The day the stooges bit back

Iraqis win showdown over new President, but Baghdad is rocked by explosions

By Justin Huggler in Baghdad

02 June 2004


It was supposed to be the day the light would appear at the end of the tunnel for the Americans in the occupation of Iraq.

But, even as an interim government that will assume sovereignty at the end of the month was finally named, there were stark signs of the terrible difficulties ahead.

Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, was left humiliated as his favoured candidate, Adnan al-Pachachi, rejected his invitation to become Iraq's first president since Saddam Hussein, forcing the US to install the man it had tried hard to avoid, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar.

As the political horse-trading was underway, insurgents delivered their own verdict, with a car bomb killing 25 people at the headquarters of a Kurdish party in Baghdad. No sooner had that exploded, than a mortar landed inside the US headquarters in the capital, the so-called Green Zone, sending a huge cloud of black smoke over the city. And, north of the city, 11 more were to die in yet another car bomb.

Aside from the worsening security situation, a tour of the city underlines the magnitude of the tasks facing Iyad Allawi, the Prime Minister-elect, when he takes over on 30 June.

Baghdad's streets are strewn with rubbish; geysers of sewage erupt in the wealthiest parts of town and, at times, you can find yourself driving in a three-inch pool of raw sewage. There are few enough signs of reconstruction, despite the $18bn (nearly £10bn) President George Bush has pledged.

Unemployment is rampant; there is a chronic lack of medicine; and the electricity shortages in Baghdad are as bad now as they were a year ago.

It was the day the "stooges" rebelled: first with the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council insisting their man got the presidency and, second, with the new interim government saying they wanted real power in their own country.

Mr Yawar, who has been openly critical about the failures of the US occupation, issued a thinly veiled call for the interim government to be given true control, rather than just to give cover to US plans to keep troops in the country.

He called on the United Nations for help in "bringing full sovereignty back to Iraq" - a reference to the dispute at the Security Council over American plans to refuse the interim government any control over the 138,000 US troops who will remain in Iraq after 30 June.

Mr Yawar was immediately echoed by Mr Allawi, even though he is more to the Americans' liking, with his CIA links. He said he had asked Hoshyar Zebari, the Foreign Minister, to go to New York to ensure Iraq gets the sovereignty it demands.

But the country they will supposedly inherit when the US formally hands over sovereignty after more than 14 months in charge is lawless. Wealthy Iraqis have been kidnapped at gunpoint in broad daylight on the streets of Baghdad.

Iraqis are held for ransom but, for a Westerner, kidnapping can mean sharing the fate of the American civilian contractor, Nick Berg, who was beheaded with a knife in front of a video camera last month.

Little wonder, then, that Westerners are so afraid to be seen that they have taken to growing beards and wearing Arab headdresses.

On the main highway from Baghdad to Amman, once the main land route into the country, kidnappers erect roadblocks. The main highway south from Baghdad - the only road to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala - runs through the Sunni town of Mahmudiya, where insurgents hunt Westerners, targeting them for drive-by shootings.

Iraqis who work with Westerners have been targeted throughout the country, with one insurgent group in Basra warning that they will treat any Iraqi who works for a foreigner as if they were part of the occupation forces.

Mr Allawi said yesterday that one of his government's priorities would be sewage. At Iraq's main children's hospital - which you would expect to be at the top of anyone's priority list for reconstruction - children are dying because basic repairs have not been made.

The leukemia ward still loses children every week. The toilets are in such disrepair that they frequently overflow into the ward, spreading infection.

There is still a shortage of medicines so acute that seriously ill patients must send out relatives to buy them medicine on the black market - if they can afford it but many cannot.

Power is still available in Baghdad, a city of five million, for only 12 hours out of 24, usually in brief spurts of three or four hours. This is in a city where summer temperatures regularly rise above 40C, and people depend on air conditioning.

So bad is the electricity situation that when the new Electricity Minister was named at yesterday's ceremony, there were jokes and an ironic round of applause. It must have felt uncomfortable for Mr Bremer, who was sitting in the small audience.

The man before him making his inaugural speech as President was not Mr Bremer's choice. Just two days before, he had threatened the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council that if they dared vote for Mr Yawar, he would ignore their decision.

But his attempt to force through his preferred candidate, Adnan al-Pachachi, fell spectacularly flat. Mr Bremer named Mr Pachachi as President yesterday, but within minutes Mr Pachachi turned the job down, leaving the way clear for Mr Yawar. Ironically, only days before Mr Bremer had tried to persuade Mr Yawar to turn down the job so Mr Pachachi would be unopposed.

So elated were the members of Mr Yawar's tribe in Mosul at his selection yesterday that American forces had to ask them to stop firing in the air in celebration for fear the situation might get out of control.

What remains to be seen is whether he and Mr Allawi, in the more powerful role of Prime Minister, will be allowed any real say in running Iraq by the Americans. If they are, they will have their work cut out.