By Robert Fisk
BAGHDAD -- For Baghdad, it is night No. 1001, the very last few hours
of fantasy. As United Nations inspectors prepared to leave the city
in the early hours of this morning (Tuesday), Saddam Hussein has appointed
his own son Qusay to lead the defense of the city of the Caliphs against
the U.S. invasion.
Yet at the Armed Forces club
yesterday, I found the defenders playing football. Iraqi television
prepares Baghdad people for the bombardment to come with music from
Gladiator. But the Iraqis went on with their work yesterday of disarming
the soon-to-be invaded nation, observing the destruction of two more
The U.N. inspectors, only
hours from packing, even turned up to observe this very last bit of
the disarmament which the Americans had so fervently demanded and in
which they have now totally lost interest. With the inspectors gone,
there is nothing to stop the Anglo-American air forces commencing their
bombardment of the cities of Iraq.
So is Baghdad to be Stalingrad,
as Saddam tells us? It doesn't feel like it.
The roads are open, checkpoints
often unmanned, the city's soldiery dragging on cigarettes outside the
U.N. headquarters. From the banks of the Tigris River -- a muddy, warm
sewage-swamped version of Stalingrad's Volga -- I watched yesterday
evening the fishermen casting their lines for the masghouf fish that
Baghdadis eat after sunset. The Security Council resolution withdrawn?
Tony Blair calls an emergency meeting of the Cabinet? Bush to address
the American people? Baghdad, it seems, is sleepwalking its way into
How come I found a queue
of Iraqis waiting outside the Sindbad cinema in Saadun street last night?
Any Iraqi will tell you that
they adore Saddam. But they would, wouldn't they? And we've heard all
that for well over two decades. True, the local Baathist papers regale
us with peace marches and peace protests around the world -- as if Bush
is going to call back his quarter of a million men because Jordanians
burned U.S. flags.
The detachment is quite extraordinary,
as if we are breathing here in Baghdad a different kind of air, as if
we exist on a planet quite removed from the B-52s and Stealth and cruise
missiles and Mother of All Bombs, which will soon make the Earth tremble
beneath our feet. The very history and culture of the Arab world is
about to be visited by a Western-made earthquake. Even the aftermath
of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire will be made redundant
in the coming hours. Yet on the banks of the Tigris stands a massive
statue, bound up in sacking and gauze, waiting for the unveiling of
another bronze likeness of Saddam.
In the fumes of Baghdad's
traffic yesterday, I searched for signs of the tempest to come. There
were a few. Queues of cars outside gas stations, filling up for the
last time, a clutch of antique shops closing down for the duration,
a gang of workers were moving the computers from a ministry, just as
the Serbs did before NATO visited Belgrade in the spring of 1999.
Didn't the Iraqis know what
was about to happen? Did Saddam?
I could only be reminded
of that remarkable account by a former Cuban ambassador who was part
of a 1990 delegation to persuade Saddam of the overwhelming U.S. firepower
that would be sent against him if he did not withdraw from Kuwait. "I've
received several reports like that," Saddam replied. "It's
our ambassador to the U.N. who sends them to me and most of the time,
they finish down there." And here Saddam gestured to a marble rubbish
bin on the floor.
Is the marble bin still being
filled with similar reports? Yesterday, Iraqi state television told
us yet again that Saddam said, personally once more, that although Iraq
had weapons of mass destruction in the past, they no longer existed
today. It was America's own weapons of mass destruction and its sponsorship
of Israel that threatened the world.
All day, a U.N. C-130 aircraft
baked on the tarmac at Saddam International Airport -- there are two
more in Cyprus -- ready to bring the 140 inspectors out of Iraq before
Bush and Blair launch their blitz. No one questions the obvious: Why
did the inspectors bother to come?
If the British, as the attorney
general claimed last night, didn't need U.N. Security Council Resolution
1441 to wage war because they were justified under earlier resolutions,
why did they vote for it? Because they hoped Saddam would refuse to
accept them back or, as Saddam put it rather neatly yesterday, "the
inspectors came to find nothing." This kind of argument claims
no audience in Baghdad. The cynicism may be paralleled only by another
kind of cynicism whose central figure is that one so ostentatiously
adored in the streets of the city on the Tigris.
A group of foreign "peace
activists" stood hand-in-hand along the parapet of Baghdad's longest
bridge, old men and young U.S. Muslims and a Buddhist in a prayer shawl,
largely ignored by Iraqi motorists. It was as if Iraqis were less caught
up in this demonstration than the foreigners, as if their years of suffering
had left them complacent to the terrible reality about to fall upon
Then comes more news from
the Revolutionary Command Council. Its latest decree -- signedby its
chairman, Saddam Hussein -- announces the appointment of Gen. Ali Hassan
al-Majid as commander of Iraq's southern zone, which includes Basra,
the United States' first target for invasion. Ali Hassan, needless to
record, is known as "Mr. Chemical" for his gas attack on the
Kurds of Halabja. What does this portend for the Americans?
Or the Iraqis? Or is this
now an honorary title for a force that will be rolled over by the lead
So I went at dusk last night
to the great egg-shell monument that Saddam erected to the half-million
Iraqi dead of his 1980-88 war against Iraq, whose cabinet basements
are lined with the names of every lost Iraqi, inscribed in marble. "Hope
comes from life and brings fire to the heart," one of the lines
of Arabic poetry says round the base. But the couples had not come to
remember loved ones. They were courting students whose only political
comment -- aware of that "minder" hovering over my shoulder
-- was that "we have endured war so many times, we are used to
So I am left with a heretical
thought. Might Baghdad ultimately become an open city, its defenders
moved north to protect Saddam's heartland, the capital's people left
to discover the joys and betrayals of a U.S. occupation on their own?
I suppose it all depends on the next few hours and days, on how many
civilians the Americans and the British manage to kill in their supposedly
moral war. Will Iraqis have to construct another monument to the dead?
Or will we?
March 18, 2003