Explosions, shortages, instability: In Baghdad, it's back to the future

By Phil Reeves in Baghdad and Kim Sengupta in Basra

19 November 2003


US jets pounding Iraqi positions. City-wide power cuts. And long, long petrol queues.

Yesterday was flashback time for Iraq's disgruntled, unstable and unsafe capital. As night fell the city was repeatedly rattled by the sounds of heavy explosions, part of what the US military said was its largest air bombardment in central Iraq since President George Bush declared an end to major combat in May.

The latest instalment of America's military offensive against the resistance, launched in the hope of stemming the rising body count among their soldiers, was not confined to Baghdad.

There were assaults in several other cities, including Baqubah, 30 miles to the north-east, where American jets and Apache helicopter gunships blasted abandoned buildings, walls and trees along a road where attacks have been so common that troops nicknamed it "RPG Alley" after the rocket-propelled grenades used by insurgents. Fighter planes dropped 500lb bombs and tanks fired their 120mm guns at suspected ambush sites, the US military said.

Once again there were huge queues of cars at Baghdad's petrol stations, some more than half a mile long. "This is just another part of our country's tragedy," said Ahmed, a grizzled former Iraqi army officer who is trying to make a living as a taxi driver. He had been waiting for an hour and was only half way along the line.

The shortages were caused by large-scale electricity black-outs in the capital, which have been going on for two days. The electricity issue matters. Iraqis blame the Americans for failing to provide them with security, particularly during the wild weeks of looting after the Americans and British arrived. But the power cuts were second on their list and are still a source of anger. "We cannot cook, there is no water and it is very cold without heating at night," said Leyla Najim, a librarian in central Baghdad. "The children cannot do their homework in the dark."

Such setbacks are corroding the American efforts to win over the support of the mainstream Iraqi public and to isolate the increasingly active Iraqi resistance, some of who operate under the nom de guerre of Mohammed's Army. This group is believed mainly to comprise a mixture of Saddam Hussein loyalists, members of the disbanded Iraqi army, Iraqis avenging humiliation or injury inflicted on them by the US military and an element of nationalists and Islamist militants.

Eager to link his invasion of Iraq to the 11 September attacks, President Bush has also included foreign al-Qa'ida fighters in his list of enemies fighting in Iraq. But Maj-Gen Charles Swannack, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, said yesterday that his forces were mostly fighting Iraqis from the former regime.

The Iraqi authorities said the power cuts were caused by breakages in high-tension power lines which feed electricity to Baghdad. The rumour mill preferred a different version, which only served to cast the occupying authorities in an even worse light. According to rumour, the power cuts were an attempt by the Americans to punish the city for supporting the armed resistance.

Hassan Fatah Pasha, an American-educated Iraqi who has returned to edit a new English language weekly paper, Iraq Today, said: "The fundamental problem in this country isn't that we have enemies. "The problem is we had friends ... people who were wanting us to succeed and we have been losing them with the mistakes that have been made, dragging out the political process and making Iraqis feel like second-class citizens in their own country."

While there is trouble in central and northern Iraq, Basra and its hinterland in the south of the country is in relative peace, with the beginnings of a civic society, and tolerance towards the British occupiers.

In the daily reports of conflict, the British have become the forgotten army. And news of the Americans unleashing their ferocious firepower on the cities is greeted with raised eyebrows. Washington, twice, asked for British soldiers, paratroopers to be sent to Baghdad, and twice has been refused.

One young British soldier said yesterday: " Look, we are not here to fight a war now, I thought that was finished. The Yanks are fighting a war again, but we should not go down that path. I am very, very sorry for the kids getting killed, but we don't have to get involved."