US Secrecy on Iraqi Casualties
by Robert Fisk
September 25, 2003
A culture of secrecy has descended upon the Anglo- American occupation authorities in Iraq.
They will give no tally of the Iraqi civilian lives lost each day.
They will not comment on the killing by an American soldier of one of their own Iraqi interpreters on Thursday he was shot dead in front of the Italian diplomat who was official adviser to the new Iraqi ministry of culture and they cannot explain how General Sultan Hashim Ahmed, the former Iraqi minister of defence and a potential war criminal, should now be described by one of the most senior US officers in Iraq as "a man of honour and integrity."
On Thursday, in a three-stage ambush that destroyed an American military truck and a Humvee jeep almost a hundred miles west of Baghdad, a minimum of three US soldiers were reported dead and three wounded local Iraqis claimed the fatalities numbered eight yet within hours, the occupation authorities were saying that exactly the same number were killed and wounded in a sophisticated ambush on Americans in Tikrit.
Only two soldiers were wounded in the earlier attack, they said.
And for the second day running yesterday, the mobile telephone system operated by MCI for the occupation forces collapsed, effectively isolating the 'Coalition Provisional Authority' from its ministries and from US forces.
An increasing number of journalists in Baghdad now suspect that US proconsul Paul Bremmer and his hundreds of assistants ensconced in the heavily guarded former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein in the capital, have simply lost touch with reality.
Although an enquiry was promised yesterday into the shooting of the Iraqi interpreter, details of the incident suggest that US troops now have carte blanche to open fire at Iraqi civilian cars on the mere suspicion that their occupants may be hostile.
Pietro Cordone, the Italian diplomat whom Bremmer appointed special adviser to the Iraqi ministry of culture, was travelling to Mosul with his wife Mirella when their car approached an American convoy.
According to Mr Cordone, a soldier manning a machine gun in the rear vehicle of the convoy appeared to signal to Mr Cordone's driver that he should not attempt to overtake.
The driver did not do so but the soldier then fired a single shot at the car, which penetrated the windscreen and hit the interpreter who was sitting in the front passenger seat.
A few minutes later, the man died in Mr Cordone's arms.
The Italian diplomat later returned to Baghdad.
Yet the incident was only reported because Mr Cordone happened to be in the car.
Every day, Iraqi civilians are wounded or shot dead by US troops in Iraq.
Just five days ago, a woman and her child were killed in Baghdad by an American soldier after US forces opened fire at a wedding party that was shooting into the air.
A 14-year old boy was reported killed in a similar incident two days ago.
Then on Thursday afternoon, several Iraqi civilians were wounded by US troops after the Americans were ambushed outside the town of Khaldiya. At least two American vehicles were destroyed and eyewitnesses described seeing body parts on the road after the ambush.
Yet 12 hours later, the authorities said that the Americans had suffered just two wounded even though at least three Americans were first reported to have died and witnesses said the death toll was as high as eight.
Then came the ambush at Tikrit almost identical if the authorities are to be believed -- in which exactly the same casualty toll was produced: three dead and two wounded
On this occasion, the incident was partly captured on videofilm.
During an arms raid around Saddam's home town, guerrillas attacked not only the American raiders but two of their bases along the Tigress river. It was, an American spokesman said, a "coordinated" attack on soldiers of the US 4th Infantry Division. Up to 40 men of "military age" were then arrested.
In what must be one of the more extraordinary episodes of the day, General Sultan Ahmad, the former Iraqi ministry of defence, handed himself over to Major General David Petraeus in charge of the north of Iraq after the American commander had sent him a letter describing him as "a man of honour and integrity." In return for his surrender or so says the Kurdish intermediary who arranged his handover to US forces the Americans had promised to remove his name form the list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis around Saddam.
I last saw the portly General Ahmed in April, brandishing a gold- painted Kalashnikov in the Baghdad ministry of information and vowing eternal war against his country's American invaders.
It was Ahmed who persuaded now retired General Norman Schwarzkopf to allow the defeated Iraqi forces to use military helicopters on "official business" after the 1991 US-Iraqi ceasefire agreed at Safwan.
These helicopters were then used in the brutal repression of the Shia Muslim and Kurdish rebellions against Saddam which had been encouraged by President George Bush's father.
Afterwards, there was much talk of indicting General Ahmed as a war criminal, but US General Petraeus seems to have thrown that idea in to the waste-bin.
His quite extraordinary letter to Ahmed which preceded the Iraqi general's surrender and was revealed by the Associated Press news agency described the potential war criminal as "the most respected senior military leader currently residing in Mosul" and promised that he would be treated with "the utmost dignity and respect."
In the same letter which may be studied by war crimes investigators with a mixture of awe and disbelief -- the US officer said that "although we find ourselves on different sides of this war, we do share common traits.
"As military men, we follow the orders of our superiors. We may not necessarily agree with the politics and bureaucracy, but we understand unity of command and supporting our leaders in a common and just cause."
Thus far have the Americans now gone in appeasing the men who may have influence over the Iraqi guerrillas now killing US soldiers in Iraq.
What is presumably supposed to be seen as a gesture of compromise is much more likely to be understood as a sign of military weakness which it clearly is and history will have to decide what would have happened if similar letters had been sent to Nazi military leaders before the German surrender in 1945.
Historians will also have to ruminate upon the implications of the meaning of "supporting our leaders in a common and just cause." Are Saddam and Mr Bush supposed to be these 'leaders'?
Robert Fisk is an award winning foreign correspondent for The Independent (UK). He is the author of Pity Thy Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (The Nation Books, 2002 edition). Posted with author’s permission.