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2003-03-07 - 2:34 p.m.

:::Jo Wilding's Iraq Journal - March 5th:::

Fear and Fury in Baghdad

Yesterday I felt scared for the first time since I got here, standing on my balcony, looking out at the city: suddenly I could picture the sky dark with smoke, air thick with debris, burning eyes and throat. There was a police pick-up on the corner of Al Sadoon Street by the Ali Baba fountain, with soldiers on the back and guns mounted, pointing down the street. It was the first real sign of war. The fluffy teddy bear dangling from the rear view mirror was not as incongruous in Baghdad as it would have been anywhere else.

The British embassy in Baghdad has been abandoned for twelve years now and three of us decided it was time it was reopened by an interim staff to improve relations with Iraq and to prepare for regime change in London. There would be an asylum section where British citizens fleeing the horrors of Tony Blair could take refuge pending the change of leadership in Whitehall and also an Irish Interest Section.

We went to take a look at the premises and were met by a stonewall guard who flatly denied any knowledge of there ever having been a British embassy and he had a liberal supply of barbed wire to support his position, so instead we ambled down the road. Small children played on mounds of sand and ran about the street and women chatted between ramshackle fairytale houses, with overhanging wooden upstairs parts and blue patterned outsides.

We stopped to decide where to go next and found ourselves in front of an accumulation of curious children. Felicity waved at one - a tiny one in his sister's arms - and he started to cry. I knelt on the ground and said "Marhaba" (hello) and one or two replied, "Hello." The crowd grew and I did what I do best - I pulled a face. All the kids laughed, so I pulled another. Their mothers began to join the cluster: stunning women with enormous dark eyes.

"Ismi Joanna," I said - my name is Joanna.

"Shwanna," the kids repeated, and went through all their names: Maha, Zaineb, Treibe, dozens and dozens of them, and this one is that one's sister and that one is this one's brother, and these two are cousins, and as the introductions went on the huddle grew closer and the tickle monster urge took me. Assuming a fearsome look, I growled and made a tickle monster grab for one. Shrieking gleefully they all jumped back and, giggling, advanced again.

"Rrrr," I said, and they all squealed again.

Shortly a couple of guards came down and suggested we leave, which we supposed we'd better, so we waved to the kids, said "Ma'assalama" (goodbye) and walked away. The group which accompanied us grew and grew, though the guardss told them to go back, and soon the whole party had reassembled by Zaid's taxi.

Where were we from, the kids wanted to know? England, Ireland and Pakistan, between us. There was a girl of maybe ten who was learning English at school. "What's that?" she said, and "Thank you." "Afwan," I replied: you're welcome. They asked for more faces and I pulled more, high on the kids' laughter. One started doing somersaults on the railing beside the road. I reached, monster-like, under the railing for their feet and the shrieking and giggling started again.

A tiny one with round cheeks, long black plaits and a face full of mischief blew a raspberry and doubled up with mirth. I blew kisses, with expansive arm gestures, and they blew kisses back. I could describe everyone one of them as "the gorgeous one with huge eyes": bright, chatty little girls and laughing boys, a little girl all in black with the most melting smile, a taller one carrying her little brother, kissing and nuzzling his cheek, a young boy who tried to copy the faces I pulled, all of them with hearts wide open and full of laughter.

Eventually we had to leave and they waved us off with more kisses blown after the taxi. I suddenly caught sight of the sharp, bright crescent of the new moon in the dusk sky. Then Felicity pointed out the Ministry of Defence building, just a minute or so away from those laughing children, their mothers and their homes, right in the firing line if the US and UK decide the Ministry is a target.

And what next? Iraq is a country of many different groups but the majority are Shia Muslims. A simple majority vote in this country would produce a Shia leadership, something the US is unlikely to accept. The Iraqi National Congress (INC) is the body of exiles which is primed to become the new leadership: a "murderous bunch of thugs" including the General who led the Anfal campaign against the Kurds and the massacre of 5000 at Halabja. The US and UK are aiming to remove from power someone who "kills his own people" by killing a vast number of his own people, in order to install other men who kill their own people.

I met a Canadian journalist a couple of days ago who had just come from Hungary, where a secretive training camp has been set up to train Iraqi exiles for an overthrow force. Many of these are INC members, trained, funded and equipped by the CIA. The US has repeatedly lied about the function of this force, saying for example that they were to be translators or to perform civil administration duties - in which case it is unclear why they needed to have prior military experience. Mustafa Ziya, the leader of the Turkmen Front, said he had been told "to recruit soldiers."

Each "volunteer" is paid a $3000 signing "bonus" and no background checks have been made because the US is in a hurry. The training is in Hungary, in an interim staging base for Bosnia, because the US didn't want to admit the trainees within its own borders.

So the CIA is funding and training an army of opposition soldiers made up of anyone it could find, whilst also funding and legitimising an opposition political movement which includes many people heavily implicated in atrocities which they are using to justify their war.

And then Iraq will be controlled through its debts. In terms of its debt to export ratio, Iraq is the most indebted country in the world. Its external debt of $130 billion is rising all the time through compound interest and cannot be repaid with Oil For Food money. The UN has already awarded $36 billion in compensation claims against Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait and is considering a further $127 billion. Iraq's exports in the six and a half years of the Oil For Food programme have been $51 billion.

Structural adjustment policies are enforced on heavily indebted countries so that their resources are taken over by multinational companies and the wealth is taken out of the country, and public services are privatised, so the burden of paying for water, health care, education and so on is shifted to the population as individuals, rather than public funds. Financially, perhaps in many ways, the Iraqi people will be even worse off than they are now.

Coming back from the British embassy, Zaid wanted to know whether British women liked football. His wife, he said, was always asking him. Some did, I told him. Brighton was my team. He's been to Brighton - he came in 1977, when he was five. He's a Liverpool fan. In his glove box is a picture of his four month old son Omar in Zaid's Liverpool shirt, the walls around him plastered with team posters and Michael Owen pictures. Liverpool were knocked out of the FA cup the other day, apparently, and he's not happy, but at least they won the Worthington Cup a couple of weeks ago, beating Manchester United. His wife is a Manchester United fan. She's got to get a new team, I tell him. Manchester United are just part of the capitalist machine.

I told him I used to live next door to the Newcastle United ground. Eyes alight, he said, "To St James Park? It's my dream, but next door to Anfield." If his wife could meet me, he said, she'd never stop talking to me about football. He asked how long I was staying in Iraq. About another three weeks, I said, was the plan.

"What will you do if the war starts?"

"Zaid," I said, honestly, "I don't know. What will you do?"

"I'll be on my roof, getting the view. I've seen it all before. So if you find you need anything, just call me."

Zaid is thirty; two years older than me, and all but two of the last twenty-two have been at war. Children play football on the rooves of bomb shelters, raised above the ground because it's impossible to build them fully underground when the water table is so high. Walking between them, you have to duck the balls, usually followed by a child, as they fly over the edge.

Then over breakfast a Frenchman was talking about the likelihood of France using its veto. France has said it will only veto if another country does as well. Less than 1% of its trade is with Iraq; perhaps 20% is with the US. Likewise Russia and China need US trade more than Iraqi. Turkey has caved in to US pressure. Sorry kids. Your lives are less important than trade with the US. Yeah, I know the US and UK are going to do what they want regardless of international opinion, law and process, but that's not a reason for the rest of the world to acquiesce.

So now I'm not scared. Now I'm furious. I'm raging. I'm going to stay here and watch it all happen and I won't turn my head away no matter how hard it is to bear, and afterwards I'm going to come back and tell the warmongers in the government and the corporations about the sparkling eyes and the bubbling laughter of every single person they kill here. I'm going to write down their crimes, one by one, and name their victims, and I'm not going to stop until there's justice in the world.

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