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Saddam's birthday: a trip to Iraq in 2000

Saddam's birthday cake is limegreen and pink and shaped like a flower. It sits in the middle of a parade ground painted with lurid pastel designs, like my primary school playground, except St. Johns C of E Infants didn't have a line of dancing sheikhs, or two balconies full of sinister men in black moustaches.

The men are all wearing olive green uniforms, black berets and have slight paunches. They seem familiar. I nudge Karim (not his real name), my escort from the Ministry of Information. They look a bit like Saddam, don't they? He looks up at the massed ranks of the ruling Ba'ath (Renaissance) Party officials. "No" he says firmly, and it's clear I have overstepped some mark.

“For a start,” he whispers, “You don’t call him Saddam. President Saddam. Or Saddam Hussein." I could also call him Our Friend, as Iraqis who dare to talk about him in public do. Or Our Great Triumph Leader, which is what the massed hordes of subjects - bussed in from all over Iraq - are shouting in the background. Americans might know him better as the Devil Incarnate. This is the birthday party of Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, scourge of the western world, and he's 63 today.

Nobody's surprised he hasn't turned up. He's become a virtual president since the Gulf War, seen mostly on TV visiting hospitals and patting children, but rarely in public. Pity. Though he is high on my list of people to avoid, along with his murderous son Uday and the entire Mukhabarat Secret Service, there's something thrilling about the chance of running into a global pariah.

A Bulgarian socialist MP emerges from customs in Amman airport, grinning widely and carrying a brand new sniper's rifle in a cardboard box. It's a present for Saddam. "Local produce!" Given the success of Bulgaria's weapons industry, Iraq is probably swimming in Bulgarian rifles already, but that doesn't stop the fat MP clinging onto his strange gift for the twelve hour trip across the desert to Baghdad.

He is travelling to Iraq for "the celebrations" with Georgi and Boris, two Bulgarian photographers. Like me, they're delegates for the Baghdad 10th International Exhibit of Photographic Pictures, along with 80 Arabs, French and Italians dripping with Nikons. The festival is hosted by the Iraqi Society of Photography, a government organisation, and they're paying for our VIP accommodation, food and coach trips. There's probably something morally wrong with accepting hospitality from Saddam Hussein, but if it's the only way to venture into the heart of darkness, then so be it.

The lobby of the Sheraton, where we’re staying, is constantly populated with a Graham Greene assortment of characters: Iranian pilgrims in chadors, Russian businessmen, the International Singing Family on a musical solidarity mission. Men with moustaches hand out groovy posters of Saddam with a camera round his neck and the Festival motto: "The photographic picture is a message of love and peace."

They give us our programme. The first stop is a visit to the children's hospital leukaemia ward. Then a jolly trip to Al-Amariya shelter, where in 1991 hundreds of women and children were melted into the walls by a 2000lb American penetration bomb. Then the laying of a wreath at the Iran-Iraq Martyrs Monument. Over ten days, in fact, our delegation spends a total of one hour at the Festival.

But it was never going to be about pictures. Iraqis have a story to tell, hence the rising number of "delegations" coming to town. There's no doubt that Saddam Hussein - and the Ba'athist regime he heads - is a nasty and brutal piece of work. But the last ten years of the most ruthless sanctions ever imposed have given Iraqis plenty of room to play victim. 500,000 children dead so far, according to UNICEF. Social indicators - health, welfare, education - that have dropped from the world's top 20 percent to the bottom 20 in ten years. An entire country growing up demoralised, depressed and slowly deranged. Who says they're playing?

Sanctions were imposed in 1990 to force Saddam out of Kuwait, and reinforced a year later in UN Security Council Resolution 687. Its wording is famously vague, but the general idea seems to be that isolating Iraq will convince Saddam to disarm and stop invading his neighbours. Teams of UN inspectors have consequently spent ten years trying to relieve him of the NBCs (nuclear biological chemical weapons) that the West encouraged him to develop throughout the Iran-Iraq war, while another team of UN officials sits on the sanctions committee in New York, blocking cotton wool, books and other dangerous weapons from entering Iraq.

Odd, then, if the West is so bothered about sanctions, that smuggling is rampant (only one in 200 trucks is stopped at the Turkish border). Odd, that even though the UN's Oil for Food programme permits Iraq to sell only $4 billion of oil in return for food and medicine, that Iraqi tankers continue to creep along the Iranian coast, earning Saddam $1 billion a year in pocket money. Odd, that since the weapons inspectors left in 1998 - after a sustained Iraqi campaign of non-cooperation - the US has been in no hurry to get them back in.

Iraqi economist Ali Jenabi, talking to investigative journalists Andrew and Patrick Cockburn: "Do you think Britain and the US are really afraid of our biological weapons? Of course not. The sort of things we have, any country could make them in a bathtub. A single religious maniac in Japan was able to make nerve gas. They just want to keep Iraq weak and divide up its oil."

"Oil! Oil! FUCK oil!" Karim and I are talking politics. I know he's a spook, but he's a nice spook and I like him. "You think because I work for the government, I always say yes, yes, yes!" Well, not always. But he does say, as we're walking back from the Iraqi Airways office, that Kuwait had to be invaded because it was nicking Iraq's oil. Ten years on, Iraq's oil refineries — and water purification plants, and telephone system — are now falling to bits, as spare parts are forbidden under sanctions. Iraqi Airways hasn't flown since 1990. Baghdadis now call it Iraqi AnyWaytoMakeMoney, because its pilots drive taxis and foreigners use its offices to call home.

Karim doesn't like to talk politics though, because the conversations sometimes go like this:

"So, why did the President gas 3,800 Kurds in 1988?"

"No, that's not true."

"But the whole world saw the pictures."


"You are thinking wrong things, Rose."

Wrong is a favourite concept here. Iraqis aren't allowed satellite TV because they might watch the "wrong news." Two miserable French photographers are thrown in jail for taking "wrong pictures" on Jumhuriyeh Bridge. Often, I am asked earnestly not to write a "wrong article," or I won't be invited back.

A podgy American wearing a t-shirt saying "every 10 minutes a child dies from sanctions." Behind the pebble glasses, his eyes have a Jack Nicholson gleam. "I'm running for Congress. I'm here to ask Saddam to support my campaign. We have to make friends with Saddam to bring gas prices down in America. He's not so terrible, you know." He waves at the infinite, empty desert. "It's like this in Arizona. Only we have Taco Bells."

Baghdad, May 2000. Not a Taco Bell in sight. A city with "a glorious past and a magnificent present," according to my 1981 copy of "Iraq: A tourist guide". Past it does have, sitting between the great ancient rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates and the great ancient cities of Ur, Nineveh and Babylon. Iraqi ancestors invented handwriting, civilisation, all good things.

And so to the magnificent present. A city that buzzes to the sound of generators because there's a power cut every six hours. Streets smelling of dust and a river brown from sewage. Sandstorms in April that turn the sky yellow. The famous river restaurants on Abu Nawas Street — where mazgouf fish is roasted on stakes around fires — open, but forlorn.

We are eating chicken and rice next to two dozen blond apes. It's the Belorussian football team, here to play Iraq. I only know one thing about Iraq's football team: when Uday Hussein is displeased with their performance, they are locked up or tortured, depending on which story you choose to believe. The next day, we hear the Belorussians have won, and say a silent prayer over chicken for the Iraqis.

Mansour children's hospital. Upstairs in the ward, five year-olds with big brown eyes are shaking to death with acute pain. Antibiotics trickle through the sanctions, though never enough to do any good. The fridges break down, ruining the insulin. Even bathroom cabinet stuff is lacking: syringes, plasters, cotton wool. The doctors are courteous, outraged and weary. The chief resident apologises for not getting to me sooner, saying he'd been waylaid by a Syrian television reporter who was "a very sticky journalist."

Dr. Mazin al-Shammari is 30 and looks older. He says expected things, like what do children have to do with politics (in a propaganda battle, everything). But then he goes interestingly off-message. "You want to destroy Iraqis. But why are you making enemies of us? Everything has to come to an end. And don't forget Iraq is a very wealthy country."

For some people, it is. "Money talks in Iraq," whispers Karim. You can see the money in rich suburbs like Mansour, where smugglers and VIPs live, or gliding through Baghdad's rustbucket traffic in tinted Mercedes. You can see it in Armani-clad paunches, and or in the cloudy dodgy beer that turns up at our table one night, even though the regime banned the public consumption of alcohol in 1995. (Considering Iraqis knock back Scotch like, well, the Scots, this was quite a blow.)

The pro-sanction camp say Saddam could divert more money to his malnourished people if he wanted to. The anti-sanction camp say that — because most Iraqis can't survive without government food rations — sanctions have made people more dependent on Saddam than before. Meanwhile, the president has reportedly built more than 30 palaces since the war. You can see one from the Sheraton's balconies, lit up like the Champs Elysees in the middle of a wasteland. Karim insists it was built in the 1970s, but he would.

Yahya Massad is a Jordanian delegate, and an official photographer to the Jordanian Royal Family. The Bulgarians have photographed their First Lady. They bond. "Do you use Photoshop?" "God, yes!"

Yahya says Baghdad used to be a nice place to visit. "It has changed so much! You can't imagine." But actually I can. Iraq wasn't some poverty-stricken country that's just slipped a little further down the scale of desperation. It was Geneva-ish, and now it's Calcutta. In 1991, when all Iraqi assets were frozen (including a large stake in the publishers of Elle magazine), the dinar lost 98% of its value. Government salaries dropped from hundreds of dollars to $3 and suddenly it made sense to be a beggar. You don't bitch about your taxi driver in Baghdad - he's liable to turn round and tell you in perfect English that he's a chemistry professor who can't get by on $3 a month any more than you could.

Iraqis used to be cosmopolitan, well-travelled. They did PhDs at Warwick and LSE. They use British plugs. They say "hello" for hello, and — inexplicably — "hello" for goodbye. But now, says a local journalist, there is "a big space between us and the world," and they grab at any chance to cross it, with sweet curiosity. At Saddam's birthday party, schoolgirls dressed as daisies come up saying "please can we talk to you?" and tell me about their Welsh grandmothers.

Sanctions have cut off most communication - even the British Library is forbidden to send articles to Iraqi academics, presumably because they could be turned into anthrax. Like all good dictatorships, the Iraqi regime dutifully stifles the rest. Only a few government offices have internet access. In a bookshop, the shop assistant — actually a trained engineer — reads my business card wistfully. "WWW! I would like to have, but...." He clams up when a man in Arab headdress comes in and starts reading something intently at my feet. An informer? Probably. But if he's not, he could be and that amounts to the same thing.

"What did you think before coming to Iraq?" Karim had guffawed. "Did you think that we are very strong people? That a security guard shoot you at the border? No! It's normal, no? Just normal!"

It's not, and occasionally steel glints through the charm offensive. It might be when the courteous customs officials take away your mobile phone, saying, "what do you need that for? It doesn't work in Iraq!" Or the ripple of nervousness that crosses people's faces sometimes. Or when Yahya unrolls his massive picture of Saddam and Uday on the lobby carpet, and Iraqis run up in genuine panic, begging him to take the president off the floor.

In Al-Amariya shelter, I'm standing dazed after meeting a woman whose 8 children were burnt to death in 4000 degree heat by an American bomb. A small dapper man approaches. "Good morning. You are British? I am from Yemen. I am going to liberate the Arabs from US domination. I will be remembered gloriously in history but everyone will hate me." He leans a bit closer. "I am from the Islamic International Movement but please don't say that. You know, Bill Clinton was trying to free the US and then 'they' did Monica." And he scampers off. I think I've been Tangoed.

There are portraits of the victims in the shelter, but none of Saddam. It's unusual; the president's face is in every shop window and - transformed into sheikh, journalist, British military colonel - portrayed on every street corner. At the Great Triumph Leader museum, where loyal subjects queue to give birthday presents, the Saddam portrait is the gift of choice, and the more garish, the better. The museum's rooms are filled with gifts from foreign wellwishers like — my favourite — the Zambian Ceramics Association. A gold tree shows Saddam's descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Considering Saddam's background is actually an undistinguished lineage in Tikrit, this is like saying Ken Livingstone is related to the Virgin Mary.

It’s tempting to dismiss the adoring subjects – and the birthday party rallies – as dictatorship dramatics. But in the battle of Saddam vs. the world, he’s become something of an Arab hero. After he fired four Scud missiles at Israel in 1991, Saddam became the most popular baby name on the West Bank. In the Sheraton lobby one day, a trio of mini-soldiers runs giggling by. Their dad proudly introduces them – Saddam (9), Uday (7) and Hala (8), all named after the presidential family. “I am ready to defend Iraq!” says mini-Saddam, a sentiment that would be understandable if it weren’t for the fact that he’s Palestinian.

The next day we head up to Mosul, the ancient city of Nineveh. It's fresher and prettier than Baghdad and best of all, there are fewer Saddam posters. Iraq's Assyrian Christian minority live here. They speak Aramaic, like Jesus Christ, and wear Simply Red t-shirts. It's Easter Monday, and they're out en masse at the gorgeous Mar Matti monastery in the mountains nearby. Saddam built the road up here in 1988. He's fond of conservation: apparently he designed the reconstruction of Babylon all by himself, and his name is printed on every brick, like emperors of old.

Ilias is a young Assyrian priest, on pilgrimage with his family for the weekend. His family is typically middle-class Iraqi, full of doctors and engineers and teachers. They chorus "hellohellowelcome!", and the doctor looks up at the quiet mountain sky. "You're lucky. No jets today!"

Since 1988, US and UK planes have been bombing Iraq almost daily, in possibly the most underreported war of our times. It's supposed to be humanitarian warfare - we police no-fly zones so Iraqi aircraft can't gas Kurds and shell Shi'a Arabs like in the good old days. And so far, to be fair, they haven't. But a quiet war is fishy, especially when it has no basis in international law and costs us £4.5 million a month. Some statistics: Since 1998, the RAF has dropped an average of 5 tons of ordnance a month, been threatened by Iraqi anti-aircraft defences over 320 times — including 4 cases of "hostile electronic activity" — and responded 74 times.

Here's another way of looking at it: According to John Pilger, an internal UN Security Sector report estimates that in one five month period, 41% of the victims were civilians. A shepherd, his father, his four children and his sheep were killed by a jet which made two passes at them. A Briton who often comes to Iraq tells of two Swedish journalists who went to visit Ur last summer and came back covered in blood and glass. A bomb had dropped in front of their jeep, and while they were hiding in a ditch in terror the plane came back for another go.

The MoD says if Saddam cared about his civilians, he wouldn't shoot at jets, or lock out the weapons inspectors, or invade Kuwait. It also says the minute sanctions are lifted, Saddam will get back to his old brutal tricks. Probably true. Perhaps one of the few certainties in Iraq is that it's a textbook example of the "little people always get fucked" school of geopolitics. And that the last time this many young people grew up with this hopeless a future, they turned into the Taliban.

On the last day, the Bulgarians are muttering that they've had enough of being political puppets, while a Sicilian photographer is discussing the difference between the Arab photographic aesthetic (lots of sunsets) and everyone else's. I'm baiting Karim about politics for the last time and finally he shrugs and grins. "I am a small person in the Ministry of Information. You are a small journalist. What can we do?" As the jeep reverses out of the car-park to the tune of the Lambada, he stands watching, saying goodbye Iraqi-style. "hello....hello....hello..."

Published in Arena magazine. Image: AP Photo / Iraqi News Agency, Pool

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