The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Long article by Maggie O'Kane from the Guardian (March 7)

Here's a long article by Maggie O'Kane that appears in today's Guardian.

It's perspective on Iraq's chemical/biological weapons programme is
somewhat different from the Independents !

Mail letters to


      Another day in Babylon
Two weeks after Saddam's diplomatic victory, the people of Iraq are
getting on with their lives. But they aren't celebrating. In seven years
of reporting from the country, Maggie O'Kane has never seen its people
more hopeless and depressed. 

Saturday March 7, 1998 

The poet's sons have taken the yacht down the Tigris for the afternoon.
The poet himself is working in his study on the second floor of a white
villa overlooking the river. In the sitting room, tea is taken in white
china cups, as thin as paper, along with Italian biscuits. 

Abid al Razaq al Wahid is busy writing a victory poem to mark the passing
of the latest crisis in his country - the 'Showdown With Iraq', as the CNN
logo proclaims every time one of the television channel's three
correspondents in Baghdad appears on screen. The poet, dressed in a pale
beige suit and red tie, begins to recite: 'Be happy, my President/Your
light is coming and theirs is passing away in vain./When our horse
stumbled in the confusion you led the way ... ' 

Iraq's Poet Laureate enjoys the favours of the President. His daughter
studies in France, while his sons spent 12 years at schools and
universities in the United States. When he writes a poem that pleases the
President, the Laureate gets a new car and tells everyone about it. But if
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's visit to Saddam Hussein had
not ended in a deal, Abid al Razaq al Wahid might have been floating down
the river alongside the family yacht. 

During the uprising against Saddam in the days that followed the 1991 Gulf
war, one of the President's other favoured poets, Tariq al Hussein, was
taken by the leaders of the uprising in Kerbala. They dressed him in a
woman's nightgown, cut out his tongue, cut off his ears and called on the
dying man to recite a few lines of his poetry. Then they cut him into
small pieces. 

Al Wahid's poem to celebrate the end of the current crisis is almost
finished - in 20 years he has learned what pleases his President: "You are
the Sword of all the earth, whose pride refused to be sheathed./The world
rose against you but you were the one who rattled their little chains ...
" This latest poem is to be published the next day in Iraq's national
newspapers. Things are normal again in Iraq. 

In the lobby of the Al Rasheed hotel, the TV crews of the world are
packing up their steel suitcases and going home. The grey marbled floor is
speckled with travel bags and souvenir rugs. Meanwhile, Saddam can take
stock. His biological weapons programme is still intact and undetected. In
the Arab World he is seen as a victim of Western aggression, and he has
split the UN Security Council down the middle. There is an easing, but no
promise of an end to seven years of sanctions against Iraq. Sanctions that
have never hurt Saddam, because he still thrives on illegal oil shipments
through Iran, Syria and Turkey. 

In Iraq, the people are in a state of deep depression. At night, in the
Mansour district of Baghdad, the wealthy take their children for
ice-cream, and themselves for coffee. (Alcohol was banned in 1994.) There
is a weary resignation to their powerlessness. 'I have said from the
beginning that he would give the Americans what they wanted. It's not a
question of what's happening to the people, or anything to do with the
sanctions. It is a question of him being personally threatened,' says a
retired teacher who seems desperate to talk to a foreigner. 'Now they are
calling it a victory for Iraqi diplomacy. There are a lot of people here
who are sorry there weren't air strikes. Me, I'm not, I have seen the
price of uprising, and it is a very bloody price to pay - even to be free.
If we could be sure that they were serious about getting him, then maybe.
But we're not sure.' 

Evenly spaced along the new yellow brickwork, at three-metre intervals,
are stones inscribed with the words: 'Built In The Era Of Saddam Hussein,
The Great Leader And Builder Of Iraq And The Defender Of Civilisation.'
The walls have been constructed on top of the ruins of Babylon, burying
the ochre browns and yellows, mellowed by 4,000 years of history, with the
building blocks of 1993. Saddam has reclaimed Babylon, making it his own.
He has outraged international archaeologists by planting crass,
mis-matching bricks on top of the ruins. He has also built a palace of
white Italian marble on a hill above the ancient city - so big it blocks
the sunlight. 

Below the palace of the new King of Babylon is the Euphrates Valley. Once
a fertile oasis, heavy with grape vines and palm trees, it is now a
blackened spread of stumps that stretch to the horizon. This tormented
landscape explains much of why, when Kofi Annan went to Baghdad, Saddam
presented him with one of Iraq's finest delicacies, truffles, and Annan
left for New York with all that he asked for. 

The giant portrait of Saddam at the bend in the road to Babylon is new, as
are most of the hundreds of thousands of posters and billboards of him
seen throughout Iraq. After the Gulf war, they were defaced and smeared
with human excrement. In 15 of the 18 provinces of Iraq, the people rose
against him. Even in Baghdad, his stronghold, the poor of Saddam City
revolted, pushing out to meet the rebel armies 50 kilometres south of the
city. That's how close it was. 

The shorn trees were left behind when the Republican Guards bombed the
rebels out of Babylon. Seven years later, while driving around the
historical sights of Babylon, someone asks, 'What happened to the trees?'
No one knows. Eyes to the ground. 

In these past months, as the warships moved into the Gulf, Saddam
recognised that his time was coming again. The signs were there that
military strikes could lead to another rebellion. 

In the build-up to Annan's final peace mission, a series of assassinations
and mortar attacks began in the southern cities of Basra and Hella. Far
away from the hundreds of TV cameras arriving for the war, graffiti
appeared on the walls of the city of Basra: 'In the richest oil state of
the Arab world, we can't fill our cars with petrol: We are led by a
useless coward.' 

Further north, on February 18, an old merchant was visiting his daughter
in the city of Hella, near Babylon. He saw two armed men, their faces
masked with scarves, stop a car carrying the heads of security for the
region - including the police chief and a high-ranking party member of the
leading Ba'ath party. Two of the passengers died instantly, the police
chief clung to life in hospital. 

As the threat of physical force began to move closer, the regime grew
nervous. In 1991, the first thing the rebels of Basra did when they rose
against Saddam, was to open the doors of the prisons. So, in November and
December of last year, hundreds of executions began in Abu Ghraib prison
on the outskirts of Baghdad. Behind the 20-foot-high white perimeter
fence, 400 rebels - sentenced to 15 years after the 1991 uprising - were
killed. Relatives arriving at the prison were told to check the list at
the entrance gate, and, if the name of the person they were visiting was
on it, there was no point waiting. 

On February 21, just as Annan was leaving his meeting with Saddam, a
rocket aimed at the Ba'ath party headquarters on Hella's main street
missed its target - a Saturday evening meeting of Saddam loyalists. A
member of Saddam's inner-circle, Mizban Khidir Wadi, was sent down from
Baghdad to deal with the unrest two weeks ago, and 300 young people were
arrested: 'One of them will talk,' he said. Someone probably has by now. 

The Canal Hotel is a three-storey white building with its window frames
painted in warm, Mediterranean blue gloss. This is the headquarters used
by Unscom, the United Nations inspectors monitoring Iraq's chemical,
biological and nuclear weapons capabilities. On the third floor, they are
watching Annan telling CNN how well his meeting with Saddam had gone.
Security is tight in their corridor, the soldiers and technicians of
Unscom keep to themselves. The rest of the United Nations doesn't like
their approach - too much drinking late at night in the Capitaine
Restaurant. 'It's all the cowboy stuff they go in for,' said one UN
official, 'the swagger. They like to think of themselves shooting from the
hip and that approach doesn't help things here.' A video tape from the
weapons monitors' film club is lying on top of a TV set in their spokesman
Alan Dacey's room. Its title is too predictable to make up - The Dogs Of

The mood on the third floor of the Canal Hotel is subdued, chastened. A
new investigating team is coming in, led by a Sri Lankan with a little
less machismo. But the problem is much much deeper than a showdown between
soldiering egos. The Iraqi biological weapons arsenal is still missing. At
the United Nations Weapons Inspectors headquarters in New York, Euan
Buchanan, their long-time spokesman, is irritated by claims of
exaggeration by the Unscom team, angry that the Iraqis have accused them
of having a political agenda, and passionate in his belief that the Iraqi
biological weapons programme remains hidden and dangerous. The facts
support his fears. 

Independent sources, including Britain's leading biological and chemical
weapons experts, also conclude that there is a lot to be worried about.
Paul Rogers, of the department of Peace Studies at Bradford University,
says the biggest concern is biological and chemical weapons. 'The biggest
shock was that they had already successfully test-flown these missiles
loaded with chemical and biological weapons.' 

In a flat in London's Holland Park, a 52-year-old former Iraqi army
officer is vague about the help the Ministry of Defence gave him to flee
Iraq, vague about how he survives in west London, and vague about the
exact reason why the Ministry of Defence wants him there. But he's not
vague about the availability of chemical and biological weapons to
soldiers on the front line during the Gulf war. 

'I cannot tell you exactly what they were because we never opened the
boxes. They were kept separately from the other munitions. They were never
fired, but they were there if the orders had come.' 

The ingredients to make 200 tons of nerve gas, 17 tons of 'growth medium
for biological agents', and 31,000 chemical weapons munitions are still
missing after seven years of searching by the UN weapons inspectors. The
Iraqis claim that they have destroyed them and that there are no documents
to prove the destruction because they 'did it on the phone'. 

Euan Buchanan spits out the words. 'They 'did it on the phone'. They don't
work like that in Iraq. Everything is done on paper. Every single Scud
missile has what amounts to a personal passport. Nothing happens to
weapons in Iraq without six people signing and then six people signing

Saddam's biological arsenal is the only thing he's got left. That and his
instinct for survival. So he met Annan and made peace. In the coming
months, the Unscom inspectors will come and go, tussling with and
second-guessing an intelligence system that, according to Dr Rogers in
Bradford, has dedicated 1,000 staff to hiding the country's biological
weapons capacity. 

Whatever happens, Saddam is unlikely to play the blatantly obstructionist
game of the past few months, since it is clear that military action
against him, and a devastatingly brutal uprising is still a deep breath
away. 'The next time, the Americans will strike within 24 hours. They have
learned that when they start looking for a consensus in the international
community the whole thing falls apart and there's huge pressure in the
United States for a strike,' says a foreign diplomat in Baghdad. 

A middle-aged secretary in the World Health Organisation's (WHO) offices
in Baghdad pads up and down the corridor in sensible flat shoes and a
knee-length black skirt, protecting her harassed boss. He's been telling
journalists the same story about the devastation caused by sanctions since
he arrived in Baghdad three years ago. 'The system is in a state of

Nasim, a 31-year-old surgical nurse, has arrived with his six-year-old
daughter, Qufran, to look for help. In 1994, during the last limited US
military strike on Baghdad, a missile hit two kilometres from their house
at 9pm one evening, rattling the windows and doors of their home. 'She was
two then,' he says. 'She woke up and went into a sort of shock. Her eyes
rolled back in her head.' Afterwards, her hair began to fall out, she
didn't grow properly, and her hair has never come back. 'The doctors tell
me it's some sort of trauma and prescribed Valium, but her hair never grew

For the past four years, Nasim has been taking his daughter from doctor to
doctor, aid agency to aid agency, trying to find some way of making his
daughter's hair grow. 'She is a girl - it is important for her,' he says.
Tugging gently at Qufran's woollen baseball cap, to show his bald
six-year-old, he strokes her head gently to comfort her in her
humiliation. 'I bought her a wig so she could go to school but the other
children pulled it off and she won't go any more. She won't play outside
because they laughed at her.' 

In his hand he has an aerosol can marked Hairgrow. Because of the
sanctions and the collapse of the Iraqi economy, it costs him the
equivalent of three months' wages for the can - the only result so far are
some wisps of downy blonde hair on a scalp encrusted with four years'
worth of his family's income. He has sold his house, his video, his
Italian bedroom suite. 

'What was the hardest thing to sell?' 

'Her Atari computer game. She is a clever child and she played it a lot.' 

Back in their house, a neighbour's child catches a glimpse of Qufran
playing in the doorway with her bald doll. 

'Hey baldy!' 

'I'm not bald,' says Qufran, 'She's bald.' She points to her doll. 

'She cries sometimes,' says her father. 'And I cry with her.' 

And who does he blame for the sanctions and for the crisis? 

'The United States,' he says. 'They want to destroy us.' 

And Saddam Hussein? 

'We love Saddam Hussein.' 

In 1996, a three-year study by legal, medical and engineering experts
based mainly at Harvard, concluded that half a million children under five
had died or fallen ill in Iraq because of sanctions, lack of food,
medicine, dirty water, electrical shortages. Roger Normand, a New
York-based lawyer, was the policy director of the group. 'Imagine if the
United Nations had conducted a war against Iraq that killed thousands of
children for limited political gains,' he said when announcing the results
of the study. 'The wisdom of this war would certainly be fiercely debated
around the globe, in contrast to the deafening silence that surrounds the
continuation of sanctions.' 

The silence is ending. Internationally, governments can no longer justify
the sanctions policy, and the amount of oil Iraq can sell to provide
emergency food and medicine will be almost doubled in the coming year.
'Things are improving, and with this money things will be easier,' says
Dennis Halliday, who runs the UN operation in Baghdad. 

'There is also a change in attitude by the Iraqis - more co-operation
since the Annan visit. The easing of the sanctions means that, for the
first time, rations will include cheese protein, and there will be more
medicines. The WHO estimates that an increase from $2 billion to $4
billion-worth of oil being sold to buy food and medicine will see
two-thirds of the country's medical needs taken care of. 

The Saddam Hussein Tower Restaurant would dwarf most of the buildings in
London's skyline. These things are important to Saddam. It was built
during the sanctions, and here in the deserted, blue-carpeted interior,
the deep-fried trout from the Tigris river costs a month's wages. Saddam
has ordered that a mosque - to be called the Saddam Hussein Mosque - be
built in every town. The Saddam Hussein Clock Tower houses the Saddam
Hussein Museum, with photographs which displays his peasant origins
alongside the Saddam Hussein Typewriter, on which he conceived his
Ba'athist revolution, and the now-stuffed stuffed white horse on which the
young revolutionary rode into exile in Egypt. 

On the banks of the river, by a fish restaurant where the chosen fish is
roasted on a spit before customers, a 44-year-old woman is talking about
her president and her life. Mira is a university lecturer in medicine, but
can't live on the #3 a month she gets paid by the government. Many of her
fellows - students, engineers, professionals - make a living driving taxis
for the UN to earn hard currency. Her brother has been missing for 18
years, since he went to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. Thousands of Iraqis
are still held as prisoners-of-war in Iran. Last year, her mother was
murdered by the sons of her neighbour, who were desperate to get hard
currency to go and study in Russia. The one thing she wanted, children,
never happened. 

'In the Iran-Iraq war, we lost a lot of our men,' she explains. 'There
were ten boys in my class at college. Two died in the Iran-Iraq war;
another two, we think, are still prisoners there, the next one died in the
Gulf war and three others left to work. The rest of us don't meet any
more. It's too depressing to hear that someone else has left or been
killed.' She's one woman among 21 million people in Iraq, with a story
that is typical, rather than especially tragic. She shrugs when asked who
she blames. 'Maybe it's just our destiny,' she says. 

All Iraqis have been reduced by the Era Of Saddam Hussein. The assistant
manager of Baghdad's Al Rasheed hotel hovers around my room for too long.
He is dressed for a Hugh Grant wedding: knife-creased, grey pinstripe
trousers, a starched white shirt and black tails stretching towards his
polished shoes. He conducts the managerial formalities with four-star
splendour: the television; the empty mini-bar; how the lamp switches on.
And then this elegant man says in fluent English: 'Have you got anything
for me? What about those biscuits?' He points to a box of chocolate- chip

'The biscuits are for breakfast. What about bananas?' 

'That would be fine,' he said, taking five bananas and gliding off down
the corridor. 

Since the Gulf war, Saddam has survived at least seven coup attempts. In
April and June 1991, two attempts by the military were quashed. The
following year, in June, a planned ambush on his motorcade in Baghdad was
betrayed. In July 1993, 420 men from the Jabouri clan were jailed for
plotting against him. Also in July, two men had dynamite detonated in
their mouths when plans to assassinate him were uncovered. In 1994, one of
his cooks tried to poison him. Another bomb attempt on his motorcade
failed in January 1994. Later that year, an army lieutenant, acting alone,
opened fire and missed. A battalion of the Republican Guards tried again
in 1995 and were crushed. In June 1996, 800 people were arrested for
conspiracy and 68 executed. 

In between the attempted coups and the threatened wars, Saddam continues
to construct monuments to his own era. He's obsessed by his desire to
carve a place for himself among the kings of Babylon. Near his
newly-constructed yellow-brick Babylonian Disneyland are the ruins of the
Four Mountain Gardens. Better known as the Hanging Gardens Of Babylon,
they were built 3,000 years ago by King Nabuchadnazze to keep his Kurdish
princess from growing homesick for the green mountains of her birthplace
in the north. 

Nabuchadnazze's engineers devised a way of making the waters of the
Euphrates defy gravity, flowing up the four mountains to water his love
gardens. In 1993, Saddam announced a competition in Baghdad's newspapers
to find an engineer who could repeat the miracle in the Era Of Saddam.
None could be found, so he had his mountains covered with ringlets of
black hosepipe with an electric cable car to link the four. 

His biographer, who compiled the 19 volumes of The Life And Struggle Of
Saddam Hussein, introduces the books with the words: 'He has honoured me
with my revolutionary pen which is dipped in the love of Saddam Hussein
and that has completed the most holy and honourable writing in the history
of literature.' Saddam Hussein: Glances Into His Comprehensive Thoughts;
Saddam Hussein: A Trip With Saddam Hussein As A Person And As A Leader;
Saddam Hussein: Statements On Science, Technology And Development;
Statements In The Memory Of Saddam Hussein; Saddam Hussein Away From
Politics; Days From The Life Of Saddam Hussein ... 

Saddam Hussein lives in his own Babylon, a place where there are no
bald-headed six-year-olds in baseball caps and where court poets flourish.
It's a place that doesn't connect with UN Security Council resolutions,
delights in dominating the world news, and only matters because the world
is frightened of Saddam and his weapons. He can never surrender his
instruments of survival and prestige. If they come again to corner him -
and there is no time for Kofi Annan to eat truffles - he will fight with
all he has left: biological and chemical weapons. 

In 1969, the Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, negotiated with
Saddam, and has known him for 20 years. Knowing this man better than any
other diplomat or world leader, Primakov has worked hard to prevent a new
war in the Gulf and describes Saddam as 'dangerously unpredictable'. 

An uprising? Chemical and biological weapons used in the death throes of
Saddam's Babylonian regime? Maybe a historic gesture to end the Era Of
Saddam Hussein - a biological attack on Israel. According to Euan
Buchanan, of the UN weapons monitors, planes with biological sprays have
already been developed with such a target in mind. 'They've admitted that
these planes were developed for Israel,' he says. 

In the mythical city of Babylon, Hell is a place called Arallou, where
there is nothing left but sand. 'We are afraid of what he might do, if he
were cornered,' says the old merchant on the visit to his daughter. He is
80, he is ill, and he doesn't care about speaking out of turn. 'He said
once during the Iran-Iraq war that he would leave Iraq in dust before
giving it to the Iranians. That's what we're all afraid of. He will do
anything to survive.' As the world baulks at the enormity of any decision
to strike against Saddam, there will always be those Iraqis brave enough
to strike at him from the inside, and to hang for it. But most of them
will continue to live as they do now - in loathing and in terror of the
cunning King of Babylon.

Copyright Guardian Media Group plc 1998  

This is a discussion list run by Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To be removed/added, email, NOT the
whole list. Archived at

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]