Starts To Sound More Like His Hero, Uncle Joe
By Robert Fisk In Baghdad
25 March 2003
Let us now praise famous
men. Saddam Hussein was keen on doing just that yesterday. And he proceeded
to list the Iraqi army and navy officers who are leading the resistance
against the Anglo-American army in Umm Qasr, Basra and Nasariyah.
Major-General Mustapha Mahmoud
Umran, commanding officer of the 11th Division, Brigadier Bashir Ahmed
Othman, commander of the Iraqi 45th Brigade, Brigadier-Colonel Ali Kalil
Ibrahim, commander of the 11th Battalion of the 45th Brigade, Colonel
Mohamed Khallaf al-Jabawi, commander of the 45th Brigade's 2nd Battalion,
Lieutenant-Colonel Fathi Rani Majid of the Iraqi army's III Corps ...
And so it went on.
"Be patient," President
Saddam kept saying. Be patient. Fourteen times in all, he told the army
and the people of Iraq to be patient. "We will win ... we will
be victorious against Evil." Patient but confident in victory.
Wasn't that how President
Bush was encouraging his people a few hours earlier? At other times,
President Saddam sounded like his hero, Joseph Stalin. "They have
come to destroy our country and we must stand and destroy them and defend
our people and our country ... Cut their throats ... They are coming
to take our land. But when they try to enter our cities, they try to
avoid a battle with our forces and to stay outside the range of our
Was this, one wondered, modelled
on the Great Patriotic War, the defence of Mother Russia under Uncle
Joe? And if not, how to account for let us speak frankly
the courage of those hundreds of Iraqi soldiers still holding out under
American air and tank attacks?
People, party, patriotism.
The three P's ran like a theme through the Saddam speech along with
a bitter warning: as the American and British forces made less headway
on the ground, President Saddam said, they would use their air power
against Iraq ever more brutally.
So what does it feel like
to live these days in President Saddam's future Stalingrad? Early yesterday,
the cruise missiles and the planes came back. The great explosions clapped
across Baghdad in the darkness. One of the Tomahawks smashed into the
grounds of the Al-Mustansiriya University 25 students wounded
and one dead, so they claimed.
There were other sounds in
the early hours. A blaze of automatic gunfire on the Tigris Corniche
attempts to capture two escaping US airmen, the authorities insisted
and then a full-scale gun battle not far from the city centre
at 2.30am. There were rumours. Armed men had come from Saddam City
the great Shia slums on the edge of Baghdad and had been intercepted
by state security men. No "independent confirmation". A story
that the railway line north of Baghdad has been cut. Denied.
But the sheer amount of military
and statistical detail coming from the Iraqi authorities is beginning
to make the US Centcom information boys look like chumps. On Sunday,
the Iraqi Minister of Defence, General Sultan Hashim, gave a remarkable
briefing on the war, naming the units involved in front-line fighting
the 3rd Battalion of the Iraqi army's 27th Brigade was still
holding out at Suq ash-Shuyukh south of Nasariyah, the 3rd Battalion
of the Third Iraqi Army was holding Basra. And I remembered how these
generals gave identical briefings during the terrible 1980-88 war against
Iran. When we set off to check their stories then, they almost always
turned out to be true.
Does the same apply now?
General Hashem repeatedly insisted that his men were destroying US tanks
and armour and helicopters.
This was easy to dismiss
until videotape of two burning US armoured personnel carriers
popped up on the television screen. Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan
has been obliging enough to explain the Iraqi army's tactics. It was
Iraqi policy to let the Anglo-American armies "roam around"
in the desert as long as they want, and attack them when they tried
to enter the cities. Which seems to be pretty much what they are doing.
From Baghdad, with its canopy
of sinister black oil smoke and air raid sirens, the American plan appears
to be rather similar: to barnstorm up the desert parallel to the Tigris
and Euphrates valley and try to turn right at every available city on
the way. If there's trouble at Umm Qasr, try Basra. If Basra is blocked,
have a go through Nasariyah. If that's dangerous, try to turn right
But the open road
the long highway to Baghdad lined with adoring Iraqis throwing roses
at GIs and Tommys is proving to be an illusion.
By this morning, the Americans
could be outside Baghdad. But in military terms they might as well be
Perhaps, in American and
British terms, this is too pessimistic an assessment. In Baghdad, it's
easy to see not just how badly the Americans and British have miscalculated,
but it's also possible to imagine just how long President Saddam and
his army and Baath party militias can endure, a sobering thought for
those of us sitting in the Iraqi capital and only too well aware that
the Stalingrad symbolism might turn out to be real. Saddam's tactics
are clearly those of Stalin. Every day that passes is a day of further
pain for Washington and London.
You could observe this cockiness
when Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Information Minister, spoke. Of Tony
Blair, he said jovially yesterday: "I think the British nation
has never been faced with a tragedy like this fellow." Mr Sahaf
then presented a casualty list, which, however imaginative it might
turn out to be, was credible to the average Iraqi, and perhaps to anyone.
Civilian wounded and dead respectively: in Baghdad, 194 wounded (13
less than estimated); in Ninevah, eight wounded; in Karbala 32 wounded
and 10 killed; in Salahuddin, 22 wounded and 2 killed. In Najaf, the
figures were 36 and 2; in Qadissiyah, 13 and 4; in Basra, 122 and 14.
In Babylon, the Iraqi government claims 63 wounded and 30 killed.
Sixty-two dead civilians
if the statistics are correct is not a massacre. But there's
nothing surprising about such a figure. It looks as if the Americans
and British are bleeding to "liberate" a people who are not
all that keen to be liberated by the Americans and British. A moral
problem, of course. But not so big a moral problem as it would be if
all this Iraqi suffering at the hands of the Americans and British turned
out to be about oil.