A Baghdad Diary

We share the one hour Gulf Falcon Air 747 flight from Damascus to Bagdad. With dozens of Iranian women pilgrims who used knife sharpened elbows to get first in line through Syrian immigration and then onto the plane. “Saddam Hussein would be better off using them than weapons of mass destruction,” said New Yorker writer Milton Viorst, a member of our delegation.

The Mission to Baghdad is led by Congressman Nick Rahall Democrat from West Virginia and former Senator James Abourezk from South Dakota, both of Lebanese descent. They intend to try to convince Iraqi leaders to readmit UN weapons inspectors and thus destroy President Bush’s pretext to make war.

As we arrive at the Baghdad airport and get ushered to the VIP lounge past the scowling Iranian pilgrims, the Iraqi officials eagerly inform us that they have arranged for us to inspect supposed sites of weapons of mass destruction. The Congressman tactfully assures them that we wouldn’t know a soap-making factory from an anthrax production plant. So, we avoided that pitfall. The Iraqi handlers look pained. I feel little sympathy for them.

I rely on Scott Ritter a former Marine Corps officer and also a Republican. He belonged to UNSCOM, the United Nations Special Commission, created in 1991 to inspect Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. Ritter claims that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction and was “qualitatively disarmed” disarmed when the team left in 1998 when the team left in 1998 just days before Clinton renewed bombing raids during Operation Desert Fox.

As we saw in the street and in the suk, Iraq is a Third World country. It’s military prowess, greatly exaggerated by Bush the First, has now fallen to less than a fifth of what it was during the gulf war. Iraq has no navy and a very small air force. How it could pose a threat to US national security has not been explained by Bush not even in his September 12 UN speech to the General Assembly. Well, we all know Saddam is evil and therefore, I suppose, capable of anything and besides “I don’t go to show you no stinkin’ facts.”

At 2 AM, I step on George Bush’s face as I enter the Al Rasheed Hotel. Yes, his face has been inlaid in mosaic tile on the hotel entrance floor thus making it hard not step on the face of “George Bush: The War Criminal.”

Welcome, the smiling doorman says. The bellhops who carried my bag a few feet demand tips. I offered a dollar for the guy. One of them snarls nastily. I gave him six. I go downstairs to the cafeteria. Welcome, says the manager, welcome, says the waiter.

I’m really suspicious when I go the men’s room and get a huge, grinning ”welcome” from the attendant there. He doesn’t follow me to the latrine. If I tip at the rate I started, I’ll be broke before we leave. We finish snacking at 4:00a.m. I’m too exited to sleep. I look out the window at the lights of Baghdad and recall scenes from the Gulf War as I watched flashes from Peter Arnett’s window while he described US bombing and missile attacks.

At 9 tk, the Minister of Health, a former cardiologist, now clad in his spinach green government uniform, tells us how the UN sanctions interfere with the integrity of the Iraqi health system. “It’s not the UN,” he says, “it’s the American delegate to the Committee overseeing the sanctions and sometimes the British delegate who vetoes our medical purchases.”

He explains with a grim look on his middle aged face how by refusing one part of the cocktail of chemotherapy drugs you render the whole treatment null and by omitting one part of a surgical hookup you invalidate the whole procedure.

As if to prove his point, we’re whisked to a nearby hospital where we see small children suffering from leukemia. I see Abourezk trying to cover a tear as he observes blood oozing from the mouth of a five year old girl who lived too close to fragments of a bomb dropped by the US air force made of depleted uranium. At least that’s what the pediatrician told us.

“My daughter’s that age,” Abourezk says. I recall that former Secretary of State Madeline Albright when asked in a May 11, 1996 interview with 60 minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl whether the over 500,000 Iraqi children killed by the sanctions was worth it, Albright said, “It’s a hard choice, but I think, we, think, it’s worth it.”

The children’s mothers would probably disagree as they sit beside their beds, fanning their cancer-ridden offspring. They implore us to help them get medicine. We stare. With IVs stuck in their toothpick like arms, the emaciated kids cry or whine softly. After seeing six of them, the nausea hits me – and I worked for years in a hospital.

The doctors drone on as did the Health Minister about the thousands of bombs the American planes dropped during the war and afterwards in the no-fly zones, areas arbitrarily created by the US and UK. The Pentagon claims that Iraqi fire anti-aircraft at the US bombers flying over Iraqi territory and therefore forced to fire missiles at or bomb the installations. Later, kids play near the areas. The worried mothers dressed in black, except for a Kurdish woman in a long grey dress, plead with us for help — medicine. Congressman Rahall, like Abourezk, shows emotion on his face.

It’s over 100 degrees outside as our Mercedes limousines push their way through the busy and chaotic Baghdad auto and bus traffic. Exhaust fumes pour out and mix into the dusty heat. We visit a turbulent suk, in which peddlers and hawkers offer local crafts, canned and fresh – well, sort of –food, plastic toys, electronic gadgets, CDs, video cassettes of X-rated movies and regular Hollywood fare. The women wear the traditional long black dresses, with the black shawl covering their heads, not their faces. A few wear only the hijab and occasionally I spy a woman wearing western garb. About half the men sport the dishdashas, the long white robe, with or without the kefiya on their heads.

They push their wares in our faces, at very low prices. Harold, a member of the group, stops at a rug merchant and begins the bargaining process in English. I ask him how he feels about the war. He smiles. “Why you want war? What good is from war? We have plenty of war. We know bombs. We know destruction. What we do to you?” Harold nods approval and the rug merchant immediately resumes his sales pitch. He makes a sale.

Other people in the area grow curious, crowd around us. Our nervous handlers, push them away, usually kids and teenagers whom they feel might be threatening and finally say “enough” and herd us back into the Mercedes.

We’re set to see Tariq Aziz next, the English speaking Deputy Prime Minister, former Foreign Minister. Slightly built, with neatly combed gray hair and a trimmed mustache, he looks out at us through thick eyeglasses. Rahall and Abourezk held a private meeting with him while the rest of the delegation stared at Saddam Hussein portraits in the waiting area. In three hours, I’d already counted eight different Saddam poses. I asked our foreign ministry guide how many there were. He glared at me scornfully. I said I liked the one of Saddam in the black derby holding a rifle in the air. He snorted.

It becomes clear very quickly that this secular dictatorship has nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism. You don’t need Vincent Cannistraro, who headed the CIA’s counterterrorism office, to assure you that Iraq has no links to al-Qaeda. To rev up the war engines, the White House had been desperately pushing a bogus Prague meeting between September 11 villain Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer. One of our foreign ministry guides assures me with murderous intensity that an Al-Qaeda operative in Baghdad wouldn’t last five minutes.

Bin Laden, I’m reminded by our guide, offered to mobilize 100,000 fundamentalists to resist the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait so the Americans wouldn’t have to come in. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iraq has no religious police. The more myths dispelled about Iraq, the better, I think. I’ve seen women with pony tails in tight slacks walking next to those in long black robes.

Deputy Prime Minister and a Christina to boot, Tariq Aziz emerged with Rahall and Abourezk, and then held forth at length while we asked questions and argued. Rahall pressed the case for readmitting the inspectors. Aziz described them as spies, a conclusion backed by Scott Ritter. “And we didn’t kick them out,” he reminded us. They left two days before Clinton bombed us in 1998.

“We’re doomed if we do let them in,” Aziz said, wringing his hands, “and doomed if we don’t.” He shook his head. We shook our heads. This avuncular looking Christian high in the Cabinet of a Muslim country exudes a kind of frustrated fatalism.

He belongs to the fraternity of Baath Party members who created the nationalist regime that overthrew the Revolutionary Command Council led by President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr on July 16, 1979. Saddam has ruled since then as the President and chief ideologue of Ba’thism, a kind of mélange of anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist doctrine. It stressed true Arab independence from all forms of colonialism. Saddam’s Iraq represents that last disobedient obstacle to US domination of the Middle East. I wonder if that’s how the Iraqi people perceive Saddam? He may be a tough, cruel bully, but he’s a kind of protector from the American bully?

In addition to his own palaces, he has led his people to build a modern country, with a solid infrastructure – until the United States et al bombed much of it into stone and sand. In the ensuing twelve years since the end of the Gulf War, the regime has rebuilt the highways and hospitals, the water and sewage treatment plants and pushed the economy into forward motion. And now, says Aziz, we who have done nothing to provoke or threaten the United States are about to be attacked again.

“Why?” The question echoes from the lips of every street person we ask. “Why you want war?” asks a rug merchant. “Peace,” he screams into our camera.

As soon as people discern that we’re Americans, they use their poor English to plead, beg, demand, exhort us to not bomb them again – as if we had any more control over our government than they have over theirs.

That night we meet “intellectuals,” a group of English speaking men and women who discuss with us “the situation.” Rahall and Abourezk stoically receive an anti-Zionist rant from a former Iraqi diplomat, a retired general, an English lit teacher and several other party-liners. The Zionist lobby runs America and the entire anti-Iraq scheme was cooked up in Israel.

The next morning we visit a bomb shelter that took two direct hits in the 1991 Gulf War. The government has converted the place where 408 women and children turned from flesh to ashes into a museum. The guide, a beautiful and bitter women named tk from the neighborhood tells us that “the Pentagon discovered its mistake and four days after killing it said sorry. Too late.”

Inside, the photos of many of the deceased line the walls. Wires and bent iron rods that once reinforced the concrete dangle from the ceiling. “This, tk says, “is what war does.” She points to what looks like the outline of a woman etched into the wall. The bomb literally burned her into the side of the shelter so that her image, with her clothes remains embedded there.

That night I had a nightmare that I had agreed to help kill my daughter. At first, I watched as some men manipulated a machine to deprive her of breath and then I actually participated in cutting off her oxygen supply. She stared at me in disbelief that I could be an accomplice to her murder. That ended my short sleep for the night.

The next day, as I still shook from both the nightmare and the appalling scene of the bombed shelter that I felt had produced it, we begin our feast of mosques. We had already seen tk, an enormous gold painted structure in south Baghdad. Men and women enter the mosque like they do a subway station, only they kiss the door before entering or utter a brief payer.

Inside, whole families eat lunch or take naps, “feeling their spiritual roots,” the Imam tells us. Thousands of people enter and leave or remain inside. I counted. Outside the mosque on the busy street I see fast food places but no McDonald’s or KFC as they apparently have built in the Holy City of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Across the street, a dark souk lures me. Inside, I feel like a character in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Men thrust object in my face, screaming in Arabic. I assume they want me to buy their wares. It doesn’t sound like “Yankee Go Home.” My chauffeur-body guard gets worried and yanks me out.

In the late after noon we rent a small boat for a ride on the Tigris River, one of the waterways along with the Euphrates that produced the Fertile Crescent, the source of agricultural wealth for Mesopotamia (land between two rivers) The names now take on meaning. During the Gulf War, raw sewage poured into the Tigris, polluting it. Like most of the damage caused by the bombing, the sewage treatment plant has been mostly restored by Saddam’s government. So he kills a few hundred opponents each month, I say to myself, at least he fixes the infrastructure. I try to forget about the thousands of communists he whacked on his road to absolute power in the 1970s.

Was he different than King Nebuchadnezzar or Hamarabi who also offed opponents they felt were unreasonable. Hey, if they didn’t, the opponents would kill them. That’s been a political axiom in the region for a few thousand years.

As we stare at the acres of reconstructed palace of King N the II, built in 600 something BC, I begin to understand tradition. In the United States a fifty year old house gets landmarked. Anthropology Professor James Jennings, another member of the delegation accompanies us and explains where the hanging gardens once amazed all visitors, how the kings designed their structures, how they made war alongside of giving law, like Hamarabi. He reads inscriptions still visible on the original bricks in ancient languages that predated Hebrew and Arabic.

Kids dive into the river for a swim in the 105 degree heat. A man in a long white robe casts his net. A pesky jet skier revs his engine alongside the boat. You find showoffs everywhere. At dinner, on the banks of this Biblical river we watched a boatload of teenagers rocking to hot Middle Eastern rhythms. Other boats pulled alongside and people jumped on board to join the party. The restaurant goers smiled their approval. Hardly the Taliban here I thought.

Next day we took the road south to Babylon. Once we get outside of Baghdad, I see women dressed only in the traditional black robes that cover their heads, men dressed in the dishdashas, white robes, with Kefiyas on their heads. In the mosques at Kerbala and Najuf, cities inside cities, I see whole families eating their lunch on the mosque marble floor, or sleeping on makeshift blankets. Men and women kiss the door of the Kerbala mosque and men pray as they leave.

Inside, the men put their heads to the ground and rise, five times, in prayer. The Mosque is painted gold, its inlaid wall tiles and marble floor bespeak of the wealth and power of the religion here,

We drive back through Baghdad and its four plus million people and hundreds of thousands of cars – not quite LA – and onto the four lane highway south to Babylon. I had remarked earlier to Warren Strobel, the Knight Ridder reporter, that I had seen no preparations for war on the streets, no mass mobilizations, no parades of military vehicles; not even a demonstration. “Yes,” he agreed, “but how do you prepare for The Leviathon.”

We have a session with Sa’doun Hammadi, the Speaker of the Parliament. A University of Wisconsin PhD in economics, the now frail scholarly looking man repeats Aziz’ arguments, offers numbers and facts on the perfidy of the weapons inspectors (details tk) and finally responds to a question of what Iraq will do. “I’ll fight,” he declares,” his voice in full throttle barely rising above a whisper. Hardly more of a threat to the Pentagon than the sharp elbowed Pilgrims, Sa’doun nevertheless reflects the anger of even the most reflective of officials. Yes, how do you prepare to meet The Colossus?

In five days I have seen the palace of King Nebadchudnazer, the ancient Mosques in Kerbala and Najef and the fascist-like modern government buildings in Baghdad. George W. Bush, who probably can’t count the number of days since he last visited a library, prepares to authorize bombing of a place where libraries existed while western Europeans were throwing rocks at each other.

The last day in Baghdad. A woman with dyed blond hair and tight pants runs a shop. She tells me she has just returned from a vacation with her Algerian live-in boyfriend to Barbados and Martinique and “I could hardly wait to return home. I love it here.”

I ask her how she will respond if war comes. She shrugs. “I am Christian,” she declares, “and I love my president because he is strong and protects us. Without a strong president like him, we would be persecuted. All of Iraq would be chaos, disorder. I stand with him against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Bin-Laden and George Bush.” Her Algerian boyfriend grins in agreement.

The despotic Saddam, like the late Tito in Yugoslavia, simply does not permit ethnic or religious friction in public. What I have seen of Iraq confirms that it is a deeply religious country, predominantly Muslim – both Shia and Sunni – with a secular society and government.

The dozens of people with whom I spoke said the same thing: “Why?” They refer to what they see as Bush’s intention of killing innocent Iraqis and reducing their developed infrastructure to rubble as his father had done almost twelve years before. To a person, they cannot see how Iraq has harmed or threatens the United States. Indeed, they point out that none of their neighbors complains about them as a threat. So, for lack of another explanation, they fall back on the Zionist conspiracy. They have not read Bush’s naked imperial plan to achieve full spectral dominance.

We say goodbye to the friendly and tip-crazy hotel staff and to our guides and chauffeurs and gives sighs of relief that the sharp elbowed Iranians are nowhere to be seen. As we watch from the plane to Damascus as see the lights of Bagdad, I wonder how many September 11ths the people of that city and those of other Iraqi “targets” will suffer before Gulf War II finally winds down and Iraq and its people are thrown into chaos and disorder.

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