My Return To
By Robert Fisk
17 January, 2005
tried out the new Beirut-Baghdad air service this week. It's
a sleek little 20-seater with two propellers, a Lebanese-Canadian pilot
and a name to take you aback. It's called "Flying Carpet Airlines".
As Commander Queeg said in The Caine Mutiny, I kid thee not. It says
"Flying Carpet" on the little blue boarding cards, below the
captain's cabin and on the passenger headrest covers where the aircraft
can be seen gliding through the sky on a high-pile carpet.
And it's an odd
little flight, too. You arrive at Beirut's swish new glass and steel
airport where you are told to meet your check-in desk handler in front
of the post office in the arrivals lounge. There are a group of disconsolate
Americans - "contractors" who've been passing the weekend
in the fleshpots - and fearful Lebanese businessmen and, well, you've
guessed it, The Independent's equally fearful correspondent.
It was a while before
I realised that the whole thing was a kind of Iraqi metaphor. From the
Beirut arrivals lounge, you pass through the metal detectors in departures,
breeze past the spanking new duty free, pick up a cappuccino and then
- here we go - head for the special Mecca pilgrimage departure gate.
In a box-like room painted all white, you wait for a small blue bus
which eventually chugs guiltily off round the side of the airport, past
the shell-blasted freight cargo hangars from Beirut's very own, pleased-to-be-forgotten
war, to the steps of the only aircraft in Flying Carpet's fleet.
Only when I had
clambered, half-doubled up, down the tube to my seat did I realise that
we were only a few hundred metres from the site of the old US Marine
base, suicide-bombed back in 1983 at a cost of 241 American lives. I
remember how the air pressure changed in my Beirut apartment when the
bomb exploded and how, a couple of days later, I saw Vice President
George Bush Snr standing amid the rubble, telling us: "We will
not let a bunch of insidious terrorist cowards change the foreign policy
of the United States." Ho hum.
Then within months,
President Reagan decided to "redeploy" his US Marines to their
ships offshore, a manoeuvre that ranked alongside other great military
victories such as Napoleon's redeployment from Moscow and the British
redeployment from Dunkirk.
These, of course,
were heretical thoughts as we climbed above the snow-frothed Lebanese
mountains, crossed the Syrian border and then flew east across the ever-darkening,
deep-brown deserts of Syria and Iraq. I opened my morning paper. And
there was old George Bush's cantankerous son, wearing that silly smile
of his, telling the world that while there may be a few problems in
old "Ayrak", the 30 January elections would go ahead; violence
would be defeated; the bad guys would not be able to stop the forward
march of democracy. In other words, he wasn't going to let a bunch of
insidious terrorist cowards change the foreign policy of the United
States. Ho hum.
Of course, the moment
you arrive at the scene of Bush's great new experiment in democracy
- and we are all looking forward to the elections in Baghdad with the
same kind of enthusiasm that the people of Dresden showed when the first
Lancasters flew down the Elbe - it all looks very different. Baghdad
airport is crowded with heavily armed mercenaries and friendly, but
equally armed, Gurkhas. And there's a big poster not far from the terminal
with a massive colour photograph of the aftermath of a Baghdad car bombing,
complete with the body of a half-naked woman in the lower right-hand
The text beneath
this obscenity is in Arabic. "They want to destroy our country
- they attack schools. These dogs want to keep our children in ignorance
so they can teach them hatred. We need the help of the multinational
forces to show them that we will do anything to get our country back
and to root out the killers and looters on our roads who bear the full
responsibility for these terrible crimes committed against our peaceful
Iraqi people. The Iraqi people refuse to be victims because they are
a strong community which will never die." Ho hum again.
Because while the
Iraqis want security, an increasing number of them are coming to support
the "dogs" and ever fewer want the assistance of the "multinational
forces" which, in Baghdad and much of the Sunni provinces controlled
by the insurgents, means Mr Bush's very own army. Now of course, opinion
polls - an invention of the West, not the East - do show that a majority
of Iraqis would like some of Mr Bush's democracy. Back in the days of
the beastly Saddam, they surely wanted even more of it - though, at
the time, we were busy supporting Saddam's regime so that he could root
out all the killers in Iran, not to mention the Iraqi communists and
Iraqi Shias and Kurds who were trying to destroy him.
Opinion polls would
also show that a majority of Iraqis - an even larger majority, I suspect
- would like some security from all the killers and looters whom the
present-day multinational force doesn't seem able to catch. And the
greatest majority of all Iraqis would, no doubt, like US passports.
Indeed, I've often thought that the one sure way of closing down Iraq's
war would be to give American citizenship to every Iraqi, in just the
same way that the Romans made their conquered peoples citizens of Rome.
But since this is not an idea that would commend itself to Mr Bush and
his empire-builders, the Iraqis are just going to have to endure democracy
in their violent, electricity-free, petrol-less towns and cities.
The Shias, of course,
have been waiting impatiently for elections for almost two years. The
American proconsul of the time, Paul Bremer, was too frightened to hold
them soon after the invasion - when they might have taken place without
much violence - in case Iraq turned into a Shia theocracy. The Kurds
are also waiting to put their stamp on their emerging statelet in the
The problem is that
without the participation of the Sunni Muslims, the results of these
elections - while they will be free in the sense that Saddam's were
not - will be as unrepresentative of the Iraqi nation as the polls which
used to give The Beast 98.86 per cent of the vote. The Americans are
now threatening to "top up" the parliament with a few chosen
Sunnis of their own. And we all know how representative they're going
to be of the Sunni community which is the heart of the insurgency against
All in all, then,
a mighty mess to contemplate after the 30 January elections. The brush
fires are already being lit but fear not, Bush and Blair will tell us
that they always knew things would get violent on polling day - which
will make it all right, I suppose - and that, if the violence gets worse,
it all goes to show how successful those elections were because they
made the killers and looters and "dogs" angry. A bunch of
insidious terrorist cowards are not going to change the foreign policy
of the United States. Well, we shall see. Meanwhile, I'm checking the
flight schedules to see if my magic carpet can take me back to Beirut
after 30 January.
Copyright: The Independent.
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