Patrick Cockburn

It is tempting to see the so-called handover of power from the US to the Iraqi interim government on 28 June as a fake. The few who attended the ceremony at which sovereignty was legally transferred had had to pass through four American checkpoints. Iyad Allawi, the new prime minister, worked for years for MI6 and the CIA and is kept in power by 138,000 US troops. The ministers in the new government live in palatial villas inside a secure compound. Many of them have spent most of their lives outside Iraq.

The pre-trial hearings of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen had a similarly artificial flavour – not allayed by US censorship, which removed pictures of Saddam in chains from the footage, as well as the legal submissions of 11 of his senior lieutenants. The censors tried to excise Saddam’s claim that ‘Bush is the real criminal,’ failing only because they didn’t understand how the sound equipment worked. US officials made little effort to hide the fact that they were running the trial, and that the target audience wasn’t Iraqi. The only foreign reporters allowed in were American and the hearings were timed to coincide with US breakfast TV. If George Bush can pretend for four months that he has Iraq under control he may well be re-elected. If disasters from Iraq continue to dominate the front pages he will probably lose. In April 125 soldiers were killed: the White House needs to show voters that casualties are on the way down.

The appointment of Allawi is itself a demonstration of how far the balance of power has swung against the US. Twelve months ago Paul Bremer, the US viceroy, was blithely talking about continuing the occupation for two years. His first act on arriving in Iraq was to disband the Iraqi army and security forces. The state machinery was dismantled. Direct imperial rule seemed feasible to Washington. Young Republicans were sent off to rule Iraq like the offspring of British gentry dispatched to loot India in the 18th century. A 24-year-old Republican who applied for a job at the White House was instead sent to Iraq to reopen the Baghdad stock exchange. It stayed shut. At first even such a tame organisation as the Iraqi Governing Council was to have a merely advisory role.

Inside the heavily protected Green Zone, the US enclave in the heart of Baghdad, Bremer and the uniformed American military were cut off from what was happening on the ground. US generals at their briefings claimed that the number of hostile incidents was falling. I began to wonder why, if there were only 15 or 16 attacks a day on American soldiers, I seemed to see at least a quarter of them whenever I drove out of Baghdad. Then American soldiers in the field told me that they no longer reported guerrilla attacks unless there had been US casualties. It was a bureaucratic hassle to make out the reports and their commanders were keen to hear that resistance was petering out.

By November it was impossible to conceal the bad news. I was in the dusty truck-stop city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, when we heard that a giant Chinook helicopter had been shot down. We drove across an old iron bridge over the Euphrates to look at the wreckage. On the way we saw a burned-out vehicle that had been hit by a rocket; the American contractors inside had been killed. On the far side of the river, farmers were handing round twisted pieces of metal from the helicopter’s fuselage: 16 soldiers had died. Shortly after that incident, the White House began making its plans to dilute full imperial control by installing the interim government.

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