Iraq war diary: 26 March, 2003

To mark the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Iraq war, I am re-posting diary entries that I wrote at the time for the Guardian's website. They are posted here day by day and the full collection can be found here

26 March 2003: 

After a series of setbacks, and with the advance on Baghdad delayed by sandstorms, the invasion forces were badly in need of some positive developments yesterday.

The first success of the day – which came just at the right moment for prime-time television news in the UK – was a claim by the British military that a "popular uprising" against Saddam Hussein's regime had broken out in Basra.

British forces then weighed in with artillery support for the rebelling Shia population and a 2,000-lb bomb was dropped on the Ba'ath party headquarters, according to reports. The British deputy commander, Major-General Peter Wall, hailed the uprising as "just the sort of encouraging indication we have been looking for".

At present, very little news is coming out of Basra from independent sources, so it is difficult to be sure what is really happening. Some British versions have been much more cautious, describing the uprising as "nascent", while al-Jazeera's reporter inside the city said there was no sign of any uprising at all.

Until now, Shia organisations in southern Iraq have been very wary of getting involved in the war. In 1991, the US encouraged them to rebel but then abandoned them to their fate at the hands of Saddam's merciless men.

The US 7th Cavalry also claimed success yesterday in a battle against Iraqi foot-soldiers near Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. News of this no-contest victory, in which two American tanks and an armoured troop carrier were damaged, came just at the right moment for prime-time TV in the United States. Between 150 and 500 Iraqis are believed to have died.

Two British soldiers were killed and two more critically injured when one Challenger tank opened fire on another in a "misdirected attack" on Monday, it was announced yesterday. It is the second time during this war that "friendly fire" has claimed British lives, and an investigation is under way.

Overnight, bombing continued in Baghdad, apparently aimed at Iraqi state television. Broadcasts were interrupted briefly but resumed with a weaker signal – presumably from a back-up transmitter.

In Nassiriya yesterday, US officers said they had found 3,000 chemical protection suits and large quantities of nerve gas antidote at a hospital which had been used as a base by Iraqi soldiers fighting the invasion. This is being interpreted as evidence that Iraq may be prepared to use chemical weapons.

However, the "antidote" – atropine – also has routine medical uses for treating heart patients and some respiratory conditions.

President George Bush formally asked Congress yesterday for almost $75bn (£48bn) to fund the war. He had delayed making the request until the invasion got under way, for fear of objections.

But far from balking at the cost, some congressmen seemed eager to provide more than he asked for. The figures suggest the US has budgeted for a war that will last one month.

The United Nations, meanwhile, announced that it will appeal for $1bn to save Iraq from a humanitarian disaster. Sixty per cent of Iraqis depend entirely on the UN's food rations and, according to the World Food Programme, only five weeks' supplies are left.

A subsidiary of Halliburton, vice-president Dick Cheney's old company, has been awarded a contract by the US army to put out fires and repair damaged infrastructure in the Iraqi oil industry. The value of the deal has not been officially disclosed, but is said to be in the region of $1bn.

Mr Cheney was chief executive of Halliburton until 2000 but gave up his stake in the company on becoming US vice-president. He reportedly still gets about $1m a year "compensation" from the company.

The British prime minister, Tony Blair, is due to meet President Bush in the US today. Apart from reviewing progress of the war, the two leaders are expected to discuss ways of patching up relations between the US and Europe once the war is over.

The UN security council has also scheduled an emergency meeting which is due to begin later today, possibly continuing until tomorrow. This is in response to calls from Arab and non-aligned countries for an end to the war and the withdrawal of US-led troops. It is unclear whether there will be any attempt to table a resolution to this effect – though such a move would almost certainly be vetoed by the US and Britain.

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Tuesday, 26 March 2013