December 16, 2002 | More from Don Murray
"It's a long road that has no ashcans." That mysterious aphorism was uttered by John Diefenbaker, one of Canada's more flamboyant prime
Diefenbaker never had the chance to travel on Saddam's highways. The route from the Jordan border to Baghdad is almost 450 kilometres long. A very long road. I saw no ashcans. Indeed, for stretches of up to 20 minutes at a time I saw no other cars.
It seemed a pity for this was a six-lane highway in pristine condition, as straight as if it had been traced in the desert with a ruler. The road designer had given careful thought to his potential clients: every 100 kilometres there was a neat set of cement picnic tables and stools by the road. Each table was topped by a little parasol, ideal for summer repasts in the 50-degree desert heat.
But no ashcans.
Saddam's Iraq is a land of superhighways. The Great Uncle had them built in the salad days when oil gushed and the Iraqi dinar was worth three American dollars. Now, after the Gulf War and international sanctions, one American dollar is worth two thousand Iraqi dinars. The highways are monuments to ambition. Their emptiness is testimony to where that ambition led. But they are not quite empty.
For today in Iraq, all roads lead to inspection. Every morning, the convoys of Land Rovers pull out of the UN complex in the Canal Hotel. In an earlier incarnation, the complex housed the Iraq Tourism Institute. That's perhaps fitting since the only visitors to Iraq these days are UN inspectors and the journalists who chase them.
Thanks to Saddam's highways, the convoys and the pursuing reporters cover hundreds of kilometres at astonishing speeds, only to separate when the weapons' inspectors race through the gates of large compounds guarded by soldiers, leaving the journalists outside. There the journalists wait for three, or four, or even five hours. Then the UN convoys roll out with no comment from the inspectors, and the journalists are invited in by the Iraqis.
The utter strangeness of this cannot be emphasized too much. These compounds house the crown jewels of Saddam's military-industrial program. This is where scientists, engineers, soldiers and workers toiled for years to build chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons. Access to these compounds was the object of constant skirmishing between Saddam's lieutenants and the UN in the 1990s. Now, at each one, journalists are invited in and given a tour, complete with commentary by the plant director or his assistant. Naturally, at each one they deny
that the production of anything remotely dangerous has been taking place recently.
But the simple fact of access is astounding. Even more astounding is the access granted, after just two minutes' hesitation, to one of Saddam's many, ornate presidential palaces. The pictures on television that evening may have been mildly diverting for the rest of the world; they had the impact of a minor earthquake in Iraq. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," one Iraqi told me quietly. "I thought such a thing could never happen. It was like they were walking in God's waiting room."
Irony flourishes in Saddam's strange realm this December. There is the first and obvious irony that one of the most closed and paranoid regimes in the world has, seemingly at the flick of a switch, become so media-friendly and so media-savvy. There are the on-the-site briefings. There are also periodic news conferences from senior officials Saddam's scientific adviser one day, the general in charge of liaison with the UN the next. In good English, they offer up what can only be described as world-class spin in crisp little chunks suitable for digestion by television news networks.
The UN also offers briefings. They are painful. The inspectors' spokesman, Yasuhiro Ueki, stumbles through questions trying to say as little as possible. "I'll have to check that," is a frequent response. His palpable fear of creating controversy leads to ludicrous back-pedalling.
At a recent briefing, when the tricky subject came up of whether the UN had the power to compel Iraq to hand over a complete list of its top scientists and project leaders by a specific time, he refused to confirm what he had said publicly three days earlier. The first time around he had said the UN resolution imposes no time limit on Iraq. By the following briefing, Dr. Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, had sent a letter to the Iraqi government asking for the list by the end of December. Could the UN compel the Iraqis to meet that deadline? Ueki now couldn't or wouldn't say.
In the public relations contest, the Iraqi regime has had a dazzling first period. Regime officials know it and now adopt the slightly weary tone of the innocent bending over backwards to co-operate with the international police and yet still being harassed. The impact of this contest can be felt in conversation with ordinary Iraqis.
One doctor said of the Americans and their criticism of the Iraqi arms declaration that runs to 12,000 pages: "Whatever you give them, they want more."
The sabre-rattling in Washington merely increases truculence. "I'm a doctor and in the war between Iraq and Iran (in the 1980s) I treated the enemy. But when they're shooting bullets at your house, you have to fight."
The doctor's comments help highlight a second irony. They came as he "waited for the call," as he put it. We were following two Canadian doctors, Amir Khadir and David Swann, as they did the rounds of hospitals and the Iraqi Red Crescent to prepare a report on the country's preparedness for war. The call the doctor was waiting for was from the Ministry of Health allowing us to videotape this visit.
At another hospital, we waited an hour until a 'minder' arrived from the Information Ministry. In the looking-glass world of Baghdad, journalists can walk into previously-top-secret sites unaccompanied by anyone, but to enter a hospital you still need a minder. They are ubiquitous. A television crew can't even shoot a scene in the street without one nearby.
And, as we discovered, you can't just shoot anything. We hopped out of the car to get some pictures of a second-hand clothes market in the street. No, the minder said, that wasn't allowed. He would take us to another market. We saw three before we stopped again. Here we could shoot. Why? Because all the clothes, while cheap and imported, were new. Second-hand clothes would give the wrong impression.
And, while the city is full of portraits and statues of Saddam, you can't shoot half of them because they stand in front of government buildings. And government buildings are top secret. The openness of the Iraqi regime is calculated and limited. But the calculation has served it well.
Perhaps the last word should go to the doctor. Once the minder arrived, he became quite friendly. He revealed he had gone to high school in London. He remembered it fondly. He remembered the headmaster. He remembered and liked Britain, even if it was now lined up with the U.S. and preparing for a possible attack on his country.
It was yet another irony. So many of the educated Iraqis you meet speak English because, in their youth, they studied or lived in Britain or the U.S. And now they talk of their confusion and anger that these countries they so enjoyed should see Iraq as evil. I asked the doctor what he particularly liked about England. "The clocks, I liked the clocks. People in England respected the clocks."
England may have clocks worthy of respect, but Saddam has better