By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Others in the area crowd around us. Our nervous handlers push them away, usually kids and teenagers who they feel might be threatening, and finally herd us back into the Mercedes.
We finally arrive for our meeting with Tariq Aziz, the English-speaking deputy prime minister and 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 meet privately with him while the rest of the delegation stare at Saddam Hussein portraits in the waiting area. In three hours, I‘ve already counted eight different Saddam poses. I ask our Foreign Ministry guide how many there are. He glares at me. I say I like the one of Saddam in the black derby holding a rifle in the air. Our nanny snorts.
While waiting for Aziz, I force myself to make a quick summary of lessons. First, this is a secular dictatorship, not a part of Islamic fundamentalism. I don’t need the CIA to assure me that Iraq has no links to al Qaeda. Our Foreign Ministry guide guarantees with murderous intensity that an al Qaeda operative in Baghdad wouldn‘t last five minutes. Bin Laden, he reminds me, 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 ponytails in tight slacks and low-cut blouses walking next to those in long, black robes.
Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz emerges from his office with Rahall and Abourezk, and then holds forth in a large conference room as Rahall presses the case for re-admitting the U.N. inspectors. Aziz describes them as spies. ”And we didn’t kick them out,“ he insists. They left ”voluntarily under Clinton‘s orders two days before Clinton bombed us in 1998.“
”If Bush wants to change the regime in Iraq,“ the reserved Aziz, now in his early 70s, says quietly, ”he must come in city by city and occupy each one. Everyone will fight.“
Abourezk pushes Aziz to re-admit the inspectors.
”We’re doomed if we let them in,“ Aziz says, ”and doomed if we don‘t.“ He shakes his head. We shake ours. This avuncular-looking Christian Cabinet minister of a Muslim country exudes a kind of frustrated fatalism. ”If we don’t have guarantees that Bush won‘t invade, why expose ourselves to foreign inspectors? Why let them in if we’re going to be attacked anyway?“
As the world holds its breath to see if Bush wages war, I wonder how Iraqis perceive Saddam? He is a cruel bully, but do his people also see him as their protector from the American bully?
As soon as people in the streets discern that we‘re Americans, they use their poor English to plead with us not to bomb them again -- as if our small delegation had any more control over our government than they have over theirs.
”Why?“ The question echoes from the lips of every street person we ask. ”America stands for bullets, tanks, destroy, crush,“ a man in Nnajuf shouts at me. ”Peace,“ a Kerbala merchant screams into our camera.
After we finish with Aziz, we are taken to meet English-speaking ”intellectuals“ to discuss with us ”the situation.“ Rahall and Abourezk stoically endure an industrial-strength anti-Zionist rant from a former Iraqi diplomat, a retired general, an English-lit teacher and several other Saddam party liners of both sexes. The Zionist lobby runs America and the Israelis cooked up the anti-Iraq plot, they allege. Do they believe this crap?
Later, we visit a bomb shelter in Baghdad that took two smart-bomb hits in the 1991 Gulf War. The government has converted the former shelter into a museum. Twelve years ago, our smart weapons transformed 408 women and children from flesh into ashes at this site.
Inside, the photos of the deceased line the walls. Wires and bent iron rods that once reinforced the concrete dangle from the ceiling. A guide points to what looks like the outline of a woman seared into the wall.
That night I have a nightmare that I had agreed to help kill my daughter. At first I watch as some men manipulate a machine to deprive her of breath, and then I actually participate in cutting off her oxygen supply. She stares at me in disbelief that I could be an accomplice to her murder. That ends my short sleep for the night.
In the late afternoon, as I am still shaking from my nightmare and the haunting images of the bomb shelter, we head to the banks of the legendary Tigris River.
During the Gulf War, raw sewage poured into the Tigris. As it has with other parts of the damaged infrastructure caused by the allied bombing, Saddam’s government has restored the treatment plant. Does fixing the infrastructure somehow justify his killing a few hundred opponents each month? I try to forget about the thousands of communists, socialists and other political opponents he whacked on his road to absolute power in the 1970s. But that‘s a useless exercise.