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A Baghdad Diary 

Journey into the abyss

Wednesday, Oct 2 2002

BAGHDAD -- It‘s 2 a.m. when I involuntarily step on George H.W. Bush’s face as I enter the posh Al Rasheed Hotel. After the Gulf War, the Iraqi government inlaid 41‘s portrait on the hotel-entrance floor. So, it’s hard for incoming guests to avoid stepping on ”George Bush War Criminal.“

I‘ve just arrived by plane from Syria on a delegation led by Congressman Nick Rahall (D--West Virginia) and former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, both of Lebanese descent. They intend to persuade the Iraqi leaders to re-admit U.N. weapons inspectors and take away 43’s excuses for war.

On our midnight ride into Baghdad from the airport, through the windows of an air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz, I see no signs of war preparations. Our government-provided handlers, Wadah, a 41-year-old Foreign Ministry official, and his younger and beefier assistant, Mustafah, behave politely enough. I wonder if they‘ll continue to wear suits and ties when the needle rises above 100 as the newspaper predicts for the rest of the week. Or is wearing a suit the equivalent of the uniform that tells people on the street that ”government officials“ are present? Our chauffeurs looked like bodyguards: squat, tough-looking men in their early 40s who have the hard-callused hands of karate fighters. I also note AK-47s stashed in their trunks.

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Anyway, these aren’t the guys with whom you want to talk politics. Part of me wants to see their boss, Saddam Hussein, pay for killing Iraqi friends I made in college and for his cruelty to all his opponents, especially to the Kurds, victims of his relentless persecution. Another part of me hates the idea of U.S. planes firing missiles at urban targets. Part of me is also a little frightened.

At 4 a.m. I‘m too excited to sleep. I look out the hotel window at the winking lights of Baghdad and wonder: Could this be the same room from which the CNN crew shot the light show put on by American bombs and Iraqi anti-aircraft fire at the onset of the 1991 Gulf War? Only streetlights twinkle tonight: no flashes against the black sky. I try to put myself into the position of a Baghdad resident who had to withstand the explosive and incendiary power of thousands of tons of bombs over months, and my admiration for them rises. I wonder if I could take it -- a pounding worse than the V-2 rockets gave to London.

At 9 a.m. the government-choreographed itinerary begins. We are free to wander at night. Over the course of the week, our assigned nannies meet most of our travel requests. But their menu for us begins with a visit to the minister of health, who delivers a sound condemnation of economic sanctions.

”It’s not the U.N.,“ says Dr. Omid Medhat Mubarak, a former cardiologist, clad in his spinach-colored uniform. ”It‘s U.S. and British delegates overseeing the oil-for-food program who veto our medical purchases.“

As if to prove his point, we’re whisked to a nearby pediatric hospital, where we see children suffering from leukemia. Abourezk covers a tear as he observes blood oozing from the mouth of a frightened 5-year-old Kurdish girl from the North. According to the doctor, she lived too close to fragments of a bomb made of depleted uranium dropped by the U.S. Air Force. And we‘re charging them with chemical warfare? The U.N. sanctions limited Iraq’s ability to buy medication to treat her. At least that‘s what the pediatrician said.

”My daughter’s about that age,“ Abourezk says.

I recall former Secretary of State Madeline Albright answering a CBS reporter about whether the half-million Iraqi children killed by the sanctions was worth it. Albright said, ”I think, we, think, it‘s worth the price.“ I never understood exactly what price she had to pay.

These children’s mothers, however, have paid dearly. They sit at the kids‘ bedsides, fanning and comforting their cancer-ridden offspring. According to U.N. officials, the under-age-5 mortality rate in Iraq has more than doubled since the Gulf War. The sanctions have worked -- but for what end? The mothers, dressed in black except for a Kurdish woman in a long, gray dress, plead with us for help -- for medicine. We can only stare.

What blame do Saddam and company carry for the plight of these kids? He invaded Kuwait, but the kids pay the price exacted by U.S. power. And you can rest assured that Saddam doesn’t go without medicine. The victims in the pediatric hospital are poor. So, what‘s new?

It’s over 100 degrees outside as our Mercedes limousines push their way through chaotic Baghdad auto and bus traffic. We visit a turbulent souk, crowded with women wearing the traditional long, black dresses, black shawls covering their heads, not their faces. About half the men sport the dishdashas, the long, white robe, with or without the kaffiyeh on their heads.

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