Happy first birthday, war on Iraq
By Robert Fisk
03/13/04 'The Independent' - It 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 Raj.
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 computer won.
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 Iran-Iraq war.
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 two women.
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.
Our 'liberation', 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.
Unsurprisingly, 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 year.
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.