Sense of desperation behind Iraqis' action

Defectors weren't short of reasons to flee, writes Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
If the Iraqi hijackers were military experts, then they had every reason to fear returning to Baghdad.

The break-up of a conspiracy within the army in late June led to mass arrests and 32 executions, according to one Iraqi opposition group.

But it is by no means clear that the hijackers had a directly political motive. After five years of sanctions, Iraq has seen a calamitous fall in the standard of living. Much of the 20-million Iraqi population would leave the country if they could. The Iraqi carrying his country's flag at the Olympic Games in Atlanta immediately took the opportunity to defect.

Majid al-Yassiri, a member of the Iraqi communist party, says the hijackers were "Iraqi military experts". This is perfectly possible, but he did not explain how he knew this. The Egyptian news agency said that the seven armed men who took over the plane had passed through the VIP lounge at Khartoum airport, which would support the belief that they had official or diplomatic status in Sudan.

The fact that military or other specialists were in the Sudanese capital is not wholly sur- prising. Iraq cultivated good relations with Sudan in the past. Sources in Khartoum suggest that one of the men was a diplomat.

The hijacking underlines the desperate desire of many Iraqis to find refuge elsewhere in the world. This is not easy. When Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, expelled Palestinian teachers last year, he sent a team to Iraq to recruit replacements. The Libyan embassy in the Mansur suburb of Baghdad was besieged by highly qualified Iraqis clutching their CVs as they desperately applied for jobs. Of the developed countries, only New Zea-land has been willing to take Iraqi emigrants, and only those who speak and write English.

It is easy for an Iraqi to cross into Jordan, but to go further is almost impossible. Such is the political and economic desperation of Iraqis that some 40 have even crossed the Jordan river into Israel to claim political asylum.

Within the next few weeks, Iraq will begin to export limited quantities of oil under close UN supervision for the first time since 1990. This may alleviate the sense of desperation in Baghdad but many members of the Iraqi professional middle-class feel that their only resort is to escape. Highly qualified professors at Baghdad University find their monthly salary is now worth only pounds 3 in real terms. For much of the officer corps in the armed forces the situation is even worse. Scarce resources are channelled to the elite Special Forces which act as a praetorian guard around Saddam. The Republican Guard divisions also receive special treatment. Draftees in the regular army barely receive enough to eat. The officer corps has been systematically depleted by six purges since 1991.

Many of the Iraqi elite were educated in the UK. In Iraqi hospitals medical notes at the end of a patient's bed are in English. Links with Britain have remained strong. It is, therefore, the most likely destination for refugees, defectors and hijackers alike.

Sadiq Sadah: Key to negotiations

The choice of interlocutor at Stansted is surprising. Sadiq Sadah (not his original name) was brought to the control tower at the request of the hijackers. After speaking to him they immediately surrendered. He is not, however, a well-known figure in Iraqi opposition circles. He is believed to have come originally from Basra, in southern Iraq, to attend London University and to have associated with Iraqi left-wingers in the UK. In 1991, he worked for the Campaign for Democracy and Human Rights and later helped set up the Iraqi Community Association, which helps Iraqi refugees in Britain. He has not been politically active for several years.