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.
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.
They push their wares in our faces — food, toys, electronic gadgets, even porno films. All at very low prices, because the once-prosperous Iraqi middle class had to sell their valuables right after the Gulf War to buy food. Now these articles are resold to foreigners. I ask one rug vendor how he feels about the war. ”Why you want war?“ he asks. ”What good is from war? We have plenty of war. What we do to you?“ he says, his voice rising.
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.
Is Saddam really any different from King Nebuchadnezzar or Hammurabi, who also eliminated opponents whom they deemed unreasonable? Kill first or be killed. That political axiom has existed here for thousands of years.
At dinner, on the banks of this biblical river, we watch a boatload of teenagers rocking to hot rhythms, Algerian ”rai“ music, I’m told. Other boats pull alongside, and people jump on board to join the party. The restaurant-goers smile their approval. Hardly the kind of atmosphere that the Taliban would welcome, I think.
Driving again through Baghdad and its 4 million-plus people and hundreds of thousands of cars — not quite L.A. — I remark to Warren Strobel, the Knight-Ridder reporter, that I see no preparations for war on the streets — not even any demonstrations.
”Yes,“ he agrees, ”but how do you prepare for the leviathan?“
Later, as I change clothes, I see the TV in my hotel room showing pictures of Iraqis preparing for civil-defense drills. But on the street, I‘ve seen nothing but casual civilian life. Has Saddam hidden his army near urban targets?
Our handlers arrange a meeting with Sa’doun Hammadi, the speaker of the Parliament, in his well-furnished and very spacious office. A University of Wisconsin graduate student in the late 1950s, the now-frail, scholarly-looking man, in a neatly tailored gray suit, repeats Tariq Aziz‘s arguments, and offers numbers and facts on the perfidy of the weapons inspectors.
Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, he says — the charge that Iraq is building a nuclear bomb is only a pretext for beating the war drums, he says. Hammadi argues that by 1998 Iraq was basically disarmed under the eyes of the U.N. weapons inspectors.
”We had reached an agreement on more than 400 cases. We disagreed only over five. That is a very good rate of cooperation. In return, Iraq was bombed,“ the Assembly speaker complains.
”We have no relation to al Qaeda, bin Laden or Taliban, no link to 911,“ he says, his voice in full throttle but barely rising above a whisper. ”Our people will fight. I personally will fight.“
This is also what the Iraqis vowed on the eve of the Gulf War — only to have their troops surrender to foreign news crews. Hammadi nevertheless embodies the anger we sense around us. As he rises and walks slowly to the door, I notice the worry lines etched in his face.
Our last day in Baghdad. A woman with dyed blond hair and tight pants who runs a shop has just returned from a Barbados vacation with her Algerian live-in. ”I could hardly wait to return home. I love it here,“ she says.
I ask her how she will respond if war comes. She shrugs and says, ”I love my president because he is strong and protects us Christians. I stand with him against al Qaeda, the Taliban, bin Laden and George Bush.“ Her Algerian boyfriend grins in agreement.
As we prepare to depart, Iraq announces it will re-admit the U.N. inspectors without conditions. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry official tells us that our mission has succeeded. Abourezk smiles and says, ”Yes, with a little help from Nelson Mandela, the Arab League and Kofi Annan, all of whom strongly urged Saddam Hussein to accept the inspectors.“
Abourezk hopes that Congress will now show some backbone. Within two days, however, he reads that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who once worked for him as a Senate legislative aide, has all but rubber-stamped Bush’s demand for sweeping military powers.
”It‘s naked power,“ Abourezk says. ”George Bush refuses to take yes for an answer.“
I’m left thinking about the centuries during which the West tried to dominate Islam. The Crusades exacted an enormous toll, and although most Westerners know little about it, the history remains alive in Iraq. Tradition!
We say goodbye to the friendly hotel staff and to our bulky guides and chauffeurs. As our plane heads to Damascus, I see the lights of Baghdad and think about Abourezk‘s words: ”If we can remember the absolute horror we all felt on September 11, we can imagine such destruction being wreaked on the Iraqi civilians every day that American bombers drop their deadly loads.“
Saul Landau is a fellow at the Washington, D.C., Institute for Policy Studies and directs the Digital Media Program at Cal Poly Pomona University’s College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences.