Baghdad jubilant over Saddam 'victory'

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AT THE Al-Sinna sports club stadium less than 500m from the Canal Hotel, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, thousands of people gathered to celebrate Baghdad Day.

Young girls in white chiffon cloaks prepared to dance to the sound of a military band. Adding to the joy was the knowledge that their president, Saddam Hussein, had again outfoxed his enemies and avoided a military strike. This time few, if any, knew just how close it was.

The Iraqi turnaround began just after two o'clock at the Ministry of Information, where more than 100 foreign journalists had been holed up awaiting the strikes so many were sure would come.

A senior ministry figurewalked into the area inhabited by the news agencies and delivered a brief and terse statement. "Iraq will respond positively to the letter from the UN Secretary-General," he said.

Amid the scrambling for satellite phones and up-links, it was difficult to believe that it was really happening. Iraq, had, for the second time in a year, brought the full might of the United States to the brink of unleashing its firepower and pulled back.

What stopped the Americans and the British in mid-flight was a letter from Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, which said Iraq "never sought to sever the relationship with Unscom [the UN weapons inspectors] and to cease its obligations" under UN resolutions. Iraq will "give a further chance to achieve justice by lifting sanctions. The leadership of Iraq [has] decided to resume working with the Special Commission and to allow them to perform their normal duties in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the Security Council".

This was television diplomacy. The BBC and CNN received the letter before the office of Prakash Shah, the UN's special representative in Baghdad, and before Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General.

If the Gulf War was the first to be covered live on international television, Iraq seems to have again been the source of another media innovation. This was the first war that was averted by live television.

Clarifications were supplied to the international television broadcasters and those Iraqis with access to satellite channels watched President Bill Clinton agree that President Saddam had fulfilled the American demand for a full capitulation. Iraq will allow the inspectors unfettered access to suspected chemical and biological sites. The world will again have eyes and ears in one of the Middle East's most unpredictable and potentially powerful countries.

The Iraqis at the Ministry of Information were jubilant. "Our guy was going to back down. I told you," said one official. "Clinton looks like a fool. Saddam has won the battle," said another.

The knowledge of the military orders was well-known in the broadcasting pool. We had been alerted by the arrival on a US warship in the Gulf of a television crew. This was the signal that something was about to happen. Approval for such sorties are rarely given.

Those networks with State Department and Pentagon correspondents began working the phones. The correspondents confirmed that military action was probably imminent.

Albert Reynolds, the former Irish prime minister, also apparently knew. In a fax sent to Baghdad earlier in the week and inadvertently shown to me, the only Irish passport-holder in the Rasheed Hotel, he wrote that "the hawks are pushing for action on Saturday night".

Mr Reynolds had earlier travelled to Baghdad as part of a delegation and had spent six hours in meetings with Mr Aziz. His faxed message to Baghdad after he had left was either an extremely lucky guess, or someone in power had alerted him.

The timetable for the return of the Unscom mission has not been clarified and nobody knows how long it will be before the whole international media circus descends on Iraq - once again to test the limits of its inadequate infrastructure. But among Iraqi and foreigner alike there was a sure feeling that it will happen, and probably soon.