Monday 2 June 2003

The Troops Are Afraid To Go Out At Night

by Robert Fisk

click here to visit his website I was travelling into the Shia Muslim Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on Friday evening when three American soldiers jumped in front of my car. "Stop the car, stop the car!" one of them shouted, waving a pistol at the windscreen. I screamed at the driver to stop. He hadn't seen them step into the road. Nor had I. Two other soldiers approached from the rear, rifles pointed at our vehicle. I showed our identity passes and the officer, wearing a floppy camouflage hat, was polite but short. "You should have seen our checkpoint," he snapped, then added: "Have a good stay in Nasiriyah but don't go out after dark. It's not safe."

What he meant, I think, was that it wasn't safe for American soldiers after dark. Hours later, I went out in the streets of Nasiriyah for a chicken burger and the Iraqis who served me in a run-down cafe couldn't have been friendlier. There were the usual apologies for the dirt on the table and the lack of paper napkins, along with the usual grimy square on the wall where, just two months ago, a portrait of Saddam Hussein must have been hanging. So what was going on? The "liberators" were already entering the wilderness of occupation while our masters in London and Washington were still braying about victory and courage and - here I quote Tony Blair on the same day, addressing British troops 60 miles further south in Basra - of how they "went on to try to make something of the country you liberated".

Only a few hours earlier, one of Ahmed Chalabi's militiamen in Nasiriyah had shouted at me that the Americans there were "humiliating" the people, of how "they made a man crawl on all fours in front of his friends just because they didn't obey their orders". There would be a revolt if this went on, he warned.

Now I don't know if his story was true, and I have to say that every Shia I spoke to in Nasiriyah spoke warmly of the British soldiers further south, but something has already gone terribly wrong. Even the local museum guard who had earlier been travelling in my car had spoken of oil as the only reason for the war. "One hundred days of Saddam were better than a day of the Americans," he roared at me.

I don't think that's true - the Americans weren't slaughtering this man's fellow Shias by the tens of thousands as Saddam did 12 years ago - but it's a new "truth" that is being written here. Washington may hope that the charnel-house of corpses now being dug out of the desert to the north will provide a posthumous new reason for the recent conflict. "Now the truth can be told... " But we knew that truth a long time ago, after George Bush Senior called on these same poor people to fight Saddam and then left them to be butchered.

"Saddam was a shame upon Iraq," one man told me as we stood beside more than 400 skulls and bones in a school hall near Hillah. "But America let them die."

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