Iraq: A strange day in barefoot Baghdad

Kofi Annan, Iraqis are still living with the consequences of a clash between their leader and America
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The Independent Online
HE CAME at us through the traffic, banging his tiny fist on the side of our car. He could have been no more than four years old, barefoot and dressed in a worn oversize leather jacket with a dozen holes ripped in- to it. "Give me money," he shrieked, banging the door again, staring at me through the glass and wrinkling his eyes to imitate tears. Or was it imitation?

On the pavement an hour later, almost on the banks of the Tigris, three more children attacked, older this time, grabbing at our coats, screaming "money" until we gave them half a dollar; they grabbed our bags for more until we physically pushed them from us, cursing them - heaven help us - for their assault.

Would Madeleine Albright, I wonder, have given them a cent? Or would she have lectured them on the iniquities of their leader and the need for UN sanctions, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the immorality of weapons of mass destruction (those, at least, in Iraqi hands, the others being apparently less dangerous).

It was a strange old day in Baghdad yesterday, one of those mild winter afternoons along the Tigris - dark Mediterranean blue under the February sun - that should presage peace rather than war. Kofi Annan appeared to be promising us the earth, or promising Saddam a clearer definition of UN resolution 687 in return for letting the UN's inspectors into his palaces, but the Iraqis, almost wearily, accepted the possibility of yet another "Allied" attack. The anti-aircraft guns were back on the usual ministry roofs and a bunch of old American-made Kuwaiti armour - rusting relics from the 1990 attempt to turn the emirate into Iraq's 13th province - was being trucked up a highway out of town.

Just outside Abu Ghoraib, groups of young men - 30 or 40 strong but thin and ungainly figures in old jeans and ill-fitting shirts - stood to attention in front of smartly dressed soldiers in khaki and black berets.

Saddam's would-be volunteers were being taught how to dress to attention, but they were no Dad's army, more like Dad's kids, a rag-tag bunch of youths listening earnestly to their military commanders in case Iraq's third major war in two decades was to begin in a few days' time.

What the West can do from the air can still be seen on the highway west of Baghdad. If the bridges have been repaired, the road surface is still slashed with shrapnel scars where American and British aircrews thought they were bombing Scud missile trucks in 1991. In fact, they were attacking petrol tankers, often driven by Jordanians. It is still a lonely journey to Baghdad over the desert highway - I passed no more than 20 old lorries in four hours' driving - and Baghdad presents an odd picture of a capital supposedly threatening "the whole world".

Indeed, as I drove past the miles of abandoned trains in the great railway yards outside Baghdad and the empty stations, the words of Messrs Clinton and Blair kept coming back to me. President Clinton called Saddam a "predator of the 21st century" at the Pentagon last week - few Kuwaitis would disagree - but Baghdad is a city gone to seed, its people impoverished, its children begging in the streets, grass growing through cracks in its underpasses and pavements. Even the giant street paintings of Saddam Hussein, the great father-figure himself, have faded in the sun of seven summers.

It is a place of lost wealth, courtesy of UN sanctions. And the Iraqis are people living in the ruins of empire, the only palaces still fit for kings owned by the man who has compared himself to Nebuchadnezzar and who objects - very strongly indeed, as we all know - to the UN inspectors turning up at midnight in their jeans and baseball hats to check beneath the four-posters.

Even the old marble entrance floor of the Al-Rashid hotel - which depicts President George Bush in a mosaic - has been partly worn away.

So, as we drove through the cold grey-brown Iraqi desert yesterday, it was difficult to decide which world we were living in. As our four- wheel-drive hummed along the highway, Radio Monte Carlo informed us of the latest New York Times prediction of "massive raids" in the event of Saddam's non-compliance with weapons inspection teams, or a possible 1,500 dead.

So who would be making up the "collateral damage" next time? The Iraqi peasant in his red chequered headdress trying to kick-start his battered Nissan on the edge of Baghdad, not far from an anti-aircraft battery? The kids who begged us for Iraqi dinars?

Or would it include the moustachioed waiter who served us Cola last night and who smiled weakly at us, partly I suspect in embarrassment, and admitted: "I would like to go to America."