My fun nights out with George's friend

Fawaz Zureikat is both generous and ambitious, recalls a journalist at his short-lived TV channel
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Indy Politics

The last time I set eyes on Fawaz Zureikat was in a Baghdad TV studio. He was beaming with joy, striding about the cameras impeccably dressed with his trademark cigar. He jabbed me in the chest and announced: "You're a very lucky young man - this is going to be a great channel." A month later the channel was dead and Fawaz had disappeared.

The last time I set eyes on Fawaz Zureikat was in a Baghdad TV studio. He was beaming with joy, striding about the cameras impeccably dressed with his trademark cigar. He jabbed me in the chest and announced: "You're a very lucky young man - this is going to be a great channel." A month later the channel was dead and Fawaz had disappeared.

It was February 2003 and he had just sold Tony Benn's interview with Saddam Hussein - the first Western interview for 12 years - to Channel 4. His career as a media impresario seemed to be about to take off. The 51-year-old Jordanian businessman was the sole backer of a short-lived and hugely ambitious TV channel, and I was one of six journalists on the production team recruited to get the Baghdad bureau into shape.

My time at Arab Television had been a bizarre experience to say the least. Throughout our Baghdad days, the good works of Fawaz were never far away. His ample frame and twinkling smile were a frequent sight at our practically empty offices, and he would bearhug our boss and channel head Ron McKay, George Galloway's closest business colleague, affectionately calling him habibi. (They seemed to know each other very well.) He was generous and charming to his new recruits and showed us around the threadbare capital and its lanterned gardens by the Tigris, and he urged us to patronise its struggling French film festival.

He dined with us often in the capital's smart quarter. In the top-notch Irbil restaurant he would hold court, flanked by Ron and his assistant. After dinner we'd suck on the hubble-bubble hillilahs and listen reverentially to his dream to create an English-language, pro-Iraq global TV operation. Hugely expensive bottles of Johnnie Walker would be procured and a deafening Iraqi pop duo would strike up. Suitably refreshed in a city where alcohol was hard to come by, we'd all return by taxi to the Al Mansour hotel. We loved Fawaz, our angel, and he seemed to be enjoying his role hugely.

Gradually the offices began to fill with high-quality Sony TV equipment. The very best in digital technology seemed to be pouring in - in a country besieged by sanctions that prohibited even the import of an ordinary pencil. (The graphite has a dual use, and could, theoretically, have been used in a nuclear weapons programme.)

Nobody asked too closely where this hi-tech equipment had come from or how it had got into the country, but then there was quite a lot about ATV that was a bit mysterious. Fawaz had made no secret of his success in various sanctions-busting publicity stunts over the years, but was a little less forthcoming about his ties with Saddam.

Our preparations for Tony Benn's interview with the Iraqi leader had been frantic - were we really going to be filming this? Er, no. In the event Saddam's personal TV team did it, but we saw at close hand the extraordinary comedy of errors in getting the interview out of the country. For about an hour the tape went missing. Ron, never the calmest person in a crisis, went berserk, screaming that the whole of ATV was "cock-up central". Fawaz stormed into the studio ashen-faced, sweating hard and with a mobile phone clamped to his ear. He and Ron jumped into a huge black Mercedes and sped off into the night. The tape had been "accidentally diverted" to the domestic TV station and had to be retrieved. One phone call did the trick. Ron later told us that the saviour of ATV's coup had been Fawaz's friendship with Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam's ministers.

It was all smiles from our angel the next day, and I was on a plane back to London the day after that. As the clouds of war gathered, the Jordanian security services froze Fawaz's business and his dream to create an English-language, pro-Iraq global TV operation lay in ruins, along with the Irbil restaurant - Fawaz's court and favoured haunt of expats and Western journalists - thanks to a suicide bomber.

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