Iraqis receive milk of Saddam's kindness: Reduced to rubble by the allies, Baghdad's baby milk plant has been rebuilt, to the delight of the propagandists, writes Charles Richards in Baghdad

ON the outskirts of Baghdad, on the road towards Jordan near the Abu Ghraib prison where two Britons are held for entering Iraq illegally, stands the shining monument army engineers have erected to American evil and Iraqi endeavour. Two years after the Bilady baby milk factory was struck by coalition bombs and missiles, its bright corrugated iron roof gleams in the winter sun.

At the time, the Western powers trumpeted they had knocked out an important germ warfare plant. The Iraqis, then as now, insisted that the plant had one single innocent purpose: to make milk for Iraqi babies.

Yesterday Iraqi propagandists had a field day. The baby milk factory was compared to the great underground bunker, blown up by smart bombs with scores of women and children inside. For the Americans, the mis-identification of targets was an embarrassing failure of intelligence. For the Iraqis the milk powder plant and the bunker entered the collective national consciousness as examples of America's hostile intent against the Iraqi people.

It was party time at the factory. Young children from the Saddam Kindergarten - yes, the cult of personality reaches even unto the children - chanted the hackneyed refrain: 'With our spirits and our blood we will sacrifice ourselves to you, O Saddam.' They stood outside, flagellating the air with olive branches as the party men and officers from the Organisation of Military Industrialisation glided up in their bulletproof Mercedes limousines.

It was the day of the official inauguration. The Prime Minister, Muhammad Hamza Az-Zubaidi, sat, pistol at his side, flanked by brass in identical olive-green battle dress and black moustaches. No jokes were made about the Prime Minister's name, whose root is the same as the Arabic word for cream. Many families like his are named after the town of Zubaid, south of Baghdad.

Outside the factory, security was tight. An anti-aircraft crew swivelled their gun on top of a Jeep - one of the tens of thousands of American vehicles bought before 1990 changed the whole relationship. Men carried placards lauding their leader, Saddam Hussein, as Hero of Victory and of Peace. Lambs waited outside, unaware they would shortly be slaughtered in the traditional blessing for a new home or building. A military band in absurd toytown uniform beat out a few suitably martial tunes.

The huge warehouse, reduced to a pile of mangled girders by the Gulf war attack, had been completely rebuilt by army engineers. Much of the equipment outside had been salvaged. Chillers made by the Societe Trane of Golbey in France; compressors from Troy, Michigan - all linked together in a mass of pipes put together by Iraqi manpower. The factory manager said that by the end of the year, the plant would be producing 3,000 tons a year, less than 10 per cent of the country's needs.

But the rebuilding fulfilled a political as much as an economic purpose. It has been rebuilt, rather than left as some poignant but sterile reminder of American intentions towards Iraq. That job is done by the murals, in the style beloved of the socialist realism school: pictures of a smiling Saddam Hussein patting children's heads, as bombs fall all around.

It is an impressive achievement. But still the people face shortages, the result of the sanctions regime against the country.

(Photograph omitted)

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