Iraq: Escalating guerrilla attacks feed fears of new Vietnam

As a helicopter crash pushes the American military toll over 400, Phil Reeves discovers how promises of peace, prosperity and self-rule have given way to chaos, terror and insurrection
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The Independent Online

The blast hit the car with a stunning thud. All around us vehicles skidded to a halt as a turret of dust and smoke uncoiled high into the air and across the highway.

We were only 35 yards away when the bomb exploded, spraying out from the central reservation into the fast lane. My driver, Mohammed, let out a shout of surprise and slammed on the brakes. We were seconds from disaster.

A few heart thumps later, the target of the remotely detonated roadside mine sped past - a Humvee from the US military police, escorting a convoy of lorries travelling into Baghdad from Kuwait. This time the Americans were lucky. So were the other Iraqi motorists around them. And so were we.

Coming under attack in the early afternoon of a clear day while travelling a motorway that runs across the landscape from Fallujah to Baghdad is like being shelled while driving down the M4 from London to Bristol. Although dotted with the occasional factory plant and depot, the place is flat and open. It is not the sort of territory one immediately associates with the setting for a chronic guerrilla war.

Yet that is what it has become. Such attacks are a daily event: not far away another American convoy was not so fortunate yesterday. A roadside bomb exploded next to a patrol in Baghdad's northern Azamiyah neighbourhood, killing a soldier and injuring two others. He was the 400th US soldier to die since the invasion and occupation; 12 more Americans died later when two Black Hawk helicopters collided and crashed into a residential area of Mosul, possibly causing further casualties on the ground.

We had been warned. Half an hour earlier, we had been sitting with a former colonel from Saddam Hussein's army, a man who - at the very least - sympathises with the guerrillas fighting the the US, but speaks like one who has ties with the Americans too. As in all wars, there are people who insist on anonymity when they pitch their views to the media. So we shall call him Mustafa.

Meeting us in Fallujah - the Sunni trucking town west of Baghdad that has become an epicentre of Iraqi attacks on US forces for the past six months - Mustafa had been in jovial mood. He guffawed when asked whether the number of insurgents resembled the estimates of US General John Abizaid, the overall commander of the Iraq operation. The general declared them to be around 5,000, and announced contemptuously that there was no force in Iraq that could beat the Americans.

"How does he know the number?" demanded Mustafa. "Has he counted them?" The figure, Mustafa claimed, was much higher, and embraced a spectrum of Iraqi people from secular nationalists, to Shias and Sunni Muslims and even Christians. And they would continue to fight until the occupation ended.

He again laughed derisively when asked about the American counter-attack, the so-called "Operation Iron Hammer" launched last week. "What difference does it make? If they arrest two [from the resistance], another 100 will take their place." And he laughed again when the discussion turned to the Iraqi Governing Council, which the US's chief administrator, Paul Bremer, met yesterday to discuss Washington's suddenly urgent desire to distance itself from the occupation by accelerating the handover of power to Iraqis by next June.

These were not Iraqis who were entitled to determine the nation's fate, but "collaborators", said the colonel. Its members were "outsiders" who were merely looking after their own interests and those of their foreign backers. Asking whether any one of the council could lead the country, perhaps as an interim president while a constitution is drawn up, was a risible idea. "Impossible, impossible, impossible," he said.

Mustafa's views are unsurprising given the colonel's curriculum vitae. Yet, as the animosities harden here on both sides, these opinions seem widely shared on the streets.

Khaled Abed Ali, a 58-year-old electricity company worker, says people "don't like the Americans or trust the governing council". He expects the resistance to grow. The same view was expressed by Mahadi Saleh al-Dulemi, an estate agent. And also by Abu Essa al-Dulemi, a money dealer. And, it seems reasonable to assume, by all those who scrawl the pro-Saddam graffiti on the walls and motorway bridges, which are regularly painted over, only to reappear again.

There was a time in the early stages of the occupation when the US sought to win the hearts and minds of such people. But these efforts seem to have evaporated in the mutual suspicion created by persistent low-level violence. That suspicion has taken concrete form in the miles of barriers and razor wire that separate the Americans from the outside world.

The same troops who once fraternised with the street children - and even briefly started eating in Baghdad restaurants - now move swiftly and uneasily through the city, praying that the next bomb won't detonate under their vehicle's wheels.