Liberated? The Real Story Begins Now
Fisk in Baghdad
10 April 2003
The Americans "liberated"
Baghdad yesterday, destroyed the centre of Saddam Hussein's quarter-century
of brutal dictatorial power but brought behind them an army of looters
who unleashed upon the ancient city a reign of pillage and anarchy.
It was a day that began with shellfire and air strikes and blood-bloated
hospitals and ended with the ritual destruction of the dictator's statues.
The mobs shrieked their delight. Men who, for 25 years, had grovellingly
obeyed Saddam's most humble secret policeman turned into giants, bellowing
their hatred of the Iraqi leader as his vast and monstrous statues thundered
to the ground.
"It is the beginning
of our new freedom," an Iraqi shopkeeper shouted at me. Then he
paused, and asked: "What do the Americans want from us now?' The
great Lebanese poet Kalil Gibran once wrote that he pitied the nation
that welcomed its tyrants with trumpetings and dismissed them with hootings
of derision. And the people of Baghdad performed this same deadly ritual
yesterday, forgetting that they or their parents had behaved
in identical fashion when the Arab Socialist Baath Party destroyed the
previous dictatorship of Iraq's generals and princes. Forgetting, too,
that the "liberators" were a new and alien and all-powerful
occupying force with neither culture nor language nor race nor religion
to unite them with Iraq.
As tens of thousands of Shia
Muslim poor from the vast slums of Saddam City poured into the centre
of Baghdad to smash their way into shops, offices and government ministries
an epic version of the same orgy of theft and mass destruction
that the British did so little to prevent in Basra US Marines
watched from only a few hundred yards away as looters made off with
cars, rugs, hoards of money, computers, desks, sofas, even door-frames.
In Al-Fardus (Paradise) Square,
US Marines helped a crowd of youths pull down the gaunt and massive
statue of Saddam by roping it to an armoured personnel carrier. It toppled
menacingly forward from its plinth to hang lengthways above the ground,
right arm still raised in fraternal greetings to the Iraqi people.
It was a symbolic moment
in more ways than one. I stood behind the first man to seize a hatchet
and smash at the imposing grey marble plinth. But within seconds, the
marble had fallen away to reveal a foundation of cheap bricks and badly
cracked cement. That's what the Americans always guessed Saddam's regime
was made of, although they did their best in the late Seventies
and early Eighties to arm him and service his economy and offer
him political support, to turn him into the very dictator he became.
In one sense, therefore,
America occupying the capital of an Arab nation for the first
time in its history was helping to destroy what it had spent
so much time and money creating. Saddam was "our" man and
yesterday, metaphorically at least, we annihilated him. Hence the importance
of all those statue- bashing mobs, of all that looting and theft.
But of the real and somewhat
less imposing Saddam, there was no trace.
Neither he nor his sons,
Uday and Qusay, could be found. Had they fled north to their homeland
fortress of Tikrit? Or has he the most popular rumour this
taken refuge in the Russian embassy in Baghdad. Were they hiding out
in the cobweb of underground tunnels and bunkers beneath the presidential
palaces? True, their rule was effectively over. The torture chambers
and the prisons should now be turned into memorials, the true story
of Iraq's use of gas warfare revealed at last. But history suggests
otherwise. Prisons usually pass over to new management, torture cells
too, and who would want the world to know how easy it is to make weapons
of mass destruction.
There will be mass graves
that will have to be opened though in the Middle East, these
disinterments are usually performed in order to allow more blood to
be poured onto the graves.
Not that the nightmare is
entirely over. For though the Americans will mark yesterday as their
first day of occupation they, of course, will call it liberation
vast areas of Baghdad remained outside the control of the United
States last night. And at dusk, just before darkness curled over the
land, I crossed through the American lines, back to the little bit of
Saddam's regime that remained intact within the vast, flat city of Baghdad.
Down grey, carless streets, I drove to the great bridges over the Tigris
which the Americans had still not crossed from the west. And there,
on the corner of Bab al-Moazzam Street, were a small group of mujahedin
fighters, firing Kalashnikov rifles at the American tanks on the other
side of the waterway. It was brave and utterly pathetic and painfully
For the men turned out to
be Arabs from Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Palestine. Not an Iraqi
was among them. The Baathist militiamen, the Republican Guard, the greasy
Iraqi intelligence men, the so-called Saddam Fedayeen had all left their
posts and crept home. Only the foreign Arabs, like the Frenchmen of
the Nazi Charlemagne Division in 1945 Berlin, fought on. At the end,
many Iraqis had shunned these men and a group of them had turned up
to sit outside the lobby of the Palestine Hotel, pleading to journalists
for help in returning home.
"We left our wives and
children and came here to die for these people and then they told us
to go," one of them said. But at the end of the Bab al-Moazzam
Bridge they fought on last night and when I left them I could hear the
American jets flying in from the west. Hurtling back through those empty
streets, I could hear, too, the American tank fire as it smashed into
But tanks come in two forms:
the dangerous, deadly kind and the "liberating" kind from
which smart young soldiers with tanned faces look down with smiles at
Iraqis who are obliging enough to wave at them, tanks with cute names
stencilled on their gun barrels, names like "Kitten Rescue"
and "Nightmare Witness" (this with a human skull painted underneath)
and "Pearl". And there has to be a first soldier of
the occupying or liberating kind who stands at the very front
of the first column of every vast and powerful army.
So I walked up to Corporal
David Breeze of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, from Michigan.
He hadn't spoken to his parents for two months so I called his mother
on my satellite phone and from the other side of the world, Mrs Breeze
came on the line and I handed the phone to her son.
And so this is what the very
first soldier to enter the centre of Baghdad told his family yesterday
evening. "Hi you guys. I'm in Baghdad.
"I'm ringing to say
'Hi! I love you. I'm doing fine. I love you guys. The war will be over
in a few days. I'll see you all soon.''
Yes, they all say the war
will be over soon. There will be a homecoming no doubt for Corporal
Breeze and I suppose I admired his innocence despite the deadly realities
that await America in this dangerous, cruel land. For even as the marine
tanks thrashed and ground down the highway, there were men and women
who saw them and stood, the women scarved, the men observing the soldiers
with the most acute attention, who spoke of their fear for the future,
who talked of how Iraq could never be ruled by foreigners.
"You'll see the celebrations
and we will be happy Saddam has gone," one of them said to me.
"But we will then want to rid ourselves of the Americans and we
will want to keep our oil and there will be resistance and then they
will call us "terrorists". Nor did the Americans look happy
"liberators". They pointed their rifles at the pavements and
screamed at motorists to stop one who did not, an old man in
an old car, was shot in the head in front of two French journalists.
Of course, the Americans
knew they would get a good press by "liberating" the foreign
journalists at the Palestine Hotel. They lay in the long grass of the
nearest square and pretended to aim their rifles at the rooftops as
cameras hissed at them, and they flew a huge American flag from one
of their tanks and grinned at the journalists, not one of whom reminded
them that just 24 hours earlier, their army had killed two Western journalists
with tank fire in that same hotel and then lied about it.
But it was the looters who
marked the day as something sinister rather than joyful. In Saddam City,
they had welcomed the Americans with "V" signs and cries of
"Up America" and the usual trumpetings, but then they had
set off downtown for a more important appointment. At the Ministry of
Economy, they stole the entire records of Iraq's exports and imports
on computer discs, with desk-top computers, with armchairs and fridges
and paintings. When I tried to enter the building, the looters swore
at me. A French reporter had his money and camera seized by the mob.
At the Olympic sports offices,
run by Uday Hussein, they did the same, one old man staggering from
the building with a massive portrait of Saddam which he proceeded to
attack with his fists, another tottering out of the building bearing
a vast ornamental Chinese pot.
True, these were regime targets.
But many of the crowds went for shops, smashing their way into furniture
stores and professional offices. They came with trucks and pick-ups
and trailers pulled by scruffy, underfed donkeys to carry their loot
away. I saw a boy making off with an X-ray machine, a woman with a dentist's
At the Ministry of Oil, the
minister's black Mercedes limousine was discovered by the looters. Unable
to find the keys, they tore the car apart, ripping off its doors, tyres
and seats, leaving just the carcass and chassis in front of the huge
At the Palestine Hotel, they
smashed Saddam's portrait on the lobby floor and set light to the hoarding
of the same wretched man over the front door. They cried "Allahuakbar"
meaning God is Greater. And there was a message there, too, for the
watching Marines if they had understood it.
And so last night, as the
explosion of tank shells still crashed over the city, Baghdad lay at
the feet of a new master. They have come and gone in the city's history,
Abbasids and Ummayads and Mongols and Turks and British and now the
Americans. The United States embassy reopened yesterday and soon, no
doubt, when the Iraqis have learned to whom they must now be obedient
friends, President Bush will come here and there will be new "friends"
of America to open a new relationship with the world, new economic fortunes
for those who "liberated" them, and equally no doubt
relations with Israel and a real Israeli embassy in Baghdad.
But winning a war is one
thing. Succeeding in the ideological and economic project that lies
behind this whole war is quite another. The "real" story for
America's mastery over the Arab world starts now.