A Baghdad Diary--Thoughts of an American in Iraq
Saul Landau has been a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies for 26
years. Since 1993 he has been a regular commentator for Pacifica Radio News.
In addition, has made more than 40 films for TV (THE SIXTH SUN: MAYAN
UPRISING IN CHIAPAS (1996). written 12 books (RED HOT RADIO: SEX, VIOLENCE
AND POLITICS AT THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY, 1998 - Common Courage
Last month Landau accompanied US Congressmen Nick Rahall and former Senator
James Abourezk on a visit to Iraq. Here is his report called a "A Baghdad
Diary" published by the on-line ZNet Magazine.
Read and reflect.
November 04, 2002
A Baghdad Diary
By Saul Landau
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 Bushs 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 wouldnt 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. Its
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 dont go to show you no stinkin facts."
At 2 AM, I step on George Bushs 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.
Im really suspicious when I go the mens room and get a huge, grinning
"welcome" from the attendant there. He doesnt follow me to the latrine. If
I tip at the rate I started, Ill be broke before we leave. We finish
snacking at 4:00a.m. Im 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 Arnetts window while he described US bombing and missile
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. "Its not the UN," he says,
"its 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
As if to prove his point, were 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 thats what the pediatrician told us.
"My daughters 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, "Its a hard choice,
but I think, we, think, its worth it."
The childrens 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.
Its 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.
Were 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, Id 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
It becomes clear very quickly that this secular dictatorship has nothing to
do with Islamic fundamentalism. You dont 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 wouldnt last five minutes.
Bin Laden, Im reminded by our guide, offered to mobilize 100,000
fundamentalists to resist the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait so the Americans
wouldnt have to come in. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iraq has no religious police.
The more myths dispelled about Iraq, the better, I think. Ive 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 didnt
kick them out," he reminded us. They left two days before Clinton bombed us
"Were doomed if we do let them in," Aziz said, wringing his hands, "and
doomed if we dont." He shook his head. We shook our heads. This avuncular
looking Christian high in the Cabinet of a Muslim country exudes a kind of
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 Bathism, a kind of mélange of
anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist doctrine. It stressed true Arab
independence from all forms of colonialism. Saddams Iraq represents that
last disobedient obstacle to US domination of the Middle East. I wonder if
thats how the Iraqi people perceive Saddam? He may be a tough, cruel bully,
but hes 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 were 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 McDonalds 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 doesnt 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 Saddams
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 didnt, the opponents
would kill them. Thats been a political axiom in the region for a few
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
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 Sadoun 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. "Ill 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, Sadoun 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 cant 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
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 Bushs 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
Bushs 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.