Signs of disintegration are everywhere in Iraq. Oily columns of black smoke billow up from the airport road where US patrols are regularly hit by suicide bombers or roadside bombs between Baghdad and Camp Victory, the gigantic US headquarters on the edge of the airport. In a vain attempt to deny cover to resistance fighters, American soldiers have chopped down the palm trees and bushes beside the highway, leaving only the stumps behind. The bombs, usually several heavy artillery shells detonated by a command wire, are very powerful. A family showed me the shattered stock of an American machine-gun, its barrel twisted sideways, hurled onto the roof of their house by the bomb which destroyed a Humvee on the road outside.

It was bizarre to go early one morning to look at the nondescript and wholly undefended villa from which Kenneth Bigley, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley had just been kidnapped by ten masked men. Could they have taken seriously the line pumped out by the White House and Downing Street that the dangers of Iraq were being exaggerated by the media? They behaved as if they had. Some reports of their abduction said they lived in the affluent al-Mansur district, the embassy quarter of Baghdad. Their house is certainly in al-Mansur, but not in a wealthy part of it. The two four-wheel-drive cars parked in the road advertised the presence of foreigners. I knew the district a little because I used to eat in a kebab restaurant called the Zarzur al-Fallujah a few hundred yards from the villa where these three middle-aged foreigners had stayed for eight months while working at a US base. The owner was from Fallujah, where he had another restaurant, and so were many of his customers. When Fallujah came under the control of insurgents in April, it seemed dangerous to go on eating there. Bigley, Armstrong and Hensley, unarmed and without even a night watchman on the morning they were kidnapped, must have seemed easy pickings.

Iraqis were cynical about how much real independence the interim government would have, but thought that nothing could be much worse than direct rule by Paul Bremer. There was a brief moment when Iyad Allawi tried to put some distance between himself and the Americans. He produced a plan which would have allowed Iraqi guerrillas who had killed US soldiers, thinking they were doing their patriotic duty, to be amnestied. The idea was to split the Sunni Muslim resistance, or at least show that the interim government was not entirely an American pawn. It was too much for Washington to stomach. The plan was watered down and soon forgotten.

Allawi started off with a very narrow political base in Iraq. He comes from a family that was wealthy under the monarchy, but he was a militant member of the Baath Party in the 1960s and early 1970s and appeals to former Baath Party members who lost their jobs under Bremer. At the same time, his own career and the movement to which he belonged, the Iraqi National Accord, had been fostered by MI6 and the CIA for many years. Iraqis are desperate for security, and for a few months they hoped the interim government might provide it. The suicide bombers are generally detested for slaughtering unemployed young men who wait for days outside police stations and army recruitment centres desperately looking for jobs. Allawi was determined to show he was a force to be reckoned with. He chose to confront Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militiamen in Najaf, but he could do this only by relying on the American army. After three weeks most of the city was in ruins, 400 people had been killed and 2500 wounded, but Allawi still had not eliminated Sadr or his men. No sooner had the battle in Najaf ended than the US air force started an intensified bombing campaign against the Sunni resistance west of Baghdad. Boasting of precision strikes against ‘terrorists’, the US military put out statements claiming dozens of insurgents had been killed, oblivious of Arabic television showing wounded children being carried into Fallujah.

Allawi has put thousands more blue-shirted police on the streets of Baghdad, and there has been a fall in ordinary street crime (significant if you live in the city since even petty thieves carry a gun). But the police often act like yet one more militia hungry for perks. A few hundred yards from the hotel where I live in the Jadriyah district of Baghdad is a compound with 17 luxury houses shaded by green bushes and trees, once occupied by guards and relatives of Saddam Hussein. When he was overthrown last year, 54 poor families moved in. They lived there until one morning the police turned up firing into the air and announced that the compound was going to be their new headquarters. ‘We complained to an American patrol but the police said we were members of the Mehdi Army,’ said Khadir Abbas Jassim, standing beside a heap of broken furniture and brightly coloured toys which the police had tossed into the street.

We went around the back of the building to talk to Hussein Abdullah, the police general in charge of the operation. He was dismissive of the squatters’ complaints. ‘We are a legal state and we are just applying the law,’ he said. All the while there was a man standing behind the general jumping up and down trying to attract my attention. We moved out into the street but half a dozen police came with us. The man, who was called Ahmed Hussein, told a complicated story about how the police had looted his house six months previously. The policemen thought he had just accused them of stealing and reached for their pistols. Ahmed looked terrified. ‘The police are going to kill me,’ he said, ‘unless you take me with you in your car.’

Iraq has certainly got more dangerous for foreigners in the last three months. Possibly we are just catching up with what the Iraqis have been living through since the war. During the Sunni and Shiite uprisings last April I was caught up in an ambush of American petrol tankers on the road to Fallujah and later picked up by the Mehdi Army at a checkpoint outside Kufa, near Najaf. Since then every road has been cut by insurgents or bandits. Turkish lorry drivers, not the most easily intimidated group of men, no longer dare drive down the long road from Mosul to Baghdad. When three Iraqi Kurds took the place of some Turks who refused to go to Baghdad, they were kidnapped and their decapitated bodies dumped beside the road. Suicide bombers, who had earlier mainly attacked the Iraqi police and army, have started driving their vehicles close to American patrols and convoys before blowing themselves up. This makes US soldiers even more trigger-happy than before.

Foreign journalists used to think that there was some protection in not coming from a country which supplied troops to the occupation. But on 21 August two French journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, one of whom was an old friend, were picked up; they are still being held. It was also thought that a foreign woman was less likely to be kidnapped than a man, but on 7 September two Italian aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, were kidnapped from their office in Baghdad. The effect of the increased danger to journalists has been to give the impression, at least in the US, that the crisis in Iraq, while bad, is getting no worse, because US network television correspondents rarely leave their heavily fortified compounds. This is understandable, given that an American journalist stands a minimal chance of surviving if taken hostage. But it also meant that during the three-week battle for Najaf, most American correspondents covered it as embedded journalists with the US army. The kidnappers, for all their verbose anti-Americanism, ensure that there is less coverage of Iraq in the US media as the violence escalates, and so help Bush win re-election.

There has been so much violence over these 18 months that it is difficult to make out changes in the pattern. American soldiers are always being blown up by roadside bombs. Suicide bombers are always targeting Iraqi police and army recruits. The interim government and the US and British embassies hide in the Green Zone, where they are regularly mortared. But many killings are mysterious. Assassins are easy to hire. In the al-Jadida market a group of killers put up a poster advertising their services with a price tag of $300 to $400 a murder. Even in Baghdad people found this hard to take. One group appparently singled out for attack are intellectuals and academics, maybe because Islamic militants see them as upholders of secularism; or maybe it just seems that they are being targeted because their deaths are more widely publicised.

Early in September somebody shot and badly wounded Professor Khald al-Judi, the dean of al-Nahrain University (once called Saddam University, it has the reputation of having the best-qualified teachers in Iraq). He was being driven to a degree ceremony in the Khadamiyah district of Baghdad when a man opened fire from another vehicle. Professor al-Judi was hit by a bullet in the abdomen and critically wounded. His driver was killed. I went to the al-Khadamiyah Teaching Hospital, where he had been taken after the shooting. An elderly man with a pointed beard, al-Judi was too sick to see me.

I talked to his bodyguard, Muhammad Abdul Hamid, who had been in a second car just behind al-Judi, and saw the attack. ‘We were driving on the highway near the Umm al-Qura mosque,’ he said, ‘when a big modern GMC four-wheel drive coloured grey and with the windows open overtook us. I could see the men inside were wearing flak jackets and carrying American rifles. We got stuck in a traffic jam. When they got close to Professor al-Judi’s car one of the men in the GMC opened fire.’ It did not sound unlikely. A GMC with the windows down so the men inside can shoot quickly usually indicates former soldiers working for a foreign security company. They were as likely to be South African or British as American. Perhaps the professor’s car had got too close and the security men shot at what they suspected was a suicide bomber.

Squatting on the floor of the hospital corridor with his back against the wall while the bodyguard talked about the assassination was a depressed looking middle-aged man. His name, he said, was Jamal Gafuri. The previous day his son Khalid had been in Haifa Street, a tough Sunni neighbourhood and bastion of the resistance, where he was a street cleaner. At about 7 a.m. a suicide bomber had blown up an American Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Cheering crowds swarmed over it.

Somebody stuck an improvised black flag of Tawhid and Jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, in its gun barrel. Then they set fire to it. An hour later, two US helicopters, claiming they had been shot at, fired seven rockets into the crowd. It is more likely they were provoked by the black flag. Killed along with 12 other people was the correspondent of al-Arabiya, the Arabic satellite channel, who died on air. His blood was on the lens of the television camera which recorded his last moments. Jamal Gafuri said: ‘My son Khalid was cleaning the street at the time and he was hit in the head by shrapnel. He is still unconscious.’ He showed me a piece of paper written by a doctor itemising his son’s many wounds.

I went to al-Nahrain University to see if they knew anything more about the shooting of their dean. Saadoon Isa, a neat looking intelligent man with quick nervous movements who was acting dean, said he got a phone call on his mobile from Professor al-Judi just after he was hit. ‘I’ve been attacked by the Americans,’ he said. He added that the man who shot him was black. I asked Dr Isa, who taught physical chemistry, if other academics had been attacked. He said: ‘Myself for a start.’ In May he was in England when he got a phone call from his wife.

His son Muhammad, a 22-year-old student, had been kidnapped and his house stripped. ‘They wanted $40,000 but I was able to reduce it to $7000.’ When Muhammad was returned, Dr Isa found he had been tortured and kept alone in a room for three days without food or water. As he was being freed by the gang one of them said to him: ‘Tell your father to leave the country.’ Dr Isa was still wondering if he should go.

It is strange to sit in Baghdad watching George W. Bush’s stump speech about freedom being on the march in Iraq despite continuing troubles. It is a lot worse than that. Iyad Allawi and the interim government rule parts of Baghdad and some other cities. But there could be uprisings by the Shia in Basra or the Sunni in Mosul at any time. The government, probably with American prompting, has told the Ministry of Health to stop issuing figures for the number of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded every day. The government recruits more and more policemen, but in much of the country they stay alive by co-operating with the resistance. In Mosul province they even contribute a portion of their salary to the insurgents. The resistance gets more powerful each month but it is also increasingly split between the nationalists and the Islamic militants. Allawi might have been able to take advantage of this by wooing the nationalists. But he is seen by the resistance as a creature of the occupation. ‘Allawi’s visit to the US is the visit of an employee to his employer,’ said Taher Abdel Karim, a computer engineer I was talking to.

Elections probably will take place in January unless the UN can be persuaded to postpone them. But it is doubtful if the Sunni, whose revolt has been far more successful than they can have expected, will take part in large numbers. The Shia, some 60 per cent of the population but deprived of power for several decades, have long demanded elections and will take part. Allawi, without a real base of his own, will ally himself with the Kurds, who are well organised, have money and are the only community which supports the occupation (easy for them because there are so few US troops in their areas).

Election or not, the rebellion will go on. The insurgents are very fragmented and often belong to groups only ten to fifteen strong. Because they have no central organisation capable of giving orders and getting them obeyed it is unlikely that there will be a ceasefire while the military occupation continues. The most effective guerrilla units are now very expert. They recently tried to kill the governor of Baghdad, Ali al-Haidri. It was a sophisticated operation. Local shopkeepers said two men had been loitering near a car. When the convoy appeared one of them opened the boot, where a gunman was waiting to open fire. Two other gunmen ran into the street in front of the convoy. The driver of the governor’s car tried to escape by driving down a side street but the ambush party had foreseen that and planted a large bomb beside the road. The explosion missed the governor by a second.

Iraq today is like Lebanon after the civil war. In conflict are the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurds and factions within each community. The US is still baffled by its failure to get control of the country after defeating Saddam Hussein so easily last year. The interim government is trying to re-create the Iraqi state. Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia all know that their future will in part be determined by what happens in Iraq. All have their allies within the country. There are multiple friction points. Many of the countries and parties involved in the struggle for Iraq are still feeling their own strength. They are all a long way from agreeing an end to the war or even a truce.

23 September

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