Six months ago, as the number of guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings increased, an Iraqi friend in business in Baghdad used to comfort himself by saying: ‘The Americans cannot afford to fail in Iraq.’ But as the country gets closer to civil war his confidence has ebbed away. Nearly two hundred Shiites were killed by suicide bombers in and around the holy shrines in Karbala and Khadamiyah in Baghdad on 2 March. A month earlier, there had been an attack on Kurdish leaders and their followers at a festival in Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan: one hundred had died. Each atrocity outdoes its predecessor. In January it had been the turn of the 31 workers killed as they queued to enter the main US headquarters in Baghdad.
A quick way to assess American progress is to take the four-lane highway leading west from Baghdad to the Euphrates. It is a dreary stretch of road, built by Saddam Hussein at the height of the Iran-Iraq War as his main supply route. On the way out of Baghdad, the US army has cut down or burned date palms and bushes which might give cover to guerrillas, but there are no other indications that the road might be dangerous. In the last nine months, however, more American soldiers have been killed here – or just off the highway, in the dishevelled truck-stop towns of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Kaldiyah and Ramadi – than in any other part of Iraq.
Earlier this year, the US military command claimed the number of attacks on its forces was down since the capture of Saddam Hussein in December. On the other hand, soldiers in the field say that to avoid bureaucratic hassle they often don’t report incidents when they come under fire. I decided to drive the seventy miles to Ramadi to see if the road was getting any safer. We never got there. On the outskirts of Baghdad we ran into a stalled convoy of tanks and armoured personnel carriers loaded onto enormous vehicle transporters. A soldier stopped us. ‘We discovered an IED on the road,’ he said (an IED is an improvised explosive device), ‘and we are trying to defuse it.’ Along with other Iraqi cars and trucks, we turned off the road and drove along a track between a stagnant canal and a rubbish dump.
After half an hour we arrived in Abu Ghraib (the site of Iraq’s largest prison), in a market full of rickety stalls selling fruit and vegetables. I stepped out of the car to make a call on a Thuraya satellite phone. As I was talking, a US patrol drove by in their Humvees. Suddenly, the vehicles stopped. Half a dozen soldiers ran towards our car, pointing their guns at our chests. ‘Get down on your knees and put your hands behind your head,’ they screamed. We did both. One of them snatched my Thuraya. When Mohammed al-Khazraji, the driver, said something in Arabic, a soldier shouted: ‘Shut the fuck up.’ I said I was a British journalist. We waited on our knees until the soldiers lost interest and climbed back into a Humvee. As we drove out of Abu Ghraib, we heard the voice of a preacher at a nearby mosque denouncing the occupation. ‘The occupiers,’ he said, ‘now attack everybody and make life impossible.’
A few miles further down the road, we reached the turn-off for the town of Fallujah, but it was blocked by US soldiers and members of the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps, one of the paramilitary organisations now being rapidly expanded. A plump Iraqi soldier, resting his hands on his submachine-gun, said: ‘The Americans are carrying out a big operation and there is a big battle with the Mujahidin around a mosque in Fallujah.’ He seemed to have little interest in these activities and pointed to a track that would allow us to enter Fallujah avoiding the cordon round the town.