Seventeen months after the Anglo-American invasion in which President George Bush promised to bring democracy to Iraq, the country’s American-approved Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, yesterday introduced legislation allowing the Iraqi authorities to impose martial law, curfews, a ban on demonstrations, the restriction of movement, phone-tapping, the opening of mail and the freezing of bank accounts.

Military leaders may be appointed to rule parts of Iraq. A temporary reinstatement of Saddam Hussein’s death penalty is also now probable. Already, therefore, Iraq has begun to look just like any other Arab country. But the insurgency, which the laws are supposedly intended to break, exploded in gunfire in the very centre of Baghdad just as the new legislation was announced.

Incredibly, the fighting broke out in Haifa Street, in one of the busiest streets next to the Tigris river, as gunmen attacked Iraqi police and troops.

US helicopter gunships at roof-top height could be seen firing rockets at a building in the street which burst into flames. Bullets hissed across the Tigris and at least three soldiers, all believed to be Iraqis, were killed near the river bank.

The violence in the capital yesterday was impossible to avoid. It began with mortar attacks on the walled-off area where government officials live under American protection, one of the mortars falling close to Mr. Allawi’s home, another exploding beside a medical clinic close to his party headquarters. The explosions echoed over the city.

A bomb in a van, packed with shrapnel and artillery shells, was defused close to the government headquarters during the morning. Driving out of Baghdad at 11am, I saw another tremendous explosion blasting smoke and debris into the air close to an American convoy. US troops closed all highway bridges in the area in a desperate attempt to protect a long convoy of trucks and supplies moving into the city from the west. Traffic jams trailed for miles across Baghdad in 150F heat.

Many Iraqis may initially welcome the new laws. Security – or rather the lack of it – has been their greatest fear since the American military allowed thousands of looters to ransack Baghdad after last year’s invasion. They have, anyway, lived under harsh “security” laws for more than two decades under Saddam. But the new legislation may be too late to save Mr. Allawi’s “new” Iraq.

For large areas of the country – including at least four major cities – are in the hands of insurgents. Hundreds of gunmen are believed to control Samara north of Baghdad; Fallujah and Ramadi – where four more US Marines were killed on Tuesday – are now virtually autonomous republics.

Bakhityar Amin, Iraq’s new “minister of justice and human rights”, a combination of roles unheard of anywhere else in the world, was chosen to announce the martial-law legislation. “The lives of the Iraqi people are in danger, in danger from evil forces, from gangs and from terrorists,” he said. “We realise this law might restrict some liberties, but there are a number of guarantees. We have tried to guarantee justice and human rights.”

The legislation was necessary to fight insurgents who were “preventing government employees from attending their jobs, preventing foreign workers from entering the country to help rebuild Iraq and … to derail general elections.”

Iraq therefore entered into another fatal chapter of its history yesterday, and it didn’t look much like democracy.

Originally published in the Independent UK on July 8, 2004