As the American army in Iraq prepared to celebrate Independence Day, an Iraqi sniper aimed at a US soldier in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle outside the national museum in Baghdad and shot him.
The soldier died of his injuries a few hours later, bringing close to 30 the number of US soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq since President Bush declared the war ended on 1 May.
Overnight, guerrillas fired four mortar rounds into the US base on the main road between Baghdad and the town of Balad, injuring 18 soldiers, two seriously. “This is the first time the base was attacked–and the first time we’ve seen mortars,” said Sergeant Grant Calease, who said he and his colleagues would still have their traditional 4 July steak barbecue.
Iraqis in the area did not seem very surprised it had happened. “People are always shooting at the Americans these days,” said an unimpressed young man at a crossroads close to the base where US tanks were sending up clouds of dust while manoeuvring into defensive positions.
A few hours later on another road near Balad, normally a quiet market town, the US military said it had killed 11 Iraqis who had attacked a convoy with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire. No Americans were injured.
The mortar attack on the base came just before the arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger on a 4 July visit to US troops and also presumably in the hope of boosting his chances if, as he has indicated, he runs for the governorship of California.
On arriving at Baghdad airport, where there was a special screening of his latest movie, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Mr Schwarzenegger had already, somewhat tastelessly, given his first impressions of Iraq.
“It is really wild driving round here, I mean the poverty, and you see there is no money, it is disastrous financially and there is the leadership vacuum, pretty much like California,” he said. If he had stayed longer, he would also have discovered differences between California and Iraq such as the stream of raw sewage that runs in front of the door of the main children’s teaching hospital in Baghdad, the lack of electricity and water and the continual looting.
And, as if to match the box-office draw of Schwarzenegger, there was soon another mocking reminder that the American and British victory was less than complete when the voice of Saddam Hussein was heard on al-Jazeera television saying he was still alive and well in Iraq. “I am still present in Iraq with a group of leaders,” said the voice on a tape recording made on 14 June. “Oh brothers and sisters, I relay to you good news: jihad [holy war] cells and brigades have been formed.”
With Americans being killed in small numbers, Iraqis in larger numbers and Saddam Hussein’s vow of defiance, it is difficult to remember in Baghdad that this war is officially over. Somehow, despite all the triumphalism after the short war, the US and Britain have failed to turn their military victory into a political victory.
The guerrilla attacks are still sporadic, but they are increasing. They have spread to the heart of Baghdad. They are also beginning to happen in Shia areas of southern Iraq, which are hostile to Saddam Hussein, as well as in Sunni Muslim towns such as Fallujah and around Balad.
There is also a more worrying sign for the Allies. The attacks are generally popular. Some hours before the American soldier was shot by a sniper while guarding the national museum, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into a Humvee vehicle a few hundred yards away in Haifa Street. Several American soldiers were wounded but, when the shooting had faded away, the Iraqis who were in Haifa Street at the time of the attack started dancing in jubilation. They climbed on top of the smouldering Humvee and set it on fire. Whenever I have spoken to Iraqis after an attack they have always said they were in favour of it. This does not mean that many Iraqis want the return of Saddam Hussein. “Only two million out of 24 million ever supported him,” said a teacher in Basra. But they do blame America and Britain because, contrary to their high expectations, their lives have become materially worse since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
There are signs the US now recognises it cannot rule Iraq by military force alone. In the past two weeks, it has accepted an Iraqi interim administration, called a Council of Governance, with real powers, will be announced on 14 July, and will appoint 22 ministers. Previously, it had wanted to confine the council to an advisory role.
Adnan Pachachi, the 80-year-old former Iraqi foreign minister likely to have a leading position in the council, believes that, while it will be “accused of being an American political pawn, it will be accepted by Iraqis if it takes important steps to improve their lives”. It will revive the police force and take as much power into its hands as possible.
Mr Pachachi says that he believes America really does want to withdraw most of its army from Iraq as quickly as possible. But facts on the ground–the daily, deadly attacks on troops–point to another scenario in which America and Britain could get dragged ever deeper into a guerrilla conflict.