As the euphoria over the election dies away, the Iraqi resistance is seeking to eliminate anyone working with the US or the interim government.
And it is easy to get killed in Baghdad. A small mistake is often enough. A convoy of Kurdish officials took a wrong turning into Haifa Street yesterday, a resistance stronghold in the heart of the capital. A gun battle quickly erupted as insurgents opened fire. Soon, black smoke was rising from burning vehicles. The sound of shooting echoed across the centre of the city. By the time the fighting was over, three officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, part of the present government, were dead.
The insurgents’ intelligence is often chillingly accurate. At 7.45am yesterday, armed men kidnapped an interior ministry colonel called Riyadh Katei Illawi, dragging him from his car after he left his house in the al-Dora district of south Baghdad to go to work. As a middle-ranking official it is surprising he was still living in Dora, an area partly controlled by the insurgents.
Fifteen minutes later in the port city of Basra, at the other end of Iraq, an Iraqi television correspondent and his six-year-old son were shot dead by gunmen. Abdul Hussein Khazaal worked for al-Hura TV, an American-funded channel set up to compete with al-Jazeera. Muslim clerics had denounced its output as American propaganda. President George Bush claimed it was created to “cut through the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world.”
Mr Khazaal had just left his house and was standing by his car. He had two bodyguards. Instead of driving off, he remembered something he had left in his house and his guards went to get it. It was a fatal delay. A car filled with gunmen drove up and opened up on him and his son.
Yesterday evening, police in Baghdad said a director in the ministry of culture and housing had been assassinated by gunmen who attacked his car.
The suicide bombs, the attacks on US troops and the set-piece battles in Najaf and Kerbala are widely publicised abroad. The insurgents appear crude though bloodthirsty. But another war of assassinations and kidnappings is proving that the resistance has a well-informed intelligence service. It can identify the most effective personnel on the interim government side and eliminate them.
General Mudher, a burly middle-aged man, is the creator of the police commandos. Wearing camouflage uniform and black ski-masks, the commandos are a lot more warlike than the ordinary police with their elderly weapons and fragile blue and white police cars.
A veteran soldier famous in Iraq for bringing his tank safely from Kuwait back to Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf war, General Mudher recruited and trained this new force. “He was careful about his own security and was always changing his address,” said a colleague.
It did not do him much good. Somebody in the resistance decided he posed a real threat. Gunmen attacked his car two months ago and he was shot twice in the back, the bullets just missing his heart. He counts himself lucky to be alive – he counted 150 bullet holes in the remains of his vehicle. Largely recovered from his wounds, he still walks awkwardly and seems to wince with pain when he moves his arms.
It is not difficult to work out where the insurgents’ intelligence comes from. The most effective members of the resistance belonged to the old Iraqi army and security services. Many of their former colleagues now serve in the security ministries of the interim government. Information leaks.
The American recipe for making the army and security forces more effective is to embed US training officers in Iraqi units. It is not a welcome move among Iraqi officers. “They keep saying that they don’t need more training but better weapons,” says Sabah Khadim, a senior adviser in the Interior Ministry. The presence of American soldiers makes the Iraqi soldiers feel that they will be viewed as traitors to their own country by other Iraqis.
The lack of equipment and vehicles is still common, almost two years after the invasion. In the Qadassiya district of Baghdad yesterday police commandos were driving at great speed to an emergency. Their vehicles were elderly white pick-ups.
US officers told some Iraqi units that they would receive tanks. When they arrived, the Iraqi crews were angry to find that they were being given outdated, Soviet-made T-55s.
“The one thing the Americans seem determined about is to retain control of the Iraqi army,” said a foreign diplomat in Baghdad. The Americans also fear that one day the weapons they hand over now will be turned against them by Iraqis or will be sold to the resistance.
With the Shia victory in the election, the security ministries could again experience the post-war turmoil largely dealt with by the former Baathist interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi. Serving officers fear that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, formerly based in Iran and controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, will want jobs in the Interior and Defence Ministries. Nobody expects the wave of assassinations to stop soon.