Iraq war diary: 5 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 the day the US celebrated the capture of Saddam International Airport by renaming it Baghdad International Airport, Saddam Hussein popped up on television to steal the show.

The allegedly dead Iraqi leader appeared twice, first with a speech to rally the people of Baghdad to the defence of their capital, and later in an astonishingly relaxed walkabout where he was greeted by cheers and kisses from citizens.

The propaganda message behind this, for any Iraqis who might be tempted to switch their allegiance, was that Saddam is still in charge.

There is little doubt that the man who delivered the TV speech in a distinctly rasping voice was indeed Saddam Hussein. Even if it was pre-recorded, it referred to the downing of an American Apache helicopter that occurred on March 23. This at least establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Saddam survived the impromptu $40m assassination attempt that opened the war.

The identity of the figure in the Baghdad walkabout is less certain. Use of a hand-held camera, together with the constant movement of the crowd, made it difficult to get a steady view of his face. The 12-minute film was certainly quite recent, since smoke from oil fires could be seen at times in the background and there were shots of minor bomb damage.

Some Iraqis say the man's body language, and even the shape of his paunch, were very distinctive – and if Iraqis are convinced by the authenticity of the film it will have served its political purpose.

This morning, up to eight US Abrams tanks are reported to have entered the southern outskirts of Baghdad on a reconnaissance mission. This is said to be the furthest they have yet ventured into the city.

Looking ahead to possible events over the next few days, an article in Slate magazine describes seven US battle options for Baghdad, apparently based on a secret study by the Pentagon. In typical military jargon, these options are named as "Isolation Siege", "Remote Strike (Rubbising)", "Ground Assault, Frontal", "Nodal Isolation", "Nodal Capture", "Segment and Capture" and "Softpoint Capture and Expansion".

The article explains what each of them means, although it does not indicate which of them the Pentagon prefers.

Also this morning, the US says it has captured the headquarters of the Republican Guard's important Medina division in Suwayrah, about 35 miles south east of Baghdad. First reports suggest that American forces were unopposed because the Iraqis had abandoned their posts.

In other developments overnight, the US says two marine pilots died when their Super Cobra attack helicopter crashed in central Iraq; and an American soldier, Sergeant Hasan Akbar, has been charged with the murder of two officers and 17 attempted murders in connection with the grenade attack at a US army camp in Kuwait on March 25.

A reporter for ABC News says seven civilians, including three children, died when US marines fired at two lorries that refused to stop at a checkpoint south of Baghdad.

It was announced yesterday that President George Bush and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, are to hold another of their "war summits" on Monday and Tuesday – this time in northern Ireland.

During the last 24 hours there has been some excited media coverage relating to Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, although there is no confirmation so far that any have been found by the invading forces.

At a press conference yesterday, the Iraq information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, speaking in Arabic, threatened "non-traditional action" at Baghdad airport and said it would take place overnight (though it appears not to have happened).

First reports translated the phrase as "non-conventional" – implying an intention to use weapons of mass destruction. The minister made clear this was not what he had in mind. Later reports amended the translation to "unconventional". Yesterday, US forces reportedly discovered quantities of "white powder" and "clear liquid". The subliminal message here was that the powder might be anthrax, although preliminary tests suggest it was some kind of explosive, according to the US.

Another report mentioned the discovery of cyanide in river water, but a simple internet search shows that cyanide compounds are often found in industrial waste water. There is also cyanide in various foods, such as almonds, and in cigarette smoke.

Five people, including three American special forces troops, died yesterday when a car blew up at a checkpoint in central Iraq. The assumption is that it was another suicide attack (the second since the invasion began), but doubts were raised when Centcom said a pregnant woman – who was among those killed – stepped out of the car "screaming in fear" just before the explosion.

There are also doubts about the earlier "suicide" bombing on March 29. Western intelligence sources now say the driver of the taxi involved may have had no idea he was carrying a bomb. Forensic evidence indicates the blast could have been triggered by remote control, they say.

As with so many events in this war, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know which version is true.

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Friday, 5 April 2013