Abu Ghraib, Iraq.
First there were staccato bursts of fire from Iraqi guerrillas on the other side of the road. Then came the whoosh of RPG launchers. American soldiers on their Humvees immediately fired back with shuddering machine guns and M-16s. We rapidly drove off the road on to a piece of waste ground along with several other cars. We jumped out of the doors and lay on the ground. Bassil al-Kaissi, our driver, shouted to other Iraqis who had also taken cover: “Take off your keffiyehs [Arab head dresses] or the Americans will think you are mujahedin and kill you.”
The violence has spread from the Sunni cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, 30 miles up the main road, to the fringes of the capital. Just a few hours before we were plunged into the middle of a ferocious firefight, we saw three huge, black, oily clouds of smoke rising. This is Abu Ghraib, on the western outskirts of Baghdad. It is a district of scattered houses, old factories and palm groves. They provide ideal cover for guerrillas.
It was here, yesterday, that an American convoy was ambushed. It was here witnesses said they had seen as many as nine bodies burning inside the wrecked vehicles. It was here insurgents were later to claim to have seized six foreigners.
They join three Japanese, two Palestinians accused of spying for Israel and a Syrian-born Canadian in captivity. The price of their survival is withdrawal. For now, the collection of nations supporting the US-led effort is still talking tough, but pressure is mounting. The Japanese government is refusing to withdraw its troops, but Japan is in a state of collective frenzy over the fate of its citizens. A few nations with small troop contingents have expressed reservations about remaining in Iraq. The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appealed for the release of the two Palestinian aid workers.
A former British soldier, Michael Bloss, 38, was shot dead yesterday while working for an American company as a security guard, protecting civilian contractors. A second Briton, Gary Teeley, 37, is still missing since disappearing in Nasiriyah on Monday. Yesterday, we watched as Iraqis opened fire on the US convoy of armoured vehicles and petrol tankers with light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades just as it drove past us on the main highway to Fallujah.
We were caught in the ambush because we had been trying to get into Fallujah by following the trucks and cars of an Iraqi aid group carrying food and medicine to the besieged city. We had just got back to the highway, after driving down back roads and tracks for half an hour to avoid a US road block, when the attack began. Fortunately for us, most of the firing from the insurgents was coming from the far side of the main highway and passing over our heads.
Then somebody started shooting at the US troops from our side of the road and their machine gunners opened up. There was a pause in the gunfire. We jumped back into the car and drove from the highway down a narrow road crossing a small bridge over a canal. Four guerrillas carrying a heavy machine gun on a tripod, Kalashnikovs and RPG launchers ran on to the bridge and were staring towards the sound of the shooting. One of the guerrillas shouted to us, asking: “What is happening?” Mr Kaissi, thinking it dangerous to admit that there was a foreign journalist in the back seat, replied: “We were trying to bring help to Fallujah but those pigs opened fire on us.”
The US military has not taken on board the way in which the week-long siege of Fallujah, where at least 280 people have been killed, is spreading rebellion in this part of Iraq. Otherwise they would not have risked vulnerable petrol tankers on the exposed highway. Everywhere in Abu Ghraib, a Sunni Arab district, there are freshly painted anti-US slogans. One reads: “We shall knock on the gates of heaven with the skulls of Americans.”
We had started off our attempt to get to Fallujah by driving down the old road to Abu Ghraib which runs past Baghdad airport, triumphantly captured by the US a year ago. Two days ago this road was open but by yesterday morning it was closed by four tanks.
With the main highways blocked, we tried to find another road or track to Fallujah. At this point we saw trucks, piled high with relief supplies, with a sign on the front one saying “al-Hayat Humanitarian Organisation”. They were not being very discreet about their presence since men in the back of the trucks were waving Iraqi flags and chanting patriotic slogans. But they did seem to know their way through a maze of country roads and tracks leading backwards and forwards over stagnant canals. Local villagers clearly approved of their mission and waved as they passed.
We were disappointed, after all our weaving about the countryside, that while we had circled around behind a US road block, we had not got further west than Abu Ghraib. Near by was a deserted building which I suddenly recognised because I had been there before. It was a milk factory which had achieved international notoriety during the 1991 Gulf war when the US air force had bombed the plant, claiming it was a production centre for biological weapons. The Iraqi government said that it only produced baby milk.
The lesson of the ambushes on the main highway, including the one that we witnessed, is that the rebellion is moving east from the Euphrates towards the capital. The siege of Fallujah, a city of 300,000 people, by the US Marines and the high loss of civilian life there has ignited a nationalist reaction. It has made it easy for the insurgents to recruit young men in the villages and towns, many of whom are armed and were formerly in the Iraqi army.
The US generals do not seem to understand how quickly their military position is deteriorating, which may explain why so many of their men are dying in the blazing wreckage of their vehicles on the road west from Baghdad.