BAGHDAD - Iraq is on the mend. The patient is still critical, but signs of
life are returning.
The country imported 70% of virtually everything, ironically on the advice
of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization - until the most draconian embargo
ever imposed on any country was imposed by the United Nations on Hiroshima Day
1990. From seeds to satellites, pharmaceutical to pots and pans, technical and
heavy maintenance, all were totally reliant on outside contracts. Yet in the two
years since flights have been again arriving in the country - though sparsely
- the sense of isolation and despair is evaporating and signs of regeneration
In Abu Nawas street, famed for its Tigris-side restaurants, where succulent
freshly caught, herb embalmed, fish are grilled on charcoal, the craftsmen have
been at work. Last year, vast oak tree trunks lay across the pavement in front
of beautiful, but long derelict 19th century buildings. Now the trunks are silken,
golden polished, vast oak doors inches thick and one interior already transformed,
ancient walls treated and repointed and oak paneling and intricate railings of
Florentine standard and another of the growing number of galleries displaying
art, sculpture and ceramics set to open.
Round the corner are impressive new apartments buildings with great marble
and wrought iron staircases and lush floor to ceiling greenery. But a lesson has
been learned from the Gulf war. Luxury apartments were entirely electronically
controlled in Baghdad - lighting, windows, elevators, music centers and of course
air conditioning. When the electricity grids were bombed in the first hour of
the war, residents became prisoners in their own homes with no means of escape
- and overnight the apartments became and have remained, worthless. Baghdad's
new apartments are a strictly manual - if aesthetically delightful - operational
Iraqis, a traditionally late night people have spent the last decade, for the
most part at home, struggling with the rigors of the embargo and a sort of almost
national depression. Now the squares are full till late at night and sidestreets
with surfaces to weep over, thronged with board game players, pieces clacking
merrily like the sound of a thousand chicados, the air filled with the scent of
gaily colored hookas, freshly baked flat bread and falafel and fried savories,
displayed in battered containers by numerous streets vendors.
The U.S. seems determined to bomb a people emerging from a near twenty year
limbo - the eight year Iran Iraq war (1982-1988) the 1991 Gulf war and a twelve
year embargo. 'We have imported no cars since 1980', said Susan, a Professor of
linguistics at Munstanstarya University. 'My uncle paid a $2,000 deposit for a
car in 1980 and he took delivery of his new car yesterday!' In the upside down
world which is Iraq, even this had its advantages. With the collapsed Iraqi dinar
reflecting stratospheric inflation, his new car was almost entirely paid for by
a deposit proffered twenty two years ago.
'Of course they will bomb', said Father Jean Marie Benjamin, Rome based priest,
author and documentary maker, who has the ear of the Pope, Cardinals and a number
of European Foreign Ministers: 'It is just a case of when. There are 550 thousand
U.S. military personnel in the region already and maybe they will use nuclear
weapons (U.S. Defense Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld has already said he would use
nuclear weapons.' Benjamin, in Baghdad to take part in a Press Conference with
the Patriarchs of Damascus and Baghdad to join with church leaders of all denominations,
globally who have condemned military action predicts any action will lead to 'a
bloodbath in the region' and 'political and economic suicide for the US and Britain.'
Asked where the role of the U.N. is in all this, Benjamin is dismissive and
quotes Iraq's wily, long surviving Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who told
him, he says: 'Kofi Annan is like the Governor (Pontious Pilate) during the crucifixion
- he washed his hands.' Unless Annan does resist U.S. pressure, feels Benjamin,
the U.N. could meet the same fate as its predecessor, the League of Nations: 'It
may be closed down - finished.'
Nevertheless: 'War is inevitable', Benjamin says bleakly. Near the Shorja market
water tanks are being welded to order - people are already stocking up on water
and have been given two months food rations in advance since few can afford to
At the Al Mansour Children's Hospital were reminders that a form of nuclear
weapons have already been used on Iraq. The depleted uranium (DU) weapons used
in the 1991 Gulf war. Cases of child cancers and leukemias seemed to have a common
denominator - they all came from heavily bombarded areas. DU remains radioactive
and chemically toxic for four thousand five hundred billion years and has also
been linked to cancers and birth deformities amongst returning Gulf war veterans
from a number of countries.
Dr Ali, doctor in charge at the Al Mansour estimates a five fold rise in child
cancers since the Gulf war: 'though since we are not allowed the scientific facilities
to implement a proper investigation and statistical survey, we have no proof.'
Between 1978 and 1992 there were two hundred and seventy cancer and leukemia cases
recorded at the Al Mansour, between November 1992 and 2002 to date the hospital
has recorded 1,714 cases.
Kara Mohammed from the southern Basra region, aged four years and 9 months
has acute lymphoblastic leukemia Her mother, Fakhriya says five immediate neighboring
areas all have numbers of cancers and leukemias The south was heavily bombarded,
in the very eye of 'Operation Desert Storm.' For many years cancer drugs were
vetoed by the UN Sanctions Committee and though leukemia patients now do have
enough of the correct medications, for the especially virulent neuroblastoma and
lymphomas, medications are still woefully inadequate, with many not available
at all, says Dr Ali.
The small southern town of Diwania (population approximately 250,000) reportedly
also has an excess of cancers. Ten year old Mustafa Ali with acute myeloid leukemia,
five month old Saif and eleven year old Saif Juma'a, also with leukemias, are
also from the town.
Mustafa's father, engineer Ali Ismael Tamadhir Ghalib has to give up his work
one week in every month to bring his son to Baghdad for treatment and looking
at his wide eyed, wan little son, losing his hair from the treatment, a nerve
in his right eye affected by the cancer, he is angry. He is in no doubt that the
weapons used in the Gulf war are responsible for the condition of his son and
many others. 'If there is another war now, more children will suffer. This is
enough, they (Bush and Blair) should stop this massacre of innocent people. What
have these children done to them?' His wife stood by her son's bed, her tears
flowing, dampening her immaculate black abaya.
They had scraped the money for a private room for their son and away from the
renovation of central Baghdad, the true scale of what is needed in every sector
was reflected. Former state of the art medical facilities are now without sheets,
pillowcases, sterile environment. Television, books, toys, board games - diversions
taken for granted in modern hospitals, are non existent. Formerly bright welcoming
wards are as bleak as Mustafa's diagnosis.
Jean Estrada of the N.G.O. Emergency, which responds to medical crisis for
victims of war warned of:'a humanitarian catastrophe if there is an attack. The
major trauma injuries which would occur in order of magnitude in the event of
an attack, simply could not be dealt with - nurses have left, skills and facilities
are out of date and the latter often barely existent, they simply could not cope.'
Perhaps though, the bleakest scenario of all is reflected not alone in Iraq,
but throughout the Middle East. Iraqis, regardless of whether for or against the
regime, are implacably united on one thing, they will never allow a foreign imposed
government and invasion force to take over their country. In central Baghdad's
Sa'adoon Street is the statue of the small resolute man after whom it is named
- the Prime Minister who committed suicide rather than give in to British pressures.
Defiance at foreign dominance is a spirit which is close to the surface in every
Iraqi one meets.
'The only way they will take Iraq is if they empty it of people' remarked a
Jordanian, 'and that is why they will use nuclear weapons - to empty it.' It is
a widely held view and in the region the idea that the crisis is about Saddam's
woeful human rights record or the return and freedom of the weapons inspectors
is laughable. It is, they say, about a country said to be 'swimming on a sea of
Just before leaving Iraq Baghdad was hit by a series of near-tornados and a
deluge of torrential rain. At the Nasb al-Shaheed - the great turquoise Martyr's
Monument fashioned like the two halves of a superb ceramic egg, allowing the souls
of the dead to soar free, workmen were spraying the dust and mud from the half
mile approach of polished gray marble. The calm after one storm and perhaps before
one of a different kind. The names of half a million Iraqis lost in the Iran-Iraq
war are inscribed on the walls of the marble mausoleum under the monument. ' Let
Bush come' said one of the workmen: 'We Iraqis know about sacrifice.'
Before crossing into Jordan, we filled the overlander with gasoline - one hundred
and forty liters cost the equivalent of just one pound twenty five pence sterling
- under three pence a liter. George Bush eat your heart out. A bottle of water
in this polluted land costs fifteen times as much. It is a looking glass world.
'We have plenty of men in Iraq, we do not need Tommy Franks,' Ahmed Chalabi,
General Nizar Khazraji, Prince Hassan of Jordan 'or any of George Bush's chosen
to run our country' said Susan the Professor with a steely glint in her eye. As
I looked back at the triumphal arch through which one enters Iraq, as we departed
for the Jordan crossing, with the surreal white doves fluttering round the border
post, where they have an elaborate reed dwelling and their very own keeper, I
had a feeling of deep foreboding.
What future lies for this complex patient who gave the world writing, mathematics,
algebra, the wheel, the first domestic laws 6,000 years before Christ, the wonders
of the Garden of Eden, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - and where unearthing artifacts
of breath taking beauty four thousand years old, is commonplace.
Will it be allowed to slowly recover and convalesce, or will the life support
machine be switched off and the house be taken over by squatters?
Felicity Arbuthnot is a London-based writer.