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.

That the US military had based their entire strategy on a belief in their own propaganda only became clear last month, as local uprisings swept across Iraq. US commanders had convinced themselves that all the pinprick guerrilla attacks came from Former Regime Loyalists and mysterious Foreign Fighters (FRLs or FFs in US military parlance). They spoke glowingly of the progress made by the new US-trained Iraqi police, army and paramilitary units. These forces, ultimately to number 200,000, were intended gradually to replace American troops.

The speed with which US plans for Iraq fell apart is astonishing, but the reason is plain: the US military and Paul Bremer, the US viceroy and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, provoked simultaneous confrontations with Iraq’s two main communities, the Shia and Sunni Arabs, who together make up 80 per cent of the population. At the end of March, Bremer decided to squeeze the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr by closing his small-circulation newspaper, al-Hawza, and arresting his chief lieutenant in Najaf. Most Shia thought Sadr a violent maverick: Bremer made him a martyr. Religion and nationalism came together. Bremer’s plan to marginalise Sadr blew up in his face, and the black-clad gunmen of Sadr’s Army of the Mehdi seized large parts of southern Iraq, including Najaf and Kut.

A few days later the US army provoked another crisis, this time with the Sunni community. In revenge for the killing and dismemberment of four US security men in Falluja on 31 March, three battalions of marines surrounded the city and began to bombard it. To Iraqis this looked like collective punishment. Within a few days the marines had managed to turn the Fallujans, previously regarded by most other Iraqis as dangerous hillbillies, into symbols of a reborn Iraqi nationalism. Far from confining the insurrection to Falluja, the siege of the city encouraged further uprisings in Sunni towns and villages along the Euphrates.

As US control over large parts of Iraq began to slide, officials responded by refusing to believe what was happening. Only occasionally were there visible signs of panic. The CPA website is normally full of upbeat information about reconstruction projects and improvements in the electricity supply. It also has news about security, the chief preoccupation of the foreign businessmen who make up most of its readership. As the crisis grew worse the CPA decided that the information was too alarming to report. A brief message on its website read, unpretentiously: ‘For security reasons there are no security reports.’

American soldiers were being killed because their commanders couldn’t believe that the rebellion was spreading. The army was still sending convoys of petrol tankers down the highway from Baghdad to Falluja after guerrillas had taken control of the road. Five days into the rebellion, as I tried to get into or at least close to Falluja, I was caught in an ambush at Abu Ghraib, a town of scattered houses, abandoned factories and date palms which offers plenty of cover for guerrillas. We knew that the war had moved closer to Baghdad only when we saw four tanks, their barrels pointed towards us, closing the road that runs behind Baghdad airport. Everywhere in Abu Ghraib there were freshly painted anti-American slogans on the walls. One read: ‘We shall knock on the gates of heaven with American skulls.’ Another: ‘Sunni Shia = Jihad against Occupation.’

In the distance we could see three columns of oily black smoke rising into the sky; local people told us an American convoy had been attacked a few hours earlier. We decided to follow an aid convoy bound for Falluja; young men were waving Iraqi flags from the backs of the trucks. The main road was closed, so we drove down narrow tracks through shabby brown villages where people clapped as we passed. Aiding Falluja was obviously popular. We had been weaving around the countryside for what seemed a very long time until suddenly we found ourselves close to the highway again. Just as we reached it, another convoy of petrol tankers accompanied by US soldiers on Humvees drove past. It was immediately attacked. When we heard the bark of machine-guns and the whoosh of rocket-propelled grenades overhead, we drove off the road onto a piece of wasteland and lay on the ground with our faces pressed into the sand; other Iraqi drivers took cover near us. Bassil al-Kaissi, our driver, shouted at them: ‘Take off your keffiyehs or the Americans will think you are mujahedin and kill you.’

There was a pause in the firing and we got back into the car and drove off down a narrow road away from the fighting. We moved slowly: I had told the driver not to raise dust and attract attention. We had reached a small bridge over a canal when several mujahedin ran towards us carrying a heavy machine-gun on a tripod and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They had stopped on the bridge and were listening to the shooting, which had started up again, seeming not to know where it came from. One of them shouted: ‘What is happening?’ Bassil, not wanting to arouse their suspicion by driving away too quickly, stopped the car. ‘We were trying to bring help to Falluja,’ he told them, ‘but those pigs opened fire on us.’

The convoy we had seen attacked was, I think, the fourth to be ambushed on this stretch of road over a period of 24 hours. Several US soldiers had been killed in the earlier fighting and others captured by guerrillas. For two or three days US generals, still believing they were facing a finite number of FRLs and FFs, would not accept that spontaneous uprisings were taking place in towns all the way to the Syrian border. Casualties surged. A dozen US marines died in a savage little battle in Ramadi, just upriver from Falluja, another five at al-Qaim, a few miles from the Syrian border.

There was other grim news for the US commanders. One battalion of the new Iraqi army refused to go to Falluja: the soldiers said they were not prepared to fight fellow Iraqis. The 36th Battalion of the 40,000-strong Iraqi Civil Defence Corps, a special unit recruited among militiamen from the anti-Saddam opposition parties, at first fought hard. The parties claimed that this was evidence that only their men had the political commitment to form the core of the new Iraqi security force. But after 11 days in the front line this battalion also mutinied, with only the Kurds prepared to go on fighting.

The mutinies and desertions shouldn’t have come as a great shock. Iraqi police have always told me that their job is to catch criminals not guerrillas. The US-trained soldiers were paid only $60 a month, half the money made by garbage collectors in Baghdad. Early on in the crisis I met five pilgrims walking to the Shia holy city of Karbala. Dressed in black, they were carrying a green banner with a religious slogan on it. They expressed routine anti-American sentiments: the surprise came when they told me they were all soldiers in the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps.

Why has US rule in Iraq been so dysfunctional? Why did the US marines have to call on a general from Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard to take responsibility for security in Falluja when the Republican Guard had been so contemptuously dismissed by Bremer in May last year? Why was that the only way to bring the three-week siege to an end? A CNN/ USA Today poll in March showed that 56 per cent of Iraqis want an immediate withdrawal of coalition forces – and that was before the uprisings.

Iraq is essentially controlled by the US military. The State Department was sidelined before the war. The uniformed military and the civilian CPA report separately to the Pentagon. The US army devises and carries out its policies regardless of Bremer. In a panicky reaction to the guerrilla attacks, the CPA recently announced it was closing the biggest highways around Baghdad to civilian traffic. The tone of its statement was threatening. ‘If civilians drive on the closed section of the highways they may be engaged with deadly force,’ the CPA warned. In other words, they would be shot. Within a few hours the US army announced that it knew nothing of the CPA’s decision and had no intention of enforcing it. Bremer was forced to drop the idea.

This is something more than the traditional split between civilians and the military. Bremer, who has shown relentlessly poor judgment over the last year, keeps decision-making within a tight circle. Senior members of the CPA say they know nothing beyond what they read in the newspapers. But important decisions, such as disbanding the Iraqi army, are taken in Washington by Paul Wolfowitz and Co. The prime aim of the White House is for news from Iraq to look good in the run-up to the presidential election. The unbridled greed of firms bidding for CPA contracts and the privatising fervour of the neo-cons has led to damaging failures. For instance, the contract to set up a television station supporting the US was given to SAIC, a company popular with the Pentagon, but with no experience of television. As a result Iraqis mostly get their news from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, both deeply hostile to the US occupation.

It was the US marines who besieged Falluja, turning the city into a nationalist symbol, but it was Bremer who initiated the confrontation with Muqtada al-Sadr, failing to realise how disillusioned the 15 or 16 million Iraqi Shias, a majority of the population, are with the occupation. They think the US wants to deny them power by postponing elections and using the Kurds to retain effective control of the country.

The Army of the Mehdi, Sadr’s militia, are not very appealing. I ran into a group of them when I was trying to get to Najaf, where Sadr had taken refuge. They were guarding a checkpoint just outside the town of Kufa. I was wearing a red and white keffiyeh and sitting inconspicuously in the back of the car because foreigners had been shot and killed in the area. The Mehdi Army did not like me wearing a keffiyeh. There were a lot of things about me they did not like. They were intensely suspicious of my satellite phone, mobile and camera. At first they tried to push me into another car, then they decided to take ours. Three gunmen, clutching machine-guns, their chests covered with ammunition bandoliers, crammed in. We followed another car, also filled with gunmen, to the green-domed Imam Ali mosque in the centre of Kufa – their headquarters.

Once we had parked outside the mosque the gunmen relaxed a little. One of them offered me a cigarette and I took it, though I had given up smoking. Most of them came from the slums of Sadr City in Baghdad. They spoke about defending Iraq from America and Israel and about the theft of Iraqi oil. Their slogans were nationalist rather than religious. They were fascinated by a copy of the New Yorker they found in the back of the car. One gunman pointed angrily at a small Stars and Stripes in an advertisement. Finally my mobile and my passport reappeared, though not my satellite phone, which I saw a black-clad gunman covertly pocket. It did not seem a good moment to demand it back.

The April uprisings may have been the turning point for the US in Iraq. It has relied on armed strength and has largely spurned local allies, but its military power is no longer translating into political influence. It did not dare storm Falluja and Najaf, though they were held by fewer than two thousand lightly armed gunmen. The US has very few friends in Iraq, but even those they have sense that this is the ebb-tide of the occupation.

7 May

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