Magazine article The Spectator

Our Friends in Baghdad

Magazine article The Spectator

Our Friends in Baghdad

Article excerpt


EVEN under Jack Straw's law-and-order policies, few BBC offices in Britain yet have an anti-aircraft artillery battery on their roofs. Our bureau in Baghdad does. Two weeks ago, the big gun burst ineffectually into action as US and British missiles slammed with pin-point accuracy into - or at least quite near to, or somewhere in the very approximate vicinity of - suspect radar stations around the city. Arriving in Iraq the following day for the first time, I felt entitled to be apprehensive. How would a visiting Iraqi be treated in Britain if his country had just bombed Birmingham? This kind of thinking was a mistake.

`Well-come,' said the hotel porter, carefully laying out my shaving things and going away to find me one of the hotel's limited supply of toilet rolls. `Well-come,' said the other people in the lift. `From England? Ah, William Shakespeare, Graham Greene. How is old England now?' Old England was fine, I said. The levels of childhood leukaemia, infant mortality, malnutrition and diarrhoea in Iraq will be familiar to all viewers of concerned documentaries by John Pilger. But in that hotel lift I started to feel the premonitory symptoms of another, equally important local disease, which the great journalist and humanitarian seems to have missed. It affects only visiting Westerners, and there is no cure. Without exception, we have all succumbed to Nice Iraqi Syndrome.

In the days since the bombing, and to the evident disappointment of our various employers, neither I nor any other colleague here has experienced a single act of hostility or even unfriendliness. There are, of course, regular demonstrations against the imperialist aggressors, but these tend to consist of children who have been given the day off school for the purpose. There are several monuments to what the official media call `the American occupation of Kuwait' - a particularly enjoyable one has a moody-looking 30-foot-high Saddam with pygmy figures of Margaret Thatcher, George Bush senior and Francois Mitterrand cringing at his feet - but these are not places of pilgrimage for the average citizen. Iraqi niceness to foreigners, as well as being innate, is a way of passively expressing distance from the regime.

The British are particularly vulnerable to Nice Iraqi Syndrome. The English language is still strong here, though not always faultlessly rendered. A character called Gordon Blue makes frequent appearances on the Baghdad restaurant menus. He is not a distant relative of our own dear Chancellor, but a dish of chicken. In the old part of town, customers at the Fridaymorning book market look through frayed second-hand copies of Tarka the Otter, Enid Blyton and such other wholesome reading as the government deems suitable. One of them is so pleased with my weekold copy of the Times that he has to sit down even though the headline on the front is `RAF jets blitz Baghdad'.

The traditional charge - which we have all been most disappointed not to hear from Alastair Campbell during this round of bombing - is that Nice Iraqi Syndrome leads to Enid Blyton-type reporting, full of sick children suffering under sanctions. This is true to the extent - and only to the extent - that no other side of Iraq is ever exposed to public view by the authorities. But journalists are versatile people. We can remember, without being shown them, the Nasty Iraqis; those who, according to German intelligence, are stepping up their efforts to produce chemical weapons and missiles which, within four years, will be capable of reaching Europe; they are the ones who pillaged Kuwait and murdered so many of its citizens. …

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