Iraq war diary: 10 April, 2003

To mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, I am re-posting diary entries that I wrote at the time for the Guardian's website...


Someone produced a sledgehammer, and Iraqis took it in turns to hack at the base of the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.


They were making reasonable progress, and might well have toppled it after a few hours, but that would have been too late for primetime TV. The Americans were getting impatient, and their armoured vehicle lumbered up the podium steps with the elegance of a sexually aroused hippopotamus.

Removing this visible sign of a quarter-century of dictatorship from Baghdad yesterday was a highly symbolic act, but so was the manner of its removal: a metaphor for the ongoing debate about who will really be in charge of the new political order.

When it came to toppling Saddam's statue, the Iraqis were soon elbowed out of the way.

US armoured vehicles are like Swiss army knives, fitted with gadgets that are useful in all kinds of predicaments, so long as you can find the right one in a hurry. This particular armoured vehicle had a device that seemed tailor-made for removing colossal statues of deposed presidents.

A jib with a hook and chain on the end slowly extended up to Saddam's chest. A soldier climbed up the jib, hooked the chain around Saddam's neck, and produced a US flag, which he draped over the Iraqi leader's head.

There was some applause from the Iraqi crowd, but an Iraqi commentator on the BBC was aghast, and you could almost hear the shouts from Centcom's PR department in Qatar: "Get that flag down, now!"

This was exactly the sort of triumphalism that had caused so much trouble when troops hoisted the stars and stripes over Umm Qasr in the early days of the war: completely off-message. It's supposed to be a war of liberation, not of conquest.

The US flag duly came down and an Iraqi flag appeared, miraculously, from the crowd. A soldier draped it, rather grudgingly, around Saddam's neck, and then that, too, was removed.

Finally, the crowd was ushered back, the armoured vehicle slowly reversed and the chain tightened. With more grace than he ever displayed in power, Saddam Hussein made his final bow.

In Britain, we call this sort of thing criminal damage, and you can get three months in jail for it, as 37-year-old Paul Kelleher discovered recently when he beheaded a marble effigy of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Poor Mr Kelleher: wrong time, wrong place, wrong statue.

There are no statues of Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq just yet, but it is probably only a matter of time. With attention focused on Baghdad, the controversial would-be prime minister has been up to more mischief in Nassiriya, where the Pentagon hawks helped him to set up a base last weekend.

Mr Chalabi plans to convene a meeting of Iraqi opposition figures in Nassiriya on Saturday, viewed by the US state department as an attempt to organise his own "coronation".

Yesterday, state department officials moved quickly to undermine Mr Chalabi's efforts by saying that a joint meeting of "liberated Iraqis" and opposition members from outside Iraq will be held soon, although the date and location have yet to be set. "It will be our meeting and our guest list, not Chalabi's," a Bush administration official said.

Britain has also pre-empted Mr Chalabi (and perhaps the Pentagon, too) by appointing an unnamed tribal sheikh to run Basra province. Sketchy information about this was given by Colonel Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British forces, at a press briefing on Tuesday.

One journalist at the briefing asked how the sheikh was chosen: was he simply the first Iraqi to volunteer? Yes, said Colonel Vernon, although the British had been aware of his name beforehand.

The sheikh had been given the job after a two-hour interview with a divisional commander, and was "very pleased" with the arrangements proposed by the British. An Arab journalist then suggested that the sheikh, as a tribal leader, was likely to promote members of his own tribe to key posts.

Colonel Vernon seemed surprised by this, and agreed that Britain would have to keep an eye on the situation.

An article in the New York Times quotes a doctor at Basra General Hospital as saying: "All the sheikhs in Basra were friends with Saddam ... All the time, Saddam gave money to them, and they watched as he would cut someone's ear who did not join the military, or cut off someone's tongue who spoke out against the military."

The doctor added that he did not know which sheikh the British had in mind, but said that it didn't really matter. "All the sheikhs and tribal leaders are bad," he said.

Fighting broke out in Baghdad again this morning. Some of it centred on a mosque, where Saddam was rumoured to be hiding. Loud blasts were also reported from the city's outskirts, although their cause was not known. In the north, B-52 bombers were reportedly pounding an Iraqi army division near Kirkuk.

The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, again threatened to escalate the Middle East conflict last night when he accused Iraq's neighbour, Syria, of helping senior members of the Baghdad regime to escape. The US was getting "scraps of evidence" to this effect, Mr Rumsfeld added.

He said there was also evidence that Syrians (referred to by the Pentagon as "jihadists") were moving into Iraq with approval from the Syrian government.

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Wednesday, 10 April 2013