Notebook

Baghdad notebook: "Things were better in Saddam's time"

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

5 July 2014

9:00 AM

In the passport queue at Baghdad airport, my heart sinks. This place vies with Cairo for the title of most venal airport in the Middle East. Our luggage is minutely examined by the Mukhabarat, or secret police, then customs. Early morning becomes mid-afternoon. Our papers (scrupulously in order) lie unattended on a desk. Eventually, a customs man, with a large moustache and belly hanging over his belt, waddles over. ‘We cannot stamp these today,’ he says. ‘We will have lunch now, and then we will sleep. Come back tomorrow. Or the next day.’ Our bags are moved into a room piled high with luggage seized from other TV crews: flak jackets, lights, someone’s camera and editing gear. ‘How much?’ asks our fixer, wearily. ‘$600,’ says the customs man, dropping any pretence that this is anything other than a shakedown.

Outside, the wall still has the faintest outline of a mural of Saddam, ‘the portrait’ as his ubiquitous image used to be simply known. ‘Things were better in Saddam’s time,’ says our fixer. ‘The customs only asked for $100. Maximum!’ He is a Sunni and over the week I often hear Sunnis reminisce fondly about the old dictator. ‘Even people who were in prison said he was fair,’ a Sunni sheikh tells me, improbably. ‘He made no difference between Sunni and Shia [the two great rival sects of Islam].’ Shiites, murdered in large numbers by Saddam, would disagree. They are in charge now, in the territory not part of the ‘Islamic State’ declared by the (Sunni) jihadis of Isis. A US TV correspondent says her network insists she avoids using ‘Shiites’ and ‘Sunnis’ in her reports: too complicated. Not for the first time, I wonder if President Bush really knew the difference before he invaded Iraq.

Our driver keeps up a running commentary as we edge through Baghdad traffic. ‘VBIED here; vest there; VBIED over there.’ These are places where a suicide attacker exploded a belt, or vest, or where there was a car bomb, or ‘vehicle-borne improvised explosive device’. An Iraqi friend working in a Baghdad hospital told me about a big car-bomb a couple of years ago. Amid the pandemonium, a young man sat in a wheelchair, his eyes taken out by shrapnel. ‘Just kill me,’ he said. ‘I can’t live like this.’ She refused. An hour later, he died anyway. The bombers have never really gone away. But people in Baghdad, especially in the Shiite areas, fear that with Isis almost at the gates, they will have to endure the worst wave of attacks yet.


We get stopped by the police half a dozen times a day. As soon as we bring out the camera, plain-clothes Mukhabarat materialise from nowhere. One tells me, ‘If you ask people any question critical of the government, or any question about the prime minister, we will arrest you.’ The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has his own TV channel, or rather his party does. It plays stirring martial music and shows parades of goose-stepping soldiers. The news anchors wear camouflage combat gear and one — double take — holds a Kalashnikov upright on his desk as he reads the bulletin.

We sit in an outer office at the headquarters of the Shia militia Asa’ib ahl al-Haq, the League of the Righteous. It is commanded by an Iranian general and credited with bringing into Iraq the more efficient roadside bombs that killed hundreds of British and American troops. Al-Haq also kidnapped five Britons in 2007, four of whom died in captivity. We are asking to embed with them. A Shia cleric in flowing robes and white turban tells me, with a twinkle in his eye: ‘The enemies of the past are friends and the friends are enemies.’ Al-Haq would not be my first choice as a base to cover this conflict, but then our options are limited.

‘No problem. 100 per cent certain, I promise. Just phone back tomorrow.’ Tomorrow, tomorrow: the international press corps in Baghdad has been hearing this for two weeks as they beg for permits to film outside the city. In a moment of honesty, a minister’s aide tells me: ‘Just stop calling. Maliki himself has given the order that no [foreign] journalists can move until there’s a victory.’ A producer on a Shiite TV channel offers to put us in touch with the right people for places on an army helicopter… only $5,000. I ask a Sunni government official who has helped us in the past to see if this can be true. More or less, he says: $4,500. I assume the other $500 is the TV producer’s cut. It is $1,000 each for the helicopter pilots, apparently, and $2,500, or a Rolex, for the general.

The flow of money is not all one-way. The New York Times correspondent tweets a photograph of defence ministry officials handing out envelopes of cash to Iraqi journalists. The ministry tries to spin this as ‘travel expenses’ for reporters to attend a news conference given by the army spokesman, General Qassim Atta. But it is a bribe: only about £40, but over a month such payments can double the pittance local reporters get for doing a job that can easily get them killed. The Iraqi journalists are enraged, worried the money will dry up. The general was already in a bad mood with the foreign media for comparing him to ‘Comical Ali’, Saddam’s absurdly over-optimistic information minister. But the New York Times correspondent has also somehow gained access to the general’s bathroom and tweeted a picture of his gold-inlaid toilet. This is the final insult. The entire foreign press fears collective punishment. Meanwhile, half an hour’s drive from the general’s briefing room, Isis prepares its next move, with deadly serious intent.

Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent. His Panorama documentary on Isis will be on BBC1 later this month.

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Show comments
  • Terry Field

    They are right to be . He was an Arab nationalist very much in the role of Nasser.
    He suggested to the Arab League that oil be priced in gold and not in dollars, and the rest is history.
    Blair had the competence if a child – and Brown was so flawed as to be plain dangerous – and that is what the utterly stupid Brits voted for.
    We have destroyed the chances of peace in the Middle East, and we have blood on our hands, and up to our elbows.
    We have done immense damage to the Iraqis. Unforgivable. Irreparable.

    • Bonkim

      Water under the bridge – things are as they are now – blaming Blair or Brown however right your hypotheses is achieves little. People like Nasser, Assad, and Saddam rose at a time Imperial powers were leaving these lands. US/Britain were fighting to safeguard their economic interests – not some vague notions of bringing western style democracy and rule of law to the diverse people of the region. Foolhardy of anyone thinking that was possible.

      These countries were created artificially and encompassed diverse populations previously engaged in tribal and sectarian wars. Islam of different strands forms an explosive mix. All that has happened is a return to normalcy – and one supposes that they will fight it out to bring natural balance and establish defensible borders. Europe went through a similar process over centuries culminating in the two great Wars of the last century. Conflict and instability is the natural order.

      • Terry Field

        True in part – except we did not interfere with the normal relationship between Sunni and Shia until the fools Bush and Blair tried to change the world without reference to the past. Blair is a disconnected inadequate, who has no regard to settled relationships, and did great damage to Britain because of this – we should learn from this, and avoid voting for pretty-faced oily scum who smile and lie – it is obvious at the time -why are we so seduced?

        • Bonkim

          Yes credit to British ability to understand human behaviour and leave sleeping dogs alone. British Empire was founded on tolerance to the limit that it did not create civil unrest and allowing people to be free and benefit within set norms of the rule of British law. That was win win for all most of the time – compared with the abject exploitation and discrimination of native people in the colonies set up by European powers – Holland, France, Spain and Portugal which all ended up by antagonizing the local people and in bloodshed and revolution and eventual kicking out of the Colonial powers. British foreign policy knew when not to push but withdraw gracefully and save face on both sides – which succeeded most of the time.

          • Terry Field

            Yes, the universality of the Empire was its strength, and it has sustained the post imperial commonwealth. Britain managed the greatest civilisation, a co-operation of peoples- that the world ha ever seen. No country comes close to britain in the propagation of kind humane tolerance and brotherly friendship irrespective of ethnicity – which is another reason why Britain should break free of the European embrace, whose principal members have gore up to their armpits against each other, and would do it again tomorrow if he going got a bit more difficult.

          • Terry Field

            I agree wholeheartedly with myself.

          • Bonkim

            How smug you are!

          • Terry Field

            I see you also appreciate my genius.
            You are indeed fortunate to live at the same time as I do. Your life could have been a waste. I give it meaning, and context.

          • Bonkim

            I am already beginning to glow in reflected glory. Don’t burn out too soon.

          • Terry Field

            We have become a Supernova.
            Adore
            NOW!

          • Bonkim

            Before we all disappear into the dark hole.

          • Bonkim

            Kind human tolerance – not sure – I am a Darwinian so it makes no difference to me. What matters is that many developments in technology, social organisation, economics and trade were taking place n Britain (and in Europe too particularly Germany, France and Netherlands) and the far flung reaches of Empire provided a risk-free environment of experimentation and refinement. Telegraph, railways, postal and signalling systems were all being developed in North America, India, and Britain simultaneously – the telegraph and railways tried out signalling systems on all three continents, the first transcontinental cables spanned from the US/Canada to Britain and to India, the world shrank as speed of communications increased. Britain on its own would not have achieved all that.

  • Peter Stroud

    Yet Blair still insists that he was right, to involve our troops in the Iraq war. We were, as a nation, completely misled: yet nothing will come out about Blair’s private talks with Bush.

  • Roger Hudson

    Rather than the BBC wasting money on bribes why not wait until one side wins and give us a five minute report, the 24hrs news fever is nauseating .

  • Bonkim

    Of course it was better – Saddam kept things in control.

  • Amir
  • Al Bumen

    Many run-of-the-mill collectivists, more commonly known as liberals, have been overwhelmed by the ever-shifting mirage of illusions conjured up by their masters to obscure the proven virtues of morality, liberty, and prosperity.

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