Iraq war diary: 4 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...



Saddam international airport, 10 miles to the west of central Baghdad, appears to be mainly in American hands today, after a fierce battle in which 320 Iraqi soldiers died, according to the US military.

However, an early morning report by a BBC correspondent said the Iraqis remain in full control of the road leading from the airport into the city and seem to be piling reinforcements into the area. CNN said loudspeakers in Baghdad were urging citizens to go to the airport and help to defend it.

Control of the airport would provide a huge boost to the invasion forces, allowing them to fly in supplies and equipment almost to the spot where they will be needed. Its civilian runway – 13,000 feet long – is capable of taking the biggest military aircraft. A military runway at the side – 8,800 feet long – is suitable for use by fighter jets.

The state of the runways and the air traffic control system is unclear, and following the overnight battle they may need repairs before they can be used.

Large parts of the Iraqi capital were still without electricity this morning, following a blackout at 8pm Baghdad time last night.

The US says it did not "intentionally" cause the power failure but there is speculation that a "blackout bomb" may have been used. This special weapon, previously used in Kosovo, causes electrical short-circuits but is controversial because it affects civilians by cutting off vital hospital equipment as well as pumped water and sewage systems.

It is thought that special forces may have used the blackout to enter Baghdad, either to attack key points of the city or simply to reconnoitre.

There is still great uncertainty in the media about likely American and Iraqi tactics in the main battle for Baghdad. It is possible that the US has not yet decided but will choose from a number of options on the basis of the latest intelligence from inside the Iraqi capital. It may even adopt different methods in different parts of the city and adjust the tactics as it proceeds.

Because of the risk of heavy casualties during the next phase of the war, it would be surprising if secret contacts were not under way to explore the possibility of an Iraqi surrender.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, set out his bottom line for Iraq's surrender at a press conference yesterday when he rejected any deal that would allow Saddam Hussein to flee the country but invited the Iraqi army to do business with him. "For the senior leadership, there is no way out. Their fate has been sealed by their actions," he said.

But he added: "The same is not true for the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi officers and soldiers can still survive and help to rebuild a free Iraq if they do the right thing. They must now decide whether they want to share the fate of Saddam Hussein..."

So far, it has been widely assumed that the war will end with the fall of Saddam, but there are indications that it may not be as tidy as that. A thoughtful article in the Washington Post this morning discusses the question of how and when the US might declare itself victorious.

The paper quotes James Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, as saying: "There isn't going to be a single moment when we can say, 'Okay, good. This is done.' "

"Even if we got a formal surrender," he continued, "there would still be a lot of challenges going forward. So it's right to be modest about saying that you've 'won', just because certain phases of the battle are over."

One example of the difficulties that may be in store came yesterday from Nasiriya where a group of armed men attacked the main hospital after the departure of US marines who had been guarding it. Many patients fled, according to a BBC reporter on the spot.

Later, an Iraqi man was shot dead after reportedly refusing to hand over his vehicle to armed men. Looting and "civilian" violence is widespread in the town. Many citizens also seem terrified of talking to journalists.

Large-scale urban crime is quite rare in Arab societies and the events in Nasiriya may not be the result of normal criminal activity; there are hints that the trouble is caused by people connected to the Baathist regime.

Although the Iraqi military have largely been driven out of the areas "secured" by British and American forces, there is still the problem of the secret police and other Baathist agents who spy on the populace and apparently continue to intimidate them.

British forces stepped up their "hearts and minds" campaign yesterday with a soccer match in Khor al-Zubahir, near Basra, between the Royal Marines and an Iraqi team whose captain wore an Arsenal strip. The Iraqis won a resounding victory, by nine goals to three.

More controversially, a group of evangelical Christians are planning their own battle for hearts and minds in Iraq. The project, Samaritan's Purse, is funded by American churchgoers and will supposedly provide humanitarian aid to Iraqis without religious strings attached.

But it is led by the Reverend Franklin Graham, who delivered the invocation at President Bush's inauguration. Mr Graham once described Islam as a "wicked, violent" religion and said that Christianity and Islam were as "different as lightness and darkness".

Update: The US is investigating the possibility that a Hornet fighter jet apparently shot down by the Iraqis (Daily Briefing, April 3) could have been hit by "friendly fire" from a Patriot missile.


Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Thursday, 4 April 2013