Of Information In Baghdad
By Robert Fisk
20 July, 200
is how they like it. An American helicopter fires four missiles at a
house in Fallujah. Fourteen people are killed, including women and children.
Or so say the hospital authorities.
But no Western journalist
dares to go to Fallujah. Video footage taken by local civilians shows
only a hole in the ground, body parts under a grey blanket and an unnamed
man shouting that young children were killed.
The US authorities
say they know nothing about the air strike; indeed, they tell journalists
to talk to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence--whose spokesman admits that
he has "no clue what is going on".
And by the time,
in early afternoon yesterday, that the American-appointed Iraqi Prime
Minister, Iyad Allawi, said that he had given permission for the attack--even
though US rules of engagement give him no such right--there had been
car bombs in Tikrit in which two policemen died, one of Saddam's former
generals was captured, and Fallujah became just another statistic, albeit
a deeply disturbing one: this is the sixth air strike on the insurgent-held
city in less than five weeks.
None of the six
was independently reported. The dead were "terrorists", according
to Mr Allawi's office. So were the doctors lying?
As in Afghanistan,
so in Iraq. US air strikes are becoming "uncoverable", as
the growing insurgencies across the two countries make more and more
highways too dangerous for foreign correspondents. Senior US journalists
claim that Washington is happy with this situation; bombing wedding
parties and claiming the victims were terrorists--as has happened three
times in a year--doesn't make good headlines. Reporters can't be blamed
for not travelling--but they ought to make it clear that a Baghdad dateline
gives no authenticity to their work. Fallujah is only 25 miles from
Baghdad but it might as well be 2,500 miles away. Reports of its suffering
could be written in Hull for all the reliability they convey.
Here, then, is the
central crisis of information in Iraq just now. With journalists confined
to Baghdad--several have not left their hotels for more than two weeks--a
bomb-free day in the capital becomes a bomb-free day in Iraq. An improvement.
Things might be getting better. But since most journalists don't tell
their viewers and readers that they cannot travel--they certainly don't
reveal that armed "security advisers" act as their protectors--they
do not see the reality of cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Samara,
which are now outside all government control. Indeed, US Marines are
no longer allowed into the centre of Fallujah, which is now run by the
Fallujah Brigade, made up of former Baathists and current insurgents.
The Independent does not use security advisers in Iraq, armed or otherwise.
So what happened
in Fallujah? The US attack on the house at 2am yesterday turned the
building into a pit of earth in which small bomb fragments and arms
and legs were found. Locals described the building as the home of poor
people. Angry crowds of men cried "God is Great" at the site.
And then an official in Mr Allawi's office announced that "the
multinational forces [ie the Americans] asked Prime Minister Allawi
for permission to launch strikes on some specific places where terrorists
were hiding and Allawi gave his permission."
Precisely the same
formula was used by Iraqi authorities 84 years ago when RAF aircraft
made "precise" attacks on Iraqi towns and villages supposedly
sheltering insurgents opposed to British occupation. Ironically, one
of the US bases near Fallujah currently under constant nightly attack
by Iraqi gunmen is Habbaniya--the very air base from which British bi-planes
had staged their air strikes.
On an Islamist website--and,
in truth, no one knows who controls it--Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of
Osama bin Laden's junior fighters, claimed that Saturday's suicide attacks
on the Iraqi Justice Minister and a military recruitment centre in Mohammediya,
which killed a total of eight Iraqis, were his work. The US military
blamed the bombings on "people who want to stop the progress of
democracy in this country"--which is an odd way of describing an
organisation that allegedly wants to destroy not just the US-appointed
government here but the United States itself.
The capture in Tikrit
of General Sufian Maher Hassan of Saddam's Republican Guard was being
portrayed as another success by the US army. However, since General
Hassan was in charge of the defence of Baghdad in 2003 and is mockingly
regarded as the man who turned a potential Stalingrad into one of the
easiest American military victories of modern times--which is not exactly
correct, but that is another story--his capture is not going to change
the deteriorating security crisis in Iraq.
With ghoulish relish,
meanwhile, Saudi Wahabists posted the execution of an American captive
in Saudi Arabia on a website. The pictures showed a man in a white apron
sawing at the neck and vertebrae of John Palmer before eventually placing
his severed head on the back of his torso.
Given such gruesome
proof of Western vulnerability, it's no surprise that journalists in
Iraq--where similar videos have been made--want to avoid the same fate.
But it's not just the killers who want to keep the reporters indoors.
© 2004 Independent
Digital (UK) Ltd