... and the truth the victors refuse to see

 Mr Blair paid a flying visit last week; next week it's the turn of President Bush. Reporting from Baghdad, Robert Fisk suggests an itinerary that would open their eyes to what's really going on in Iraq

Iraqis, it now seems certain, are to be blessed this week with a visit from their Liberator-in-Chief, George Bush Jr. While Washington has been avoiding all mention of the trip, the new Iraqi newspapers - one of the few positive results of "liberation" here - have been happily speculating for days on Bush's arrival.

And we all know what the American President would like to do when he arrives: to be filmed inspecting Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, the purported reason for the Anglo-American invasion illegally launched against Iraq. The problem, of course, is that there don't appear to be any.

So how will the Bush public relations boys manage this particular piece of theatre? Here's an idea of what they are preparing, the stage-managed "victory" tour of George W Bush. But first, this is what the President should be doing if he really wants to understand the epic crisis that now confronts the nation he was so keen to "liberate".

First, join a gas queue. George Bush will help to push his limousine to the back of the three-mile petrol line by the Hussein bridge - many motorists run dry before they reach the queue - and here he will wait ... and wait and wait. Eight hours if he's lucky, maybe 12. Maybe 24.

Then George Bush can visit the 158 Iraqi government ministry buildings that should be the infrastructure of the new US-backed government which he has sworn to establish here. He will see, of course, that of the 158 buildings, every one was looted and then burned after the Americans occupied Baghdad.

Next, a trip to the former Saddam City, now "Sadr City", the vast, foetid, boiling Shia Muslim slums where power is now dangerously divided between three prelates, all of whom oppose the American presence with varying degrees of ferocity and self-interest. Mr Bush will discover that nationalist and religious sentiment - rather than Iranian "terrorism" or "interference" - demand an American departure. Mr Bush will take tea with a Shia family at midday when, as usual, there is no electricity, so that he, like them, will sweat for an hour in their hovel.

A tour of hotels, offices and shops will have one common denominator: the grey penumbra-like marks on the wall of each room where a portrait of the Beast of Baghdad was hanging not long ago. Mr Bush will ask what the owners have done with Saddam's portrait. He will be told that it has been put away "for historical reasons" - the same reason my driver gave last week for buying a Baathist-produced history of the Iraqi economy at the book souk here - rather than destroyed. Indeed, I visited a lawyer last week who still kept Saddam's picture on her wall, on the grounds that "he is still the President until we have a new government". Of course, Mr Bush will visit the town of Falujah where American Marines gunned down 18 Sunni Muslim demonstrators last month and where two gunmen this week shot dead two US soldiers and wounded another 11 before being killed. He will be told that these were merely "remnants" of the Saddam regime.

Then a visit to the mass graves. This will be a tricky one. If the corpses are those of Iraqis butchered in the uprising against Saddam's regime - which was encouraged by George Bush's father, who then betrayed the rebels by refusing to intervene - then the US President will be reminded of America's treachery as well as Saddam's horrific cruelty. If the dead are from the massacres of the early 1980s, then someone will point out that Mr Bush's Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was visiting Baghdad at the time and shook hands with this vicious dictator on behalf of President Reagan - and did nothing to stop these vilest of human rights abuses. Finally, he will drop in for a little tourism at the Baghdad Archeological Museum, so comprehensively looted after the Americans entered Baghdad last month. He will see smashed statues, heaps of Sumerian vases broken into pieces and photographs of the 4,000-year-old masterpieces stolen from the museum in the course of just a few hours.

President Bush will leave Iraq as he came - not by air, because the US authorities still don't allow commercial flights to Baghdad - but on the long and dangerous road to Amman where armed thieves roam the motorway past Ramadi, where no driver goes by night. He will thus experience life for ordinary Iraqis in the wake of their "liberation": the fear of anarchy and lawlessness, of robbery and assault.

And what will President George Bush really do when he comes to Iraq? Mass graves are probably out, for obvious reasons. A hospital visit is a good idea - US medical aid can be shown arriving fortuitously at that moment - but there would be no assurance that doctors would keep quiet about the 70 murdered men and women whose corpses arrived last week alone at their hospitals in Baghdad. A victory drive through the city is impossible because Bush will be met by demonstrations rather than flowers.

So it looks like an arrival at Baghdad airport, a chat to aid officials, perhaps a brief helicopter flight to the headquarters of the American civilian administration in Saddam's old Palace of the Republic - here, he can be horrified at the corruption of a despot who could starve his people but build palaces for his own vanity - and, of course, an address to the Iraqi people on television. There may be little electricity to power the TV sets of Baghdad, but the speech could go something like this:

"I come to Iraq at a historic moment, when the people of this ancient country, whose history is as long as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are on the threshold of a new life.... In the country where civilisation began, a miracle has taken place.... A cruel and brutal dictator has been overthrown ... the people of the United States of America along with the Coalition Allies are proud to have been able to help you bring about your new-found freedom...

"I know there are frustrations ... the overthrow of tyrants is not without pain ... there are still those who will try to rob you of this freedom, the remnants of Saddam's old regime, interference from Iraq's neighbours.... Iraqis can rest assured we will stand with them against these enemies of their country. We will not let you down.... A new world is being shaped in the Middle East, of which you are now a part.

"After years of darkness, you are now joining the brotherhood of free nations. I ask you to share with us the burdens of building this new world.... The nightmare is over. The days of hope for your children and your grandchildren have begun. You have your freedom. We rejoice with you." Much of the above has been used on occasion by other US administration officials, especially in Afghanistan.

It was Clinton who told the Pakistanis that their history was as long as the river Indus. But will Bush mention the "oil" word? Much more to the point, dare he mention the weapons of mass destruction which even the Iraqis no longer believe to exist? As they say at the bottom of every public relations handout: check against delivery. --Independent ZNet | Iraq

The Troops Are Afraid To Go Out At Night

by Robert Fisk; The Independent; May 31, 2003

I was travelling into the Shia Muslim Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on Friday evening when three American soldiers jumped in front of my car. "Stop the car, stop the car!" one of them shouted, waving a pistol at the windscreen. I screamed at the driver to stop. He hadn't seen them step into the road. Nor had I. Two other soldiers approached from the rear, rifles pointed at our vehicle. I showed our identity passes and the officer, wearing a floppy camouflage hat, was polite but short. "You should have seen our checkpoint," he snapped, then added: "Have a good stay in Nasiriyah but don't go out after dark. It's not safe."

What he meant, I think, was that it wasn't safe for American soldiers after dark. Hours later, I went out in the streets of Nasiriyah for a chicken burger and the Iraqis who served me in a run-down cafe couldn't have been friendlier. There were the usual apologies for the dirt on the table and the lack of paper napkins, along with the usual grimy square on the wall where, just two months ago, a portrait of Saddam Hussein must have been hanging. So what was going on? The "liberators" were already entering the wilderness of occupation while our masters in London and Washington were still braying about victory and courage and - here I quote Tony Blair on the same day, addressing British troops 60 miles further south in Basra - of how they "went on to try to make something of the country you liberated".

Only a few hours earlier, one of Ahmed Chalabi's militiamen in Nasiriyah had shouted at me that the Americans there were "humiliating" the people, of how "they made a man crawl on all fours in front of his friends just because they didn't obey their orders". There would be a revolt if this went on, he warned.

Now I don't know if his story was true, and I have to say that every Shia I spoke to in Nasiriyah spoke warmly of the British soldiers further south, but something has already gone terribly wrong. Even the local museum guard who had earlier been travelling in my car had spoken of oil as the only reason for the war. "One hundred days of Saddam were better than a day of the Americans," he roared at me.

I don't think that's true - the Americans weren't slaughtering this man's fellow Shias by the tens of thousands as Saddam did 12 years ago - but it's a new "truth" that is being written here. Washington may hope that the charnel-house of corpses now being dug out of the desert to the north will provide a posthumous new reason for the recent conflict. "Now the truth can be told... " But we knew that truth a long time ago, after George Bush Senior called on these same poor people to fight Saddam and then left them to be butchered.

"Saddam was a shame upon Iraq," one man told me as we stood beside more than 400 skulls and bones in a school hall near Hillah. "But America let them die."

In reality, the lies that took us to war in Iraq are slowly being stripped away from the men who sent the American and British armies to Mesopotamia. Mr Blair could turn up in Basra this week with his sub-Churchillian rhetoric about "valour", with his talk of "bloodshed and real casualties" and his sorrowful refrain for the British soldiers "who aren't going back home". But who sent the British to die in Iraq? If they were "real casualties", what happened to the weapons of mass destruction that were so real when Mr Blair wanted to go to war but which seem to be so unreal the moment the war is over?

Mr Blair says we'll still find them and we must be patient. But Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, tells us they may not have existed when the war began. The domestic repercussions of all this continue in London and Washington, but the reaction in Iraq is far more ominous. New graffiti on the wall of the slums of Baghdad's Sadr City (formerly Saddam City) which I saw on Wednesday tells its own story. "Threaten the Americans with suicide killings," it said bleakly.

It isn't difficult to see how this anger is building. The road from Nasiriyah to Baghdad is no longer safe at night. Robbers prowl the highway just as they slink through the streets of Baghdad. And I note an odd symmetry in all this. Under the hateful Taliban, you could drive across Afghanistan, day or night. Now you can't move after dark for fear of theft, killing or rape. Under the hateful Saddam, you could drive across most of Iraq without danger, day or night. Now you can't. American "liberation" has become synonymous with anarchy.

Then there's the confetti of daily newspapers appearing on the pavements of Baghdad which tell their readers of America's business earnings from this war. Iraq's airports are for auction, management of the port of Umm Qasr has been grabbed for $ 8.4m (pounds 5m) by a US company, one of whose lobbyists just happens to have been President George Bush's deputy assistant when he was governor of Texas. Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's old company, has major contracts to extinguish oil fires in Iraq, build US bases in Kuwait and transport British tanks. The most likely giant to hoover up the reconstruction contracts in Iraq is the Bechtel corporation whose senior vice president, retired general Jack Sheehan, serves on President Bush's defence policy board. This is the same Bechtel which - according to Iraq's pre-war arms submission to the UN, which Washington quickly censored - once helped Saddam build a plant for manufacturing ethylene, which can be used in the making of mustard gas. On the board of Bechtel sits former secretary of state George Schultz, who again just happens to be chairman of the advisory board of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq which has, of course, close links to the White House. Iraqi reconstruction is likely to cost $ 100bn which - and this is the beauty of it - will be paid for by the Iraqis from their own future oil revenues, which in turn will benefit the US oil companies.

All this the Iraqis are well aware of. So when they see, as I do, the great American military convoys humming along Saddam's motorways south and west of Baghdad, what do they think? Do they reflect, for example, upon Tom Friedman's latest essay in The New York Times, in which the columnist (blaming Saddam for poverty with no mention of 13 years of US-backed UN sanctions) announces: "The Best Thing About This Poverty: Iraqis are so beaten down that a vast majority clearly seem ready to give the Americans a chance to make this a better place."

I am awed by this and other "expert" comments from the US East Coast intelligentsia. Because it sounds to me, watching America's awesome control over this part of the world, its massive firepower, bases and personnel across Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Bahrain, Doha, Oman, Yemen and Israel, that this is not just about oil but about the projection of global power by a nation which really does have weapons of mass destruction. No wonder that soldier told me not to go out after dark. He was right. It's no longer safe. And it's going to get much worse.