'It's the same
By Robert Fisk
09 March, 2004
time I return to Iraq, it's the same, like finding a razor blade in
a bar of chocolate. The moment you start to believe that "New Iraq"
might work - just - you get the proof that it's the same old Iraq, just
a little tiny bit worse than it was last month.
At the border yesterday
morning it was all smiles. Passport formalities would be over in minutes.
But $10 (£5.40) would help. It did. That's what we used to do
under Saddam - they are the same Iraqi officials, just not up to their
previous standards of venality - but soon, no doubt, we'll be up to
$15, or more.
The bombed road
bridge on the Baghdad highway has been repaired - despite the murder
of the owner of the company rebuilding it five weeks ago. There's a
three-mile convoy of new American troops humming westwards along the
motorway - you can tell the new units because their Humvees and armour
are forest green; the invasion tanks are in desert yellow - and all
seems well until we stop to chat to the sheikh of the little mosque
by the last petrol station before Ramadi. He says there are three "Ali
Baba" cars waiting. They crashed into a civilian car and sent it
spinning off the highway into the desert. We drive on at 110mph.
The radio - BBC
Arabic service, Iranian radio in Arabic, anything rather than the one
run by the occupation authorities - announces a settlement with Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani over the constitution that's supposed to be
signed this morning. Iraq's leading Shia cleric doesn't want the Kurds
to have a veto over the permanent constitution and wants more Shias
on a five-person council. Then a Shia on the Governing Council - where
everyone is handpicked by the Americans - speaks those words that always
fill me with dread in the Middle East because they always turn out to
be wrong. "We have reached an agreement," he said. "There
is going to be very good news very soon." Well, we shall see.
Baghdad is yellow
and grey under a fierce wind and, with sinking heart, I see more walls.
The massive concrete ramparts around Paul Bremer's consular headquarters,
the hotels of westerners, of the Governing Council, of every American
barracks are familiar. Now government ministries are to be hidden behind
concrete. And woe betide those Iraqis who work for the Americans as
translators and fail to heed warnings about "collaboration".
Three of them ignored the threat. One, a Christian, was shot dead in
her car in the Zeyouna quarter, a second wounded with her, their driver
also was shot dead.
I arrive at my dingy
hotel and find that yet another translator is dead. He worked for an
American newspaper and was driving home with his mother and two-year-old
daughter when gunmen with silencers shot all three of them. There's
a rumour that this was a revenge killing. So while we are outraged,
we all secretly and cruelly hope it's revenge, not a collaborator killing,
that has contaminated our hotel.
I lean over my balcony
and watch four miserable Iraqis from the Civil Defence patrolling the
road below. One of them is lame. The last man, the lame one, is walking
backwards and staring at the rooftops.
Groceries in Karrada
Kharaj, to a vast emporium crammed with the new Iraqi rich, middle class;
the poor can't afford this place. There is fresh Danish butter, Austrian
fruit juice, Perrier by the gallon. And then there are the cigars. Churchills
at a quarter of the price of a European duty free, Cohibas at less than
a third of their cost. Are these part of the untaxed imports with which
the occupation authorities are trying to encourage the economy? Or part
of the loot from Saddam's stores? In the evening, gunfire ripples across
Jadriya, near the university - I hear it away as I write - and two American
helicopters are thundering up in the darkness. I listen to this unreported
battle, glad I didn't buy a bar of chocolate.
* At least 10 rockets
exploded last night near the Baghdad headquarters of the Coalition Provisional
Authority. There were no reports of casualties. The Katyusha rockets
were fired towards the Convention Centre and the al-Rashid Hotel. The
vehicle from which the rockets were fired blew up.
© 2004 The