Iraq war diary: 14 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...



American tanks and troops entered the main square of Tikrit early this morning. As Tikrit is Saddam Hussein's birthplace there were predictions that his supporters would make a defiant last stand there – though resistance so far has been less than expected.

Bombing of the town continued yesterday and the US appears to have rejected an offer by a local tribal chief, Yussuf abd al-Aziz al-Nassari, to negotiate a peaceful surrender. According to Agence France Presse, Mr Nassari asked to be allowed 48 hours to persuade the remaining Iraqi forces to lay down their arms.

Tikrit is the last major population centre to be wrested from Baathist control. There are still numerous smaller towns and villages to be dealt with, but the capture of Tikrit will essentially mark the end of the "liberation" phase of the war. Iraqis are now free – or, as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it last week, "free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things".

In Baghdad, armed vigilante groups are patrolling some of the streets and all but a handful of shops remain shuttered. Electricity supplies have still not been restored. Several hundred Iraqi officials have reportedly volunteered for work, though this has made little impact so far.

Attention at the weekend focused on the destruction of the city's museum. US forces had carefully avoided bombing it but then stood by as looters plundered its treasures or, in many cases, simply smashed them.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, tensions are rising between Arabs and returning Kurdish refugees who were driven out under Saddam Hussein's "Arabisation" policy. A BBC correspondent in Kirkuk says returning Kurds have threatened with eviction the Arab families who now live there. In the south, Basra is still without safe drinking water and doctors have warned of a possible epidemic. Provision of humanitarian aid is being hampered by the lack of security.

Confusion reigns in Najaf, where an armed mob reportedly surrounded the home of Ayatollah Mirza Ali Sistani, a pro-western Shia cleric, and gave him 48 hours to leave the country. A statement issued by the ayatollah said the "lives of the great religious authorities in Najaf are threatened", and added that the US-led forces "bear the responsibility" to protect them. Last Thursday, another cleric who had just returned from exile in Britain was hacked to death in the holiest mosque in Najaf.

For the moment, all these intractable and possibly chronic problems heavily outweigh successes such as the return of seven missing Americans who were found alive and well on a road north of Baghdad yesterday, and the capture near Mosul of Saddam's half-brother, Watban al-Tikriti (number 51 on the "wanted" list).

A meeting of prominent Iraqis is due to take place in Nassiriya tomorrow under US auspices. This appears to be the Americans' response to an attempt by Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial leader of the Iraqi National Congress, to establish a power base by convening his own meeting in the town. The US objected to Mr Chalabi's meeting, describing it as his "coronation". Mr Chalabi yesterday dismissed the Americans' meeting, saying "no decisions will be taken" at it, and indicated that he will not be attending.

The Guardian today has details of the banking scandal in Jordan that led to Mr Chalabi being sentenced in his absence to 22 years' jail on 31 charges of embezzlement, theft, misuse of depositor funds and currency speculation.

The US stepped up its verbal attacks on Syria yesterday. President George Bush raised the issue of weapons of mass destruction: "I think we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," he said. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated claims that Syria is giving refuge to senior Iraqi officials. The US military has also drawn attention to the presence of fighters in Iraq who are said to have Syrian nationality (it is an established fact that Arab volunteers from various countries did enter Iraq from Syria in the early stages of the war).

Syria has dismissed the claims about harbouring members of Saddam's regime, though in any case it would have no legal obligation to hand them over since none have yet been formally accused of crimes. Little is known publicly about the current state of any chemical weapons programmes in Syria, though some information – possibly outdated – can be found on the website of the Federation of American Scientists. Over the weekend, the Syrian deputy ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha, accused the US of "a campaign of misinformation and disinformation about Syria". On weapons of mass destruction, he told NBC News: "We will not only accept the most rigid inspection regime, we will welcome it heartily."

Syria was not originally included with Iraq, Iran and North Korea in President Bush's "Axis of Evil". Many observers believe this is not a build up to military action but an attempt to make the Syrian government change its policies or face destabilisation. But the current focus on Syria does fit the blueprint for reshaping Israel's "strategic environment" that was proposed by the "Clean Break" document. Richard Perle, a Pentagon adviser and one of the leading proponents of war with Iraq, was the main author of the document, which set out advice for the incoming Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu.

A key passage said: "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening,containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions."

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Sunday, 14 April 2013