Iraq war diary: 7 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...



US forces stormed into central Baghdad early today, taking over Saddam Hussein's newest presidential palace on the banks of Tigris river. Troops were also seen close to the information ministry and the Rashid Hotel.

An officer from the US Third Infantry Division told Fox News that troops had carried an American flag into the palace. "Saddam Hussein says he owns Baghdad. We own Baghdad. We own his palaces, we own downtown," the officer said.

However, military sources emphasised that they were not yet attempting to capture the city, saying that the operation was intended to be "a dramatic show of force" to demonstrate that US troops could enter Baghdad anywhere, at any time.

Nevertheless, this morning's incursion, with more than 70 tanks and 60 armoured vehicles, was by far the largest so far. It was also the first time that US forces have entered the city centre.

A number of Iraqi tanks positioned in the city are said to have been destroyed from the air. Iraqi resistance on the ground seems to have been relatively weak, although that does not necessarily mean that the number of Iraqi casualties was small.

Iraqi hospitals lost count of casualties during the three-hour US incursion on Saturday, but the number of dead is thought to be in the hundreds, and could possibly be more than 1,000.

In the south, British forces say that they have gained control of most of Basra, Iraq's second city, although "isolated pockets" of resistance are continuing.

The breakthrough followed the destruction of the Ba'ath party headquarters in the city, and a similar attack on Saturday on the headquarters of Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan Majid, known as Chemical Ali, who had been placed in charge of defending southern Iraq. This morning, British officials said that Chemical Ali had been killed.

In the worst case of "friendly fire" since the invasion began, a US warplane in northern Iraq yesterday attacked a Kurdish convoy travelling with US special forces. At least 18 people were killed, including Wajid Barzani, brother of the Kurdistan Democratic party's leader, and Kamaran Mohammed, a BBC translator.

John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor, survived with a piece of shrapnel in his flak jacket, and other members of the BBC team suffered minor injuries.

Despite all the Iraqi setbacks, information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf continues his bravura performances from behind a forest of microphones at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel.

Wearing his customary black beret, and with rimless spectacles perched on his nose, he gave some astonishingly detailed and authoritative-sounding accounts of Iraqi military successes yesterday, including the news that US forces at Baghdad airport have been butchered and driven out.

This morning, he was on exceptionally good form. "Their infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad," he said. "Be assured, Baghdad is safe, protected."

During the war, Mr al-Sahaf has emerged as the only truly entertaining character in the Iraqi regime. It is to be hoped that he survives, because he really ought to be given his own TV show somewhere.

He will be a hard act to follow, but James Woolsey, the man favoured by the Pentagon to take over the Iraqi information ministry, is already shaping up to the job, despite objections from the White House.

Mr Woolsey, a former CIA director, spoke at a university teach-in in Los Angeles last week, where he said that the US is now engaged in world war four, and that it could continue for years. World war three, in case anyone missed it, was the cold war with the Soviet Union, he said.

"This fourth world war, I think, will last considerably longer than either world wars one or two did for us," said Mr Woolsey, adding: "Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the cold war."

"As we move toward a new Middle East, over the years and, I think, over the decades to come ... we will make a lot of people very nervous. Our response should be 'Good!' "

Addressing the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and the leaders of Saudi Arabia, he said, "We want you nervous. We want you to realise now, for the fourth time in 100 years, this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you – the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family – most fear: we're on the side of your own people."

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy US defence secretary and a leading hawk, waded into arguments about the post-Saddam rule of Iraq yesterday when he suggested that the new Pentagon-controlled regime would last for more than six months. Officially, it is supposed to last for no more than 90 days.

Mr Wolfowitz also cast doubt on the likelihood of significant UN involvement in the transition. This issue is almost certain to be raised by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, when he meets President Bush in northern Ireland later today.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial head of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, disappeared from the Kurdish area of northern Iraq over the weekend. He is reported to have been flown by, the US, to Nassiriya, in the south.

According to Mr Chalabi, hundreds of "soldiers" from the Iraqi National Congress have now joined the campaign to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and will fight alongside coalition forces in southern and central Iraq.

"We are proud to contribute our forces to Operation Iraqi Freedom. The war of national liberation, which Iraqis have waged for 30 years, is nearing its end," he said.

This is rather less grand than it sounds. Mr Chalabi's men are actually under US control and belong to the Free Iraqi Forces, a group of up to 3,000 volunteers who are mainly Iraqi exiles or Americans of Iraqi origin. They have been trained by the US for liaison with Iraqi civilians and aid organisations rather than fighting, although they have also learned to use small arms for self-defence.
Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Sundday, 7 April 2013