Patrick Cockburn

The publication of pictures showing what may happen to Iraqi prisoners at the hands of their captors allowed the outside world to see what Iraqis had known for some time: the occupation is very brutal. In Baghdad, stories had been circulating for months about systematic torture in the prisons. In the US the impact of the photographs was all the greater thanks to the administration’s previous success in controlling news from Iraq. Last October I wrote a piece about US soldiers bulldozing date-palm groves near Balad, north of Baghdad, to punish local farmers after an ambush; I immediately received a flood of outraged emails from the US denying that American soldiers would do such a thing.

American civil and military leaders in Iraq live in a strange fantasy world. It is on display every day in a cavernous hall in the old Islamic Conference Centre in Baghdad, where Coalition spokesmen hold daily press conferences. The civil side is represented by Dan Senor of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a bony-faced, dark-suited man, recently imported from the White House press office. He makes little secret of the fact that his job is to present a picture of Iraq that will get President Bush re-elected. He jogs around the heavily protected US enclave, known as the Green Zone, wearing a T-shirt with ‘Bush and Cheney in 2004’ written on it. Senor isn’t impressed by the Iraqi resistance: for him it will never amount to anything much more than a small gang of al-Qaida terrorists and die-hard Saddamists, desperately and vainly seeking to prevent the birth of a new Iraq.

Much zanier is Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the Deputy Director for Coalition Operations, who specialises in steely-eyed determination. He likes to illustrate his answers with homilies drawn from the home life of the Kimmitt family. One day an Iraqi journalist complained that US helicopters were scaring children in Baghdad by roaring low and fast over the rooftops. Kimmitt replied that he had spent most of his adult life ‘either on or near military bases, married to a woman who teaches in the schools’, and that on these bases ‘you often hear the sound of tanks firing. You often hear the sound of artillery rounds going off.’ Yet Mrs Kimmitt, the general continued proudly, had been able to keep her pupils calm despite the constant thundering of the guns by ‘letting them understand that those booms and those bangs were simply the sounds of freedom’.

Kimmitt urged the journalist to go home and explain to his children that it was only thanks to the thundering guns, those sounds of freedom, that they were able to ‘enjoy a free life’. In fact, US helicopters have been flying so fast and so low in the last six months to make it more difficult for guerrillas to shoot them down. Several had been hit, mostly around Falluja, by shoulder-fired heat-seeking ground-to-air missiles.

Few Iraqis share the Kimmitt family’s benign view of US air power. A day after listening to the general, I visited Musak, a Christian accountant. Normally he works in the Dohra electric power station, whose four tall chimneys dominate the skyline in south Baghdad. He was at home because the giant turbines have been closed down and the German engineers from Siemens, who were supposed to install new turbines, have fled Baghdad for fear of being kidnapped. The walls of al-Iskan, the lower-middle-class district where Musak lives, are covered in slogans supporting the resistance. Musak explained: ‘A few weeks ago a man, nobody knows who, shot at a helicopter with his Kalashnikov. The helicopter fired two rockets in return. They hit the tent where a family were holding a wake for a dead relative, killing two people and wounding 15.’ After this, support for the insurgents increased in al-Iskan.

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