6 DECEMBER 2003, Page 14

Figures of fun

The US army claimed to have killed 54 insurgents in a gun battle in Samarra this week, but, says Julian Manyon, it turns out that only eight died, and some of them were civilians It is a sad fact that most people can see things only through the prism of their own television culture. Thus for the American soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division, Taskforce Iron Horse, the dusty towns and villages north of Baghdad seem to have become a sort of Wild West where gangs of outlaws must be ridden down and given summary justice. Sunday's clashes in Samarra — billed by US spokesmen in stories that went round the world as their biggest victory since the end of full-scale fighting — had all the classic ingredients. The American white hats were delivering money to the town's banks when they were ambushed by the black hats. The Americans were quicker on the draw and no fewer than 54 black hats perished in a hail of well-aimed gunfire. In the next scene the American commander should perhaps have been thanked by the grateful citizens of Samarra to the strains of 'Clementine'. In fact, when I and other reporters reached the town, we found confusion, anger and a story that bore little resemblance to the made-for-TV version. It's a story that gives the lie to Donald Rumsfeld's airy claim that he doesn't 'do' quagmires, for what happened in Samarra is something of an object lesson in how to make one.

Samarra was part of Saddam's cherished Sunni heartland, and was once the splendid seat of eight successive Abbasid caliphs. Today it is a lawless and desperate place. The US forces have no permanent presence but are camped in heavily fortified positions a dozen miles away. From there they conduct periodic raids. On the city's outskirts is a checkpoint of the 'new' Iraqi army, where the men wear ski masks, apparently to protect their identities from those who would see them as collaborators. 'There is no middle ground here.' I was told by Ibrahim, a surprisingly polite employee of the struggling municipality. 'You are either with the Americans or against them, and no one here is with them.'

His remarks were perhaps coloured by the firestorm that had engulfed parts of the town on Sunday. The aftermath showed all the signs of the US army's normal response to threat: massive firepower used to 'win' the engagement; casualties and damage that breed future hatred. It was clear that US forces had indeed been ambushed at least twice: near the hospital and near what their spokesman called the `Golden Mosque' which is, in fact, the magnificent shrine of two Shia Imams, that history has left stranded in Sunni territory. In both places buildings were splattered with bullet holes and vehicles literally shredded by automatic fire. In front of the hospital was a small bus with its front torn off by heavy machine-gun rounds and its interior still containing blood-stained debris from its passengers. Some of the rounds had passed through or over the bus and smashed into a small mosque about 50 yards behind it, where a large pool of blood congealed near the doorway.

The US military spokesman, who caused an excited ITV news desk to wake me at 1 a.m., claimed that they had defeated coordinated attacks by about 200 'terrorists', some wearing the uniform of the feared Saddam fedayeen. We arrived half-expecting to see the bodies of dead insurgents littering the streets. Instead, at the town cemetery. we found that one of the first bodies to be buried under the speedy Muslim rite was that of a female employee of the town's drugs factory, Ameera Salih, who had been shot dead while waiting for a bus near the factory gate. Surprisingly, only six fresh graves had been dug at the cemetery and hospital officials finally put the death toll not at 54 but at eight. Inside the hospital were about 30 wounded. Some were young men of military age, one of whom admitted to having fired at the Americans out of anger at their repeated raids in Samarra. 'They claim we are terrorists,' he told reporters. `So, OK, we are terrorists. What do they expect when they drive among us?'

Other beds contained old men and a small boy hit in the crossfire. The truth of this feat of American arms appears to be something like this: relatively small numbers of Saddam loyalists and local men fired on the American convoys and were met with a blizzard of machine-gun and auto matic grenade fire. The dead numbered some eight or ten, about half of whom may have been insurgents, but also included the lady from the drugs factory, a child and an elderly Iranian pilgrim who had come to pray at the historic shrine. The splendid gold-plated doors of the sanctuary where the 10th and 11th Shia Imams lie buried were pierced by half a dozen bullets. One round passed straight through the inner enclosure which contains the tombs of the two Islamic saints and punctured the words 'Prophet Mohammed' in an ornate inscription quoting the Koran. One worshipper was hit in the leg. The American commander, Col. Ryan Gonsalves, declared that his men's fire had been 'aimed'.

A malady appears to be taking hold in the American forces which those of us who covered Vietnam are all too familiar with. The main symptom is a reliance on bogus statistics, and the progress of the disease is marked by ever-increasing separation from the reality on the ground. For veterans of Saigon's Five O'clock Follies, the declarations of the 4th Infantry Division's spokesman, Col. Frederick Rudesheim, were a minor classic of the genre. Having asserted that the ordinary people of Samarra supported the US effort and were led up' with the terrorists, he claimed that some of them had shown their feelings by attacking the funerals of the people who died on Sunday, a suggestion for which there was not the slightest evidence and which he admitted was `anecdotal'.

And yet.. . . Iraq may be a quagmire, but it is no Vietnam. The insurgency is localised, still concentrated in the so-called Sunni Triangle and a few areas north and south of it. For all the previous dominance of the Baath party, it is not rooted in a political ideology or, so far at least, in a broad national movement. Above all, though it may have support from the Islamist International, it has no reliable supply line from the outside. Instead, it is a makeshift resistance movement, born out of wounded pride in what was the ruling minority group, out of ethnic and clan loyalties, religious chauvinism and, above all, out of resentment at the perceived humiliations of foreign occupation. The Americans need not fear that waves of black-uniformed fedayeen will suddenly hurl themselves against their fortresses. The greatest success that the insurgents can aspire to — and this is still a significant one — is to turn large parts of Iraq into an ungovernable noman's-land where American troops are regularly being killed and where Washington's proclaimed goal of bringing democracy and progress appears as unrealisable as it does in Samara. This is where US forces can do themselves as much ill as good. In responding to small-scale attacks by careering through the town and shooting it up, they are steadily deepening what, given Donald Rumsfeld's sensibilities, is doubtless known in the Pentagon as the Q-word.

Julian Manyon is Middle East correspondent of ITV News.