Saddam's latest secret weapon: ping-pong balls

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The Independent Online

What a charming gesture for Tony Blair to visit Russia's ruler Vladimir Putin. Blair approved of his host, saying "he wants to modernise the country."

That must be why Putin reduced Chechnya to a heap of rubble - to make way for a waterside precinct with a caffe latte house and noodle bars. Blair added "there is a lot of things we have in common." But Putin's assault on Chechnya has killed more people and created more refugees than the Serb attacks on Kosovo, which had Blair wringing his hands and pining with emotion.

Blair is like one of these psychotic blokes you get in pubs: you never know whether they're going to buy you a pint or punch your teeth in. Before the visit, Putin must have been wondering if Blair would call him a moderniser, or just go and bomb his bridges and blow up the Chinese Embassy in Moscow.

The incident has confirmed that the war in Kosovo wasn't fought for humanitarian ends. Even some of the liberals who supported the bombing are wondering whether the motives were as honourable as Nato claimed. Which is like spending a year after you've bought a watch that doesn't work saying "but it must be a bargain, the man in the pub said it was a Rolex." And then writing a column that begins "an unpalatable truth occurs to me, that the man in the pub was lying."

A similar process happened following the war against Iraq. We were told it had to be supported because Saddam was so evil. But a senior US military man explained recently why Saddam wasn't overthrown at the end of the war: "We would then have been morally bound to hold elections. How do you think Saudi Arabia would have felt about that?" He's referring to the electoral system there, run by King Fahd: one man, one vote - him. Or indeed in Kuwait, whose government comprises 20 members of the Sabah family. Which must make Election Special in Kuwait one of the most boring programmes in the world.

The war was over in 1991, but according to Unicef, 200 deaths a day now take place in Iraq as a result of US and British sanctions. Charities have been fined for taking in medicines. Morphine is banned, and so is equipment for repairing the water supplies destroyed by Desert Storm. Chlorine is banned, and so are ping-pong balls. Maybe the trick is to demoralise Saddam Hussein by closing Baghdad Leisure Centre.

The sanctions are supposed to stop Saddam re-building his weaponry. Which it will do, assuming he was planning to attack Britain with ping- pong balls full of chlorine. To make the situation even sadder, the man pumping out the PR for this nonsense is Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain.

Hain responded to John Pilger's film on the effects of sanctions by saying that Saddam "makes sure there are plenty of malnourished children to film". As if Iraq is full of directors yelling "cut cut cut, look Tariq darling, I want to see starving, I want you to positively collapse, now give it to me. Make-up, could we have more flies on the extras please."

Hain claims the sanctions are justified in the same way that sanctions against apartheid South Africa were. Where do you start with rubbish like that? Every anti-apartheid organisation inside South Africa called for sanctions. And the campaign was not to eat their grapes, play them at cricket, or bank at Barclays. I don't recall student unions saying "beat apartheid by starving a black man to death". Hain says this because he wants to retain some link between the person he is now and the fiery anti- apartheid agitator he was 30 years ago.

But the Peter Hain of 1970 would have picketed the Peter Hain of 2000 from Lords to Twickenham and back again. Saddest of all, the older Hain would have told the younger one just to be more modern.