Zhirinovsky's away-day to Baghdad grounded half way

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The Independent Online
Vladimir Zhirinovsky wanted to fly to Baghdad. He got as far as Armenia. Charles Holmes, our man on the aircraft, reports.

This is not Baghdad. Reaching the Iraqi capital is the mission of many Western journalists these days as storm clouds gather amid the impasse between Iraq and the United Nations. With diplomacy lumbering, the United States and Britain have threatened an air war to punish Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi regime has not allowed many journalists to enter their country but the press corps in Moscow saw a way.

Russian ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a self-proclaimed "good friend" of Saddam Hussein, planned to lead a "humanitarian mission" to Baghdad with a rare airline flight into Baghdad's infrequently used airport. All journalists, Russian and foreign, were welcome aboard, he said.

On Sunday, 120 of us ploughed through Moscow's snow to the airport, lugging computers and satellite telephones and the kind of perverse optimism that comes with a potentially momentous story. The airliner was to fly non-stop from Moscow to Baghdad through the no-fly zone enforced by American and British fighter pilots to guarantee that Saddam Hussein's military no longer threatens his own people or his neighbours.

But it was a no-fly zone of a different kind. The Zhirinovsky flight remain grounded on Sunday for 14 hours in Moscow. Near midnight, we finally took off to the inexplicable destination of Armenia. And the waiting continued yesterday in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, a place completely irrelevant to Iraq except that it happens to be about halfway between Moscow and Baghdad.

Last night in Armenia, Mr Zhirinovsky announced that departure to Baghdad could be imminent, later in the evening or today.

Throughout the two-day excursion, the notorious Mr Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultra-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and himself nicknamed "Vlad the Mad", sought permission to fly through the airspace of Iran and Azerbaijan. Both denied it.

But the biggest refusal of all came from the UN, which apparently harboured doubts about his goodwill mission and has thus far withheld permission for the flight into Iraqi airspace.

Mr Zhirinovsky, accompanied on the plane by two dozen fellow MPs, laid the blame with the US, claiming that Russia was being humiliated by Washington. Last night, reporters were facing perhaps a third day of Mr Zhirinovsky's bizarre odyssey, and contemplating covering a new story: the political situation in Armenia.