by Donald Macintyre
Last Monday evening, General John Abizaid walked on to the famous $250,000 set in the briefing room at US Central Command in Qatar and stunned his news-hungry audience by giving them a glimpse of what was really happening in the unpredictable and already bloody war which yesterday came to the heart of civilian Baghdad.
Lieutenant-General Abizaid, Number Two to Tommy Franks, is an interesting man; not only does he have, as a veteran of the last Gulf War, an impeccable record as a soldier's soldier. Of Lebanese descent, he also speaks Arabic and has a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. This is a man who, in stark contrast to most of his colleagues, can actually pronounce the names of Iraqi towns.
And he seems a little more resistant than his immediate boss to versions of the the politician speak in which Geoff Hoon blithely announced yesterday that Saddam Hussein had effectively lost control of southern Iraq. It is unlikely to feel like that in Basra. Or the sotto voce spin that told you in the early days that those who reported setbacks were missing the bigger, more benign, picture.
It wasn't that General Abizaid was any less robust than his colleagues. He confronted the al-Jazeera reporter at the news conference, for example, over the station's "unacceptable" use of the Iraqi TV footage of US PoWs. It was rather that he broke what was then new ground by making not the slightest effort to disguise the level of resistance encountered by US at the crucial Euphrates crossing point of Nasiriyah, and by giving some factual details of the US casualties – including those suffered by a supply convoy unused to combat – and how they happened on this "toughest day" of the war so far.