The killing of six British soldiers and the wounding of eight yesterday shows that the war in Iraq never really ended with the capture of Baghdad and the flight of Saddam Hussein. It also demonstrates that, when the British and Americans invaded Iraq, they entered one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
"Remember even Saddam Hussein found this a difficult place to rule," said an Iraqi neurosurgeon yesterday. He had spent the past four months removing bullets and other munitions from the heads of many Iraqis, 90 per cent of them civilians, who have become casualties of the war and its aftermath.
Iraqis still say they are astonished at the ease with which the US and Britain won the war militarily but have been unable to turn this into a political victory. Iraq, even after the stunningly rapid defeat of its armed forces, was never like Germany or Japan in 1945 because its people had never identified with the regime that was overthrown. Instead, they blame the outside world for supporting Saddam Hussein, tacitly or openly, for so long.
In theory, the US and British armies should be in total control of Iraq, yet they remain curiously isolated within the country. L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority - as the occupation administration is known - issues confident assertions that the final remnants of Saddam's supporters are being hunted down and life is returning to normal.
But yesterday in Baghdad there was still no electricity in much of the city.
Sitting outside his office in Sadoun Street in the centre of Baghdad - he said it was too hot to sit inside - Abdul Wahab al-Hashimi, a businessman, laughed contemptuously when told of Mr Bremer's claim. He said: "My company owns a lot of property in Baghdad but we haven't collected any rents because we have nowhere to put the money and we would be immediately robbed if we kept it in the office."
In the months before the war, many Iraqis would say privately that they secretly hoped, with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, they might, for the first time since the start of the Iran-Iraq war, have a normal life without military conflict or sanctions. But life in most of Iraq is anything but normal 10 weeks after the capture of Baghdad. The state collapsed and the US has not succeeded in putting it back together again. Instead, it has added another layer of bureaucracy. In one mental asylum in the city patients did not eat for 24 hours last week because the appropriate American official could not be found whose signature was necessary to spend $600 (£360) on food.
Before the war, some 60 per cent of Iraqis were dependent on the UN's oil-for-food rations to fend off starvation. Today, the figure is higher, because the only big employer in Iraq was the government and that has collapsed spectacularly.
There was some belated recognition of that earlier this week when Mr Bremer decided to pay the 350,000-strong Iraqi army which he had disbanded soon after taking over.
It should have been much easier. Adnan Pachachi, the 80-year-old former Iraqi foreign minister who is expected to play a central role in any credible Iraqi transitional administration, recalled how much more effectively the rebels who overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 had behaved and resumed normal life. He said: "First they declared a curfew for only one day. Then, all government officials were told to return to work. Later some of them were purged but the work of government continued."
Instead, the US seems to have seen the looting at the end of the war as a commendable outbreak of popular fury against the regime.
"If they had shot a few of them at the beginning it would have stopped," remarked one Iraqi doctor yesterday. "Instead, I saw American soldiers standing by, taking photographs, cheering them on."
Iraq is a deeply divided country. Saddam Hussein held it down by brute force. But even under his rule there were compromises with local forces. For instance, in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, the scene of many attacks on US troops, there was an open arms market during the 1990s, which was allowed to continue by the Iraqi leader so long as local people did not act against the government.
Al-Amarah, where the British soldiers were killed or wounded yesterday, has always had a reputation for violence, even among Iraqis. An impoverished Shia city and province, it has always been the haunt of smugglers and bandits.
Some of the most ferocious battles of the Iran-Iraq war were fought just to the east of Al-Amarah and Saddam drained the marshes just to the south because his army was unable to penetrate the swamps to root out guerrillas.
The attacks yesterday were very different from the hit-and-run resistance seen over the past 10 weeks. Almost all the previous attacks have been in the central belt of Iraq inhabited by Sunni Muslims while Al-Amarah is deep into Shia southern Iraq. The Shia Muslims, long oppressed by Saddam's Sunni regime, were delighted to see it overthrown whatever their doubts about the US and British occupation.
However, it is important not to exaggerate the extent of the resistance so far.
It has been centred in towns such as Fallujah, where US troops killed 18 protesters soon after occupying it. There have been sporadic attacks in other Sunni towns along the Tigris and Euphrates north of the capital. In Baghdad itself there have been isolated shootings with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers but no car bombs or co-ordinated ambushes by guerrilla units.
The US has responded with a series of operations, such as Desert Scorpion, which, despite their melodramatic names really involved searching villages, making arrests and confiscating weapons.
The fact sheets handed out by the army press office in Baghdad proudly list the number of weapons captured but Iraqi farmers have always had weapons, including rocket launchers, and, after the looting of Iraqi army arsenals at the end of the war, the country is brimming with weapons.
Saddam does not appear to have been able to put together a co-ordinated guerrilla campaign using his network of security forces and Baathists, although there is evidence that money and arms are still coming from senior members of the old regime.
But his senior lieutenants were used to living well in palatial villas and are not the men to lead the life of a hunted resistance leader.
The old regime also has many enemies even around Tikrit, the city near Saddam's birthplace. In al-Ouja, his home village, Sheikh Ahmad Ghazi, the leader of the Albu Nasir tribe, to which the Iraqi leader belonged, stressed that many members of the tribe had suffered imprisonment and death under Saddam.
But while the US is not facing guerrilla warfare as in Vietnam or even Northern Ireland, it often behaves as if it is. This may, in time, provoke the very type of resistance which it believes it is trying to overcome. Ten days ago, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a vehicle carrying US troops near the town of Balad. The troops killed three farmers who were trying to put out a fire started by an American flare in one of their fields.
Even the capture or death of Saddam would not necessarily bring an end to these attacks. That is because occupation has brought no benefits to Iraqis apart from the end of the old regime.
The US and British armies do not, as yet, face very powerful enemies in Iraq but they have very few friends.
The scenario according to Washington
February 2002: Kenneth Adelman, a former Pentagon aide, US envoy to the United Nations and arms-control negotiator, wrote in The Washington Post: "I believe demolishing [President Saddam] Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk. Let me give simple, responsible reasons: one, it was a cakewalk last time; two, they've become much weaker; (3) we've become much stronger, and four, now we're playing for keeps."
12 June 2003: Paul Bremer, the US special envoy to Iraq, told the Pentagon there were "isolated attacks against our soldiers", adding: "We are clearly on the lookout to see if this evolves into a more organised ... centrally directed resistance."
17 June: Mr Bremer: "The people who are attacking the coalition and trying to upset security here are attacking [the United States], but in the end they're really attacking the Iraqi people."
18 June: Major-General Ray Odierno, commander of the US 4th Infantry Division: "I will never downplay Americans being killed in combat. It is a very significant sacrifice, especially for their families. But from a military perspective, it is insignificant. The [attacks are] having no impact on the way we conduct business on a day-to-day basis in Iraq."
18 June: Donald Rumsfeld, US Defence Secretary: "In those regions where pockets of dead-enders are trying to reconstitute, General [Tommy] Franks [the commander in Iraq] and his team are rooting them out. In short, the coalition is making good progress."
22 June: President Bush, in his weekly radio address to the nation after growing questions about the increase in casualties casualties after Americans were told the war was over: "The men and women of our military face a continuing risk of danger and sacrifice in Iraq. Our military is acting decisively against these threats ... Dangerous pockets of the old regime remain loyal to it and they, along with their terrorist allies, are behind deadly attacks."
22 June: Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police chief charged with rebuilding the force in Baghdad, who said 5,000 Iraqi police have returned to service: "They are going back to work. They're getting out in the streets. We're starting to train them, retrain them. You know we have to teach them training now in policing in a democratic or free society. Democracy is growing, but it doesn't happen overnight. You have to remember, we went into Baghdad only less than 100 days ago."Reuse content