Birthday, War On Iraq
By Robert Fisk
15 March, 2004
was almost year ago, on March 20, when the first bombs struck 30km from
Baghdad, orange glows that wallowed along the horizon. They came for
Baghdad the next day, and the Cruise missiles swished over our heads
to explode around the presidential palace compound, the very pile where
Paul Bremer, America's supposed "expert" on terrorism, now
works, resides and hides as occupation proconsul over the Anglo-American
The illusions with
which the Americans and British went to war are more awesome now than
they were at the time. Saddam Hussein, the man we loved when he invaded
Iran and hated when he invaded Kuwait (our dictators have got to learn
that only our enemies can be attacked) had already degenerated into
late middle-age senility, writing epic novels in his many palaces while
his crippled son Oudai drank and whored and tortured his way around
Baghdad; hardly the target for the world's only superpower.
As the American
101st Infantry Division approached Baghdad, one of the last editions
of the Ba'athist newspapers carried a telling photograph on its back
page. A uniformed, tired, fat Hussein stood in the centre, on his left
his smartly dressed son Qusai but on his right Oudai, his eyes dilated,
shirt out of his trousers, a pistol butt above his belt. Who would ever
fight to the death for these triple pillars of the Arab world?
Yet Hussein thought
he could win, that destiny - a dangerous ally for all "strongmen"
- would somehow lay low the Americans. It was always fascinating to
listen to Mohamed al-Sahaf, the information minister, predicting America's
doom. It was not just Iraqi patriots who would destroy the great armies
invading Iraq; the heat would burn them, the desert would consume them,
the snakes and rabid dogs would eat their bodies. Not since the Caliphate
had such curses been called down upon an invader. Was it not Tariq Aziz,
Iraq's former deputy prime minister, who warned Washington in 1990 that
18 million Iraqis could not be defeated by a computer? And then the
United States President
George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, of course, had a
remarkably parallel set of nightmares and dreams, encouraged all the
while by the right-wing neo-conservative pro-Israeli American Vulcans.
Hussein was the all-powerful, evil state terrorist whose non-existent
weapons of mass destruction and equally non-existent connections to
the perpetrators of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington must
be laid low. Liberation, democracy, a New Middle East. There was no
end to the ambitions of the conquerors.
I remember how anyone
who attempted to debunk this dangerous nonsense would be set upon. Try
to explain the crimes against humanity of September 11, 2001 and we
were anti-American. Warn readers about the crazed alliance of right-wingers
behind Bush, and we were anti-Semites. Report on the savagery visited
upon Iraqi civilians during the Anglo-American air bombardment, and
we were anti-British, pro-Hussein, sleeping with the enemy.
When Blair's first
"dossier" was published - most of it, anyway, was tired old
material on Hussein's human rights abuses, not weapons of mass destruction
- the beast's weapons capability was already hedged around with "mights"
and "coulds" and "possiblys". When a day after Baghdad's
"liberation" I wrote in The Independent that the "war
of resistance" was about to begin, I could paper my bathroom wall
with the letters of abuse I received.
But such venom usually
accompanies broken dreams. Hussein thought he was fighting the Crusaders.
Bush and Blair played equally childish games, dressing themselves up
as Churchill, abusing their domestic enemies as Chamberlains and fitting
Hussein into Hitler's uniform. I remember the sense of shock when I
was watching Iraq's literally fading television screen and heard the
first news of an Iraqi suicide bomber attacking US troops - during the
invasion. It was a young soldier, a married man, who had driven his
car bomb at the Americans near Nasseriyah. Never before had an Iraqi
committed suicide in battle like this - not even in the Somme-like eight-year
Then two women drove
their car into the Americans in southern Iraq. This was astonishing.
The Americans dismissed it all. They were cowardly attacks which only
showed the desperation of the regime. But these three Iraqis were not
working for the regime. Even the Ba'athists were forced to admit that
these attacks were unique and solely instigated by the soldier and the
What did this mean?
Of course, we did not pause to ask. Then we created a new myth. The
Iraqi army had melted away, abandoned Baghdad, changed into jeans and
t-shirts and slunk off in cowardly disgrace. Baghdad was no Stalingrad.
Yet we have dangerously
altered the narrative of Baghdad's last days. There was a fearful battle
along Highway 1 on the western bank of the Tigris river in which Hussein's
guerrillas fought off an American tank column for 36 hours, the US tanks
spraying shellfire down a motorway until every vehicle - military and
civilian - was a smouldering wreck. I walked the highway as the last
shots were still being fired by snipers, peering into cars packed with
the blackened corpses of men, women, children.
Carpets and blankets
had been thrown over several piles of the dead. In the back of one car
lay a young, naked woman, her perfect features blackened by fire, her
husband or father still sitting at the steering wheel, his legs severed
below the knees.
It was a massacre.
Did we think the Iraqis would forget it?
And cluster bombs
are our creation. And I recall with a kind of raw amazement how, as
American gunfire was swishing across the Tigris, I somehow reached the
emergency room of Baghdad's biggest hospital and had to slosh through
lakes of blood amid beds of screaming men, one of whom was on fire,
another shrieking for his mother. Upstairs was a middle-aged man on
a blood-soaked hospital trolley with a head wound that was almost indescribable.
From his right eye socket hung a handkerchief that was streaming blood
onto the floor.
For days we had
seen the news tapes of Basra and Nasseriyah after "liberation".
We had seen the looting and pillage there, benignly watched over by
the British and Americans.
We knew what would
happen when the fighting stopped in Baghdad. And sure enough, a medieval
army of looters followed the Americans into the city, burning offices,
banks, archives, museums, Koranic libraries, destroying not just the
structure of government but the identity of Iraq.
The looters were
disorganised but thorough, venal but poor. The arsonists came in buses
with obvious pre-arranged targets and did not touch the contents of
that which they destroyed. They were paid. By whom? If by Hussein, then
why - once the Americans were in Baghdad - did they not just pocket
the money and go home? If they were paid post-burning, who paid them?
Of course, we found
the mass graves, the hecatombs of Hussein's years of internal viciousness
- for many of which he was backed by the West - and we photographed
the tens of thousands of corpses, most of whom he buried in the desert
sand after we failed to support the Kurdish and Shia uprisings.
as the grieving relatives never stopped telling us, had come a little
late. About 20 years late, to be precise. Into this chaos and lawlessness,
we arrived. Dissension was not to be tolerated among the victors. When
I pointed out 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", I was denounced by one of the BBC's commentators.
See how the people
love us, we cried - which is much the same as Hussein used to say when
he took his fawning acolytes on visits to the people of Baghdad. There
would be elections, constitutions, governing councils, money - There
was no end to the promises we made to this tribal society called Iraq.
Then in came the
big American contractors and the conglomerates and the thousands of
mercenaries, British, American, South African, Chilean - many of the
latter were soldiers under General Augusto Pinochet - Nepalese and Filipino.
And when the inevitable
war against the occupiers began, we - the occupying powers and, alas,
most of the journalists - invented a new narrative to escape punishment
for our invasion. Our enemies were Hussein's "diehards", Ba'athist
"remnants", regime "dead-enders". Then we killed
Oudai and Qusai and pulled Hussein from his hole in the ground and the
resistance grew more fierce. So our enemies were now both "remnants"
and "foreign fighters" - that is, al-Qaeda - since ordinary
Iraqis could not be in the resistance. We had to believe this. For had
Iraqis - religious or otherwise - joined the guerrillas, how we could
explain that they didn't love their "liberators"? At first,
we were encouraged to explain that the insurgents came only from a few
Sunni cities, "previously loyal to Hussein".
Then the resistance
was supposedly confined to Iraq's "Sunni triangle". But as
the attacks leached north and south to Nasseriyah, Kerbala, Mosul and
Kirkuk, the triangle turned into an octagon. Again, we were told about
"foreign fighters", failing to grasp the fact that 120 000
of the foreign fighters in Iraq were wearing American uniforms.
Still there was
no end to the mendacity of our "success". True, schools were
rebuilt - and, shame upon the Iraqis involved, often looted a second
time - and hospitals restored and students returned to college. But
oil output figures were massaged and exaggerated and attacks on the
Americans falsified. At first, the occupying power reported only guerrilla
attacks in which soldiers were killed or wounded. Then, when no one
could hide the 60 or so assaults every night, the troops themselves
were ordered not to make formal reports on bombings or attacks that
caused no casualties. But by the war's first anniversary, every foreigner
was a target.
The suicide bomber
came into his own. The Turkish embassy, the Jordanian embassy, the United
Nations, police stations across the land - 600 of our new Iraqi policemen
slaughtered in less than four months - and then the great shrines of
Najaf and Kerbala.
The Americans and
British warned of the dangers of civil war - so did the journalists,
of course - although no Iraqi had ever been heard to utter any demand
for conflict with their fellow citizens. Who actually wanted this "civil
war"? Why would the Sunnis - a minority in the country - allow
"al-Qaeda" to bring this about when they could not defeat
the occupying power without at least passive Shia support?
While I was writing
this report, my phone rang and a voice asked me if I would meet a man
downstairs, a middle-aged Iraqi and a teacher at Cardiff College who
had recently returned to Iraq, only to realise the state of fear and
pain in which his country now existed. His mother, he said, had just
raised 1 million Iraqi dinars to pay a ransom for a local woman whose
daughter and daughter-in-law were kidnapped by armed men in Baghdad
in January. The two girls had just called from Yemen where they had
been sold into slavery. Another neighbour had just received back her
17-year-old son after paying $5 000 (about R32 500) to gunmen in the
Karada area of Baghdad. Two days ago - it is Friday as I am writing
this - kidnappers grabbed another child, this time in Mansour, and are
now demanding $200 000 for his life.
A close relative
- and remember this is just one man's experience out of a current population
of 26 million Iraqis - had also just survived a bloody attack on his
car outside Kerbala. Driving south after winning a contract to run a
garage in the city, he and his 11 companions in their vehicle were last
week overtaken by men firing machine pistols at the car. One man died
- he had 30 bullets in his body - and the relative, swamped in his friends'
blood, was the only man not wounded.
the occupation authorities decline to keep statistics on the number
of Iraqis who have died since the "liberation" - or during
the invasion, for that matter - and prefer to talk about the "handover
of sovereignty" from one American-appointed group of Iraqis to
another, and to the constitution that is only temporary and may well
fall apart before real elections are held - if they are held - next
If we could have
foreseen all this - if we could have been patient and waited for the
UN arms inspectors to finish their job rather than go to war and plead
for patience later, when our own inspectors couldn't find those weapons
- would we have gone so blithely to war a year ago?
For that war has
not ended. There has been no "end of major combat operations",
just an invasion and an occupation that merged seamlessly into a long
and ferocious war for liberation from the "liberators".
Just as the British
invaded Iraq in 1917, proclaiming their determination to bring Iraqis
liberation from their tyrants - General Maude used those very words
- so we have repeated this grim narrative today.
The British who
died in the subsequent Iraqi war of resistance lie now in the North
Gate Cemetery on the edge of Baghdad, an enduring if largely neglected
symbol of the folly of occupation. - Foreign Service
© 2004 The