The Amiriyeh civilian shelter is in a smart residential district about five miles to the west of Baghdad. It was completed in 1984 during the war with Iran. You come to it by Airport Road, a neat motorway lined with palms, gum trees and oleanders, another survivor of those years of prosperous tyranny.
The shelter, grey and four-square, looks from the outside to be intact. When I went there a few months ago, at the hottest time of a blazing afternoon, during the daily power cut, when my escorts from the Ministry of Information had crept off to their scalding apartments in the sticks, I was met by a woman in a dress of deep mourning set off at the chest by a golden amulet in the shape of the Koran.
Her name was Umm Ghaida. We needed a kerosene lamp, because of the power cut, and she took me into her makeshift office, which was papered with curling photographs, including one of her son, Maisan, being presented to the President of the Republic. Maisan, she told me, was the sole survivor of her ten children. The rest were killed when the shelter was hit by two bombs early in the morning of 13 February 1991. Umm Ghaida had gone home the evening before to do the washing, and Maisan was too small to be left behind with his brothers and sisters.
The photograph of Maisan and the President confirmed Umm Ghaida’s authority over the Amiriyeh. It meant the shelter had been entrusted to her by the person in Iraq who has the power to give and take away.
Beyond the five-ton steel double doors, designed to close on impact, was the upper storey of the shelter. Ahead was a dirty light that defeated the lamp. It came down through the perforations made by the two bombs. Sparrows squeaked among the torn steel reinforcing bars and vegetation. There were air vents there, she said, so the concrete was only two metres thick. She showed me the remains of the bathrooms, with the toilets still embedded in the floor, and the place where the boys and men slept, separate from the women and infants.
The first bomb – Umm Ghaida called them missiles, though they came from a US Stealth bomber – had struck at 4.30 a.m., the second four minutes later. Of the 1,200 people in the upper storey, she said, 1,186 were incinerated in the 4,000 degree heat. A lower number of dead – 394 – had been scratched out wherever it occurred on the official photographs nearby. In the two craters in the floor were gritty plastic bouquets left by visitors, and along the carbonized walls photographs of the dead families, including Umm Ghaida’s own. She pointed out her thirteen-year-old daughter, ‘Pretty, wasn’t she?’, and ran her fingers over the photographs, muttering: ‘George Bush says this was a military position. But was little Feyziye military? And Resha and Mehdiye?’
Umm Ghaida was reluctant to go downstairs. I told her I’d come a long way. The lower storey housed the shelter’s services: the Amiriyeh was supposed to be self-supporting for twenty-one days in the event of a nuclear or chemical attack. We passed scorched storerooms and a door marked ‘Doctor’. Along the flickering walls, the lamp picked out the scummy marks made by water burst from the pipes and heated to boiling by the fire. In the shadows, I sensed Umm Ghaida lose her self-control. She scampered through the darkness. Here, under the stairs, bring up the lamp, look, feel it with your fingers, a matting of skin, a hank of girl’s hair, the imprint of a backbone, the shadow of the heads of a boy and his sister, two hand-prints, an eyeball.
In Umm Ghaida’s devastated mind, the world was losing its order. The lower storey had passed to the demons of dead children. It didn’t matter that, given time and the lamp, I could find routine explanations for these phenomena: the trash left by the flood, graffiti, the egg sacs of spiders. Down here, more than any place in Iraq, you confronted a society going off its head.
Humiliated in war by the West, terrorized by their own government, reduced to paupers, unwelcome anywhere in the world, the Arabs of Iraq are falling to pieces. It is not simply that with their money and savings destroyed and their goods embargoed, their living standards have fallen to the level of at least thirty years ago. In their own eyes, as Iraqis, and above all as Arabs, they have been reduced to nothing. I have never seen a people so demoralized. Everybody I met, even the most repellent Ba’athi thug and extortionist, felt himself a victim.
Out in the glare, Umm Ghaida withdrew into herself, hooded, dark, nine-parts crazy, waiting for her bundle of money, which she nonetheless left untouched on the table. Her amulet glittered against the dirty black of her dress. I wrote idiocies in the visitors’ book.
I first saw Iraq in 1972, from across the Euphrates in Syria. I was eighteen years old and had £5 in my pocket which, unfortunately, I needed so I could get back to Britain. As I turned for home, I felt a regret that I would not see the marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates and the famous Marsh Arabs and their amphibious way of life. Over the next few years, as a reporter in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and the Arab Gulf States, I watched Saddam Hussein consolidate his control over his political party, the Ba’ath, and his country, seize the leadership of the Arab world from Egypt in 1978, then risk it all in an eight-year war with Iran and an invasion of Kuwait.
I was in Egypt when the Iraqis were expelled from Kuwait by a campaign of British and American bombing which included the attack on the Amiriyeh and the land assault of 24–28 February 1991, known in the West as Desert Storm and in Iraq as The Mother of Battles. On television I saw the country’s industrial fabric, including its power plants and its water and sanitation networks, knocked out of action. In the chaos, there were violent uprisings against Saddam in the mountainous north, where the Kurds had been fighting rule from Baghdad since the very foundation of Iraq in 1920, and in the disaffected Shia cities of the south. (The Shia, the religious majority in Iraq and also in Iran, had felt neglected by Saddam’s regime, which draws its chief support from a secularized Sunni Arab minority.)
Saddam had kept his Republican Guard units in reserve. They escaped the military collapse in Kuwait, loyal and intact, and put down the southern rebellion with extreme brutality. The most holy cities of the Shia martyrs – the seminary town of Najaf, where the Caliph Ali is buried, and the shrines of his sons Hussein and Abbas in Kerbela – were shelled into submission. It is said that Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, strode into the shrines of the saints with his boots on.
John Major, the British Prime Minister, called for ‘safe havens’ from Saddam’s vengeance for the Kurds in the north, and Allied troops were ordered into Iraqi Kurdistan on 16 April 1991. The Iraqi army and administration were forced to withdraw. The mountain country was transformed into a United Nations quasi-protectorate, patrolled by British and American aircraft, riven by factional fighting among the Kurds and infiltrated by the agents of Iraq and also Iran and Turkey, which have their own unruly Kurdish populations. Without formally demanding independence from Iraq, which they feared would provoke intervention from all three countries, the Kurdish parties were calling for autonomy within some fanciful democratic, federal Iraq: in other words, an Iraq without Saddam Hussein.
On 6 August 1990, soon after the Iraqi army entered Kuwait, the UN Security Council had imposed a full embargo on trade to and from Iraq excepting only food, medical supplies and other items described as of humanitarian need. The UN ‘ceasefire resolution’, SCR 687, of 3 April 1991, confirmed that the trade embargo against Iraq would remain in place. Its wording was vague, but Paragraph 22 reads as if sanctions would not be lifted for so long as Iraq failed to account for all its unconventional weapons: these included the sorts of chemical weapons deployed against the Iranian army and Kurdish civilians in the 1980s. The resolution also created a Special Commission to carry out ‘immediate on-site inspections of Iraq’s biological, chemical and missile capabilities’.
Unlike most cases of sanctions in the world, the Iraq embargo was enforced by neighbouring countries. They had reason to fear Saddam Hussein and the party that brought him to power in a succession of coups d’état in the 1960s, known as the Arab Renaissance Socialist Party, or al-Ba’ath in Arabic. Two of Saddam’s bitter enemies, Iran and Kuwait, guarded his only outlet to the open sea at the head of the Persian Gulf. The sanctions after the Gulf War were effective in that, apart from an incursion into Kurdistan in 1996, Saddam took no large military action. Their other result was that the living standards of the Iraqi population fell to the level of the poorest countries. Trade ground to a halt, such industry as had survived the bombing shut down, private employment dwindled, the Iraqi currency collapsed and average incomes fell to the equivalent of a few dollars a month.
From the summer of 1991, the Security Council offered to allow Iraq to export $1.6 billion in oil every six months to buy food and medicine. The oil revenues would be paid into an account controlled by the United Nations and spent on goods ordered by Baghdad but approved by a committee in New York. Saddam rejected the offer. He wanted, and still wants, to sell Iraqi oil for cash to spend as he pleases. In 1995, amid gruesome reports from the UN specialised agencies – including evidence from UNICEF that infant and maternal mortality rates had doubled since 1990 – the Security Council improved its offer, allowing Iraq to sell $1 billion of oil every ninety days. At length, Saddam relented and, on 20 May 1996, the United Nations and the Iraqi government signed a Memorandum of Understanding, the so-called ‘oil-for-food’ deal, which has been refined and renewed, with much grumbling and grandstanding by the Iraqi regime, every six months, most recently on 24 May this year.
Iraq is now exporting over $4 billion worth of oil every half year from its battered oilfields. Yet because the government must pay thirty per cent of its oil earnings in reparations to Kuwait, cover the costs of the UN’s monitoring programme and do repairs to its oil industry, the sum available for food, medicine, civilian reconstruction, household and school goods was only $2.6 billion in the last six-month phase, or little more than $120 per Iraqi Arab and Kurd.
In Kurdistan, the aid is administered by the UN. The Kurdish officials I met in Europe complained bitterly about the quality of the food and medicines ordered by Baghdad: a government that once had only the best from Europe and the US can now only afford rancid cooking oil from Egypt and Syrian antibiotics. But none of the Kurdish leaders wanted the sanctions lifted. The Kurds have suffered indescribable cruelties since 1975 and fear that, once he has cash, Saddam will merely rearm. In the centre and south of Iraq, where rations are distributed by the Iraqi government and monitored by the UN, the oil-for-food deal has staved off famine and epidemic while doing nothing to repair the country’s fabric damaged in the war or improve the general health of the public.
As for the Special Commission, usually called Unscom, in its early years it was quite successful in tracking down Iraq’s nuclear and ballistic missile experiments, but I met nobody among the European and Asian diplomats in Baghdad who believed it had found and destroyed the regime’s chemical and biological weapons. By 1998, Unscom had become an arena for US-Iraqi rivalry, the symbol of an unfinished military campaign. After a set of staged crises, the Iraqis withdrew all cooperation last December. Whatever formal link existed between sanctions and so-called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq, it is fading from sight.
In the West, the drama of Iraq can be reduced to a pair of questions. Can sanctions be lifted without demolishing the peace of mind of Iraq’s neighbours and the Kurdish population? Or must Saddam and his Ba’ath party first be driven from power?
The effect, in the modern world, of the hostility of the United States is to freeze a country in time. There are no civilian flights to Baghdad, and most visitors must come across the desert from Amman. My first sight of modern Iraq was a colossal fairy-lit head of Saddam Hussein hurtling out of the darkness, as if from another galaxy of despotism and violence. Beside it Iraqi officials stood in the shadows, smiling, their arms crossed, like shearers waiting for the sheep. The Jordanian drivers shed their swagger and began to whine. This was the Iraqi frontier post of Trebil.
Beyond was an empty motorway, the black desert, tanker trucks swerving like terrified deer in the headlights, then the silent, unlit city sleeping among its palms. At the Rasheed Hotel, a nightingale was singing in the dark garden. Crossing the threshold, visitors must step on a mosaic portrait of a snarling George Bush, a gesture of defiance at one with the antique anti-aircraft artillery on the roofs of the quiet ministries.
I had expected a city under siege. I was surprised to find the shreds of both private and public civility: a pianist plinking out the song from Titanic to an empty coffee shop, Belorussian businessmen in the lobbies, cinema marquees painted with gigantic negligéed women, liquor stores, money changers, brand-new police motorbikes, Brazilian Passats bumping and bouncing on potholed streets, fish restaurants beside the Tigris, cranes towering over the sites of presidential palaces and mosques. It was a day or two before my eyes became accustomed to the Potemkin character of Baghdad. Brush against the scenery, and you come on a sort of despair.
The loafers on the pavements will still buy a stranger a Coke at midday; and that vestige of Arab hospitality came from men who can’t remember when they last ate meat. At the site of a new mosque Saddam is building at the old racetrack, engineers sped past in clouds of dust, but no building was being done because the site manager had no piledrivers. The shops in the hotels and middle-class districts, which at first seemed so elegant, were in reality selling off the personal property of all three generations of the Iraqi middle class: Rolexes and Parker pens at the front, then cocktail shakers and silver cigarette cases engraved with railway bridges, and, at the back, tulip vases and tobacco pipes of painted Bohemian glass. In Mutanabbi Street, where books are sold in the open air and the city’s literary intellectuals gather every Friday, I saw stacks of The American Home and The New England Journal of Medicine from the 1950s and realized some man had sold everything he had to buy his grandson or -daughter a passage to Jordan. Anybody with a halfway paying job will be supporting two dozen family dependants.
When oil revenues dried up in 1990 and the regime’s foreign assets were frozen, the Iraqi government continued to print money. As a result, the Iraqi dinar lost ninety-eight per cent of its value. At the money changers’ on Saadoun Street, the chief commercial district of Baghdad, men staggered out with plastic bags full of bundles of badly printed 250-dinar notes, known in Arabic as dinar fotokopi, ‘photocopy money’, or as shabah, ‘phantoms’. This money was sometimes refused by beggars.
Since wages and pensions are paid at the old pre-inflation rate, all but the most favoured sections of the civil service and military have been reduced to penury. I was baffled that men and women went obediently to their offices for a few dollars a month. Some said things were difficult at home, or they liked company or the air-conditioning for the few hours a day it is working. The truth is that Iraqi Arabs treasure any symbol of normality. Like Saddam, they will not make peace with their misfortune. (I visited a young farmer out in the suburbs who had four unmarried sisters. Like many market gardeners, he was doing well out of sanctions. But nobody could afford the pre-war dowries he was asking for his sisters. He wouldn’t budge and so the girls will remain spinsters, a despised condition in the Iraqi villages.)
I had been allocated two escorts by the Ministry of Information. Both were time-serving Ba’athis, creatures of an Arab bureaucratic culture that had not changed from my days as a junior reporter in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s: a culture of turning fans, cigarettes and elaborate excuses, of dozing on steel beds behind the filing cabinets and sitting for hours in Mr Director’s office watching junk TV and neither giving nor taking responsibility. Of the pair, Hassan spoke English well. He was reading Independence Day by Richard Ford. He was intelligent, depressed and a bully. Jaafar spoke French, less well, and was less depressed.
Hassan took me to Baghdad University, a neat campus in Waziriyeh where the well-dressed boys and girls looked like American high-school pupils. I was received by the head of the English department, Mrs Ibtesaam Jasim, a glowing Ba’athi whose brother had been ‘martyred’ in Kuwait. She read me long passages from the paper on modern American poetry she had just given to a university symposium, ‘America: A Long History of Aggressiveness and Violation of Human Rights’. I said Iraq was doing quite well in both those areas.
Her handsome face went through a violent contortion. I saw that I must take care, not for myself, but for my interlocutors. Mrs Jasim could complain about America because it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, and nor did the Americans, but she couldn’t complain about anything in Iraq without some unspeakable penalty. I was surprised the students milling around outside bothered to attend. They had almost no chance of a job after college. Opposite the gate to the Kazimain mosque the evening before, I had met a cheerful Ph.D. selling black georgette for ladies’ abayas who ran off a list of his fellow students who were cab drivers. It is what Count Hans Sponeck, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad, called ‘the deprofessionalization of Iraq under sanctions’.
Hassan dragged me away and we set off across the hot campus. He stalked ahead with his demons. I looked up and a boy named Raad was trotting by my side. He said, ‘After you’d gone, the other students came to me and said, “Run after the English reporter and tell him our problem. It is unfair! We cannot even get Thomas Hardy!” And this writer,’ he looked down at The Great Gatsby in the old pastel Penguin, ‘Scott Fitzgerald. You must tell your government to let us have books. You must tell your government to let us visit. We are human beings, aren’t we? For God’s sake let us come.’
Hassan sprang between us.
‘Sir, I’m just telling him about our academic situation under sanctions…’
‘Get out of here!’
I got on badly with both my minders. I tried tipping. I was paying the Ministry $50 a day, but that, I was told, didn’t count because it went to the bank, and ultimately, to the President’s Office, the diwan al-riyasah. I began to see, faintly, and then much more clearly, how the Iraqi revenue system works: provided officials collect foreign currency for the President, they can make their living as they like. A British-style civil service, based on hierarchies and the book, is reverting to an Ottoman system, based on corruption and punishment. Even so, the President’s income, mostly from oil and petrol products smuggled to Jordan and Turkey, may be no more than $1 billion a year. But nobody else in Iraq has anything. In that respect, if no other, sanctions have strengthened Saddam.
With Hassan or Jaafar I went to primary schools, where little children sprang up and bawled at me, ‘Long live Saddaham Hissayin! Long live the Ba’ath party, nurse of the generations!’ but needed paper and pencils. We saw jerry-rigged water-treatment plants struggling with the worst drought in memory and railway tracks without power to work the signals. In the hospitals, the leukaemia wards were filled with dying children and their resigned parents: I was told that the disease was increasing in the south, as a result of depleted uranium used in the Allied ordnance in the Kuwait war. In the paediatric department of the Hussein Hospital in Kerbela, sanitary conditions were so bad that the children in the emergency rooms were perpetually infected and reinfected with gastric illnesses. The only salbutamol nebulizer was held together by tape, and I was told asthma patients had to be sent the seventy-five miles to the Saddam Children’s Hospital in Baghdad.
I remembered being told by a high-ranking Egyptian official in Cairo in 1991 that Saddam should be left in place: weakened, his army and revenue cut down to size, but still an element in the strategic equation, the balance of threat and violence in the Middle East. Here was the reality of a weakened Saddam: asthmatic children bundled into taxis to choke to death on the road to Baghdad.
Yet the paediatric hospitals had their elements of sham. Dr Ghaith, a young houseman in Kerbela, scrabbled at noon through the empty shelves of the hospital pharmacy, counting off syringes into his left hand: ‘…thirty-four, thirty-five. Thirty-five is all I have for the whole hospital until eight o’clock tomorrow morning!’ I told him what the United Nations had told me, but the Ministry had not permitted me to verify for myself: that the central Ministry of Health warehouses in Baghdad had on their shelves undelivered medical supplies worth $275 million. Dr Ghaith looked at me in bafflement. It occurred to me that the Ba’ath has been quite successful in blaming sanctions for evils that are of its own creation: the collapse of the currency, for example, or the hostility of the other Arab countries dumping their low-grade medicines and stale food on the country, or the incompetence, corruption or malice of the local administration. ‘I haven’t discovered,’ said Count Sponeck, picking his words carefully, ‘a deliberate attempt to obstruct medical deliveries. Perhaps there is no determined effort to make things move.’
Basra, the second town of Iraq, 350 miles to the south and 105 degrees in the morning, makes Baghdad seem a paradise. The walls of the Sheraton Hotel were still riddled with cannon holes from the Shia uprising of 1991, much of the population had no clean water, and the town was vulnerable, I was told, to infiltration from both Iran and Kuwait. It was the most morose city in Iraq.
We attended a ceremony arranged by the Ba’ath to celebrate the 1,364th anniversary of the founding of the city. In the phantasmagoria that is Ba’athi Iraq, nobody found the choice of anniversary contrived: there had been unrest in the spring, and no doubt the Party needed to show it cared. Along the waterway known as the Shatt al Arab, there are ninety life-size statues of men in uniform gesturing heroically at the Iranian shore. They are commanders who fell in the Iran war (or were executed by Saddam). Comrade Abdul Baqi Abdul Karim al-Saadoun, deputy leader of the Ba’ath for the Southern Region, laid a plastic wreath at the base of the statue of General Khairallah Adnan, Saddam’s brother-in-law (who died in a mysterious helicopter accident). The air-raid warning sounded for the daily American patrol.
A man leaped out of the crowd and began to shriek. The crowd bent like a bow in shock. I thought he must be felled by a bullet. Then I heard what he was saying: ‘We adore the Great President Leader Saddam Hussein! We invite our dear Saddam Hussein to visit this town and see how its inhabitants live! With soul and blood we sacrifice ourselves for Saddam! Long live Saddam Hussein! Long live the Great President Leader!’ The women wailed in sympathy. Comrade Saadoun got back into his Mercedes. Later, when Jaafar ducked into a restaurant for a moment, I stopped a man coming out of a mosque to ask what the government was really doing for the town. ‘Actually, he hates Basra,’ the man said, pushing past me.
‘Voilà l’Euphrate,’ said Jaafar, pointing to the Tigris. We were travelling back northwards, across an immense plain of mud and salinity, brickworks pouring out acrid black smoke and stagnant pools crowded with wading birds. To my left was the expanse of marshes between the Tigris and the Euphrates which I had dreamed of visiting since my schooldays, but the Ministry had forbidden it. At every mile was a tiny police fort with the name of the unit and the day’s date picked out in white stones and a machine-gun at each corner under a roof of rusty corrugated tin.
Jaafar followed my gaze. ‘Peut-être ils sont des voleurs, je ne sais pas.’
I said: ‘I want to see the First World War cemetery at Kut.’
‘Mais, c’est defendu. Absolument defendu, monsieur. Mamnu.’
‘Nonsense. It won’t take a moment.’
It didn’t. Behind the Commonwealth War Graves Commission railings, the cemetery had been engulfed by esparto grass, garbage and shit. The sculpted lettering, Kut War Cemetery 1914–1918, was defaced by illegible graffiti. The central cross had been snapped at the trunk. The tombstones of English infantrymen and Indian muleteers, mementoes of a war between the British and Ottoman Empires in which the local Arabs hardly figured, were marked by thick scum, where the Tigris floods the cemetery every winter.
‘Allez, monsieur, allez,’ Jaafar was beside himself with alarm. ‘C’est dangereux ici.‘
I looked up to see hundreds of men’s faces gaping at me through the railings. I kicked through the trash and said, in Arabic, ‘Well, I suppose if the British are bombing you, why should you care for…’
‘No, no,’ one of them said and pinched at my wrist. The crowd parted to reveal a tea-stall at the gate where, pinned to the wall above the teapot, was a Polaroid photograph of the cemetery in the days of its prosperity, the cross intact, the gravestones in their straight white lines, Indian gardeners laughing and dragging a motor-mower over the grass. It was a picture from another world, of order and routine and self-respect. I realized the chief emotion of the crowd was not hostility, but shame. They hated me only in as much as they hated everybody, including, certainly, themselves.
My escorts tired easily, could not bear the heat, or technical discussion, and since I was fresh from Europe, and enjoy the company of professional people, they became prey to gastric complaints and family tragedies. By the third week, neither Hassan nor Jaafar was coming to work. On Abu Nuwas Street by the Tigris, at the foot of the steps leading up to the Jumhuriyeh Bridge, I was detained by a young man with the moustache, white shirt and black pants that I had come to recognize as a uniform of the internal security service. Fortunately, he was alone and had no vehicle, it was scalding hot and he was too idle to take me away on foot.
I stopped going about on my own.
My chief friend in Baghdad was a man whom I addressed as Mr Abdullah. A retired professional with a wide acquaintance in Europe, he had dismissed all his staff in January 1993 and was running through his savings at the house he had built in the suburbs. Mr Abdullah’s wife was dead, his children were abroad, but he stays in Baghdad because he loves the town, and because the dinar is so cheap that with $200 a month sent from abroad to be exchanged in Saadoun Street you can live in Baghdad like an ambassador.
Since neither of us had much to do, Mr Abdullah took me to visit his friends. I met writers and architects and poets and engineers and picture dealers and sculptors – all of a certain age, when they had begun to cease to care about governments any more. Some were Party members, or were active in the Women’s Federation or the Union of Iraqi Journalists or some other organ of the Ba’ath’s near total social organization. I never heard a word of criticism of the President from these people: indeed, they praised him for his monuments and patronage of writers. I was witnessing the last survivors of a patrician, Anglophile, art-deco civility. Just evident beneath their kindness was an authentic regret: that they, who had absorbed the values of Britain and the United States, should now be abandoned by those countries; and also a well-bred anxiety, that as members of the privileged Sunni minority, in any revolution in Iraq they would share the big fellow’s fate when it came.
They professed an intense nostalgia for the 1980s. Sitting in her fine house by the Tigris, Mrs Salma Mishlawi, an Iraqi gentlewoman of the old school, the first woman in her family to go unveiled, the first to attend university in England, said: ‘The 1980s were a sort of climax for us. We became spoiled. Everything we needed the government gave to us. The war with Iran didn’t really affect us for the first year or two. Until, of course, the boys started to disappear: from here, and here, and here…’ She gestured with her fingers towards the river and Saadoun Street and Thawra and the western suburbs. Iraq is said to have lost 200,000 men in the war with Iran.
Another of these people said: ‘After the war [with Iran] ended, we had such plans: for reconstruction, economic development, social advance. The attack on Kuwait came as a complete surprise. We could not believe it. I promise you that ninety-five per cent of the Iraqis were opposed to it.’ A third, a well-known man now long retired, voiced the nearest that I heard in Iraq to remorse at the regime’s belligerence: ‘All our misfortunes can be put down to two unnecessary wars: first Iran, then Kuwait.’
We were having lunch out in the suburbs, or rather I was having lunch and they were having whiskies-and-soda. On the way, we had passed the marble villas of the smuggling profiteers, nouveaux riches who must soon displace the old professional class.
A third person said: ‘In 1991, from 17 January to 28 February, we had no electric power, no water, no police, no security. There was no radio, no government, no soldiers, except some days we saw them in the streets in their disdashas [robes]. We were happy! We were happy because we were looking after ourselves. And those missiles were streaking across the sky each night or raining down pieces on us as we sat in the orchards.
‘I was fortunate enough to have some money with me, and those of us with money helped those who hadn’t. Even when the banks did finally open, you could only get one or two dinars each day. One day, I had a few litres of petrol, and drove up to my orchard. People were waiting all over for buses, but there weren’t any. I picked up three soldiers who had been withdrawn or run away from Kuwait and Basra. Then in March or April, we started listening again to Baghdad Radio.’
The room was silent for a while.
In the street portraits which stand at crossroads or outside government or commercial buildings the President is shown in different characters in a sort of trashy international Iraq: as a weekend sportsman in a shop-new outfit and holding a twelve-bore shotgun, as an Austrian hiker with loden coat and feathered hat, as a pool lizard in a panama, as a short-order cook, as a Bedu prince, as an Arab officer of the Ottoman army circa 1907, as a French judge with sword and scales, as a landowner with robe and chequered head-cloth, as a brilliant scientist with extra-large glasses, as a grandfather with child and cigar, as a big-band musician, as a Kurdish peshmerga, or warrior, creeping forward through long grass, as a cult leader with garland and sunburst, as a war hero, as a young and promising constitutional monarch, as Stalin in a fur hat, as a Russian gangster in a leather coat, as a navvy with spade, waistcoat and cloth cap.
Those pictures are often signed not only by the painter but also by the donor or commissioner: Iraqi Airways, for example, or Sheikh Hamed bin Folan, a Shia landowner at Rasheed village east of Baghdad.