20 Iraqi civilians had been wounded. 

Six days ago, American soldiers killed eight US-trained Iraqi policemen and a Jordanian hospital guard 14 miles away in Fallujah, claiming at first that they had "no information" on the shootings, and then apologizing - but without providing the slightest explanation for the killings. Several Iraqis in Khaldiya suggested that yesterday's ambush may have been a revenge attack for the slaughter of the policemen. 

True or false, that is what the guerrillas may well claim. Do they, many Iraqis wonder, follow the political trials of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair? Was the devastating attack timed to coincide with Mr Bush's increasing embarrassment over the false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction? Unlikely. But yesterday when the former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix condemned the "culture of spin, the culture of hyping" - in reference to the Anglo-American exaggeration of Saddam Hussein's threat to the world - some of his words may have found their mark in Iraq. "In the Middle Ages," Mr Blix said, "when people were convinced there were witches, they certainly found them." 

Now Mr Bush is convinced he is fighting a vast international "terrorist" network and that its agents are closing in for a final battle in Iraq. And the Iraqi mujahedin are ready to turn the American President's fantasies into reality. 

I couldn't help noticing the graffiti on a wall in Fallujah. It was written in Arabic, in a careful, precise hand, by someone who had taken his time to produce a real threat. 

"He who gives the slightest help to the Americans," the graffiti read, "is a traitor and a collaborator." 

C 2003 The Independent:  UK