Dad's Army Hits Jordan: Where Do Arms Dealers, Prince Andrew and the "Axis of Evil" Mingle? Andrew Gilligan Finds Them All at a Trade Fair. (Features)

Article excerpt

The Tomahawk cruise missile salesman watched as a group of Iraqis, in identikit Ba'ath Party uniforms and Saddam moustaches, wandered past his marketing pavilion. "Have they dropped by the stand yet?" I asked, innocently. "No, sir," said the man, giving the single-forefinger gesture to the retreating Iraqis.

Welcome to Amman, Jordan, and to the Special Operations Forces Exhibition (Sofex). Even for a trade famously unfastidious about the people it mixes with, this was an unusually inclusive occasion. Apart from North Korea, every single member of President Bush's "axis of evil", "states of concern" and "sponsors of terrorism" clubs was down at Sofex, chequebookinpocket. Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan and Iraq - they all sent official delegations to see, and possibly to buy. On the other side were the sellers: Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Slovakia- and, biggest of all, Britain.

The juxtapositions were weird, to say the least. The cruise missile salesman face to face with the people his missiles will almost certainly soon be fired at. Prince Andrew, head of the British delegation, in the same hospitality tent as Saddam Hussein's cousin. Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, at the same drinks reception with the fractionally less well-known British defence procurement minister, Lord Bach. Jordan's ruler, King Abdullah, an engaging figure in combat gear, clamberingup the sides of tanks man altogether better-received performance than that of our own dreary royal.

Britain's reaction to the Iraqi presence was, I am happy to report, in the finest traditions of Whitehall sang-froid. From Prince Andrew down, senior members of the UK delegation simply pretended that they did not exist. This masterful tactic survived even physical contact with the said Iraqis - when a group of them barged into the edge of the Prince's party as he left the hall occupied by a Jordanian defence company, KADDB. ("It's the Iraqis, Sir," said one of Andrew's handlers. "Oh God, the Iraqis!" said the Prince, and looked quickly in the opposite direction.) After the incident, which was witnessed by a colleague, the prince's press secretary gamely denied that an official Iraqi delegation was even present at the fair. This line became a little trickier to sustain when it emerged that Iraq was listed as an official attendee on Sofex's own website.

Never mind, even the Ministry of Defence could not dispute that the British stand existed. It took up an entire corner of the main exhibition hall, complete with a little stage on which people in military uniform acted brief playlets about rescuing hostages, storming buildings, capturing terrorists and all the other things made possible by the excellent products of Britain's world-class defence industry. Bizarrely, the performers were serving members of the British army seconded to the "defence demonstrationteam", travelling the world's trade fairs for Queen, country and the balance of payments. …