The bomb blast at the UN headquarters in Baghdad which killed at least 15 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN representative, shows once again that Iraq is an extraordinarily dangerous place.
I was in the UN building in the old Canat hotel last month and even then the guards were nervously demanding that my car be parked a long way away from the entrance. Somebody had tried to break in a few days previously and an explosive device had been thrown over the wall.
It seemed a little unfair that they should be targeted. The reason I had gone to see the UN was that their low-key briefings about security and the availability of electricity and water in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq gave the lie to the upbeat claims coming out of the office of Paul Bremer, the US official in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority, who supposedly runs Iraq.
I have always had difficulty in explaining why Iraq is so dangerous. It seems a statement of the obvious. The same thing could be said about Lebanon or Northern Ireland in the past. But Iraq is dangerous and violent in a different way from other countries, and always has been.
Iraq is a divided country. Its three great ethnic and religious communities - the Shia, Sunni and Kurds - were forced together by Britain after the First World War to form a single state. But primary loyalties have never been monopolised by the state, but flow from family, clan, tribe, village, city and religious or ethnic community. That was a reason why Iraq produced such a monster of cruelty and violence as Saddam Hussein to keep the country under control.
In the past couple of months there have been increasing signs that no foreigner, whether he or she was connected with the US-led occupation or not, was going to be safe. As a foreigner myself I thought long and hard about this. There are countries, like Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, where journalists are relatively safe because even the most bloodthirsty gangs of gunmen are eager to cultivate the media. But this was evidently not going to be true of Iraq. A young British film-maker called Richard Wyld was shot in the back of the head as he walked towards the badly looted National History Museum in Baghdad. His killer either thought he was part of the occupation forces or did not care. The attack made me a little nervous because I had been at the museum, where looters had even decapitated the plaster dinosaur at the entrance, a few days before. I had thought that the place, inside the campus of the College of Art, was relatively safe. A few days later it was evident that somebody considered all foreigners fair game when a Red Cross worker was killed.
Iraqis often deceive themselves about the violence of their own society, believing that it all comes from the States. I remember Iraqi exiles optimistically insisting that all the violence there was between Iraq's different communities was invariably fomented by the government. Like George Bush and Tony Blair, they were happy to blame everything on Saddam Hussein.
You do not have to spend long in Iraq to realise that the country was drenched in blood long before Saddam Hussein came to power. Some of the violence was because of foreign wars, some the result of rebellion. I've always had a fascination with British war cemeteries in Iraq, where the 40,000 soldiers who died from battle wounds and disease in the First World War lie buried. They are melancholy places. In the city of Kut on the Tigris river, where a British army surrendered after a long siege in 1916, the cemetery has turned into a swamp. The tops of tombstones are barely visible above the slimy green water.
In Baghdad, rows of white crosses surround the monument to General Maude, who captured the city in 1917 and died of cholera soon afterwards. In Amarah, close to where six British Royal Military Police were killed this summer, the dusty cemetery, just past a dumping ground for old buses, is marked by a fine arch, but the tombstones have disappeared.
Not all the soldiers died fighting the Turks. Some of the gravestones record the date of death as 1920, when a further 2,000 British and Indian troops were killed or wounded suppressing the great rebellion by Iraqi tribes against British rule.
For me, the British cemeteries always carried a simple message. Iraq was and is a very violent and dangerous place. It is easy to get into, as the British armies found in 1914, but one of the most difficult countries in the world to rule. Changes of regime in Iraq have been extraordinarily violent. I remember an Iraqi pointing out to me that King Farouk of Egypt had been allowed to sail from Egypt in a yacht, but the last Hashemite monarch of Iraq had been machine-gunned to death as he fled his palace in 1958.
The attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad is an ominous portent for the 11,000 British troops in the country. In the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, as American troops came under attack in central Iraq, there was some expectation that Britain's long tradition of imperial occupation would enable it to avoid the mistakes that were making the Americans so unpopular. Americans would speak approvingly of how Britain's long experience in Northern Ireland uniquely equipped it for low-intensity warfare. I silently recalled Bloody Sunday hunger strikes, and thought that if the remarks were anything more than politeness they showed that the speaker was as ignorant of Northern Ireland as he was of Iraq.
The fate of the UN headquarters shows that British troops are going to be equally as vulnerable. Bombers are not going to be selective in their targets. Britain is the occupying power in Iraq, along with the US. Its presence fuels the same resentment. Its failure to improve lives of Iraqis in and around Basra is much the same as the failure of the US in Baghdad. The anti-British riots in Basra earlier in the month should not have come as a surprise.
The British task might seem easier than that of the US. Their forces are in the Shia south of Iraq, the scene of the great uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991. It is not an area which contains many people loyal to the old regime. But at the end of the day the Shia are no more willing to see their country permanently occupied than the Sunni Muslims in Baghdad and the centre of the country.
British control of the situation in the south depends on the passive, if increasingly hostile, acquiescence of the local population. The British troops in southern Iraq are simply not enough to keep control if the Shia religious leaders call their followers into the streets.
There is also a very practical consequence to yesterday's attack. It sends a message to those countries which the US has been trying to persuade to send soldiers to Iraq that they will be just as much a target as American forces.
It is a measure of the mischievous success of Alastair Campbell's tactic of starting a war with the BBC over the "sexing up" of the famous dossier on Iraq's supposed threat to the rest of the world that the current dangers of the British position in Iraq are scarcely being discussed in the UK. Hortatory leader writers wag their fingers at the US government asking if, after winning the war, they are losing the peace. This rather misses the point that there is no peace in Iraq and there is not likely to be one.Reuse content