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]
Children of the Storm Iraq: special report War, sanctions and corruption have brought Iraq to its knees. However, in the midst of hardship, many Iraqis still revere Saddam James Buchan Saturday September 25, 1999 The Guardian The Amiriyeh civilian shelter is in a smart residential district about five miles to the west of Baghdad. It was completed in 1984 during the war with Iran. You come to it by a neat motorway lined with palms, gum trees and oleanders. The shelter, grey and four-square, looks from the outside to be intact. When I went there at the hottest time of a blazing afternoon, during the daily power cut, I was met by a woman in a dress of deep mourning set off at the chest by a golden amulet in the shape of the Koran. Her name was Umm Ghaida. We needed a kerosene lamp and she took me into her makeshift office, which was papered with curling photographs, including one of her son, Maisan, being presented to the President of the Republic, Saddam Hussein. Maisan, she told me, was the sole survivor of her 10 children. The rest were killed when the shelter was hit by two bombs early in the morning of February 13 1991. Umm Ghaida had gone home the evening before to do the washing, and Maisan was too small to be left behind with his brothers and sisters. Beyond the five-ton steel double doors, designed to close on impact, was the upper storey of the shelter. Ahead was a dirty light that defeated the lamp. It came down through the perforations made by the two bombs. Sparrows squeaked among the torn steel reinforcing bars and vegetation. There were air vents there, she said, so the concrete was only two metres thick. She showed me the remains of the bathrooms, with the toilets still embedded in the floor, and the place where the boys and men slept, separate from the women and infants. The first bomb - Umm Ghaida called them missiles, though they came from a US Stealth bomber-had struck at 4.30am, the second four minutes later. Of the 1,200 people in the upper storey, she said, 1,186 were incinerated in the 4,000-degree heat. A lower number of dead - 394 - had been scratched out wherever it occurred on the official photographs nearby. In the two craters in the floor were gritty plastic bouquets left by visitors, and along the carbonised walls were photographs of the dead families, including Umm Ghaida's own. She pointed out her 13-year-old daughter, - "Pretty, wasn't she?" - and ran her fingers over the photographs, muttering: "George Bush says this was a military position. But was little Feyziye military? And Resha and Mehdiye?" Umm Ghaida was reluctant to go downstairs. I told her I'd come a long way. The lower storey housed the shelter's services: the Amiriyeh was supposed to be self-supporting for 21 days in the event of a nuclear or chemical attack. We passed scorched storerooms and a door marked "Doctor". Along the flickering walls, the lamp picked out the scummy marks made by water burst from the pipes and heated to boiling by the fire. In the shadows, I sensed Umm Ghaida lose her self-control. She scampered through the darkness. Here, under the stairs, bring up the lamp, look, feel it with your fingers, a matting of skin, a hank of girl's hair, the imprint of a backbone, the shadow of the heads of a boy and his sister, two hand-prints, an eyeball. In Umm Ghaida's devastated mind, the world was losing its order. The lower storey had passed to the demons of dead children. It didn't matter that, given time and the lamp, I could find routine explanations for these phenomena: the trash left by the flood, graffiti, the egg sacs of spiders. Down here, more than any place in Iraq, you confronted a society going off its head. Humiliated in war by the West, terrorised by their own government, reduced to paupers, unwelcome anywhere in the world, the Arabs of Iraq are falling to pieces. It is not simply that with their money and savings destroyed and their goods embargoed, their living standards have fallen to the level of at least 30 years ago. In their own eyes, as Iraqis, and above all as Arabs, they have been reduced to nothing. I have never seen a people so demoralised. Everybody I met, even the most repellent Ba'athi thug and extortionist, felt himself a victim. Out in the glare, Umm Ghaida withdrew into herself, hooded, dark, nine parts crazy, waiting for her bundle of money, which she nonetheless left untouched on the table. Her amulet glittered against the dirty black of her dress. I wrote idiocies in the visitors' book. As a reporter in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and the Arab Gulf states in the 1970s and 1980s, I watched Saddam Hus sein consolidate his control over his political party, the Ba'ath, and his country seize the leadership of the Arab world from Egypt in 1978, then risk it all in an eight-year war with Iran - the 19th anniversary of its beginning is this month - and an invasion of Kuwait. I was in Egypt when the Iraqis were expelled from Kuwait by a campaign of British and American bombing which included the attack on the Amiriyeh and the land assault of 24-28 February 1991, known in the West as Desert Storm and in Iraq as the Mother of Battles. On television I saw the country's industrial fabric, including its power plants and water and sanitation networks, knocked out of action. In the chaos, there were violent uprisings against Saddam in the mountainous north, where the Kurds had been fighting rule from Baghdad since the very foundation of Iraq in 1920, and in the disaffected Shia cities of the south. (The Shia, the religious majority in Iraq and also in Iran, had felt neglected by Saddam's regime, which draws its chief support from a secularised Sunni Arab minority.) On August 6 1990, soon after the Iraqi army entered Kuwait, the UN Security Council had imposed a full embargo on trade to and from Iraq excepting only food, medical supplies and other items described as of humanitarian need. The UN "ceasefire resolution", SCR 687, of April 3 1991, confirmed that the trade embargo against Iraq would remain in place. Its wording was vague, but paragraph 22 reads as if sanctions would not be lifted for so long as Iraq failed to account for all its unconventional weapons: these included the sorts of chemical weapons deployed against the Iranian army and Kurdish civilians in the 1980s. The resolution also created a special commission to carry out "immediate on-site inspections of Iraq's biological, chemical and missile capabilities". Trade ground to a halt, such industry as had survived the bombing shut down, private employment dwindled, the Iraqi currency collapsed and average incomes fell to the equivalent of a few dollars a month. >From the summer of 1991, the Security Council offered to allow Iraq to export $1.6bn in oil every six months to buy food and medicine. The oil revenues would be paid into an account controlled by the United Nations and spent on goods ordered by Baghdad but approved by a committee in New York. Saddam rejected the offer. He wanted, and still wants, to sell Iraqi oil for cash to spend as he pleases. In 1995, amid gruesome reports from the UN specialised agencies-including evidence from UNICEF that infant and maternal mortality rates had doubled since 1990-the Security Council improved its offer, allowing Iraq to sell $1bn of oil every ninety days. At length, Saddam relented and, on 20 May 1996, the UN and the Iraqi government signed a Memorandum of Understanding, the so-called "oil-for-food" deal, which has been refined and renewed, with much grumbling and grandstanding by the Iraqi regime, every six months, most recently on May 24 this year. Iraq is now exporting over $5bn worth of oil every half-year from its battered oilfields. Yet because the government must pay 30% of its oil earnings in reparations to Kuwait, cover the costs of the UN's monitoring programme and do repairs to its oil industry, the sum available for food, medicine, civilian reconstruction, household and school goods was only $2.6bn in the last six-month phase, or little more than $120 per Iraqi Arab and Kurd. In Kurdistan, the aid is administered by the UN. The Kurdish officials I met in Europe complained bitterly about the quality of the food and medicines ordered by Baghdad; a government that once had only the best from Europe and the US can now only afford rancid cooking oil from Egypt and Syrian antibiotics. But none of the Kurdish leaders wanted the sanctions lifted. The Kurds have suffered indescribable cruelties since 1975 and fear that, once he has cash, Saddam will merely rearm. In the centre and south of Iraq, where rations are distributed by the Iraqi government and monitored by the UN, the oil-for-food deal has staved off famine and epidemic while doing nothing to repair the country's fabric damaged in the war or improve the general health of the public. As for the special commission, usually called Unscom, I met nobody among the European and Asian diplomats in Baghdad who believed it had found and destroyed the regime's chemical and biological weapons.Whatever formal link existed between sanctions and so-called "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, it is fading from sight. The effect, in the modern world, of the hostility of the United States is to freeze a country in time. There are no civilian flights to Baghdad, and most visitors must come across the desert from Amman. My first sight of modern Iraq was a colossal fairy-lit head of Saddam Hussein hurtling out of the darkness, as if from another galaxy of despotism and violence. Beside it Iraqi officials stood in the shadows, smiling, their arms crossed, like shearers waiting for the sheep. The Jordanian drivers shed their swagger and began to whine. This was the Iraqi frontier post of Trebil. Beyond was an empty motorway, the black desert, tanker trucks swerving like terrified deer in the headlights, then the silent, unlit city sleeping among its palms. At the Rasheed Hotel, a nightingale was singing in the dark garden. Crossing the threshold, visitors must step on a mosaic portrait of a snarling George Bush, a gesture of defiance at one with the antique anti-aircraft artillery on the roofs of the quiet ministries. I had expected a city under siege. I was surprised to find the shreds of both private and public civility: a pianist plinking out the song from Titanic to an empty coffee shop, Belarussian businessmen in the lobbies, cinema marquees painted with gigantic negligéed women, liquor stores, money changers, brand-new police motorbikes, Brazilian Passats bumping and bouncing on potholed streets, fish restaurants beside the Tigris, cranes towering over the sites of presidential palaces and mosques. It was a day or two before my eyes became accustomed to the Potemkin character of Baghdad. Brush against the scenery and you come on a sort of despair. The loafers on the pavements will still buy a stranger a Coke at midday; and this vestige of Arab hospitality came from men who can't remember when they last ate meat. The shops in the hotels and middle-class districts, which at first seemed so elegant, were in reality selling off the personal property of all three generations of the Iraqi middle class: Rolexes and Parker pens at the front, then cocktail shakers and silver cigarette cases engraved with railway bridges, and, at the back, tulip vases and tobacco pipes of painted Bohemian glass. In Mutanabbi Street, where books are sold in the open air and the city's literary intellectuals gather every Friday, I saw stacks of the American Home and the New England Journal of Medicine from the 1950s and realised some man had sold everything he had to buy his grandson or granddaughter a passage to Jordan. Anybody with a halfway paying job will be supporting two dozen family dependants. When oil revenues dried up in 1990 and the regime's foreign assets were frozen, the Iraqi government continued to print money. As a result, the Iraqi dinar lost 98% of its value. At the money changers' on Saadoun Street, the chief commercial district of Baghdad, men staggered out with plastic bags full of bundles of badly printed 250-dinar notes, known in Arabic as dinar fotokopi, "photocopy money", or as shabah, "phantoms". This money was sometimes refused by beggars. Since wages and pensions are paid at the old pre-inflation rate, all but the most favoured sections of the civil service and military have been reduced to penury. I was baffled that men and women went obediently to their offices for a few dollars a month. Some said things were difficult at home, or they liked company or the air-conditioning for the few hours a day it is working. The truth is that Iraqi Arabs treasure any symbol of normality. Like Saddam, they will not make peace with their misfortune. I was taken to Baghdad university, a neat campus in Waziriyeh where the well-dressed boys and girls looked like American high-school pupils. I was surprised they bothered to attend. They had almost no chance of a job after college. Opposite the gate to the Kazimain mosque the evening before, I had met a cheerful PhD selling black georgette for ladies' abayas who ran off a list of his fellow students who were cab drivers. It is what Count Hans Sponeck, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad, called "the deprofessionalisation of Iraq under sanctions". As I set off across the hot campus, a boy named Raad trotted by my side. He said, "The other students came to me and said, 'Run after the English reporter and tell him our problem. It is unfair! We cannot even get Thomas Hardy!' And this writer" - he looked down at The Great Gatsby in the old pastel Penguin - "Scott Fitzgerald. You must tell your government to let us have books. You must tell your government to let us visit. We are human beings, aren't we? For God's sake let us come." I went to primary schools, where little children sprang up and bawled at me, "Long live Saddaham Hissayin! Long live the Ba'ath party, nurse of the generations!" but needed paper and pencils. We saw jerry-rigged water-treatment plants struggling with the worst drought in memory and railway tracks without power to work the signals. In the hospitals, the leukaemia wards were filled with dying children and their resigned parents; I was told that the disease was increasing in the south, as a result of depleted uranium used in the Allied ordnance in the Kuwait war. In the paediatric department of the Hussein Hospital in Kerbela, sanitary conditions were so bad that the children in the emergency rooms were perpetually infected and reinfected with gastric illnesses. The only salbutamol nebuliser was held together by tape, and I was told asthma patients had to be sent the 75 miles to the Saddam Children's Hospital in Baghdad. Here was the reality of a weakened Saddam; asthmatic children bundled into taxis to choke to death on the road to Baghdad. Yet the paediatric hospitals had their elements of sham. Dr Ghaith, a young houseman in Kerbela, scrabbled at noon through the empty shelves of the hospital pharmacy, counting off syringes into his left hand: "...34, 35. Thirty-five is all I have for the whole hospital until eight o'clock tomorrow morning!" I told him what the United Nations had told me, but the Ministry had not permitted me to verify for myself: that the central Ministry of Health warehouses in Baghdad had on their shelves undelivered medical supplies worth $275m. Dr Ghaith looked at me in bafflement. It occurred to me that the Ba'ath has been quite successful in blaming sanctions for evils that are of its own creation: the collapse of the currency, for example, or the hostility of the other Arab countries dumping their low-grade medicines and stale food on the country, or the incompetence, corruption or malice of the local administration. My chief friend in Baghdad was a man whom I addressed as Mr Abdullah. A retired professional with a wide acquaintance in Europe, he had dismissed all his staff in January 1993 and was running through his savings at the house he had built in the suburbs. Mr Abdullah's wife was dead, his children were abroad, but he stays in Baghdad because he loves the town, and because the dinar is so cheap that with $200 a month sent from abroad to be exchanged in Saadoun Street you can live in Baghdad like an ambassador. Since neither of us had much to do, Mr Abdullah took me to visit his friends. I met writers and architects and poets and engineers and picture dealers and sculptors-all of a certain age, when they had begun to cease to care about governments any more. Some were Party members, or were active in the Women's Federation or the Union of Iraqi Journalists or some other organ of the Ba'ath's near total social organisation. I never heard a word of criticism of the President from these people; indeed, they praised him for his monuments and patronage of writers. I was witnessing the last survivors of a patrician, Anglophile, Art Deco civility. Just evident beneath their kindness was an authentic regret: that they, who had absorbed the values of Britain and the United States, should now be abandoned by those countries; and also a well-bred anxiety. They professed an intense nostalgia for the 1980s. Sitting in her fine house by the Tigris, Mrs Salma Mishlawi, an Iraqi gentlewoman of the old school, the first woman in her family to go unveiled, the first to attend university in England, said: "The 1980s were a sort of climax for us. We became spoiled. Everything we needed the government gave to us. The war with Iran didn't really affect us for the first year or two. Until, of course, the boys started to disappear: from here, and here, and here..." She gestured with her fingers towards the river and Saadoun Street and Thawra and the western suburbs. Iraq is said to have lost 200,000 men in the war with Iran. In the street portraits which stand at crossroads or outside government or commercial buildings, the President is shown in different characters in a sort of trashy international Iraq: as a weekend sportsman in a shop-new outfit and holding a 12-bore shotgun, as an Austrian hiker with loden coat and feathered hat, as a pool lizard in a panama, as a short-order cook, as a Bedu prince, as an Arab officer of the Ottoman army circa 1907, as a French judge with sword and scales, as a landowner with robe and chequered headcloth, as a brilliant scientist with extra-large glasses, as a grandfather with child and cigar, as a big-band musician, as a Kurdish peshmerga, or warrior, creeping forward through long grass, as a cult leader with garland and sunburst, as a war hero, as a young and promising constitutional monarch, as Stalin in a fur hat, as a Russian gangster in a leather coat, as a navvy with spade, waistcoat and cloth cap. The purpose of the pictures is both to remind the public of its Great Leader, particularly in the years after Kuwait when he was not much seen in public, and also to act as a superstitious protection, a species of devil worship. At a deeper level, they are like old portraits of monarchs in Europe and promote a dynastic notion: that the President embodies Iraqi male society in all its variety and in a sort of super-ideal form. We visited the Sahat al-Ehtefalat, or Festival Square, Saddam's monument to victory in the war with Iran, a ceremonial parade ground in Soviet or Chinese style closed at both ends by monumental forearms holding aloft the swords of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet and patriarch of the Shia. I was told the forearms were modelled on those of the President. To enter it, you drive over Iranian helmets embedded in the concrete, or tumbling from nets at the base of the monumental wrists. It expresses all that the Ba'ath has by way of ideology. It is a monument to pure violence. At Feish Khabur in Kurdistan, where the Tigris flows out of Turkey and is joined by the Khabur tributary, you can stand at a place where three countries meet: Iraq, Turkey and Syria. There is nothing in this wild place except snowy mountains and 37 Kurdish boys, in Kevlar suits and baby-blue United Nations helmets, on their knees clearing anti-personnel mines. Here, in the late summer of 1990, fearing an Allied invasion through Turkey, the Iraqi army sowed a strip of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines which stretches some 45 kilometres. On a small ridge above the river junction, there is a rusty observation tower. The Italian, Chinese, Russian, Ger man and Yugoslav mines now poking through the weeds were laid, I guess, to protect it. While the mines might have held up a modern army for a good 30 seconds, they blow Kurdish villagers and flocks to smithereens. A field which took a morning to lay will take the UN nine months to clear. I watched a black kite quartering the minefield and realised I was happy. For the first time in four weeks, in this cartographical rarity, among these diligent young men and their Australian and South African supervisors, I could breathe in and breathe out. I was delighted with my liberty and that of the men around me. Khorshid, my driver in Kurdistan, who lived in Baghdad, had learned his English from BBC cameramen. As we drove south from the Feish Khabur minefield down wide, green valleys, past immense blockhouses in the wheat that date from British battles with the Kurds in the 1920s, or the rubble of villages destroyed by Saddam during the war with Iran, we were driven off the road by a truck carrying smuggled diesel to Turkey. "Cor blimey, what a tosser," Khorshid said. I had seen the vestiges of Iraqi rule in Kurdistan: the filthy concrete concentration camps along the main roads, the dynamited villages. Between 1975 and 1990, the Ba'ath is reckoned by the Kurds to have destroyed more than 4,000 villages in order to cut off support to the Kurdish fighters. In the so-called Anfal campaign at the end of the Iran war - the word is a Ba'athi joke: Anfal is a chapter heading in the Koran and means The Spoils of War - Saddam tried to extirpate Kurdish rural existence. In command was Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan Majid, known in Kurdistan as Ali Kimawiya, "Ali Chemical". On the morning of March 16 1988, aircraft clearly marked as Iraqi dropped napalm and phosphorus on the Kurdish town of Halabjeh, and then followed up with nerve gas. At least 3,800 people were killed that morning. Both the Kurds and the Iranians were so shattered by Halabjeh that they sued for peace. If sanctions are lifted, it is hard to imagine Saddam spending the resulting $10bn a year or more in oil revenues solely on medicine and education and repairs to the electricity and sanitation systems. He will spend it to restore his prestige and his security. He will spend it on palaces and motorways and hospitals, and on weapons of every sort. Back in Baghdad, Mr Abdullah picked me up in his Buick. It was dark. As we drove through the underpass beneath the Zawra Park, he gathered himself together in that way even the bravest Iraqis have when they are going to talk about Saddam. He said: "Don't touch the President. Everything we have here, everything you see" - and here he pointed at the new shops by the racetrack where, in December 1996, Saddam's son Uday had been ambushed and wounded - "everything you see is designed to protect him. Nothing else matters." He was right, of course, for modern Iraq is merely the physical embodiment of a single man's fears and misjudgements. What Mr Abdullah meant, in the elusive way of speaking people have in Iraq, is that Saddam is the Last Iraqi. To get to him, the US will have to kill every single other Iraqi, Arab and Kurd. What Mr Abdullah meant was that it isn't worth it: that, as the boy said at Baghdad University, it isn't fair. • This is an edited extract from the new edition of Granta magazine, Women And Children First, £8.99 or direct from Granta (freecall 0500 004 033) £6.99. James Buchan's new novel A Good Place to Die, is published by Harvill this week at £16.99. © Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999