A Nation Whose Govt Rules Only Its Capital
Robert Fisk, The Independent
NAJAF, 20July 2004 - It was Afghanistan Mk2. For mile after mile south of
Baghdad yesterday, the story was the same: Empty police posts, abandoned
Iraqi Army and police checkpoints and a litter of burned-out American fuel
tankers and rocket-smashed police vehicles down the main highway to Hilla
Iraqi government officials and Western diplomats tell journalists to avoid
driving out of Baghdad; now I understand why. It is dangerous. But my own
fearful journey far down Highway 8 - scene of the murder of at least 15
Westerners - proved that the American-appointed Iraqi government controls
little of the land south of the capital. Only in the Sunni Muslim town of
Mahmoudiya - scene of a car bomb that exploded outside an Iraqi military
recruiting center last week - did I see Iraqi policemen.
They were in a convoy of 11 battered white pick-ups, pointing Kalashnikovs
at the crowds around them, driving onto the wrong side of the road when they
became tangled in a traffic jam, screaming at motorists to clear their path
at rifle point. This was not a frightened American column - this was Iraq's
own new blue-uniformed police force, rifles also directed at the windows of
homes and shops and at the crowd of Iraqis, which surged around them.
In Iskanderia, I saw two gunmen near the road. I don't know why they
bothered to stand there. The police had already left their post a few meters
Yes, it is a shameful reflection on our invasion of Iraq - let us solemnly
remember 'weapons of mass destruction' - but it is, above all, a tragedy for
the Iraqis. They endured the repulsive Saddam. They endured our shameful UN
sanctions. They endured our invasion. And now they must endure the anarchy
we call freedom.
In Baghdad, of course, it was the usual story yesterday; a suicide bomber
killing 15 Iraqis and wounding another 62 when he blew up his fuel tanker
bomb next to a police station, and an Iraqi Defense Ministry official
murdered outside his home. And true to the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the
new Iraqi government, 43 new Iraqi ambassadors were appointed around the
world. But who did they represent? Iraq? Or just Baghdad? After the city of
Hilla, I came across the police and a scattering of new Iraqi Army soldiers.
At Kufa, they insisted on escorting my car into the holy city of Najaf. But
miles from the city center, they turned round and told me that under the
terms of the cease-fire with Syed Moqtada Sadr's 'Mehdi Army', they could
drive no further. They were right. Sadr's militia - which the American army
promised to "destroy" last April - guards the old city, the main roads to
the mosque and the entrance to the great shrine of the Imam Ali.
Indeed, deep inside this wondrous and golden tiled contribution to Islamic
architecture - in an air conditioned office heavy with Chinese pots and
Iranian carpets - I found the man who helped draw up the map for the US
military to retreat after they abandoned their siege of Moqtada Sadr's
forces. "The Americans gave us a map and asked us which roads they could
patrol," Moqtada Sadr's right-hand man, the turbaned Sheikh Ali Smaisin,
told me in the Najaf shrine yesterday. "I sat with the other members of the
'Beit Shia' (the Shia House, which combines a number of local political
groups, including the Dawa party) and we set out the roads on which the
Americans would be permitted to make their patrols. This map was then
returned to the American side and they accepted our choices for roads they
I was not surprised. US forces are now under so many daily guerrilla attacks
that they cannot move by daylight along Highway 8 or, indeed, west of
Baghdad through Fallujah or Ramadi. Across Iraq, their helicopters can fly
no higher than 100 meters for fear of rocket attack - the insurgents have
little time to fire when US helicopters approach at so low an altitude and
at such high speed - and, save for a solitary A1M 1Abrams tank on a motorway
bridge in the Baghdad suburbs, I saw only one other American vehicle on the
road yesterday: A solitary Humvee driving along a patrol road in Najaf
agreed by the 'Mehdi Army.' Three far-away American Apache helicopters were
hedge-hopping their way toward the Euphrates River.
That the 'muqawama' - the resistance - controls so many hundreds of square
miles around Baghdad should be no great surprise. The new American-appointed
Iraqi government has neither the police nor the soldiers to retake the land.
They announce martial laws and telephone tapping and bans on demonstrations
and a new intelligence service - but have neither the manpower nor the
ability to turn these institutions into anything more than propaganda dreams
for foreign journalists and a population that does desperately crave
Even the cease-fire agreement set out between the Americans and the 'Mehdi
Army' is astonishing in its breadth. According to Sheikh Smaisin, it allowed
the police to return to their checkpoints outside the city and the
abandonment of official buildings by members of the 'Mehdi Army'.
I found the police back in control of their station at Kufa, a large
American tank shell-hole through the wall as a reminder of the recent
fighting. Article Three states that no-one can be arrested or captured,
Article Four that there should be no public carrying of weapons - the 'Mehdi
Army' certainly appeared to be abiding by this clause yesterday. Articles
Five and Six say that "occupation forces" - the Americans - must return to
and remain in their bases except for small patrol routes which they can use
to reach these fortifications. Astonishingly, the final clause - still under
debate when the Americans 'transferred' power on June 28 to the Iraqi
government they created - calls for the withdrawal of all legal charges
against Moqtada Sadr for the murder of Syed Abdul-Majid Al-Khoi last year.
When revealed by the occupation authorities more than six months after they
had been secretly drawn up, the second most senior US officer in Iraq said
that as a result of the accusations, his forces would "kill or capture"
But it was Sadr's men who courteously greeted me at their checkpoint in
Najaf yesterday and took me to speak to Sheikh Smaisin at the Imam Ali
complex. He complained that US troops had several times broken the
cease-fire. "Two weeks ago, two of their Humvees turned up outside Syed
Moqtada Sadr's home and the soldiers on them began questioning people. We
told our forces not to open fire and we complained and then these soldiers
Sadr's forces - "a public current," Sheikh Smaisin calls them with
unexpected discretion - supposedly suffered less than a hundred casualties
in the American attack; the Americans say they killed 400 of them. Smaisin
has little time for such statistics. "What we see in the occupation is
American force with a British brain," he says. "This is just the same as the
British occupation of Basra in 1914 and Baghdad in1917 . Our movement cannot
be overcome because we are patriotic and Islamic, just like the forces
opposing the occupation in the Sunni areas of Iraq. The Westerners want to
set up a sectarian government but we don't accept this. Now they have an
insurrection from Fao in the south to Kirkuk in the north. Shia and Sunni
are together. And any government that is not elected in free and honest
elections - well, there's a problem there." So much, then, for the Iyad
Allawi government, even if the Shia insurrection is a shadow of the Sunni
But the evidence of my journey yesterday - through the southern Sunni cities
which long ago rejected American rule, to the holiest Shia city where its
own militia controls the shrines and the square miles around them -
suggested that Allawi controls a capital without a country.
It took me two weeks to arrange my trip and I traveled with a Muslim cleric
in my car who urged me to read my Arabic newspaper whenever urchins
approached in the crowded cities to urge my driver to buy window sponges.
They would run their sponges over the windows of the car and stare inside,
looking - so we believed - for foreigners. They were spotters. And they
didn't see me.
But what I saw was infinitely more disturbing: A nation whose government
rules only its capital, a country about which we fantasize at our peril.
Iraq is not improving, it's a disaster
The only sensible objective now is orderly disengagement, and soon
Tuesday July 20, 2004
The Commons debate on Iraq today is a historic opportunity for parliament.
British policy in Iraq is at a turning point, and we can exercise a vital
degree of influence on US policy as well.
Earlier in the summer, there were some welcome international developments.
One was the security council resolution of June 8 endorsing the formation of
a sovereign interim government, which did something to heal the rifts
created in 2003. Another was the successful low-key handover of authority.
But the impression that the situation in Iraq itself is much improved is
down to Iraq fatigue in the media.
The security situation is calamitous. Two recent attacks killed nine US
marines; an attack on the Iraqi minister of justice killed five bodyguards;
bombings and attacks on Iraqi security forces have caused multiple deaths;
targets in Falluja have been bombed by the US air force; foreigners have
been kidnapped or executed with the aim of driving foreign troops and
foreign companies out of Iraq.
This, however, is the tip of the iceberg. Attacks on US troops are running
at dozens a day, frequently accompanied by looting, burning and stoning. It
is generally believed in Baghdad that around 1,000 Iraqis leave the country
every day for Jordan and Syria because the security situation is
intolerable. According to the Iraqi media, gunmen have killed six Baghdad
local councillors in the last two weeks and roughly 750 in the last year.
Friends of the Americans such as Ahmad Chalabi are discredited; enemies such
as the young Shia firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr have their tails up.
Meanwhile, the Butler report, which followed the devastating critique by a
Senate committee of the failure of American intelligence, has dominated the
headlines. Senior members of the British intelligence community have accused
Tony Blair of going way beyond anything any professional analyst would have
But the media have allowed themselves to be carried away by the question of
secret intelligence, and have ignored equally or even more important
questions of policy. Senator Kerry has accused President Bush and his
administration of misleading the public about Saddam's weapons of mass
destruction and specifically about nuclear involvement. They "misled
America... And they were wrong. And soldiers lost their lives because they
were wrong". In Britain, now that it is clear that US and British policy has
been based on a deception, it is equally clear that Iain Duncan Smith and
the shadow cabinet were also deceived. There are plenty of uncomfortable
questions to ask about who deceived whom, and Michael Howard has at last
said that he couldn't have voted for war in the House of Commons in March
2003 if he had known then what he knows now, though for reasons as yet
unexplained he says he is still in favour of the war. Others have gone
further: the Labour MP Geraldine Smith has said: "I feel that I was deceived
into voting for a war I was morally opposed to."
The assessment of intelligence is open to debate. But other failings are
less easy to explain away. The prime minister should be pressed to say what
happened to the detailed plans for postwar Iraq which, he told parliament
just before the war, had been worked out with our allies. Perhaps they were
part of the State Department plans, which we now know were consigned to the
wastepaper basket by Donald Rumsfeld.
The story of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay is a disgrace. When will we learn
whether Britain has equally disgraced herself? What is clear is that no
British minister could survive if he had said, as Rumsfeld said:
"Technically, unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva
convention. We have indicated that we do plan to, for the most part, treat
them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva conventions
to the extent they are appropriate."
Most important of all, of course, is the future. As a number of Washington
analysts have pointed out, the success of coalition policy will depend on
resisting the temptation to impose policies that support US, not Iraqi,
goals. As Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution put it: "I would advise
them to lose the argument to the Iraqis on some of the big issues - it shows
an Iraqi government is really in charge."
This is where parliament can exercise its influence. Unless we really want
to rebuild the British empire, under our flag or the stars and stripes, the
only sensible objective now is disengagement in as good order as possible.
No scramble to get out, but send no more troops and look for every
opportunity to build up Iraqi prestige, authority and responsibility.
· Oliver Miles is a former ambassador to Libya and organised the letter
signed by 52 former British ambassadors criticising Bush and Blair's Middle