INSIDE BAGHDAD; Revealed: How Saddam's People Are Facing Threat of onslaught.(News)

Article excerpt

Byline: MARK SEDDON Editor of Labour magazine Tribune

FOR a city facing the possibility of an all-out military attack from America and possibly Britain, Baghdad has an eerie sense of normality.

There was only one military checkpoint on the way into the city after a 12-hour drive in convoy across the moonscape that is the Iraqi desert. The checks there were cursory, the soldiers bored.

It had been the same back at the crossing from Jordan, but not quite. There the hideous threat of a compulsory AIDS test hung over us.

For a brief moment it seemed possible that we might fall victim to a blunt needle, but at the eleventh hour a beaming Iraqi border post commander, sporting a Jimmy Edwards-style handlebar moustache, waved us through.

The Iraqi Minister of Health was later asked what was his country's attitude to gay men. He replied: "It is against our custom and it is not acceptable."

According to him Iraq had only five cases of HIV in the whole country. For good measure he went on to identify the patients.

There is something faintly absurd about military dictatorships, for outsiders at least. There is the petty bureaucracy of officialdom, the need for "guides" - many of whom could hardly speak English - to accompany us on filming trips in Baghdad and Basra for BBC2's Correspondent series.

There was the bungling tail - the battered red Volga car which followed us on one occasion, but was going so fast that it managed to overtake three times.

Then there was the omnipresent figure of President Saddam Hussein, helped to power by America, sustained in power by America during the Iran and Iraq war, and now America's arch-enemy.

Saddam appears in many guises, in statues, in vast wall murals, in paintings and even on the face of the pocket watch I bought in a Baghdad antique shop.

But it was not always possible to film Saddam in his different outfits ...as military commander, as father figure sporting a homburg hat, as teacher or huntsman. "No sir, you cannot film from that angle," commanded the guide."

Or "No sir, you are forbidden to film this statue, but you are welcome to film the one near Al Rasheed Street."

In the Al Rasheed Hotel in the centre of Baghdad - frayed, but still opulent - a vast birthday cake stood in the foyer, testament to the president's 65th birthday. Or had he just celebrated his 63rd birthday? No one was sure.

The bedside telephone, I had been reliably informed, would be bugged. When I tried laundry service, it clicked ominously - and promptly gave up the ghost.

Nightly television is mainly devoted to Saddam - showing his meetings with ministers who look just like him, and for light relief a Julio Iglesias lookalike singing the president's praises.

In a bid to keep the masses glued to their boxes, one channel devotes itself to cheap American films, sometimes featuring scantily clad women. The advertisement breaks are...Saddam breaks. It may be an offence, but hardly offensive to report that photographs of a younger Tariq Aziz, Iraqi Foreign Minister, bear a striking resemblance to the late Peter Sellers.

BUT this is a secular country, where women go uncovered, where Assyrian Christians still attend the many churches - and until the week we arrived, where people could freely buy alcohol in their private clubs.

But this is also a country where political opposition is a potentially fatal activity, where attempts to secede by Northern Kurds and Southern Shiites have been met by force. And this is a country where all is not what it seems. The Al Amiryah bomb shelter was the scene of the most devastating American attack of the Gulf War. A Tomahawk missile came crashing through 6ft of reinforced concrete to incinerate over 400 civilians sheltering below.

There is no question that this was a deliberate attack. …