Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 293 - 299)



  Chairman: Mr Hughes, on behalf of the Committee can I welcome you? For those who do not know you, you work for BBC News. You were in Baghdad in April and May. At that time there was an alarming deterioration in the security situation. We will come to any recent change, but I would like Sir John to begin the batting on that.

  Q293  Sir John Stanley: The Chairman has more or less anticipated my first question, which is that there has indeed been a serious deterioration in the security position. I do not think anybody doubts that. It is one that has been going on possibly continuously over the last six months, but certainly over the last three months. To what do you attribute that deterioration?

  Mr Hughes: It might help the Committee if it looked at those as three different conflicts that are all going on at the same time. First, in the Najaf and Karbala area you have all the problems associated with Muqtada el-Sadr. The mantra we heard from the Coalition while I was there was that they wanted an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem in Najaf, Karbala, and that sort of area. I think perhaps that is what they got with this deal negotiated between Muqtada el-Sadr and the House of Shia. Whether the deal holds up remains to be seen, because one of the problems associated with Muqtada el-Sadr is that he is said to be very unpredictable. His demands change on a daily basis, and not many people find him a comfortable bedfellow with whom to do business—if you will forgive me for mixing my metaphors. If that deal does hold up, however, that obviously solves one problem. Also, the recent announcement about the disbanding of militias, apart from Muqtada's militias, would also help that sort of problem. The second problem the Coalition encountered, in particular while I was there, was the Fallujah situation. At the time we were told by the Coalition that the whole thing was being driven by foreign fighters. It was very difficult for us to go to Fallujah at the time and verify that, because of the security situation but also simply because we were extremely busy, reporting the numerous events that were going on all over the country at the time. I have to say that what we were hearing from Iraqis was that this was not being driven by foreign fighters at all. It was the people of Fallujah, defending their own city from what they saw as an invading force—a force of occupation, the Coalition forces—and they were trying to drive the Americans out of their town. It is a situation that seems to have arisen because the Americans could not put a foot right in Fallujah from the very early days. I think it was three weeks after the war was over that there was a shooting of a lot of protesters in Fallujah. That really set the tone in Fallujah and things went downhill from there on. Once the Americans pulled out of Fallujah, however, the situation in that town seems to have improved dramatically. Then, finally, there is also clearly some sort of resistance or insurgency. During the reporting that we did we struggled to find the right word, because these words are important. The car bombings, the drive-by shootings, and the mortar attacks on the Green Zone, which is this zone in the middle of Baghdad where the Coalition has set up its headquarters in a former Saddam palace—they are all evidence that there clearly is some sort of resistance movement going on. It seems to be an underground movement and to consist of a number of different elements. It might be former Saddam Fedayeen, what are described as al-Qaeda elements, or perhaps some ex-Iraqi army; but I think that the truth is that no one really knows who is driving it, who is behind it. It is obviously very difficult for the Coalition to work out what on earth is going on there. To complicate the situation further, there is also a crossover between these three elements. There was evidence that there were Saddam Fedayeen elements in Fallujah, some Mahdi army, and also some of the Muqtada militia in Fallujah—and all these things mix up and make quite a potent brew. Each of those situations presents a difficult challenge for the Coalition. Certainly sometimes the withdrawal of US forces helps, as in the Fallujah case—because you felt in Fallujah that the Americans were in fact part of the problem rather than part of a solution. Also it is interesting to note the difference in tactics employed by the British forces and the Americans, and the different results those have had. In Basra, for example, the British reputation is that they are out on the streets; they are not in their armoured vehicles. They are patrolling on foot; they are interacting with the local population and making contacts; whereas the Americans are very much in their Humvees. We saw them driving round in Baghdad. It is minimum interface, maximum force; whereas the British seem to be operating minimum force and maximum interface with the local population. Anecdotally, a producer with whom I was working in Baghdad who had been in Basra a few months ago told me that if kids throw stones at the British forces in Basra, they grab him, take him to his mum and dad, and say, "Your son was chucking stones at us. What have you got to say about it?"; and they tell the kid off and might give him a slap. In Baghdad, it is much more likely that the American forces would actually open fire, rather than try to sort the problem out. The producer said that, the next time they come across these kids who have been throwing stones, they are then playing football with them. All this is anecdotal and I do not have any real evidence to back it up, but it is an indication of the different tactics. I think that is a factor as well.

  Q294  Sir John Stanley: At the time you were there, there has been quite a lot of reporting, including from serving members of our armed forces—and so one takes that seriously—that those engaged in attacks on members of the Coalition forces are gradually but steadily upping the sophistication in the way in which they are operating, and therefore tending to tilt the balance their way. Did that come home to you or not?

  Mr Hughes: While I was there, the main method of attacking Coalition forces seemed to be roadside bombs. That accounted for a large number of, in particular, the American soldiers who died while I was there. April had the worst death toll amongst American soldiers since the whole operation began over a year ago. Roadside bombs—what they call IEDs, and I cannot remember what IED stands for . . .

  Q295  Sir John Stanley: Improvised explosive device.

  Mr Hughes: Yes, improvised explosive device. I think that the IEDs are not that difficult to make. There were indications that a lot of heavy weaponry was being used, but I think that there is a lot of weaponry still out there in Iraq, either left over from the army or people are finding arms cachés, and it was proving quite hard to guard some of these huge arms dumps apparently. So, yes, I think there was an element of that. Another anecdote—I do not know whether this is useful—is that they were learning tricks like, for example, leaving a mortar in position with a block of ice in the tube and a mortar round in the top. In the heat, the ice would melt and the round drop down so that, when it fires off, no one is in the area.

  Q296  Chairman: Turning to the political situation, we may already have had the UN Security Council resolution, but can you help the Committee by saying what the general attitude to the UN is of the population to whom you spoke?

  Mr Hughes: I think that it is worth pointing out that the UN is not universally loved. We only have to look at the bombing of the UN headquarters in August of last year as evidence of that.

  Q297  Chairman: May that not have been by some small elements related to outside forces? I am talking about the Iraqi population.

  Mr Hughes: I take your point absolutely, but I think also that many Iraqis—some Iraqis, and it is very hard to put a figure on it as to whether it is some or many—certainly some Iraqis remember the UN as the people who put in place the embargo and a whole raft of sanctions against them. The cost in terms of children's lives was very definitely driven home to the Iraqis, and we all know the arguments around the embargo and what happened with the food-for-oil programme and the medicines. It is a very complex question, but for the Iraqis I think that it is very simple: a lot of their children died; people were not getting medicines; their country, which had been very prosperous, was driven to an altogether parlous state. Also, some Iraqis do feel that the UN are stooges of the United States. There is a perception and, whether that is right or wrong, I think that is what people feel.

  Q298  Chairman: The new UN Security Council resolution, assuming that it is passed today, will give international legitimacy to the political process.

  Mr Hughes: Yes.

  Q299  Chairman: In your judgment, will it have that same legitimacy internally?

  Mr Hughes: It is all about credibility. What happens internationally is, to some degree, irrelevant to the people of Iraq. The most animated conversation I had with an Iraqi was when he was telling me about the power failures. He could not understand why the Americans, with their much-vaunted know-how, were unable to get the power on in Baghdad. This was the most animated and the angriest I saw in terms of any Iraqi talking to me about any issue. He said, "At least under Saddam it was on for three hours and off for two hours, and we knew what it was doing. But now it is on for two hours, for six, for three, or for four hours, and we don't know whether we are coming or going"—when the forecast in Baghdad today is 42ºC. You can imagine how cross people get when that sort of thing happens and the air-conditioning, refrigerator and freezer go off. Those are the sorts of issues that really get to Iraqis. What happens with the government—international recognition for the government—is, to a large degree, irrelevant. What is important though is that they now at least have an administration that they can feel some sort of ownership of; whereas they just did not have that at all with the CPA, and they certainly did not have it with the Iraqi Governing Council—which I think no one really identified with, because there were all sorts of credibility problems with the members of the Council and with the way the Council was set up and appointed by the Americans. So I think that it helps. I have gone rather a long way round to getting to the point that I was going to make, which is that it all helps to make Iraqis feel they have some sort of ownership of the government. What will be crucial to that, however, will be the elections at the end of January.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 29 July 2004