Tell them it's the sound of freedom

Observations on Iraq

Across much of "liberated Iraq", you can search in vain for irony. Despite what conspiracy theorists may say about America's designs over oil, most US officials really do want to make a success of a free Iraq. They believe in it with that kind of deep stare that makes you want to start fidgeting.

On completion of their time in Iraq, senior officials are presented with a signed certificate from L Paul Bremer III, thanking them for bringing democracy and freedom to the country. The Brits sometimes giggle at the back of the room, murmuring "inshallah" ("God willing"). The near-Messianic commitment extends to the US military. The other day, an Iraqi journalist asked a military spokesman what should be said to children scared by low-flying US helicopters. "Tell them it's the sound of freedom," he replied, without batting an eyelid.

More committed still are spokesmen for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which officially runs Iraq until 30 June. Many are determined to install democracy, not just in Iraq but across the whole Middle East. Why not topple the Saudi government while they are at it?

But most are also volunteers directly from the Republican Party - political appointees on leave from positions inside the Washington administration. Part of their job is to help George Bush win a second term. They have instructions to make at least the public face of the CPA into an "all-American show". One official said: "We are in election mode now, and that means the US elections. The orders came from the White House to make sure no Brit was on the platform for any crucial soundbite."

Until a couple of months ago, the CPA's deputy spokesman, a young British mandarin named Charles Heatley, was often on the podium facing the cameras. But he is gone and has not been replaced. There is now only one on-camera spokesman, a Republican named Dan Senor, a former communications director for Spencer Abraham, an ex-senator who is now US energy secretary. Although almost half of Iraq is now occupied by non-US troops, Senor responds to questions about the "coalition" by referring simply to "we Americans".

The British officials - mostly neutral-minded civil servants, frequently Arabists by training and instinct, some of them participants in last year's Stop the War marches - are more than a little shame-faced to be appendages to an American military machine.

Until now, to ring them on their mobile phones, you've had to dial 914, a US area code, as though it were a call to Westchester County, New York. You could reach their landlines only by dialling a 703 area code, the same as for the Pentagon in Washington and the Central Intelligence Agency in McLean, Virginia. And their e-mails still end "centcom.mil".

Stephen Grey returned earlier this month from a visit to Iraq