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.

This was not a particularly violent day on this stretch of road. A few days earlier, a Blackhawk medical evacuation helicopter had been shot down by a heat-seeking missile near Fallujah and all nine soldiers on board were killed. Many more die when supply trucks or soft-skinned Humvees are caught by roadside bombs, the notorious IEDs – known to the soldiers as ‘convoy killers’ – which usually consist of heavy artillery rounds, 155mm and 122mm shells with a detonator. Again and again these bombs have torn vehicles apart, often killing two or three soldiers. By the standards of Vietnam it is not a very big war, but it is now on the same level as guerrilla campaigns fought by Hizbollah in southern Lebanon in the 1990s, and from the US point of view things aren’t getting any better. The local insurgents in Fallujah are becoming more confident. In one attack in February they almost killed General John Abizaid, the US Middle East commander, and in another they overran the police headquarters, killing some twenty men.

The soldiers in the specialised units of the 82nd Airborne Division sound a little perplexed by the sort of war they are fighting. At a base called Volturno, hidden inside an old Baath Party recreation camp beside a lake, a platoon of combat engineers, in charge of clearing the road of mines, ruefully explain that they didn’t expect to be fighting this kind of war. In a dark hut, Staff Sgt Jeremy Anderson, leader of a squad of eight sappers, says he and his men were trained to deal with big conventional minefields such as those laid by the old Soviet army. Nobody thought they would be dealing with the sort of amateur but lethal devices planted by guerrillas around Fallujah. Anderson says the only way he could get information about IEDs was by using an ageing army manual on ‘booby traps in Vietnam’. Another sapper called out: ‘I never even heard of an IED before I came to Iraq.’

Outside the hut, Sgt Anderson showed off an old green-painted 155mm South African-made shell, whose TNT is wrapped around with plastic explosives; it produces razor-edged pieces of shrapnel eight to twelve inches long. The guerrillas bury several of these a few feet from the road with the nose of the shell removed and replaced with blasting caps. These are connected by wires to a battery, usually taken from a motorcycle. The bomb can then be detonated by means of a command wire three or four hundred metres long. Alternatively, the bombers can send a signal to the battery remotely by using a car door opener, the control for a child’s toy or some types of mobile phone – which explains why the soldiers who stopped us when they saw me using a satellite phone had seemed so edgy: they had been told that Thurayas could be used to detonate a bomb under their feet.

Anderson displayed a grudging respect for the versatility of the bomb-makers. One bomb was found attached to the underside of a bridge over the highway: that way it would explode downwards as a US convoy passed underneath. Another was wired to a solar panel which would detonate as soon as a US soldier brushed away the dirt shading it from the sun. The sappers walk gingerly along the verges of the roads. Anderson explained: ‘We look for wires – anything that seems out of place.’ They gently prod the sandy ground with short, silver-coloured wands. The wands, 18 inches long and looking like a conductor’s baton, are made of titanium and are non-magnetic. They are curiously delicate and old-fashioned and in a way symbolic of the type of war the US is now fighting in Iraq.

Conventional mine detectors, intended to detect metal, do not work here because Iraqis use the side of the road as a rubbish dump. It is impossible to distinguish buried shells from discarded cans and other junk. The guerrillas have also started planting booby traps specifically designed to kill the sappers. ‘Somebody has watched us at work,’ Anderson said. ‘They saw that we always pick up rocks and turn them over to make sure nothing is hidden underneath. So one day they tied a string to a rock rigged to an old water bottle with a power source inside attached to some old mortar rounds.’

Last November, I was in Fallujah, in the place where two American contractors had been shot and killed, when a ground-to-air missile, fired from date groves near the Euphrates, shot down a giant Chinook helicopter, killing 16 men. The helicopter pilots who try to guard convoys around Fallujah are based ten miles from the town in an old Iraqi airbase at Habbaniyah. A detachment equipped with light Kiowa Warrior helicopters (US helicopters are all named after Indian tribes) is stationed near a hangar gutted by fire. The helicopters swoop and hover around the convoys or try to follow guerrillas on the ground. There is a steady trickle of losses. A few days before we arrived last month, one of the pilots had been killed when the medical evacuation helicopter taking him to Baghdad was shot down. His death was widely publicised, mainly because 12 years ago, as a ground soldier, he had taken part in the failed attempt to rescue US helicopter crews in Mogadishu during the disastrous American intervention in Somalia.

The helicopter pilots and their gunners discussed the chances of being shot down. They were not worried by being shot at with AK-47 submachine-guns. Except at night, when they can see the tracer, they seldom know when they are under fire. One pilot suggested that for an Iraqi farmer on the ground ‘it must be difficult to resist the temptation to shoot at us, like duck hunting.’ A few minutes later, evidently thinking that his remarks might be considered flippant, he asked urgently that it not be attributed to him. These days, the helicopters fly fast and low to avoid the missiles. A gunner in one of the Kiowas said: ‘The helicopter flies at 100 feet, so by the time anyone on the ground can react it’s gone.’ Less comfortingly, he said the device on the roof for confusing heat-seeking missiles ‘works 85 per cent of the time’. He didn’t add that the missiles, by forcing the helicopters to fly fast and low, make it very difficult for them to see anything on the ground.

We asked Major Thomas von Eschenbach, the commander of the squadron, who he thought was shooting at him. He repeated the official line. ‘One group are former regime loyalists, with tribal loyalties to Saddam Hussein, and a second are foreign fighters who may be coming in from Syria.’ The pilots themselves admitted they see few Iraqis and then only from the air. A troop commander said: ‘The men are mostly 5'6"; to 5'10"; tall and are between 150 to 180 pounds. The hardest part is picking out the bad guys. About half of Iraqis seem to drive white pick-ups.’

Von Eschenbach said that anybody could shoot at a helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – it required only ten minutes’ training – but a surface-to-air missile was more complicated. He suspected foreign fighters were at work, though we pointed out that half a million former members of the Iraqi army might also be involved. As for the proficiency of the guerrillas who were shooting down helicopters, von Eschenbach said: ‘It’s just like the Afghans did with the Russians . . . They find out our weaknesses.’ Helicopters fly in pairs and the guerrillas always attack the second or ‘trail’ helicopter so there is nobody to see what is happening in the seconds before the missile strikes.

The US army in Iraq has always been more vulnerable than it looks. Its high level of mechanisation means that it is very dependent on a continuing flow of supplies. These can be brought in only by road. If the Iraqis had placed bombs along the highway from Kuwait to Baghdad last year, the advance would have been far slower and more costly; the last nine months have shown how easily the US army, with a vast number of vehicles on the roads at any one time, can be attacked by guerrillas using crude explosive devices. Bases are difficult to defend against mortars. In almost twenty years, the Israeli army in southern Lebanon, with an equivalent superiority to Hizbollah, found no answer to these tactics.

The American commanders respond that they have lost only 3600 soldiers dead and wounded from hostile fire and accidents since the start of the war, not a high figure given the number of troops involved. But that misses the point. There are two types of guerrilla war. The first builds up guerrilla resistance step by step until a regular army is formed: the classic example is Mao Zedong in China. The second type involves sporadic attacks by a limited number of guerrillas, with the aim of putting irresistible political pressure on the enemy. This was the type of campaign waged by the IRA in Ireland in 1919-21, the Irgun in Palestine in the 1940s, EOKA under Grivas in Cyprus in the 1950s and the IRA again in Northern Ireland. It is this second type of war which the US is facing and does not quite know how to combat.

Things could get a lot worse. Most of the current guerrilla action is in the Sunni towns round Baghdad. It is less intense in the capital itself and in Mosul, the largest Sunni city, with a population of 1.6 million. Blair and Jack Straw have on occasion drawn comfort from this without, it seems, considering what would happen if the attack spread to all the Sunni Arab parts of the country. A further difficulty is that the guerrillas belong to many different organisations without any central command.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the war is that the US does not really know who is behind the suicide bombing campaign which began last August with an attack on the Jordanian embassy. Since then anybody actually or potentially associated with the US occupation, the police, the UN, the Shiah and the Kurds, is liable to come under attack. There seems to be an endless supply of suicide bombers, driving trucks packed with explosives or wearing explosive belts. The US insists that the campaign is being carried out by foreigners, but logistics, safe houses and intelligence must be arranged by Iraqis, because non-Iraqi Arabs would be too visible to remain concealed for long.

Not all the US military commanders have been as heavy-handed as Bremer and the CPA in Baghdad. In Mosul, General David Petraeus, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, has been far more careful not to alienate the Sunni establishment in the city, which was a main recruiting ground for the Iraqi army (there are 1100 generals in Mosul because Saddam often paid off retiring officers with promotion). Exile parties like the Iraqi National Congress and the Iraqi National Accord, deeply resented in the capital for taking over jobs and businesses, have been kept at arm’s length. There have been assassinations, suicide bombs and ambushes in Mosul, but not on the same scale as around Baghdad. Petraeus, who left Iraq in February after ten months in the country, said his most important advice to his successor was ‘not to align too closely with one ethnic group, political party, tribe, religious group or social element’.

Washington is struggling to free itself from the trap into which it plunged so eagerly a year ago. Suddenly, Bremer and the CPA are desperately cultivating two men who until recently they treated with contempt: Ali Sistani, the Shiite Grand Ayatollah, in the shrine city of Najaf, and Kofi Annan. But too many mistakes were made in the first year of the occupation for a change of course to work now.

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