The war is a fraud. I’m not talking about the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. Nor the links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa’ida which didn’t exist. Nor all the other lies upon which we went to war. I’m talking about the new lies.
For just as, before the war, our governments warned us of threats that did not exist, now they hide from us the threats that do exist. Much of Iraq has fallen outside the control of America’s puppet government in Baghdad but we are not told. Hundreds of attacks are made against US troops every month. But unless an American dies, we are not told. This month’s death toll of Iraqis in Baghdad alone has now reached 700 – the worst month since the invasion ended. But we are not told.
The stage management of this catastrophe in Iraq was all too evident at Saddam Hussein’s “trial”. Not only did the US military censor the tapes of the event. Not only did they effectively delete all sound of the 11 other defendants. But the Americans led Saddam Hussein to believe – until he reached the courtroom – that he was on his way to his execution. Indeed, when he entered the room he believed that the judge was there to condemn him to death. This, after all, was the way Saddam ran his own state security courts. No wonder he initially looked “disorientated” – CNN’s helpful description – because, of course, he was meant to look that way. We had made sure of that. Which is why Saddam asked Judge Juhi: “Are you a lawyer? … Is this a trial?” And swiftly, as he realised that this really was an initial court hearing – not a preliminary to his own hanging – he quickly adopted an attitude of belligerence.
But don’t think we’re going to learn much more about Saddam’s future court appearances. Salem Chalabi, the brother of convicted fraudster Ahmad and the man entrusted by the Americans with the tribunal, told the Iraqi press two weeks ago that all media would be excluded from future court hearings. And I can see why. Because if Saddam does a Milosevic, he’ll want to talk about the real intelligence and military connections of his regime – which were primarily with the United States.
Living in Iraq these past few weeks is a weird as well as dangerous experience. I drive down to Najaf. Highway 8 is one of the worst in Iraq. Westerners are murdered there. It is littered with burnt-out police vehicles and American trucks. Every police post for 70 miles has been abandoned. Yet a few hours later, I am sitting in my room in Baghdad watching Tony Blair, grinning in the House of Commons as if he is the hero of a school debating competition; so much for the Butler report.
Indeed, watching any Western television station in Baghdad these days is like tuning in to Planet Mars. Doesn’t Blair realise that Iraq is about to implode? Doesn’t Bush realise this? The American-appointed “government” controls only parts of Baghdad – and even there its ministers and civil servants are car-bombed and assassinated. Baquba, Samara, Kut, Mahmoudiya, Hilla, Fallujah, Ramadi, all are outside government authority. Iyad Allawi, the “Prime Minister”, is little more than mayor of Baghdad. “Some journalists,” Blair announces, “almost want there to be a disaster in Iraq.” He doesn’t get it. The disaster exists now.
When suicide bombers ram their cars into hundreds of recruits outside police stations, how on earth can anyone hold an election next January? Even the National Conference to appoint those who will arrange elections has been twice postponed. And looking back through my notebooks over the past five weeks, I find that not a single Iraqi, not a single American soldier I have spoken to, not a single mercenary – be he American, British or South African – believes that there will be elections in January. All said that Iraq is deteriorating by the day. And most asked why we journalists weren’t saying so.
But in Baghdad, I turn on my television and watch Bush telling his Republican supporters that Iraq is improving, that Iraqis support the “coalition”, that they support their new US-manufactured government, that the “war on terror” is being won, that Americans are safer. Then I go to an internet site and watch two hooded men hacking off the head of an American in Riyadh, tearing at the vertebrae of an American in Iraq with a knife. Each day, the papers here list another construction company pulling out of the country. And I go down to visit the friendly, tragically sad staff of the Baghdad mortuary and there, each day, are dozens of those Iraqis we supposedly came to liberate, screaming and weeping and cursing as they carry their loved ones on their shoulders in cheap coffins.
I keep re-reading Tony Blair’s statement. “I remain convinced it was right to go to war. It was the most difficult decision of my life.” And I cannot understand it. It may be a terrible decision to go to war. Even Chamberlain thought that; but he didn’t find it a difficult decision – because, after the Nazi invasion of Poland, it was the right thing to do. And driving the streets of Baghdad now, watching the terrified American patrols, hearing yet another thunderous explosion shaking my windows and doors after dawn, I realise what all this means. Going to war in Iraq, invading Iraq last year, was the most difficult decision Blair had to take because he thought – correctly – that it might be the wrong decision. I will always remember his remark to British troops in Basra, that the sacrifice of British soldiers was not Hollywood but “real flesh and blood”. Yes, it was real flesh and blood that was shed – but for weapons of mass destruction that weren’t real at all.
“Deadly force is authorised,” it says on checkpoints all over Baghdad. Authorised by whom? There is no accountability. Repeatedly, on the great highways out of the city US soldiers shriek at motorists and open fire at the least suspicion. “We had some Navy Seals down at our checkpoint the other day,” a 1st Cavalry sergeant says to me. “They asked if we were having any trouble. I said, yes, they’ve been shooting at us from a house over there. One of them asked: ’That house?’ We said yes. So they have these three SUVs and a lot of weapons made of titanium and they drive off towards the house. And later they come back and say ’We’ve taken care of that’. And we didn’t get shot at any more.”
What does this mean? The Americans are now bragging about their siege of Najaf. Lieutenant Colonel Garry Bishop of the 37th Armoured Division’s 1st Battalion believes it was an “ideal” battle (even though he failed to kill or capture Muqtada Sadr whose “Mehdi army” were fighting the US forces). It was “ideal”, Bishop explained, because the Americans avoided damaging the holy shrines of the Imams Ali and Hussein. What are Iraqis to make of this? What if a Muslim army occupied Kent and bombarded Canterbury and then bragged that they hadn’t damaged Canterbury Cathedral? Would we be grateful?
What, indeed, are we to make of a war which is turned into a fantasy by those who started it? As foreign workers pour out of Iraq for fear of their lives, US Secretary of State Colin Powell tells a press conference that hostage-taking is having an “effect” on reconstruction. Effect! Oil pipeline explosions are now as regular as power cuts. In parts of Baghdad now, they have only four hours of electricity a day; the streets swarm with foreign mercenaries, guns poking from windows, shouting abusively at Iraqis who don’t clear the way for them. This is the “safer” Iraq which Mr Blair was boasting of the other day. What world does the British Government exist in?
Take the Saddam trial. The entire Arab press – including the Baghdad papers – prints the judge’s name. Indeed, the same judge has given interviews about his charges of murder against Muqtada Sadr. He has posed for newspaper pictures. But when I mention his name in The Independent, I was solemnly censured by the British Government’s spokesman. Salem Chalabi threatened to prosecute me. So let me get this right. We illegally invade Iraq. We kill up to 11,000 Iraqis. And Mr Chalabi, appointed by the Americans, says I’m guilty of “incitement to murder”. That just about says it all.