01 June 2003
Iraqis, it now seems certain, are to be blessed this week with a visit from their Liberator-in-Chief, George Bush Jr. While Washington has been avoiding all mention of the trip, the new Iraqi newspapers - one of the few positive results of "liberation" here - have been happily speculating for days on Bush's arrival.
And we all know what the American President would like to do when he arrives: to be filmed inspecting Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, the purported reason for the Anglo-American invasion illegally launched against Iraq. The problem, of course, is that there don't appear to be any.
So how will the Bush public relations boys manage this particular piece of theatre? Here's an idea of what they are preparing, the stage-managed "victory" tour of George W Bush. But first, this is what the President should be doing if he really wants to understand the epic crisis that now confronts the nation he was so keen to "liberate".
First, join a gas queue. George Bush will help to push his limousine to the back of the three-mile petrol line by the Hussein bridge - many motorists run dry before they reach the queue - and here he will wait ... and wait and wait. Eight hours if he's lucky, maybe 12. Maybe 24.
Then George Bush can visit the 158 Iraqi government ministry buildings that should be the infrastructure of the new US-backed government which he has sworn to establish here. He will see, of course, that of the 158 buildings, every one was looted and then burned after the Americans occupied Baghdad.
Next, a trip to the former Saddam City, now "Sadr City", the vast, foetid, boiling Shia Muslim slums where power is now dangerously divided between three prelates, all of whom oppose the American presence with varying degrees of ferocity and self-interest. Mr Bush will discover that nationalist and religious sentiment - rather than Iranian "terrorism" or "interference" - demand an American departure. Mr Bush will take tea with a Shia family at midday when, as usual, there is no electricity, so that he, like them, will sweat for an hour in their hovel.
A tour of hotels, offices and shops will have one common denominator: the grey penumbra-like marks on the wall of each room where a portrait of the Beast of Baghdad was hanging not long ago. Mr Bush will ask what the owners have done with Saddam's portrait. He will be told that it has been put away "for historical reasons" - the same reason my driver gave last week for buying a Baathist-produced history of the Iraqi economy at the book souk here - rather than destroyed. Indeed, I visited a lawyer last week who still kept Saddam's picture on her wall, on the grounds that "he is still the President until we have a new government". Of course, Mr Bush will visit the town of Falujah where American Marines gunned down 18 Sunni Muslim demonstrators last month and where two gunmen this week shot dead two US soldiers and wounded another 11 before being killed. He will be told that these were merely "remnants" of the Saddam regime.
Then a visit to the mass graves. This will be a tricky one. If the corpses are those of Iraqis butchered in the uprising against Saddam's regime - which was encouraged by George Bush's father, who then betrayed the rebels by refusing to intervene - then the US President will be reminded of America's treachery as well as Saddam's horrific cruelty. If the dead are from the massacres of the early 1980s, then someone will point out that Mr Bush's Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was visiting Baghdad at the time and shook hands with this vicious dictator on behalf of President Reagan - and did nothing to stop these vilest of human rights abuses.
Finally, he will drop in for a little tourism at the Baghdad Archeological Museum, so comprehensively looted after the Americans entered Baghdad last month. He will see smashed statues, heaps of Sumerian vases broken into pieces and photographs of the 4,000-year-old masterpieces stolen from the museum in the course of just a few hours.
President Bush will leave Iraq as he came - not by air, because the US authorities still don't allow commercial flights to Baghdad - but on the long and dangerous road to Amman where armed thieves roam the motorway past Ramadi, where no driver goes by night. He will thus experience life for ordinary Iraqis in the wake of their "liberation": the fear of anarchy and lawlessness, of robbery and assault.
And what will President George Bush really do when he comes to Iraq? Mass graves are probably out, for obvious reasons. A hospital visit is a good idea - US medical aid can be shown arriving fortuitously at that moment - but there would be no assurance that doctors would keep quiet about the 70 murdered men and women whose corpses arrived last week alone at their hospitals in Baghdad. A victory drive through the city is impossible because Bush will be met by demonstrations rather than flowers.
So it looks like an arrival at Baghdad airport, a chat to aid officials, perhaps a brief helicopter flight to the headquarters of the American civilian administration in Saddam's old Palace of the Republic - here, he can be horrified at the corruption of a despot who could starve his people but build palaces for his own vanity - and, of course, an address to the Iraqi people on television. There may be little electricity to power the TV sets of Baghdad, but the speech could go something like this:
"I come to Iraq at a historic moment, when the people of this ancient country, whose history is as long as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are on the threshold of a new life.... In the country where civilisation began, a miracle has taken place.... A cruel and brutal dictator has been overthrown ... the people of the United States of America along with the Coalition Allies are proud to have been able to help you bring about your new-found freedom...
"I know there are frustrations ... the overthrow of tyrants is not without pain ... there are still those who will try to rob you of this freedom, the remnants of Saddam's old regime, interference from Iraq's neighbours.... Iraqis can rest assured we will stand with them against these enemies of their country. We will not let you down.... A new world is being shaped in the Middle East, of which you are now a part.
"After years of darkness, you are now joining the brotherhood of free nations. I ask you to share with us the burdens of building this new world.... The nightmare is over. The days of hope for your children and your grandchildren have begun. You have your freedom. We rejoice with you."
Much of the above has been used on occasion by other US administration officials, especially in Afghanistan. It was Clinton who told the Pakistanis that their history was as long as the river Indus. But will Bush mention the "oil" word? Much more to the point, dare he mention the weapons of mass destruction which even the Iraqis no longer believe to exist? As they say at the bottom of every public relations handout: check against delivery.