Into the abyss

The week Iraq's dream of peace fell apart

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

18 September 2004

Independent

Where freedom was promised, chaos and carnage now reign. A suicide bomber in a car blows himself up in the heart of Baghdad killing 13 people. Air raids by US near the city of Fallujah kill scores more. And so ends one of the bleakest weeks in Iraq's grim recent history.

Between them, suicide bombers targeting Iraqi police and US air strikes aimed at rebels have killed some 300 Iraqis since last Saturday - many of them were civilians. The escalating violence throws into doubt the elections planned for January and the ability of the US and interim Iraqi government to control the country.

The repeated suicide-bomb attacks and kidnappings in the centre of Baghdad are eroding whatever remaining optimism there might be about the success of the government of Iyad Allawi, the Prime Minister, in restoring order in an increasingly fragmented country.

Violence and abductions are ensuring that even tentative efforts at economic reconstruction have ground to a halt. Earlier in the week, the US diverted $3.4bn (£2bn) of funds intended for water and electricity projects to security and the oil industry. Many Iraqi businessmen and doctors have fled to Amman and Damascus because of fear of being taken hostage. The abduction of one British and two American contractors this week will make it very difficult for any foreigners to live in Baghdad outside fortified enclaves.

Yesterday, a car packed with explosives blew up near a row of police cars blocking off a bridge in the centre of the Baghdad. Police tried to get the bomber to stop but he drove on into the middle of the parked cars. "I saw human flesh and blood in the street, then I fled," said Mouayed Shehab.

There are big markets in this part of Baghdad on Friday including a famous book market in al-Muthanabi Street where booksellers cover the road with books they want to sell. A few hundred yards away, there are markets selling everything from spices to birds and guard dogs. Police fired shots into the air to force shoppers to flee.

The police had blocked the bridge over the Tigris as part of an attempt to seal off Haifa Street - a focal point of violence in recent days - on the western side of the river where US and Iraqi forces were involved in a search operation and gun battles had been fought earlier in the morning. Haifa Street, with its modern tower blocks and old alleys, is a notorious Sunni Muslim neighbourhood where US forces are frequently ambushed. It is also only a few hundred yards from the Green Zone, the headquarters of the US and Iraqi interim government.

The security forces arrested 63 suspects during their sweeps of Haifa Street including Syrians, Sudanese and Egyptians. They also claimed to have discovered caches of arms, though that does not necessarily mean very much in Iraq where almost all families own one or more guns.

Yet the horrors have spread way beyong the capital. Early yesterday, police found the body of a Westerner with blond hair which had been pulled from the Tigris river at Yethrib village, 40 miles north of Baghdad. He was tall, well built, had his hands tied behind his back and had been shot in the back of the head. The description does not match any of the Western hostages known to be held by kidnappers.

And, of course, Iraqis suffer. The US Air Force has stepped up its policy of trying to assault insurgents from the air while the army avoids ground attacks that could lead to heavy US casualties. In this case, the air strikes were against a compound in the village of Fazat Shnetir 12 miles south of Fallujah. The US military said they had attacked a meeting of militants loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi planning fresh attacks on US forces.

The residents of Fazat Shnetir were later seen digging mass graves to bury the bodies in groups of four. A health ministry spokesman, Saad al-Amili, said that 44 people were killed and 27 injured in the Fallujah attacks with 17 children and two women among the wounded. The floor of the Fallujah hospital was awash with blood. Relatives cried out with grief and called for vengeance.

The truth about who is being killed by the US air strikes is difficult to ascertain exactly because Islamic militants make it very dangerous for journalists to go to places recently attacked. Bodies are buried quickly and wounded insurgents do not generally go to public hospitals. But, where the casualties can be checked, many of those who die or are injured have proved to be innocent civilians.

The surge of violence in the past week is making it less likely there will be free elections in January as promised by George Bush. Elections themselves may not guarantee a way out of the quagmire. Should they not happen though, there are likely to be more weeks like these.

* The family of a British engineer, kidnapped by gunmen from his house in Baghdad two days ago, pleaded for his safe return last night. Kenneth Bigley, believed to be 62 and married with one child, was seized with two other US colleagues by militants during a dawn raid.

His family have been contacted by the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who explained to them what is being done "to resolve the situation".