For mile after mile south of Baghdad yesterday, the story was the same:
empty police posts, abandoned Iraqi army and police checkpoints and a
litter of burnt-out American fuel tankers and rocket-smashed police
vehicles down the main highway to Hillah and Najaf. It was Afghanistan Mk2.

Iraqi government officials and Western diplomats tell journalists to avoid
driving out of Baghdad; now I understand why. It is dangerous. But my own
fearful journey far down Highway 8 – scene of the murder of at least 15
Westerners – proved that the US-appointed Iraqi government controls little
of the land south of the capital. Only in the Sunni Muslim town of
Mahmoudiya – where a car bomb exploded outside an Iraqi military recruiting
centre last week – did I see Iraqi policemen.

They were in a convoy of 11 battered white pick-ups, pointing Kalashnikovs
at the crowds around them, driving on to the wrong side of the road when
they became tangled in a traffic jam, screaming at motorists to clear their
path at rifle point. This was not a frightened American column – this was
Iraq’s own new blue-uniformed police force, rifles also directed at the
windows of homes and shops and at the crowd of Iraqis which surged around
them. In Iskanderia, I saw two gunmen near the road. I don’t know why they
bothered to stand there. The police had already left their post a few
metres away.

Yes, it is a shameful reflection on our invasion of Iraq – let us solemnly
remember “weapons of mass destruction” – but it is, above all, a tragedy
for the Iraqis. They endured the repulsive Saddam. They endured our
shameful UN sanctions. They endured our invasion. And now they must endure
the anarchy we call freedom…


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