How the artillery thundered. How the jets roared. How the machine-gun fire
vibrated in the night. If the Americans were playing Santa to children on
the streets of Baghdad yesterday, they were playing "Operation Iron Hammer"
much more seriously.
"We cannot comment on ongoing military operations," an American military
spokeswoman said. Even the operation kept changing its name from "Iron
Grip" to "Iron Justice", now Iron Hammer.
Much more obvious was the insurgents' own little operation in the center of
the capital. First they fired rockets into the palace from which the United
States proconsul, Paul Bremer, and his officials rule Iraq. Then gunmen
fired mortars at the Sheraton hotel, the prestigious, Baathist-constructed
pile in which American businessmen, journalists and occupation authorities
like to sleep.
In the 24 hours up to midday on Christmas Day, four more American soldiers
were killed, three by a roadside bomb near Samarra, which US forces hoped
they had pacified after a series of aggressive raids last week, and another
by a bomb in Baghdad. Four Iraqis, including a 13-year-old girl, were killed
by a suicide bomber in his car who detonated explosives outside a Kurdish
office in Arbil, while another two civilians were killed in Baghdad by a
bomb apparently intended for an American patrol.
At the Baghdad city mortuary, the medical director, Dr Faik Amin Bakr, told
me that up to 20 dead, all of them Iraqis and most of them victims of
violence, had been received on Christmas Day morning.
The occupying powers here only keep a daily count of westerners who have
been killed. Strangely none of the bodies at the Baghdad morgue yesterday
were brought in from the area of Khor Rajab, the Rajab Marshes, which were
supposed to have been the center of America's overnight anti-guerrilla
raids. A drive through the slums and dirt fields along Highway 8 south of
the city showed why.
Highway 8 from Baghdad to Hillah is a dangerous dual carriageway, scene of
the murder of Spanish intelligence officers, Red Cross personnel and other
westerners. It's also been the location of several attacks on US bases south
of the capital. But yesterday afternoon, there was little to be seen of the
overnight battle save some churned up fields and a fortress where US troops
were firing blank shells from heavy artillery pieces. "The Americans were
attacked twice from the fields," a tea-vendor said at his shack beside the
highway. "They shot the place up later but didn't kill a soul. The men with
the mortars had left long before."
A group of trainees in the new Iraqi army, walking home from boot camp
across the fields of Khor Rajab, confirmed that US forces were firing blank
rounds. "It sounds good, doesn't it?" one of them said. So much then, it
seems, for "Operation Iron Grip/Justice/Hammer".
The phantoms of earlier military combatants might have been present in the
old British garrison church of St George as members of Iraq's Christian
community, at most 5 per cent of the population, gathered at dusk to sing
carols. An Iraqi child with giant angels' wings sang "Jingle Bells" and
adults including three tall and balding Americans, the church guard and my
hotel cook led the congregation in "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in
On the wall of the church nave still stood a memorial "to the Glory of God
and to the Memory of One Million Dead of the British Empire who fell in the
Great War 1914-1918. They died in every quarter of the earth and ..." Here
the memorial broke off in gashed paint and plaster. The British Army
occupied Baghdad in 1917 but a more recent assault on the capital had sent
shrapnel smashing into the old plaque. Underneath, you could just make out
the words "in honor for ever".
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd