Lindsey Hilsum - explores an illusory Iraq

Iraqis have as many illusions as Bush about their country, like children closing their eyes and sayi

Everyone has their fantasy Iraq, because reality is too hard to bear. Tony Blair has an Iraq where things are gradually getting better, by way of things getting worse first - a bit like driving from London to Edinburgh via Brighton. "As we make the advance towards democracy, the terrorists will get more frenetic," explains John Reid, Secretary of State for Defence. Their Iraq is full of democrats bravely standing up to terrorism. Reid refers to the large turnout of Iraqi people for the election in January without mentioning the widespread disillusion and anger among voters when, for months, their elected representatives squabbled rather than governed, and then failed to control the spiralling violence. He talks time and again of atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein, and never mentions disturbing evidence of current abuses by the new Iraqi forces.

British military leaders have their illusions, too, revelling in the notion that the British operation in Basra is more subtle and successful than that of our crude American allies. Until now, policing Basra has been relatively easy, because the Shias who populate the south had made a strategic decision not to fight the occupation. Yet when the British take on potential opponents, Basra starts to look like Baghdad. After British forces arrested two leading members of the militia loyal to the populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr at the weekend, demonstrators jammed the streets and stoned British vehicles. Two British officers, operating undercover disguised as Arabs, were arrested after allegedly shooting at Iraqi police. The mob torched a British armoured personnel carrier and tried to attack British soldiers. Religious zealots are increasingly powerful in the Basra provincial authority, as they are in the police, a fact highlighted by the American reporter Steven Vincent last month, before he was murdered by men reportedly wearing police uniform.

George Bush is the master illusionist, telling the UN General Assembly that Iraq is "an exciting opportunity for all of us in this chamber". His even more deluded vice-president declared in June that the growing insurgency was "in its last throes".

But Iraqis I know are equally illusioned. At a function to raise money for sick Iraqi children, an Iraqi woman insistently pulled me aside. "I wish you would stop saying that Sunnis are killing Shias or Shias killing Sunnis!" she said. I pointed out that I had to say this because it was true.

"I know, I know," she said. "But we Iraqis are one - we have no Shia or Sunni. You should say that!" For decades, Iraqis were told to gloss over their country's potential sectarian divisions, like a child closing his eyes and saying, "You can't see me." Even now, when insurgent attacks in Baghdad are clearly targeting Shia neighbourhoods and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, has declared war on the Shia majority, many would rather not accept that Iraqi Sunnis have been recruited to the cause.

"No Iraqi would hurt fellow Iraqis!" they cry, as if those who worked as torturers and executioners for Saddam Hussein had not been Iraqi. Much easier to blame the occupiers for everything. An Iraqi friend scours the internet for leftist American blogs, which he forwards to his contacts around the world. Rather than try to find out what is going on in his own country, he acts as a distorting mirror, reflecting back the arguments against occupation from foreigners, many of whom have never been to Iraq. He draws a distinction between "resistance" - taking up arms against the occupiers - and "terrorism", which he defines as attacking Iraqis. Yet, the distinction blurs when attacks are targeted at the Iraqi police and army, who co-operate with the occupation.

In the "green zone", the Iraqi National Assembly drew up a constitution on which the people are meant to vote next month. It has provisions to enshrine women's rights but, in reality, vigilantes and criminal gangs determine whether women may walk bare-headed, or dare to leave their homes at all. Politicians in the green zone, guarded by US marines, operate under the illusion that they live in Iraq, but the real Iraq starts only beyond the razor wire and concrete blast blocks.

Reality is too dangerous for most foreign journalists, myself included, so we have to rely on our own lack of illusion. Every day, I see the pictures satellited in from Baghdad - broken bodies and overfilled hospital wards, arbitrary soundbites: "A vehicle drew up and we heard an explosion", "My brother is missing."

The illusionists would say I am just dwelling on the bad news. What about all the places in Iraq where there are no bombs? Hard to say, because it's too dangerous to get to them. When I talk to Iraqi friends and acquaintances on the phone, they tell me I have no idea how bad it is. The Iraq they live in is painfully real and leaves no room for illusion. And yet the British and US governments, and their supporters, insist, in the face of increasing violence, that talk of civil war is scaremongering. Until those who make decisions about Iraq face reality, there is no hope of rescuing it from the abyss.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Vote Brown: get Blair!