He died in the middle of a hot, squalid highway, a place of litter and stones and dirty soft drink stands. All the Iraqis who saw the American soldier lifted from the wreckage of his Humvee said he was still wearing his helmet but had a dark-red wound in his right side. The soldiers, they said, were shouting and screaming after the bomb went off, the first half of their convoy speeding forward, the last two vehicles coming to a standstill behind the smouldering wreckage. Just down the road were the incinerated wrecks of Iraq's old T-52 tanks in which the Americans believed the last of their enemies had been killed more than three months ago.
The Iraqis didn't mourn the American soldier they saw die in Khan Dari just after one o'clock yesterday afternoon. "It is a letter for Bush. This will let Bush know what sort of people we are," a fat man in a long white galibia announced as a squad of US military police in anti-bomb visors searched for more devices along the highway.
It must have been a big explosion, for it tore a deep hole in the central reservation and scattered hunks of Tarmac across the road. The guerrillas of Khan Dari like to hit the middle of the convoys, to ensure a hit. The soldier stood no chance.
To the shopkeepers and the drinks stall workers, it was just an explosion, a column of grey smoke that shot into the air. They thought that a second, wounded soldier must die, and they said that with enthusiasm. Khan Dari - the birthplace of the first guerrilla to kill a British officer in the 1920 uprising against an earlier occupation - is a Sunni, Wahhabist town whose inhabitants admire the guerrillas now assaulting the US occupiers. The Americans may claim their attackers are Saddam's "remnants" but it's far more likely this is an Islamist guerrilla army at work around Baghdad.
About 50 US troops were searching the side of the highway now, tall, sweating men with maps, picks and axes to dig up part of the road, their heavy machine guns pointed at the cars and trucks which they had forced off the highway on to a dust track. They climbed on to the oil tankers and peered into their tanks and banged on the side with their axe handles. It takes a truck to carry mortar shells along Iraq's roads, from dump to bomb factory.
"After the bomb, they were shouting at each other and screaming and pointing their rifles everywhere," a thin carpenter called Rafed, saw in hand, remarked with something approaching disinterest. "This is only 50 metres from the scene of another ambush last month when they burned out an American Jeep." More to the point, Khan Dari - 30 miles north-west of Baghdad - is scarcely five miles from Fallujah where the Americans gunned down 16 demonstrators in April and where a group of men were blown up in an annexe to a mosque this month, most probably by a bomb one of them was making.
Another man, who said he was called Abdullah - from the way he said it, I doubted the veracity of that name - wanted to talk politics of a very violent kind. "This is the way we deal with occupiers," he said. "They came and said they were liberators but when we realised they were occupiers, we had to fight. We are people of steel. The Americans and all the other occupiers will burn." Then "Abdullah" said something as chilling as it was terrible. "I have a one-year-old daughter," he said. "And I would happily put a bomb in her clothes and send her to the Americans to kill them."
And it was about then that I began to realise the obvious. It must have taken a long time to take up part of the central reservation at Khan Dari and put such a heavy bomb beneath it. It must have taken hours at least. It must have been set at night. And these drinks sellers and old shopkeepers must have witnessed the men at work, must have realised a command-detonated bomb would have to be triggered by a man standing behind them or among them even. If, of course, that man wasn't still among the Iraqis who were standing beside me yesterday afternoon.Reuse content