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Scilla Elworthy's Baghdad Diaries

Scilla Elworthy, born in Ireland in 1944, is an activist who in her thirties did significant work in Africa on hunger and FGM issues. In 1982 founded the Oxford Research Group, which brings nuclear scientists together with anti-nuclear and peace activists. She or her organization have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, in 1991, 1992, and 2001. More information about her is available here.

This 7000-word document, dated Jan. 14, 2003, is artfully presented as a diary of her visit to Iraq during the first week of January 2003, but in addition it reviews many of the issues being discussed in the current crisis. It also offers rare and poignant glimpses of the realities of life inside Iraq during these ominous days.

She was accompanied by seven other notables: Margarita Papandreou, former First Lady of Greece, Denis Halliday, former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN and UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq, Christian Harleman, the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, Sweden, Jan Oberg, Director, the Transnational Foundation, Sweden, Zeynep Oral, Winpeace and Peace Initiative, Turkey, Omaima Rawas, peace activist and Vice President of the Syrian Arabic League, Syria, Fotini Sianou, President, Women's Committee, European Trade Union Confederation. A brief report from this team is available online.

N.B. The material presented is below is copyrighted and can be reproduced for personal use only. "It is STRICTLY FORBIDDEN for libraries, universities, institutions and businesses to circulate, hire, lend, print, use as a teaching aid or reproduce this article without an Academic License or Organisational License from openDemocracy or the prior written permission from the author."

This diary, the team report, an overview of the Iraq crisis entitled "From the Cradle of Civilization to the Graveyard?", and a proposal to avoid war in Iraq entitled "Iraq -- A Way Out" are available as .pdf files from Oxford Research Group.



Scilla Elworthy

14 - 1 - 2003

In October 2002 I wrote to my old friend Margarita Papandreou, with whom I took delegations of women leaders to NATO headquarters in Brussels in the 1980s, to suggest that we invite high-profile leaders or personalities of integrity to travel to Baghdad in efforts to prevent a war. We wrote to Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Clare Short, Michael Douglas, Mary McAleese, Tina Turner and others. All said they couldn't, for various reasons. So Margarita and I decided to go ourselves, at our own expense, to do some fact-finding about how life is for ordinary Iraqis. I phoned the Foreign Office to ask for a briefing on the current situation and they told me flatly not to go, refusing any information.

Thursday, 2 January 2003

Arrived Amman, the capital of Jordan, 11.30pm. No sign of Margarita. I had no ticket to fly on to Baghdad at 4am, only a kind of voucher, which was removed by a young man at the transit office who said 'come back in an hour'. The place was deserted but for some Pakistani travellers sleeping on the floor, so I did the same for a while. One of them lent me a blanket.

When I went back to the transit office for the third time, there was still no one to be seen, so I asked a security guard where I could find water to drink. He took me down some corridors and into the first-class lounge, and there, beaming, was Margarita! With her was Omaima Rawas, Vice President of the Syrian Arabic League, Fotini Sianou, President of the Women's Committee of the European Trade Union Confederation, and Zeynep Oral, a long-standing Turkish journalist with the newspaper Milliyet. Big hugs of welcome, 'Schilla (as she calls me) come, sit down' (big comfy sofas), 'eat, drink!' And magically, at this point, my ticket to Baghdad arrived..

When at 4.30am the plane actually left I was even more amazed, having been told that many flights between Amman and Baghdad are cancelled, since the US controls the no-fly zone. As I board the plane, a man in a yellow jumper gets up to meet me; this is Denis Halliday, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations (UN) who resigned in protest at the genocide caused by the UN sanctions, when he was director of the Oil-for-Food programme in 1998.

We discuss why we have had no reply at all from Dr Amin (Iraqi representative in London) with regard to our programme in Iraq. When you go to a country like Iraq you have to have official approval from one government department or another, or you get nowhere. Do they even know we are coming? Halliday tells me the BBC has been asked to leave Iraq and is broadcasting from Amman. He says he is in favour of a War Crimes Tribunal on Iraq as long as Bush senior is in the dock too; for using depleted uranium shells, for the Mutla Ridge massacre in 1991, and for supplying chemicals to Iraq. This gives me some sense of who Denis is.

Margarita was also worrying about the fact that no programme had been set up, since she had not heard from her contact, Dr Al Hashimi. I had also sent him two emails and had no reply. I said don't worry, it will work out.

Friday, 3 January 2003, 7am

On arrival at Baghdad airport we are met by a flotilla of officials! Dr Al Hashimi beams, presides over our questions and possible visits. 'You can go wher

ever you want and talk to whoever you want. We will decide all that at a meeting tomorrow morning.' (Friday is a holiday in Iraq.) In this vast marble-halled empty airport, devoid of signs, advertising or people, tacked up on one of the doors is a hand-written sign saying: DOWN USA.

We had to check in our mobile phones at customs. Otherwise, no baggage search and no formalities; we get into a Mercedes to go to Al-Rasheed hotel. To enter you have to walk over a mosaic in the floor of the face of George Bush Senior with a caption: BUSH IS CRIMINAL.

Inside the foyer is a vast spruce tree with incongruous Christmas decorations. The hotel is efficient, friendly, extraordinarily normal; B&B costs $73 per night if friend, $200 if journalist. When you change money you need a plastic bag to carry the notes because $1 = 1750 dinars (in 1981, 1 dinar was worth $3 - an approx 6000% devaluation).

Although I was tired I could hardly sleep and so went with Denis Halliday to the souk. We walked down a whole street of booksellers, people selling 1966 copies of Time magazine and 1977 copies of the British Medical Journal. Denis was greeted warmly by a man selling 1950s Parker fountain pens who remembered him from four years ago, and a delighted carpet seller, who hailed him as Iraq's bravest friend and, of course, produced tea in little sherry schooners with masses of sugar. He said this time when the bombing starts he and his family will stay. In 1991 they left. They fear that this time chaos will come, and that if they are not there their houses will be looted. They fear terrible bloodletting as people settle scores with members of the Ba'ath party.

Over lunch we began our first strategy session. We agreed that all other rationales for military action - weapons of mass destruction (WMD), war on terror, regime change - are superfluous; the real reason is control of oil supplies, not only to the west, but also to the east. We discussed in depth a number of possibilities of tension reduction moves that could be made now by both sides.

In the evening the Greek Charge d'Affaires (note that we British have no diplomatic representation in Baghdad and if I get into trouble I have to go to the Polish embassy) took us to a restaurant which served two enormous fish from the Tigris river. We drank wine (which is rare) and strategised some more. The guitarist sang the Bee Gees song, 'Have you seen my wife Mr Jones? Do you know what it's like on the outside?' I came back to the hotel and drew up a diagram of what we perceive as the needs of Bush and Hussein respectively, and how some new moves might satisfy these.

Saturday, 4 January 2003, 8.30am

We drove across town to meet Dr Al Hashimi at his run-down offices of the organisation for Peace, Friendship and Solidarity. He was previously minister of higher education and ambassador to France, and is an adviser to Saddam Hussein.

As we were going into his offices, I spotted Jan Oberg, my old colleague from the Transnational Foundation in Sweden, in the corridor. I invited him that evening to our planning session. From Dr Al Hashimi we requested meetings with the following: Tariq Aziz (deputy prime minister); Naji Sabri (foreign minister); Omer Rashid (oil minister); the minister of information; the most senior woman minister or official. We also requested visits to a girls' high school, a hospital, women in their homes, and the bomb shelter hit on 13 February 1991.

Dr Al-Hashimi says he will do his best. He's a sad and very angry man, profoundly attached to rhetoric. He talked at length about the effects of the US/UK using depleted uranium shells (Geoff Hoon, UK defence minister, has apparently admitted to Parliament using fifty shells; Dr Al-Hashimi says 130 tonnes were dropped). The particles are spreading by wind and water but they can't check in which direction because they are not allowed the airborne radiation detection equipment. Rates of cancer have increased catastrophically, and now they are getting a spate of birth defects. When medical equipment is sent to Iraq, the US and UK insist on the computers that run the machines being taken out, so they lie useless.

On inspections: when Tony Blair announced his 'dossier' in September on WMD in Iraq, they invited him to send British inspectors to wherever he said the weapons were. He didn't reply. Two weeks ago they invited the CIA to take inspectors to wherever they say the weapons are, and they declined.

We concluded with some Iraqi Bush jokes. Three leaders are caught by guerrillas in Latin America and lined up before a firing squad. First leader shouts 'Earthquake!' and in the ensuing chaos he gets away; second leader shouts 'Hurricane!' and in the ensuing chaos gets away; then it comes to Bush, left alone before the firing squad. He shouts 'Fire!' Nobody would tell me any Saddam jokes. I bet they've got them though.

Saturday, 4 January 2003, 11.30am

The Saddam Childrens' Teaching Hospital was shocking. This country, which had a better health service than the National Health Service in Britain in the 1980s, cannot afford to patch the cracks in the plaster, let alone treat these acutely sick children. They have one nurse for sixteen beds, where there used to be one nurse for two beds. Every child has a mother or grandmother giving full-time care.

One 14-year-old girl who was 'adopted' by Denis Halliday along with three others, now has six out of the eight drugs needed to treat her leukaemia. The three others died. In one bed was Omar, three years old, who has a plastino plastoma, which attacks the kidneys, and then goes to the brain and nervous system; his head was enlarged three times, his face swollen entirely out of shape and eyes blind. His mother sits with him looking like a Madonna and waiting for him to die.

Tiny Aya ('Miracle') was born with a second head, a brain sack attached to the back of her own head (a condition known as myelomeningocele not seen before the mid-1990s, and was lying in a makeshift incubator 'until she is strong enough for us to operate'.

Dr Ahmed Fadeh told me there are so many cases he simply can't treat because the equipment is worn out, he lacks spare parts, and he has not got the drugs he needs. He is an energetic man in his 30s who seems to survive on being factual and calm; the hospital was quiet and hardly any children cried or even spoke. Margarita has visited hospitals five times in Iraq since 1990, and said conditions are worse than ever before.

Saturday, 4 January 2003, 1pm

The Al-Amiriya shelter, which looks like a rectangular concrete box, was bombed at 4.30am on 13 February 1991 by two laser-guided bombs each weighing two tons. The first penetrated two metres of concrete ceiling like a drill; we saw the hole with reinforcements hanging down. 422 women and children were sleeping below on bunks: 408 of them died, most burned to death in 400°C temperatures because the second bomb went (smartly) into the ventilation system and created an oven of the entire building. The whole thing took four minutes.

When the emergency services went about cleaning up that floor, they used so much water that it filled up the basement to shoulder height. Bits of flesh, hair and eyes were floating in the water and are now stuck to the basement walls. I touched them.

The US said they thought the building was used for military operations; they were using 'old maps', and apologised. We will suggest to the ministry of information that they publish up-to-date maps this time, showing where the thirty-four shelters are. But everyone we have spoken to so far says they will not use the shelters this time.

Everywhere we go in the city there are statues of Saddam Hussein brandishing what looks like a shotgun, in a raised hand. He has a homburg or bowler hat on and looks absurd, like a mannikin.

This is an absurd business, if it wasn't so serious.

Everywhere the smiles of the women are ravishing.

Saturday, 4 January 2003, 6pm

Exchange of information meeting, including Jan Oberg and his Swedish colleague, and Denis Halliday, who has had a meeting with the foreign minister today.

Denis had visited a three-generation family he knows. Families had been given three months' supply of food (and now a further two months' worth) in order to get it out of the main storage sites so that it won't be destroyed. They are also stockpiling water but have no suitable large containers so it's all in bottles. People with gardens are asked to 'dig' wells. It's an indication of what they conclude from US and UK behaviour, that they believe we will bomb food stores.

Although it is so close to the zero hour, there may yet be possibilities for negotiation. Just before Christmas, US Defense Under Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, quoting Churchill's phrase, 'We arm to parley', and saying the US had created a credible threat in order to secure better negotiations. He then repeated the speech at NATO, so it must be a serious message being conveyed, and possibly the first bricks in a bridge to retreat over?

We thought hard about a possible role for the European Union, and came up with the idea outlined below. Margarita's son, George Papandreou, is foreign minister of Greece, which happens to hold the presidency of the European Union from now until mid-2003. She phoned him with the idea.

We heard that the Russian game plan is to let the Americans and Brits go ahead with their Iraqi adventure and fall flat on their faces. I rather doubt this, if it's true that the Russians' oil deal with the Iraqis (1997) has now been cancelled by the latter, because the Russians allowed themselves to be persuaded by the US to agree UN resolution 1441 in exchange for a share-out of Iraqi oil contacts post attack.

Possible role for the European Union - a proposal

To convene and support a meeting between the most senior representatives of the United States and of Iraq to 'explore whether all avenues short of war have been exhausted'.

This meeting would need to be announced before 27 January, perhaps to take place in mid-February. It would need to take place in a very safe environment (perhaps Crete), to avoid all the pitfalls of a conference such as Rambouillet on the eve of the 1999 war over Kosovo, and to employ state-of-the-art conflict resolution techniques. (Expert practitioners could be used such as William Ury of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard, who ran the successful Camp David meeting under President Carter between Begin and Sadat.) It would be useful if the meeting were endorsed by the Arab League, by Moscow, by Beijing and by Tony Blair. These moves could be supported by France and by Germany, in their chairmanship of the UN Security Council in January and February 2003, respectively.

The agenda of the meeting could include: exploration of the interests rather than the positions of both countries; and a request to each side to advance some concrete proposals for tension reduction.

We were invited by Greek friends to dinner at a posh restaurant in the only flash shopping street in Baghdad, quite glitzy, no recognisable chain stores although they said there was a Gap there somewhere once. Outside the restaurant there was a large man speaking into a mobile phone - quite a shock to be shocked by seeing a mobile phone. We assumed he was Mukhabarat, secret police.

Sunday, 5 January 2003, 8.30am

Meeting with Naji Sabri, foreign minister. A sharp, articulate man in uniform who was five years in the UK running the Iraqi Cultural Centre and was Ambassador in Vienna; he made a pretty opening remark about the role of Athens and Baghdad in the history of civilisation.

He said that if the US controls Iraq, it will control all of the Middle East, and the flow of oil not just to the US but to Europe and east Asia as well. He sees Iraq as key to US domination over the entire world, and sees Israel as part of the planning of this campaign.

He detailed how Iraq is moving in the direction of individual human rights. Apparently in October Saddam Hussein asked every minister to review legislation 'from emergency times', and this is what they have so far decided:

1.. Amnesty to all prisoners, political and criminal: 'all detainees have left prison.' We later heard that some have been re-arrested and that crime rates have increased..
2.. At the insistence of human rights organisations, Iraq has now abolished 'special courts' linked to security violations. Defendants had no rights of appeal and human rights organisations said they were summary trials.
3.. Two months ago Iraq reduced the $200 fee for an exit visa to $10.
4.. Abolished Sharia laws saying that thieves' hands will be cut off.
5.. Previously parents could only give their children names with an Iraqi origin; this has been scrapped.
6.. Until one month ago if you wanted to build a house in the country you had to get the written agreement of twenty-two ministries (archaeology, transport, oil, etc.) - no longer.
7.. Any Iraqi not linked to the intelligence services has the right to return and to criticise the government. For example, the Iraqi National Alliance, one of the two main opposition parties, made a public visit to Baghdad recently. They would like to put this together as a big package and announce it. Our TV crew interviewer asked what he expected from the EU. He repeated the point about US control of keys to prosperity and economic advancement, via oil, in Europe as well. So it is in their interest to stop this campaign. He stressed that Iraq would be willing to enter an EU-sponsored dialogue with the US.

My overall impression was that he is calm and self-contained, to the point of making me wonder whether he realises that time is running out. He's a bit like a Jack Straw with a steel backbone.

Sunday, 5 January 2003, 10am

Dr Hoda Ammash, most senior woman in the Ba'ath party. We met at her home, which was full of very life-like silk flowers made locally. She graduated in microbiology, did postgraduate work in the US, and speaks careful, immaculate English.

I asked if it was true (we had been told) that 46% of the Iraqi population was under 16. She said she didn't know and would find out, but she's surprised because sanctions prevented people marrying, and so many children have died. Under these strange conditions she said, 'people are insisting on living.'

In response to my question as to whether I could film women in their homes who would be allowed to not say predictable things, she confirmed invites to the media to come and film normal life and show what people in Iraq are like.

To my surprise she said: 'People here bear every respect for western people and western civilisation. We respect your technological advancement and western values, both of the people and of the system. Also we know that westerners are being given the opportunity to learn about Arabic civilisations. Yet a hatred is being manufactured [by some] to engineer a clash of civilisations.'

In answer to a question about how she feels about the impending war: 'I have a son and a daughter, and two grandchildren' (she looks 35) 'and of course I worry. But defending Iraq is more important than worrying. Children are afraid. High school kids don't know whether to study seriously and prepare for exams. But we have no choice.'

She said Iraq has paid $3000 per day per inspector for eight years (the first two years of inspections were paid by the UN). Inspections were extended to the universities. She taught microbiology and inspectors came in every three weeks, 'searching behind the cabinets. They would enter exam halls where students were doing their finals and search under chairs.'

Sunday, 5 January 2003, 11am

Tariq Aziz, deputy prime minister. The meeting was held in the cabinet office, a vast white building with acres of wine-red carpet. The meeting room had huge armchairs positioned around the periphery of the room, so you're metres away from the person you're trying to talk to. Just like Beijing.

Tariq Aziz is probably the most familiar Iraqi face on western TV, with his brushed-back white hair and milk-bottle glasses. He wanted to arrange for us to visit the sites named by Tony Blair's famous 'dossier' where WMD were supposed to be. The inspection teams now want headquarters in Mosul and Basra, 'so we'll have to provide two more whole units of experts and minders.' Hans Blix is going to visit them himself before 27 January. On oil, he recounted his words to the Japanese government: 'Listen. At present you're buying oil on normal business terms. After this war, you'll be buying it on political terms.'

He does think there's going to be a war and a devastating one.

All Iraq's neighbours except Kuwait and Israel are against it; yet the US says Iraq is a danger to its neighbours. The only other country worldwide supporting a unilateral war is the UK.

Yet I do wonder if it's possible that Blair is in fact steering the difficult course, of containing Bush's excesses by continuing to talk to him, and to do that he goes along with the military build-up, and may not be intending actually to go to war.

The track record in Kosovo and Afghanistan would not indicate that, but if Bush had not been restrained after 11 September 2001, heaven knows what he might have done. Blair gets on well with Hosni Mubarak, takes his holidays in Sharm-el-Sheikh, and is building a bridge with the Arab world with his Palestinian meeting (now a 'virtual' affair) on 14 January in London. Looks like he understands that Palestine is the issue.

Tariq Aziz recounted a list of the American and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and churches who have visited Iraq to offer support. He is discussing 'human shields' with Spanish, Austrian and US Voices in the Wilderness. He wants approximately 5000 people to stay at 100 sites: electricity plants, water purification and pumping stations, telecommunication plants, refineries, etc., so that the population doesn't starve or die from polluted water. He agreed a better name than 'human shields' was needed, possibly 'civilian protection'.

Aziz was very receptive to our Europe idea, he's ready, but doubtful if the US would come. He said he's talked to the Belgian foreign minister, to Romano Prodi and Euro parliamentarians and hopes the EU will get more involved. Even congressmen he knows well in Washington won't see him. Then he gave Greek TV an interview - a scoop because apparently he has given no interviews for four months except to Fox TV (US) and the Jonathan Dimbleby programme (UK).

Sunday, 5 January 2003, 1pm

Manal Abdul Razak Al-Aloussi (president, General Federation of Iraq Women). She says 4,000,000 Iraqi women have been trained in civil defence, for two months each, to extinguish fires, carry out first aid, shoot, and capture parachutists.

The rest of the interview with her wasn't very interesting and reminded me of similar formalised encounters with state women's organisations in the Soviet Union and China.

Sunday, 5 January 2003, 2pm

Lunch at the Baghdad Hunting Club, at the invitation of Dr Al Hashimi. The entire plate glass doors were painted with jolly fat Father Christmases. There is far too much food, particularly meat, for us visitors, in a country where so many people are so hungry. I was happy to get back to my room to write up my notes; I seem to have got the job of drafting a bullet-point report of what we've learned, plus suggestions to answer the question all our colleagues are asking 'what can people do to stop this war?'

I heard tonight that all planes to and from Jordan have been cancelled. No explanation. Quite a chill, as Jordan is our way home on Tuesday. I imagined what it would be like not to be able to leave, and felt afraid for a bit. Then I stopped thinking about it.

I'm getting no exercise and feel like a stuffed pig. The hotel has a 'beauty shop' advertising massage, so I thought that would be a great idea. It wasn't. It was a kind of disjointed random pummelling, and I was getting more tense wondering where the masseuse was going to strike next, so we called it a day after half an hour.

Conversation with Denis Halliday who from his UN experience reckons the twelve-year sanctions regime has become a WMD which, combined with US bombing of water purification plants and sewage systems, is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of over a million people, over half of whom are children. He's very angry in a cool ironic Irish sort of way. He says that according to UNICEF 25% of Iraqi babies are born weighing 2kgs or less, a key indicator of famine. One million children under 5 suffer acute or chronic malnutrition.

This evening we all feel very down, very heavy with all this suffering around us, and powerless to do anything about it. Fotini Sianou was crying. I said it's quite normal to feel like this because it's the reality of the situation for millions of people here. If we allow ourselves to feel what we feel, we'll emerge out the other side and be able to figure out what to do.

Monday, 6 January 2003, 9am

More from Dr Al Hashimi while waiting for General Amer El Sadi to talk about inspections. Explanation of how Oil-for-Food programme works:

1.. Iraq sells oil and the money goes straight from the buyer to an escrow a/c at the Banque National de Paris in New York under the control of UN Committee 661.
2.. Whatever necessities Iraq wants to buy, food or washing machines, it gets the best quote and signs a contract. Vendor company asks its government for an export licence.
3.. Iraq sends contact details to Committee 661.
4.. Process of examination of what the goods might be used for; this can go on for six months.
5.. When the vendor company gets the OK and ships the goods, it gets paid by Committee 661, regardless of whether the goods arrive as specified. So Iraq's oil money can be used for imperfect or even non-existent goods, and Iraq has no recourse.

Denis, who was in charge of the programme, confirmed to me later that this is how it happens. He said that it is in breach of international trade norms. An example he gave was of two shipments of French wheat which Iraq paid for; they arrived so mouldy they had to be fumigated. Iraq had to just accept this and could do nothing. He sees it as part of a massive and systematic humiliation of a proud people.

Of the Iraqi oil revenues, about 30% goes in compensation to Kuwait; about 4% goes to the UN for overheads and costs of inspections; about 13% goes to the Kurdish north for food; so Iraq is left with approximately 53% to spend on food and commodities for the centre and south of the country.

Hans van Sponeck, Halliday's successor, also resigned in protest. Collective punishment of a people (for the actions of their leader) is in breach of the Geneva Convention. The sanctions programme has put Saddam Hussein in total control of his people through rationing, thus having the opposite effect of that intended.

Monday, 6 January 2003, 9.30am

Dr Sami Al-Araji, nuclear engineer and director-general of planning at the ministry of industry, who is facilitating the work of UNMOVIC inspectors, came to talk in place of General El Sadi whose brother had had a heart attack. (Al-Araji had welcomed Andreas Papandreou, George's father, to Michigan State University in 1964 when he was president of the students union - can you believe it - and was delighted to see Margarita again).

He's quiet, efficient, and never became rhetorical and histrionic as Al-Hashimi does. He seemed embarrassed to tell us about an incident the previous day when there was a routine inspection near the University of Baghdad where there are six science centres. The inspectors wanted to investigate one of these, but froze the entire complex meaning that nearly 3,000 people could not move for six hours, even though their place of work was not under inspection. This meant that toddlers were left uncollected at nursery schools. Not even the Iraqi ambassador to the UN, there for a visit, was allowed to leave. He later told me it was all right for me to record this because it had been on television. Iraqi people thought the inspections would last two to three years, and then they could go back to normal life. It is now twelve years since the inspections began, they are more intense than ever, and there is no end in sight.

Monday, 6 January 2003, 11am

Drove downtown to the Al-Zahrawi tearoom, through streets teeming with people dodging through the traffic, ambling along on donkey carts, and selling absolutely everything on the street from TV sets to shoelaces and bright transparent plastic files for school children. Other drivers spot the government cars a mile off and let them have their way. I'm reminded of previous visits to China and the former Soviet Union: minders everywhere, walls with ears, and people afraid to mention let alone criticise Saddam Hussein, who has indeed modelled himself on Stalin.

Yet in the tearoom I did manage to talk to a number of people. Painfully aware that I was the only woman in the entire place (which was packed to watch Saddam Hussein's Army Day speech) I dodged our minder and squeezed in to sit between a man absorbed with a hookah pipe and an old man in a white turban. When the time seemed right I asked him if he spoke any English. 'A little. Where you from?' 'England' (with some trepidation). People turned and glanced. And glanced away. But they were courteous; it is Blair they can't stand, and see him as a lackey of Bush, whom he supports in order to be part of the carve-up of Iraqi oil.

We talked about families, and relatives in Europe, and where he had travelled - 'Bulgaria, Hungaria.' Little glasses of sweet black tea were offered. The man with the hookah was ready to talk by this time, and I said I had found a café in London where you could smoke rose tobacco in a hookah. I asked about his family, and he said they would not leave Baghdad this time. 'Where can we go?'

Saddam's speech was half about religion (this is fairly new) and half about preparing his people for an attack. He looks old and has heavy jowls. When the Iraqi emblem came up on the screen at the end, I stared; it's a fierce eagle looking sideways, a mirror image of the US emblem.

Monday, 6 January 2003, 1pm

Meeting with Amer Mohammed Rashid, minister for oil, at his headquarters which is about as big and grand as Shell HQ beside the river Thames in London. He was a deputy commander in the Iraqi air force and looks it - well-built, fit, late 50s and sharply intelligent.

After his quite sweeping general introduction, I asked for a whole lot of facts, answered as follows:

Current world oil production per day: 77 million barrels

Current OPEC oil production per day: 26 million barrels

Current Iraqi oil production per day: 3 million barrels, 2.3 of which are exported, 40% to the US

Current Iraqi potential capacity: 4-5 million barrels

In four to five years, with investment, this could go up to 6 million barrels.

In ten years, with investment, this could go up to 8 million barrels.

Proven reserves (so far) are 115 billion barrels, estimated up to 200 billion, and since Iraq is only using 1% of reserves per year, they could go on like this for 100 years. That's why the US is so interested. (I found a map of Iraq's oil wells and pipelines in the hotel postcard shop.)

OPEC was founded in Baghdad more than forty years ago. Iraq wants a stable oil market and fair prices - their revenues are 90% dependent on oil. 'We recognise that the US economy depends on energy and that they fear a shortage of oil as they import 60% of their needs. By 2020 it will be more than 75%. It's in our interest to supply the US and we have good relations with the US oil companies, which we would like to continue. The US government could ensure stability through adopting normal equitable relations based on international law. What we don't like is hegemony, threats and manipulation - this means constant crises.'

For example, at the end of 1997 the US pressurised OPEC to lower prices to below $9 per barrel, wanting to put Russia under political pressure. 'At other times, when they want to invest in the Caspian Sea for example, they push the prices high. This up and down is very destabilising for us.'

Iraq wants an oil-pricing situation which takes a long-term view and is stable. 'I've been seven years in OPEC with the twelve other ministers and we are all exasperated by US behaviour.' He began to get very loquacious and started throwing his arms around. 'The US and the UK are salivating because if they could control Iraqi oil, they could control Europe, and that would be the end of Europe's influence in the Middle East.' And then more quietly: 'The US thinks that with so much military and economic power they can do away with wisdom.'

He was very excited at a report he had seen that morning on CNN on the question: 'which is the country most threatening to peace worldwide?' To his astonishment 70% of the American respondents answered that it was the US, only 20% said it was the Axis of Evil countries, and 10% said it was Saudi Arabia. He expected that CNN would alter those results as soon as they woke up. He had a conspiracy theory about how the Zionists have propelled Tony Bair into the leadership of the Labour Party, and that there are strong links between Israel and the Labour Party.

The emotions are so deep that people get carried away and go over the top. When asked whether the Iraqis have taken extra measures to protect their oil fields (we had heard a rumour that the wells have been heavily mined) he said, 'Make your own assumptions.'

He concluded: 'Iraq has 7000 years of civilisation. The US has only a few hundred years of . history. They cannot understand the minds of people who resist. Even kings begged us to give in to the US last time . in 1998 Clinton fired 350 cruise missiles at us and still we didn't collapse . The US is now a raging bull in a china shop. He'll find concrete blocks and break his head.'

'Clinton said one palace of Saddam Hussein was the size of Washington. Blair said it was the size of Paris. This information must have come from intelligence sources! Kofi Annan said let's check, sent surveyors, and checked parameters of all nine presidential sites. The total equalled one per cent of the Washington area. How could Clinton make such a mistake?'

We reeled back to the hotel at 3pm and I'm relieved that no other appointments have been made, allowing me to digest some of this and continue the report. I excused myself from dinner because this is just too much food.

Tuesday, 7 January 2003, 9am

Al-Dawrah Foot and Mouth Vaccine Institute. I was pretty reluctant to trail out here, thinking it would be a PR exercise, but I'm glad I came. Even if astonished at my government.

We went into the buildings, where there was nothing except wreckage. Great stainless-steel pipes sticking out of walls and ending in twisted metal. Manuals lying in heaps of dust. Gutted cylinders big enough to walk through. Cameras everywhere pointing in all directions. Ventilation systems concreted up so no chemical or biological work could take place here.

Al-Araji said that in 1982 they began production of 12 million triple vaccines for foot and mouth disease as well as 36 million vaccines for each different type of virus. Since 1994 the site has been inspected or visited sixty times, it has been closed since 1995, when all the equipment was destroyed or removed and the cameras were connected to the former UNSCOM Monitoring Centre in Baghdad. So why, even if it was once producing botulinium toxin (which Al-Araji didn't say), was it still high on the list in the UK government dossier (published September 2002) of biological weapons sites? Why did UNMOVIC come here on their second day in Iraq? The place was wrecked and clearly had been for years.

After this Zeynep Oral, Fotini Sianou and I headed directly to the Baghdad Museum. They have a collection of figurines from 5,000-6,000 BC of delightful little goddesses, fat-hipped icons of fertility from the thousands of years when the female was in balance with the male in this part of the world, and was worshipped. We saw the tablets on which Hammurabi, who ruled Babylon in 1750 BC, caused to be inscribed the first records of the stonemasons who built the great monuments of Mesopotamia, and how much each had been paid. They had sewage systems then, and irrigation, intricately carved pillars and enormous stone frescoes of processions of dignitaries with delicately folded hands, not to mention an elaborate code of laws, when the ancient Britons were running around with woad on our faces and had just thought of Stonehenge.

We wanted to see Queen Shebad, the famous ivory and gold statue of the exquisite young woman with a crown of gold stars who reigned here hundreds of years before Christ and looks so modern she could be on the cover of Vogue. But she was in storage, to be protected from the bombing perhaps or from the 'disappearances' from the museum which took place in the chaos of 1991.

Zeynep, who had visited the museum in 1978, was desolate over the state of the place - barely lit, dusty, empty. She said that twenty-five years ago it was packed and thriving and full of beauty, that when you walked up the streets of Baghdad you were almost overcome by the smell of roses. I suddenly realised that this is what is missing in Baghdad - beauty. There are no fountains or parks, no flowers and few trees. Nothing much that is natural, gentle, luscious or soft. Except the stunning smiles.

Checking out of the hotel took a long time, because (as we knew) you can't pay by credit card; neither can you pay with cash dollars. You have to get your bill from the cashier, then go to the bank to change enough dollars to dinar, and bring a sack to take them to the cashier again.

We are relieved to learn that the planes to Amman are flying again, although of course two days' worth of passengers are now on our plane. In the departure lounge at the airport and on the plane we continue to develop ideas, mainly around the potential role of the Arab states, the EU and what can be done to awaken the British, US and European publics to what they could do to prevent a war, and what life is like for Iraqis.

My draft gets refined by the others; I'll finish it on the plane to London and then email to NGOs worldwide. Never did get a Saddam joke, though.

In a final meeting with Dr Al-Hashimi we realise we've seen everyone we wanted to see except the minister for information; I especially wanted to see him because I want his clearance to make some short films to go before or after the news on BBC or Channel 4, showing what life is like here for ordinary Iraqis. Al-Hashimi says that'll be no problem, just send the proposal. I realise he has given us exceptional access; I heard that journalists have been waiting six weeks to get fifteen minutes with Tariq Aziz. In a few short days we've covered a lot of ground and this trip has been graced by much good fortune. Many people literally all over the world were carrying us in their hearts. Thank you.

Copyright © Scilla Elworthy. Published by openDemocracy. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for personal use only. It is STRICTLY FORBIDDEN for libraries, universities, institutions and businesses to circulate, hire, lend, print, use as a teaching aid or reproduce this article without an Academic License or Organisational License from openDemocracy or the prior written permission from the author.

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Last updated: February 2, 2003