Gulf Crisis: A nation that is trapped between war and peace

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The Independent Online
AS A PERFECTLY round orange sun sank over the desert horizon, the children at the Al-Hariri national school inBaghdad gathered for the weekly ritual of raising the Iraqi flag and singing the national anthem.

Nisrin Labou, one of Al-Hariri's longest-serving staff,marched to the centre of the courtyard. After the national anthem she led the children, aged between five and 12, in a well-rehearsed patriotic call-and-response session. With military precision they roared "who is the greatest president in our history?" The reply: "Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein."

Then Ms Labou turned around and headed for the main school building, returning to the parade ground brandishing an AK-47. Moments later three shots were fired straight up in the air.

As my bewilderment at the ceremony became obvious Karim, the minder supplied by the Ministry of Information, felt the need to defend this weekly ritual. "This is part of our culture. It is a long tradition. It is how we honour the flag and the republic," he said.

Unable to hide my distaste at the spectacle of young children being subjected to militarised display and the public exhibition of high-calibre rifles, Karim insisted on explaining the tradition further. "We have done this since the days of the Turkish occupation. It is normal," he continued.

Nisrin Labou had other things on her mind. "We have a plan in the case of American military aggression. We will dismiss the children and close down the school. But I am afraid that the attack will come when the children are in school. This would be a big problem, but the pupils know exactly what to do. We are prepared," she said.

At the United Nations compound Eric Falt, the UN spokesman, tries to maintainorder. Behind him looms the almost empty Canal Hotel, the UN headquarters where hundreds of people from all over the world have been running a fiendishly complex system, know as oil-for-food. Iraqi oil is sold on the open market and a portion of the proceeds spent on providing the government with food and medicines for up to 20 million people. Only some of the money is used to buy food. A third is spent on war compensation and settling Iraqi government debts.

The oil-for-food system is regarded by Iraqis as a temporary measure until sanctions are lifted, but for many here the UN administration has the look of a bureaucracy which is meant to be in place for a long time.

Those sanctions are the abiding obsession of Riyad al-Tahir, chairman of the British-Arab solidarity group, Friendship Without Frontiers. It was his group that organised former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds' trip to Iraq last week.

Accompanied by Tam Dalyell, the group met with Tariq Aziz. "Sanctions are the real concern of the Iraqi people. They do not want to see military strikes but they are already dying as a result of sanctions. What is the difference between dying from sanctions or from American bombs?" Mr Tahir said.

His position and that of the former Irish prime minister is very close to the Iraqi government's. They say the effect of sanctions constitute a "crime against humanity" and believe the economic embargo against the Baghdad government should be ended. They are dismissive of the argument that Iraq is still a dangerous nation with the potential to disturb the status quo in this, one of the world's most strategically important regions.

It is no longer disputed that it was the region's strategic importance that pushed the US to assemble the alliance to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. The Middle East has more than half of the world's oil reserves.

In Baghdad, the so-called AT&T communication centre - the first target of American stealth bombers in the Gulf War of 1991 - is again sprouting aerials, antennae and satellite dishes. It is again a working telecommunications facility.

If the bombs do fall again, many expect this building, looming over the capital's commercial heart, to be hit first. It would be a powerful symbolic strike, a reminder to the Iraqis that no matter what they do, their tenuous hold on the 20th century is only allowed so long as they toe the line and as long as the world's remaining super power, the United States, refrains from unleashing its war machine.