Iraq war diary: 25 March, 2003

To mark the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Iraq war, I am re-posting diary entries that I wrote at the time for the Guardian's website. They are posted here day by day and the full collection can be found here

25 March 2003: 

The only good news today is that the invasion forces are now within 50 miles or so of Baghdad – though a look back through the old newspapers shows that similar claims have been made for several days. The difference now, perhaps, is that there are far more American and British troops near the Iraqi capital than before.

In preparation for an assault on Baghdad, invasion forces have begun an intensive bombardment of Iraqi Republican Guard bunkers 30 miles outside the city. This, in the view of many, marks a crucial point in the war.

The advance on Baghdad is seen as good news by the prime minister, Tony Blair, who yesterday promised "certain victory".

"The vital goal is to reach Baghdad as swiftly as possible, thus bringing the end of the regime closer," he said.

But Saddam Hussein, who gave a televised speech yesterday, also saw the US-British advance as good news because it draws the invaders more deeply into his trap.

Despite the Iraqi leader's broadcast, some western spokesmen persisted with the idea that Saddam is dead and hinted that his speech might have been recorded in advance. If so, the late Saddam Hussein had remarkable clairvoyant powers because he mentioned numerous current events.

Meanwhile, serious trouble continues in Basra, Nassiriya and other parts of southern Iraq, though this morning the BBC reported that "substantial numbers" of US forces are at last passing through Nassiriya.

Even in Umm Qasr, just over the border from Kuwait, resistance continues. Last Saturday, 30 Iraqi fighters were said to be holding out there; today they are said to number "only" 100.

Overnight, the British military announced that a soldier from the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch had been killed in action near al-Zubayr in southern Iraq. A sandstorm was also hampering US troops advancing on Baghdad.

In other developments, President Bush is expected to ask Congress today for $75bn (£48bn) towards the cost of the war.

An opinion poll in Britain shows a sudden surge in the number of people who approve of military action to remove Saddam Hussein. There are now 54% in favour – a 16-point increase over seven days. Those against have dropped from 38% to 30%.

Today's big scare story comes from American TV networks which claim, citing intelligence sources, that Iraqi troops could be authorised to use chemical weapons if other means of defending the city fail.

Yesterday's scare, an exclusive story in the Jerusalem Post – where Pentagon arch-hawk Richard Perle is a board member – told of the discovery of a suspected chemical weapons factory in southern Iraq. There is still no confirmation of the factory's purpose, and some experts have cast serious doubt on it.

With less than a week gone, predictions of a quick and clinical victory are looking less credible than they did in the first couple of days. Wars are rarely that easy, and it is difficult to know what the real (but private) expectations of General Franks 
and the other commanders were.

But they do seem to have been surprised by the levels of resistance in the south, where Saddam's cousin, "Chemical Ali", is in charge.

There is also disappointment that the Shia population of the south have not risen up against the Ba'athist regime. A Shia opposition official, interviewed on the radio last night, explained this very simply.

In 1991, he said, the Americans encouraged them to rebel against Saddam, but were then betrayed by the US. They are not going to be fooled a second time and will therefore keep their heads down until they are sure who is winning.

More generally, though there is ample evidence of popular hatred for Saddam and his regime, there are few signs of enthusiasm for the American and British invaders either. The following quote, sent in by a reader, may be relevant: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. Your wealth has been stripped of you by unjust men ... The people of Baghdad shall flourish under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws."

The words were uttered by General F S Maude, commander of British forces in Iraq ... and the year was 1917.

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Monday, 25 March 2013