Iraq war diary: 12 April, 2003

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, I am re-posting diary entries that I wrote at the time for the Guardian's website...



On one of the bleakest days since the invasion began, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday shrugged off turmoil and looting in Iraq as signs of the people's freedom.

"It's untidy, and freedom's untidy," he said, jabbing his hand in the air. "Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things."

Mr Rumsfeld insisted that words such as anarchy and lawlessness were unrepresentative of the situation in Iraq and "absolutely" ill-chosen.

"I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn't believe it," he said. "I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny – 'The sky is falling'. I've never seen anything like it! And here is a country that's being liberated, here are people who are going from being repressed and held under the thumb of a vicious dictator, and they're free. And all this newspaper could do, with eight or 10 headlines, they showed a man bleeding, a civilian, who they claimed we had shot – one thing after another. It's just unbelievable ..."

In an extraordinary performance reminiscent of the Iraqi information minister who assured the world that all was well even as battles raged visibly around him, Mr Rumsfeld quipped:

"The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, 'My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?' "

In what appeared to be a concerted effort to damp down media coverage of the chaos, the British government simultaneously laid into the BBC and its defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, accusing them of "trying to make the news" rather than reporting it.

A spokesman for prime minister Tony Blair claimed that "in the main the anarchy and disorder is being directed against symbols of the regime". Mr Gilligan hit back: "The reality is half the shopping district [in Baghdad] is now being looted. Downing Street may be saying it's only regime targets that are being attacked. I'm afraid it isn't."

In the absence of any authority, residents of Baghdad have been erecting barricades to keep out marauders and there is some evidence of shooting, either between looters and citizens who are trying to protect their own property, or between rival gangs of looters.

Hospitals and laboratories have been ransacked, with thieves often seizing vital equipment – heart monitors, incubators and microscopes – which is of no obvious use to them. A report today says only one hospital in the city still has a functioning operating theatre.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has reminded the US and Britain of their legal obligation under the Geneva Convention to protect civilians and essential services such as hospitals.

The US yesterday appealed for Baghdad's police – as well as fire and ambulance services – to resume work. It is doubtful that many will do so at present: the public is unlikely to welcome a return of the old regime's crime prevention apparatus, and the police themselves may be unwilling to put their lives at risk to help out the Americans.

In a move that further undermines the United Nations' role in Iraq, the US has secretly and unilaterally resumed weapons inspections, according to a report in the Guardian today.

This will also annoy the British government, which still officially supports the UN's Unmovic team.

The American inspection team, nicknamed "USmovic", which was set up in Kuwait a week before the war began, has already started work. It includes inspectors recruited from the previous Unscom team and is led by Charles Duelfer, former deputy head of Unscom.

The US has a pressing need to find evidence of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, since this was the pretext for the invasion in the first place. But the American-controlled inspection team has no international recognition and will also have to struggle to establish its credibility. The work of Unscom during the 1990s was partly discredited by allegations of espionage which were later, to some extent, admitted. Whatever "USmovic" finds, it is liable to be accused of planting evidence, even if that is not actually the case.

In northern Iraq, where the key cities of Mosul and Kirkuk were "liberated" by Kurdish forces with American support, the "liberation" of any available property has also begun.

Turkey is particularly worried about Kirkuk and has troops on the border ready to invade if Kurdish forces do withdraw from the city. Turkey's fear is that possession of Kirkuk and the surrounding oilfields would make a Kurdish state in the region economically viable. This could jeopardise the territorial integrity of Turkey, where there is a substantial Kurdish population.

This morning there are reports of some Kurdish forces leaving Kirkuk, but they are said to be holding back until more US troops arrive to take over from them and maintain order.

This is only part of the picture, however. At the same time, large numbers of armed Kurdish civilians have been reported entering the city. They are said to be former residents of Kirkuk who were displaced by Saddam Hussein's policy of Arabisation (ethnic "cleansing"). In the slightly longer term, these returnees are likely to strengthen Kurdish claims to possession of the city.

In southern Iraq, it was reported yesterday that British forces shot dead five alleged bank robbers in Basra. The robbers are said to have fired first.

There is also some embarrassment over Sheikh Muzahim Tamimi, the tribal leader appointed by Britain to take charge of Basra province. It has emerged that he is a former brigadier-general in Saddam Hussein's army and was once a member of the Ba'ath party. Several hundred protesters threw stones at his house earlier this week.

One theory circulating in London is that the sheikh was appointed accidentally because British intelligence confused him with his anti-Saddam brother (who turns out to have been shot dead by the secret police in 1994).

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Friday, 12 April 2013