Mind your language

During the war, Sadoun Wahab was an Iraqi minder, whose job was to prevent ITN's John Irvine from doing his job properly. So what happened when they were reunited last week?
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The Independent Online

The fact that he never said goodbye left a bad taste. After all, before the war and for much of it, Sadoun Wahab, our Iraqi government minder, was a constant companion. But like all the others employed by Saddam's propaganda factory - the Information Ministry - Sadoun vanished two days before Baghdad fell to the Americans.

For me any return to the city would have to involve tracking the man down. And so it was that a few days ago, back in Baghdad, I found him. We were reunited in a corridor in the Palestine Hotel and we greeted one another like the friends we now are.

I first met Sadoun several months before the war. Foreign journalists could not operate in Iraq without an official minder allocated by the Information Ministry. These civil servants were the eyes and the ears of the regime and were required to vet and censor coverage. In the early days, a different minder was provided every day.

Eventually there were so many reporters and crews in town that government officials were seconded from different ministries. Sadoun was one of them. Soon he became he our dedicated minder.

Of course it was an odd relationship. It seemed he liked working with us - but this was a man whose job it was to prevent me doing mine the way I wanted. Conversely, I was always pushing him not to do his job to the best of his ability. To begin with he was strict about where we could point the camera, and there were many rules that were sacrosanct. Any hint of criticism of Saddam was out completely. I was aware of what could not be said ("dictator", "tyrant", "totalitarian").

Sadoun was sometimes at my shoulder but, as time went on, less so. He knew that I knew how to play the game. If I looked like over-stepping the mark, he was subtle about pointing it out. I recall interviewing people in the street before the war. I'd had an interesting conversation with a former Iraqi pilot. In the car on the way back to the ministry, Sadoun suggested that if I used the soundbite the man would be in trouble. He didn't need to point out that we would be, too. It didn't take long to discover he was willing to bend the rules. Last November, filming in the city centre, we suddenly heard the sound of jets. Two flights of Iraqi air force Sukhois were low over the Tigris. I glanced at Sadoun and he turned his back to me and my cameraman. We filmed the planes. Sadoun should have stopped us.

He carried more clout than at first appeared. His father-in-law was high up in the Mukhabarat, Saddam's secret police. This meant that he could punch beyond his weight. These family connections were, it transpired, to became a critical factor in securing our wartime coverage from Baghdad. On the morning of March 19, with war only hours away, we were informed that ITN had to leave the Palestine and move to the Al-Rashid Hotel. This was very worrying news: we'd been warned by US sources not to stay there, as the Pentagon considered the government hotel a target. We felt sure that elements in the information ministry wanted to use journalists as shields. Had we been forced into the Al-Rashid, we may well have decided to pull out of Baghdad on safety grounds.

But Sadoun was aware of our anxiety - and the decision never had to be made. Mid-afternoon, he came into the office smiling. He said: "Johnny, which hotel do you want to be in?''

"The Palestine, of course," I replied.

He said that had been arranged. We had permission to stay there and no one would challenge it.

Considering we worked so closely, I got to know remarkably little about the man. He told me he was married with children. I never asked him too much about his personal life, neither did he about mine - and thank goodness. I always had to pretend I lived in Amman, Jordan. In fact, I live in Jerusalem, in the hated "Zionist entity".

Now Saddam has gone, and the Sadoun in front of me is a changed man. For a start, he looks five years younger.

I ask him to work with us as a translator. Walking to the car, I ensure he sits in the front - all the minders did - while my cameraman Phil Bye and I get in the back. It is like old times, except that when we film from the car Sadoun does not have to pretend he hasn't noticed.

We get talking. Sadoun says that during the war he was meant to view our reports before allowing them to be sent by satellite to London for transmission. He claims he never did. He just provided the necessary stamp on the paperwork.

That had been pretty obvious as the Americans closed in on Baghdad. The Information Ministry wanted to repudiate claims that the airport was on the point of being taken. Sadoun got permission for us to go and film the "quiet'' airport. The moment we arrived American artillery opened up on the place, and we took shelter in a dugout with several Iraqi soldiers. Sadoun made two half-hearted attempts to stop us filming. We ignored him and to his credit he made no attempt to prevent us broadcasting the material. I ask Sadoun why he provided such leeway. He says he always trusted us to be fair to the Iraqis.

He tells me he is glad Saddam has gone. "He cheated the people. We consider him a savage. He is not human.'' On the subject of the Americans: "Now we need them, because they can provide security. They say they will install a new government soon. People are waiting to see if they live up to their promises. If they stay more than a year it will be a problem.''

Sadoun was always an immensely proud man and, like most Iraqis, had been appalled at the notion of his country being invaded. He predicted that in Baghdad tens of thousands of people would come out and fight.

He reminds me what he had said. He says he is glad he was wrong. I ask him why resistance melted away; he says the word on the street is that the Americans bribed the commanders in the Republican Guard.

Like so many others in Baghdad this former government employee is anxious to find a permanent job. He's one of those who could be accused of having a past and therefore wonders if he has a future.

There are regime die-hards making trouble in places like Tikrit, Falluja and Hilla. Sadoun is not one of their ilk and he desperately wants to be part of the new Iraq. He's an optimist too. "Today is better than yesterday and we hope tomorrow will be better than today.''

John Irvine is Middle East correspondent for ITV News