'What a bloody charade'
Baghdad - In Baghdad on Saturday they were supposed to be preparing for an election. But they were preparing for war.
The American Bradley armoured vehicles on the streets, the United States foot patrols, the old Russian personnel carriers that Saddam Hussein bought on the cheap from the Soviet Union - now dressed up in the dull camouflage paint of the new Iraqi army - the hooded and masked policemen: they do not look like the prelude to an experiment in democracy. They are all waiting for the rivers of blood of which insurgents have warned. But there will be democracy in Iraq.
The mortars rained down yesterday morning on the Green Zone where the US and British embassies are located, a "thumpety-thump-thump" that brought the American Apache choppers over the surrounding highways in less than 30 seconds - but the insurgents had disappeared.
Then a fierce gun battle broke out in the very centre of Baghdad between Americans and insurgents. Too late again. The gunmen got away. Fantasy attacks before a fantasy election. Many Iraqis do not know the names of the candidates, let alone their policies.
But there will be democracy in Iraq.
The media boys and girls will be expected to play along with this. "Transition of power", says the hourly logo on CNN's live coverage of the election, though the poll is for a parliament to write a constitution, and the men who will form a majority within it will have no power.
They have no control over their own oil, no authority over the streets of Baghdad, let alone the rest of the country, no workable army or loyal police force. Their only power is that of the American military and its 150 000 soldiers whom we could all see on the main intersections of Baghdad yesterday.
The big television networks have been given a list of five polling stations where they will be "allowed" to film. Close inspection of the list shows that four of the five are in Shi'ite Muslim areas - where the polling will probably be high - and one in an upmarket Sunni area, where it will be moderate.
The majority Shi'as, oppressed under Hussein, are expected to take a majority in the polling at the expense of the formerly dominant Sunnis.
Every working-class Sunni polling station will be out of bounds to the press. I wonder if the television lads will tell us that today when they show voters "flocking" to the polls.
In the Karada district, we found three truckloads of youths on Saturday, all brandishing Iraqi flags, all - like the unemployed who have been sticking posters to Baghdad's walls - paid by the government to "advertise" the election. And there was a cameraman from Iraqi state television, of course, which is controlled by Iyad Allawi's "interim" government.
The "real" story is outside Baghdad, in the tens of thousands of square kilometres outside the government's control and beyond the sight of independent journalists, especially in the four Sunni Muslim provinces which are at the heart of Iraq's insurrection.
Right up to the election hour, US jets were continuing to bomb "terrorist targets", the latest in the city of Ramadi, which - although US President George Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair do not say so - is now in the hands of the insurgents as surely as Fallujah was before the Americans destroyed it.
Every month since Allawi, the former CIA agent, was appointed premier, American air strikes on Iraq have been increasing exponentially.
There are no "embedded" reporters on the giant American air base at Qatar or aboard the US carriers in the Gulf from which these ever increasing and ever more lethal sorties are being flown. They go unrecorded, unreported, part of the "fantasy" war which is all too real to the victims but hidden from us journalists.
The reality is that much of Iraq has become a free-fire zone (for reference, see under "Vietnam") and the Americans are conducting this secret war as efficiently and as ruthlessly as they conducted their earlier bombing campaign against Iraq between 1991 and 2003, an air raid a day, or two raids, or three. Then they were attacking Hussein's "military targets" in Iraq.
Now they are attacking "foreign terrorist targets" or "anti-Iraqi forces": I especially like this one, since the foreigners involved in this violence happen in reality to be Americans who are mostly attacking Iraqis.
Yes, I know how it's all going to be played out. Iraqis bravely vote despite the bloodcurdling threats of the enemies of democracy. At last, the US and British policies have reached fruition. A real and functioning democracy will be in place so the occupiers can leave soon. Or next year. Or in a decade or so. Merely to hold these elections - an act of folly in the eyes of so many Iraqis - will be a "success".
The Shi'as will vote en masse, the Sunnis will largely abstain. Shi'a Muslim power will be enshrined for the first time in an Arab country. And then the manipulation will begin and the claims of fraud and the admissions that the elections might be "flawed" in some areas.
But we'll go on saying "democracy" and "freedom" over and over again, the insurgency will continue and grow more violent, and the Iraqis will go on dying. But there will be democracy in Iraq.
Cities were like ghost towns as most of the population waited nervously at home to see if it would be safe enough to take part in the first election since the ousting of Hussein by the US-led forces in April 2003.
A rocket hit the US embassy inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone late on Saturday, killing two people and wounding at least four, a diplomatic source said. A suicide bomber in Khanaqin killed eight people, and nine police, soldiers and civilians died in other attacks across the country.
Iraq's land borders and Baghdad airport have been closed for the election weekend as authorities sought to counter threats by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has replaced Hussein as Iraq's most feared man, to wreck the election. - Foreign Service, Sapa-AP and Reuters