Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

U.S. Army soldiers in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces damaged after a bombing, in Baghdad on April 7. - JOHN MOORE/AP

U.S. Army soldiers in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces damaged after a bombing, in Baghdad on April 7. - JOHN MOORE/AP

At the end of three weeks of a brutal campaign of decimation, the Anglo-American invaders are at the gates of Baghdad. But Iraq remains the winner on another front - of world opinion.

IF Basra was the pattern for the invasion of Iraq, military analysts were willing to bet, it would be a long haul before the key prize of Baghdad was attained. Pouring into Iraq on March 20, forces of the United States and the United Kingdom reached the outskirts of Basra within two days. The city was then left under the siege of U.K. forces, while the senior partners in the invasion pushed ahead. But there was little sign that the city, designated to fall within two days in the rosy prognoses of the U.S. war lobby, was inclined to yield. And as U.K. invasion forces dawdled aimlessly around Basra for two weeks, occasionally foraying inside in what were described as "toehold" operations, conspicuous trophies of conquest remained elusive. Gains were proclaimed virtually on a daily basis, only to be quickly disavowed.

These appearances were deceptive. Just when commanders on the ground were beginning to make the case for an "operational pause", U.S. forces began a more aggressive thrust. Day 16 of the assault saw Baghdad's main airport falling to the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry. Day 17 brought an incursion of heavy armour into Baghdad, a "poke in the eye" as the war cabal termed it. It was a symbolic gesture in the military strategists' perception, though its toll in Iraqi lives was enormous.

Day 19 then brought a full-scale assault on the Iraqi capital. Within two hours of sending massive columns of armour and infantry into the city, U.S. force commanders were claiming that they had seized two of the main presidential palaces in Baghdad, apart from several key ministry buildings. Resistance was sporadic but fierce. Mortar, machine guns and small arms, though, were no match for the heavy thrust of U.S. armour, supported at close quarters by lethal airborne weaponry.

Five hours into the Baghdad raid, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Saeed Al-Sahhaf appeared live on international broadcasts, unflappable even with the deafening crescendo of battle all around. Despite his evident ire at the tone of the media coverage, he apologised without a hint of irony, for the "bother" that the bullets and heavy artillery hurtling around Baghdad had caused. As "guests" of the Iraqi government, media personnel in Baghdad deserved apology for the temporary inconvenience. But they should have little doubt, said Al-Sahhaf, that the "mercenaries" at the gates of Baghdad had been drawn into a deadly trap. Baghdad was fortified and strong. And the Iraqi forces were fighting a gallant battle. It was only the naivete of the media that fostered the impression of a city under lethal assault.

Quite the public face of the Iraqi government since the invasion began, Al-Sahhaf had without evident signs of stress, put up a magnificent show of courage under fire. His live appearances on worldwide television while his city was literally being ripped apart by invaders, was perhaps a heroic last stand on the second front of this war: the terrain of global public opinion. Feeble minds, prone to the logic of militarism, have been swayed by the rapid pace of the invader advance through Iraq. But the U.S. and the U.K. still face a long and hard slog in winning the war on the second front.

The first fortnight's pretence that invasion plans had gone awry - and the attendant talk of a pause in operations - may have been an elaborate subterfuge. It could equally have been an authentic expression of the difficulties of taking over a country - with minimal civilian casualties - when the promised uprising in support of the invasion had disastrously failed to materialise. A sledgehammer approach was conceivably a fall-back strategy - one guaranteed to succeed, given the vast discrepancy in firepower between the two sides. It is conceivable, though, that the more cautious military brass in the Pentagon - who are designated to take up the task of administering a resentful population in an occupied territory for the indefinite future - baulked at this prospect. Slash-and-burn warfare could have brought them the strategic prize of Baghdad within a time-frame politically convenient for U.S. President Bush's re-election campaign. But the gross insensitivity to human life that it expressed would only complicate the purported mission of the war.

There was evidently a serious war of attrition within the Pentagon over responsibility for the initial war plans, especially when they were seen to founder. But as the blame-game began to acquire serious proportions, the natural instincts of frontier justice prevailed - that all sense of doubt is to be submerged in a massive show of firepower against the adversary. And as the tanks rolled into Baghdad, and a sense of triumphalism suffused the air, it was quite easily forgotten that the ostensible purpose of the war, repeated endlessly by the Bush-Blair axis, was to usher in a post-bellum regime that could hold the peace in Iraq and make the country safe for democracy.

The wobble in the U.S. war plans punctuated two different phases in the war. Sundered from their early acquiescence in the war plans by the resistance of Iraqi forces, the public in the U.S. and the U.K. shifted to a distinctly more upbeat mood when U.S. forces charged into Baghdad to take control of its abandoned airport. What the public did not know, thanks to a media that deliberately decided to obscure all the bad news, is that the path to Baghdad was littered with corpses in the tens of thousands. "Weapons of mass destruction" is what the invasion of Iraq is all about. If Iraq is held guilty of possessing these illicit weapons, there is abundant irony in the fact that the Iraqi resistance to an invading army was broken down by the liberal application of the most lethal bombs that exist anywhere in the world today, outside the nuclear arsenal of the so-called "nuclear capable states".

Over the first week of the invasion, there was much talk of "precision bombing" aimed at military installations. By the second week, the celebration of destructive accuracy had faded away. There was just a generalised celebration of destruction, accuracy apart. Translated from war-speak, this meant that the Iraqi Republican Guard, which had been hyped by the Western media as a lethal fighting force, had been targeted with the most destructive weaponry available, though without explicit mention in the public discourse. Short of a nuclear attack, Iraq had suffered the most destructive and barbaric assault possible. Just before the U.S. forces poured into the outskirts of Baghdad, there were confident predictions from the U.S. Central Command headquarters that the Palestine, Baghdad and Hammurabi divisions of the Iraqi Republican Guard had been "destroyed". What that term meant in terms of warfare doctrine was never specified. But it is clear that the U.S. dropped its lethal "Daisycutter" - a bomb with two tonnes of explosive impact - on these divisions, in numbers that are yet to be accounted.

The "Daisycutter" is no ordinary bomb that explodes on impact. Far from that. It diffuses an aerosol spray as it descends and detonates just a few hundred feet over ground level, setting aflame an entire square mile of territory. The impact has been described rather dispassionately by military analysts as follows: "Those not incinerated are injured by the massive blast or the vacuum. Typical injuries include concussion, blindness, rupture of the eardrums, seared air passages and collapsed lungs, multiple internal haemmorhages, displaced and torn internal organs." When asked about the "Daisycutter" during the operations in Afghanistan, General Peter Pace, Vice-Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee - the second-ranking military official in the Pentagon - made little secret of its lethal impact. After a meticulous description of the manner in which it worked, he summarised its intent with admirable succinctness: "The idea is to kill people."

On Day 16 of the invasion, stories of an imminent demise of the Iraqi regime were rampant, with the Baghdad airport under secure custody of the U.S. 3rd Infantry. Military spokesmen from the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha expressed surprise that their forces had encountered little resistance on the drive to Baghdad. The approaches to the city were ostensibly guarded by Iraq's best military formations. And yet they seemed to melt away as the armoured onslaught began from the U.S. forces. Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks, spokesman for U.S. CentCom, allowed for the possibility that they may have retreated into the city to prepare for a final stand. He would have had good reasons for disingenuousness, or perhaps he was not aware of General Peter Pace's characterisation of the intent behind dropping "Daisycutters" on suspected troop formations.

After 16 days of rapid advance through the desert, with a trail of death and destruction behind it, the immaculate army that was expected, by a miracle of technological prowess, to "liberate" the people of Iraq, arrived at the doorsteps of Baghdad. Whatever was left of the Iraqi forces had pulled back to secure the approaches to the city from the Saddam International Airport. As two battalions of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry sought to secure control of the airport, they were attacked by a number of Iraqi soldiers riding rather unconventional types of combat vehicles. Pickup trucks and dump trucks, with little protection against the lethal firepower of the 3rd Infantry, charged the U.S. armoured convoys, peppering them with small-arms fire and the occasional rocket-propelled grenade. As they were picked out with the heavy artillery and machine guns of the U.S. Army, the Iraqi forces suffered huge losses - estimated by U.S. Centcom at 300. There was little indication that the U.S. invaders, who had crossed the metaphorical "red line" the previous day, putting them in the direct range of Iraq's fabled "Weapons of Mass Destruction" capability, were at any risk of such attack.

Two days later, when U.S. armour made its first thrust into the environs of Baghdad city and then beat a hasty retreat, it succeeded in inflicting casualties that U.S. CentCom put in "the thousands". Precision of course was not necessary, since the lives being lost were for some reason of lesser value. As Baghdad airport fell, Al-Sahhaf appeared on worldwide television channels to promise a non-conventional attack on the forces gathered at the airport. Western ears pricked up - at long last there was the promise that the Iraqis would bring out the fabled weapons of mass destruction - unconventional weaponry - in defence of the last redoubt of the Saddam Hussein regime. At long last there was a likelihood that the invasion of Iraq would be given - retrospectively - the legitimacy that it lacked. It turned out that the unconventional weapon Iraq had in mind was no more than a video tape - of Saddam Hussein circulating in the Al Mansour area of Baghdad, not far from the artillery fire of U.S. forces gathered at the airport - to be received rapturously with slogans of undying loyalty from the few who managed to gather there.

By then of course, the immaculate war had turned ugly beyond belief. A market place in Baghdad was struck by a lethal missile during the hour when residents of that beleaguered city were most likely to be shopping for their daily essentials. The militarist cabal launched its investigations but simply failed to come up with a finding. Every reluctant query from a quiescent media was met with the promise that the investigation would soon uncover the truth. Even with a repeat performance in another Baghdad marketplace the following day - this time with greater loss of life - there was little new sense of urgency on the part of the Western military clique to account for its atrocities.

Veteran war reporter Robert Fisk - of The Independent in London - travelled to the site of the first outrage and found that there was clear evidence of U.S. culpability. It was a minor inconvenience, he reported, that the U.S. military insisted on stamping the manufacturer's code number and other identifying marks on every piece of lethal weaponry that it acquired. And the missile that had struck the marketplace in Baghdad bore the unmistakable markings of a U.S. manufacturer of "precision munitions". There was little consternation in the Western military cabal over the wanton killing of the people who were supposedly the beneficiaries of the war of liberation in Iraq. The evidence, said U.K. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, was inconclusive. Investigations were under way and the most likely explanation for Fisk's discovery was that he was duped by the Iraqi regime, which most probably planted the missile casing at the spot of the marketplace slaying. In fact, said Hoon, with an air of absolute certainty, he knew for a fact that the Iraqi regime was firing heavy artillery at its own people with the patent aim of discrediting the Western "war of liberation".

Hoon also managed concurrently to issue a spirited justification for the decision of the U.K. and the U.S. to use cluster bombs in the zone of warfare, even in areas of thick civilian population. The use of these munitions, he blandly informed the U.K. House of Commons, had not been outlawed under international conventions of warfare. And the alternative to their use would only be a more serious threat to the lives of U.K. armed forces personnel involved in Iraq. In a television interview later, Hoon was asked whether the mothers of the children who had been killed by cluster bombs - and those who could possibly die in future from the unexploded ordnance strewn by these devices across the Iraqi countryside - would feel likewise. If not now, then in future, he said, those bereaved mothers would have reason to thank the U.K. for its commitment to the liberation of Iraq.

Meanwhile, the people who were the putative beneficiaries of the war of liberation continued to suffer from arbitrary military attacks. A pickup truck careening down the road as stricken civilians sought to flee the devastation that war had brought to the southern city of Najaf was picked out with high-power cannon, killing 10 on board, all women and children. And a day after Baghdad airport was taken, the same scenario was played out against at a checkpoint south of the city.

THE pretext of the war, always known to be a lie, was proving even more forcefully so as the U.S. stood poised for a final assault on Baghdad. Iraq had been disarmed not merely of its WMD capability, but also of all legitimate instruments of self-defence. But the spirit of nationalism had not quite been destroyed. After the brutality of its war campaign and the gross insensitivity of its propaganda offensive, the U.S. was left facing the enormous challenge of winning the peace. In the south of Iraq, the U.S.-led war of aggression against Iraq has suffered from the conspicuous absence of the crowds that have not cheered. Like the dog that did not bark in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, the crowds that did not cheer in southern Iraq perhaps hold the best clue to understanding how the invasion of Iraq is going to turn out. On Day 6 of hostilities, British force commanders in the Basra theatre reported that they had some evidence to suggest a popular uprising in the city. Loyalist forces of the Iraqi regime, said the British commanding officer, were believed to be attacking restive crowds with artillery, mortar and small arms. British forces for their part had put their heavy guns into action in support of the uprising. Addressing the House of Commons, Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "Truthfully, the reports are confused, but we believe there was some limited form of uprising. It is important that we give support to those people in Iraq who are rising up to overthrow Saddam and his deeply repressive regime."

Truthful only in his confusion, thoroughly mendacious in all his convictions - that about sums up Blair's public persona since the war preparations against Iraq began over a year back. Blair's all-too-frequent recourse to falsehoods is most evident when he is in the company of his patron, U.S. President George Bush. Though a man of considerably lesser intellect and expressive power, Bush subsists on a well-masticated stream of formulaic utterances that have been rehearsed over the months. With a relatively friendly media, an uncritical public and a loyalist political legislature, he sees no need to embellish the bare outlines of his case against the Iraqi regime on every public occasion. The same cannot be said of Blair, who feels compelled to embroider every incident - whether on the battlefield or otherwise - with his own twisted morality. At his joint press conference after the recent Camp David summit with Bush, he was at his inventive best. "Day by day," he said, "we have seen the reality of Saddam's regime - his thugs prepared to kill their own people; the parading of prisoners of war; and now, the release of those pictures of executed British soldiers. If anyone needed any further evidence of the depravity of Saddam's regime, this atrocity provides it. It is yet one more flagrant breach of all the proper conventions of war. More than that, to the families of the soldiers involved, it is an act of cruelty beyond comprehension. Indeed, it is beyond the comprehension of anyone with an ounce of humanity in their souls."

It is one matter that most neutral experts who have watched this war have been outraged by the U.S. and U.K. forces' military conduct. It is quite another matter that Blair's ill-considered vituperation has elicited instant outrage even within his domestic constituencies. His lie on the execution of British soldiers drew an instant rebuttal not from the Iraqi military whose voice, for evident reasons, is unheard when the entire people of that country have been dehumanised beyond recognition in this conjuncture of revived imperialism - but from the near relatives of the dead British soldiers.

The sister of one of the British soldiers killed in Az-Zubayr, 25 km from Basra, denounced Blair's claims as outright "lies". "We cannot understand why people are lying about what happened," said the sister of Sapper Luke Allsopp. "It must be a mistake." Blair's spin masters in 10 Downing Street put out a qualified disclaimer shortly afterwards. But the extraordinary public outburst by the dead soldier's family, coming so soon after the father of one of the first U.S. casualties denounced Bush for sending his only son to war without adequate reason, underlines how fragile the public consensus is in these countries.

As the Anglo-American axis moves beyond the destruction of a country and a society towards an attempt to reconstruct Iraq in its own image, this domestic consensus is likely only to be further jeopardised.

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