Ho, ho, ho! Saddam gives Santa a visa

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Santa Claus is coming to town. Baghdad, that is. Andrew Marshall hitches along on the Mother of All Sleigh Rides.

He has been on some tricky missions before, exploring the darker recesses of people's central heating systems, overdosing on dodgy sherry, covering the entire globe in one night aided only by a few grumpy elves. But this could be his toughest job yet. For Santa Claus is due to fly into Iraq on Christmas Day.

The visit has been cleared with the United Nations Sanctions Committee, and with the Iraqi authorities. It has been co-ordinated by an Icelandic charity, Peace 2000. Santa will be taking gifts, food and medicine for Iraqi children hit by UN sanctions since the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Thor Magnusson of Peace 2000, which is organising the trip, says that Santa is a non-political figure who can bring a message of peace and goodwill to Muslims and Christians alike. "We are also appealing for a peaceful solution in the Middle East, hoping that leaders will get together to stop the suffering of children," he said.

It is uncertain how this message will go down in Baghdad. Peace and goodwill have not exactly been seasonal favourites in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Nor is he normally that comfortable with cheery bearded fellows. They look a little, well, Iranian, which is why most of Saddam's close colleagues choose a moustache only.

Despite Mr Magnusson's firm faith in Santa, he is apparently unhappy to rely on the traditional sleigh and reindeer. Instead, Peace 2000 has chartered a Russian cargo aircraft. The group said it still had to ensure that the plane would be in Reykjavik on time for Santa's planned takeoff on Wednesday.

"We think everything will work out, we're sorting out the final details," said Mr Magnusson. He told Reuters the Icelandic embassy in New York had said that a UN sanctions committee had approved the flight, despite severe restrictions on civilian aircraft over Iraq. Baghdad had also given approval, he added.

There is also a no-fly zone over southern and northern Iraq, policed by US fighters, which forbids all fixed-wing aircraft. It is unclear, according to the United Nations, whether this also covers reindeer-powered craft.

There was no word from Peace 2000 as to what, if anything, they had chosen to put into Saddam's stocking. (Teletubbies electric cattle prod? Spice Girl gas mask?) Saddam will, presumably, be spending the festive season with his family - or what is left of it; his close relatives have tended to come to unhappy ends.

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Baghdad,

The parents were sombre, the children were sad.

Festive spirit was missing. Alas and alack,

Santa Claus wasn't coming to visit Iraq.

For to north and to south was a tight no-fly zone,

So no Santa Claus for one nation alone.

But a kindly Icelander called Thor Magnusson,

Decided Iraq deserved some festive fun.

He called up Saddam, and the Sanctions Committee,

And for once everyone showed some heart and some pity.

They let him go in with some food and some toys

To bring some good cheer to the girls and the boys.

So Santa was cleared for his Middle East flight,

And he called to his reindeer outside in the night:

"Come Donner, come Blitzen, come Clinton and Bush!

Come Thatcher and Major!" And then, with a rush,

He took to the skies, in his special Stealth Sleigh,

And with full fighter escort, he went on his way.

- Andrew Marshall