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With friends like these . . .

YESTERDAY the Government once again rejected any conciliatory moves that might help the Britons imprisoned in Iraq, but there's a fascinating ragbag of people who are in favour of lifting the UN sanctions. Oil and pharmaceutical companies; and GBT, a GEC and Siemens subsidiary, which has been negotiating to supply a phone system to the Iraqis once the sanctions go. But more intriguing is the re-emergence of the British MPs who enjoyed Saddam Hussein's hospitality before the war. Tonight Bob Parry, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, hosts a meeting at the House of Commons to discuss 'how best to campaign for the immediate lifting of sanctions against Iraq, to help the Iraqi people to rebuild their country'. Tony Benn will attend. It was with Benn that Parry visited Baghdad after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, to discuss the plight of the British hostages. And in 1988 Parry (whose constituents, we gather, call him Gulliver - 'because he's always on his travels') took part in an all-party visit to Baghdad paid for by the Iraqis and involving a meeting with Saddam. They even got presents - sweets and plastic photo albums with pictures of Saddam. This is all discussed in John Sweeney's book Trading with the Enemy: Britain's Arming of Iraq, published this week. Parry, we learn, did not list this trip in the Commons Register of Member's Interests (though most of the other MPs who visited did). Equally interesting is the sponsor of tonight's meeting - the International War Crimes Tribunal, British Commission of Inquiry. The title, borrowed from a Sixties Vietnam protest group, is rather more impressive than the reality. At the time of the Gulf war, various left-wing figures formed the 'tribunal' to, in Harold Pinter's words, 'arraign President Bush for his war crimes in the Gulf'. That caused some kerfuffle then, but now the IWCT has no obvious existence beyond an answerphone and a box number in central London. 'It's an informal group. We're trying to get properly structured,' says Hugh Stephens, who answers the answerphone. But Stephens is a man of influence: it was he, he tells us, who organised that Parry/Benn trip to visit Saddam in 1990.

OK, so Keith Waterhouse is getting on a bit (64 last week, since you ask), but there was no need for yesterday's South London Press to puff his talk-in at the National Theatre as 'Keith Waterhouse in conservation'.

Who's counting?

PERHAPS John 'back to the three Rs' Patten should start worrying about the educational standards of some of his own advisers. The School Examinations and Assessment Council, which advises the Government on exams, recently mailed the Scilly Isles council 1,500 copies of the new pilot history tests for seven year olds. The islands' four primary schools boast only 32 seven-year-old pupils. More confusing, though, is the fact that, by local accounts, the shipment arrived with Customs clearance documents. 'Do they think it's Sicily?' one local head was heard to ask. 'Do they think we are connected to the Mafia?' Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, who relates the incident in the Times Educational Supplement, calls it 'too far-fetched for Kafka'. Who?

YOU don't get any of those daft 'spot the ball' competitions in the local west Wales weekly the Llangeitho Times. Instead, the paper presents you with a field full of sheep and invites you to 'spot the dog' (clue: it's not in the sky). Last week's winner, one G Evan Davies, of Lampeter, got a bottle of bubbly, courtesy of Penuwch Village Stores.

A touchy subject

WHAT is this homosexual behaviour, you wonder? Well, here's the definition drawn up for Ronald Reagan in 1982, when he banned such activity in the US military services (and planted a time bomb for Bill Clinton): 'Bodily contact, actively undertaken or passively permitted, between members of the same sex for the purpose of satisfying sexual desires.' But, you exclaim, what would two straight but drunken marines giving each other a helping hand up the steps to a waterfront brothel be doing, if not just that?


10 February 1957 Harold Nicolson, sailing to Java, writes in his diary: 'At Tandjong Priok we lean over the side watching a delegation of Indians who have come down to welcome their new Ambassador. The Ambassador receives them in the library. How often in the past have I witnessed similar ceremonies] I notice that all are wreathed in exactly the same false smiles as adopted by Europeans on similar occasions. The Russians are the only people who, when welcoming delegations or being met by reception committees, do not even pretend to register pleasure. They will pass along the line, barely touching the hands outstretched in welcome and averting their gaze from the faces of those to whom those hands belong. French cabinet ministers sometimes adopt a similar procedure: it is called la poignee de main parlementaire.'