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A Baghdad Diary--Thoughts of an American in Iraq

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  • Tarek Fatah
    Friends, 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.
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 5, 2002
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      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

      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.

      Tarek Fatah
      November 04, 2002

      A Baghdad Diary

      By Saul Landau
      ZNet Magazine

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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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