Mark Steel: The only flourishing industry in Iraq is kidnapping

It's a sign you're winning when an occupying country sends their envoy and it turns out to be Mrs Beckett
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The Independent Online

So when did Margaret Beckett become Foreign Secretary then? With them all being so similarly robotic and fawning it's easy to forget which one does what. But when I saw her speaking in Iraq I thought, "That can't be right", the same as if you watched EastEnders and saw that Frank Butcher was now being played by Syd Little.

As if to emphasise the miscasting, the minute she arrived things started blowing up even more than usual. So she did her little pre-rehearsed speech about how things were improving "step by step" and there was still a lot to do but she'd witnessed encouraging signs and so on. And this was all said with the same intonations as if she was a local councillor opening a youth club.

Her original speech was probably: "Well I must say a jolly well done to the brigadier who's certainly surpassed himself with this delightful set of land mines which should come in very handy. It's such a pity we're only in control of a fraction of the city but that's always the way with Jihadists I suppose, and after all there's always next year."

It didn't matter what happened, she was going to say what she'd been told to say. If she'd stepped off the plane and been immediately kidnapped, her video message would entail her being sat under a bloke in a hood with a sword as she said: "Clearly there are areas in which a good deal remains to be done, I acknowledge that. But we are moving steadily towards a stable democracy. Oh and I should add you have 36 hours to release some prisoners or I'll be subject to the wrath of the mighty Jihad, apparently. But let's not be deflected from the very real progress being made."

The only reason, said Mrs Beckett, that power hadn't been handed to the Iraqi government, was that it was "not ready". That's it - everything's gone to plan except the Iraqi government is still doing its hair. Poor Donald Rumsfeld is stood at the bottom of the stairs yelling "Come on," as the Iraqi forces shriek: "Oh you'd be the first to complain if we rolled up to Fallujah with our roots showing through." Soon Donald will call "Look if we don't go in a minute there'll be no point in going at all", but then there'll be tears.

It's true, in a sense, that the country's not ready. For example, Emin Asim, a Ministry of Health official, said of the hospitals: "Even at the height of sanctions, when things were miserable, it wasn't as bad as all this." Or there's the water supply, worse now than under Saddam, despite contracts worth more than $100m being awarded to companies such as Bechtel to get it working. Maybe they run into the same sort of problems as construction companies in this country, and soon there'll be an announcement that the Iraqis can have fresh water, but they'll have to get it from the Millennium stadium in Cardiff.

It's not all bad news because US companies were awarded contracts worth $50bn following the fall of Saddam, and at least $100m has been unaccountably "lost".

And some industries are growing. A Red Cross investigation found the American military carries out "a pattern of indiscriminate arrests involving brutal behaviour towards suspects and their families, including elderly, handicapped or sick people". So hopefully soon the Iraqi authorities will be able to carry on with this, but at the moment they're not ready.

Perhaps this is because the power supply in Baghdad gets cut off every day, meaning whole afternoons go by with no current for the electrodes in Abu Ghraib.

So where are the encouraging signs? Maybe there's a new cycle lane in Tikrit?

Or Margaret will reveal with glee the kidnapping industry has grown so fast that "this rapidly booming sector is to get its own call centre, boosting the local economy by providing 400 jobs". Then anyone who wants to find out where someone is who's gone missing, can be told their call is important, although "we're currently experiencing a high level of kidnap enquiries so all our lines are busy", before being asked: "If the kidnappers are Sunnis, press one. If they are Shias press two."

Asked whether she thought Iraq was heading for civil war she replied that she didn't, because "the people of Iraq want a prosperous future for themselves and their children". That should stop them then. If only Abraham Lincoln had thought to say something like that in 1860.

Then she repeated the answer that with things going in the right direction, but not quite ready, we just need to send more troops to finish the getting ready, then we can leave them to it. It's the logic of the gambler, who's lost everything but just needs to borrow a few grand because next time he'll win and then he can quit.

What a state they're in if that's the best they can do. It's probably written in the guerrilla army handbook that a sign you're winning is when an occupying country sends its envoy and it turns out to be Margaret Beckett. Next time they should at least have a laugh with it, and send Syd Little.