Some people feared, after the invasion was declared a triumph, that the humdrum misery and the ongoing instability in post-war Iraq would slip from the front pages, much as it has in Afghanistan, or in Darfur, or in so many other ravaged tracts of the world. Two years on and that hasn't happened.
The latest image, irresistibly printable, is of a British soldier aflame, hurtling himself from his burning vehicle, caught up in a riot in Basra that may or may not have been linked to a complex chain of events involving undercover British soldiers, members of the Iraqi police force, militants from Muqtada Sadr's Army of Mehdi, and the heavy hand of local British Army commanders. Reports from Iraq, denied by London, claimed that the last had destroyed the wall of a prison with tanks in order to free the first, who had been arrested for shooting at Iraqi police.
On the other incident, in which a British Warrior armoured vehicle was attacked by an angry, petrol bomb-wielding crowd, the only official comment has been that no British soldier was seriously injured. Unofficially, on Newsnight, the former commander Tim Collins, whose stirring pre-invasion speech to his troops found its way on to President Bush's office wall, said that such events would be considered an unremarkable sideshow on any night of the week in his home town of Belfast.
It was a shrewd comment, calculated surely to remind those watching at home of the popular view that British soldiers in Basra are more subtle and sophisticated operators than their bumbling, redneck US equivalents over in Baghdad. Increasingly, though, it begins to look as if this is not nonsense exactly, but vastly exaggerated. British troops may well have been better versed in the techniques of occupation. But their greatest advantage was that there were not many Saddamist Sunnis in their area, attacking Shias with gusto.
The insurgency here is different, and is in fact more straightforwardly anti-coalition. Sadr's Shia militia has popular support, and is implacably opposed to the occupation and to its democratic aims. Kidnappings, executions, bombings, attacks, they all happen here. Two New York Times journalists have been killed recently, Steven Vincent early last month and Fakher Haider two days ago.
Perhaps the graphic evidence that all is not so serene in Basra will throw the spotlight more on to what is happening in this part of the country. For up until now, while the loss of British troops has of course been widely reported in the British media, the overall situation in Basra is not so much discussed, in line with the impression that the Government undoubtedly wants to give, of a civilised operation winning hearts and minds with dogged wisdom.
Partly, this is because the atrocity exhibition (particularly that generated by the Sunnis in Baghdad) is so grotesquely mutable, so savagely revolutionary, so inventive in its novel horrors, that sheer shock and awe keep us all gazing, slack-jawed and mesmerised at the convulsion of the capital.
The insurgency may well, as many of those in Iraq attest, have left much of this contingent chunk of land we're pleased to call a nation physically untouched. But nevertheless, in those areas where Sunni agitation continues, there is something arrestingly fiendish in the endless supply of new angles on the everyday business of reducing large groups of people to rubble. Occasionally, most strikingly when poor Ken Bigley was kidnapped and executed, comment will be made on how media-savvy the terrorists of Iraq are, and how adept they seem to be at manipulating the West's opinions. Latterly, though, they have gained the knack of orchestrating Iraqi civilian deaths on such a scale, and with such tenderising pathos, that even the self-centred Americans and British cannot ignore those distant foreign deaths.
The Iraqi authority is at pains to emphasise that only seven of the people - close in number to a thousand - who died a few weeks ago in the stampede on al-Aima bridge lost their lives as a result of terrorism. Strictly speaking, this is true, for the seven were killed in a mortar attack on the religious gathering, while the rest were crushed to death or drowned in a panic inspired by rumours of a suicide bomber in the crowd. Some people say the rumours were deliberately nurtured by Sunni provocateurs. Even if they weren't, the deaths were still indirectly caused by the instability in the capital. The sight, on front pages around the world, of the abandoned shoes of the dead was one of such poignant resonance that it provoked near incredulity that a people could be so ill-starred.
Less complex was the suicide bombing in Oruba Square in Baghdad's Old Town. A man in a minibus lured 500 Shia construction labourers waiting to be hired with promises of work, only to detonate a bomb that killed 114 and maimed many more.
What a contrast this misery makes to the confident predictions beforehand that US contractors would carve up Iraq for rebuilding, and making a fortune in the process. Again, this now seems grubbily preferable to the smashed-up reality.
I find myself wondering, as the conflict continues to confound notions of the three-minute culture by keeping so many of us riveted, if this is not actually something that the Sunni insurgents in Baghdad, at least, do almost as second nature. The minority Sunnis, after all, had been ruling the majority Shias through sheer force of savage propaganda and sheer cult of monstrous personality for many decades before the coalition forces briefly disturbed their reign of terror. In this respect at least, it is business as usual in Iraq. People continue to be dragged from their homes, just as they were in Saddam's day, to be executed in the squares and public spaces of frightened cities. The invasion has set old horrors and hatreds into flight only to have them alight again, reinvigorated and, one suspects, gratified to be attracting world attention. Some of the insurgents in Iraq must surely be well pleased that their mayhem can inspire similar mayhem in British men born under the democracy that only the Kurds are truly enthused by.
The sight of burning British troops of course inspires new rallies of the cry "troops out", or new mutterings of the more measured demand for an exit strategy. More and more, however, I fear that the coalition troops are as mired as everyone else on this vast tract of land, if only for the reason that once the coalition troops are gone, the world's attention actually will drift away from the atrocities, with who knows what repercussions. It is a bad reason to occupy a country, and takes its place alongside all the other bad reasons why this country was occupied.Reuse content