13 December 2003
"We had 20 passengers to Basra today; four carriages and one locomotive," Shakra Mahmoud announces. He is the stationmaster of Baghdad Central and he beams with satisfaction at a job well done. So what time did the Basra train leave, I ask Mr Mahmoud and his smile fades away.
There is a brief conversation in Arabic with six other railway officials in the room and the word infijah is used. The stationmaster realises I can understand the conversation. "Actually, there was no train today," he says bleakly. "There was another bomb on the track last night and we can't repair it yet. The last train was yesterday."
It's another of the lies in which we all have to believe. Things are getting better in Iraq. And of course, not a single official of the Anglo-American occupation authorities will admit the truth which Mr Mahmoud now acknowledges: that there have been 31 attacks on the Baghdad-Basra track in the past seven months, at least 40 on the line to Mosul, and daily sabotage on the passenger service to Qusaybah.
And you only have to leave Mr Mahmoud's office and stride the great windy concourse of British-built Baghdad Central station to understand what this means. Platform after vast platform, built for the entire railway network of Iraq, stands empty. The main line to Mosul has now been closed because - as another railway official bluntly puts it - "we can't repair the trains and the track fast enough", and the service to Qusaybah and the west of Iraq has been indefinitely suspended because gunmen and thieves are attacking passenger trains. Yesterday, in "liberated" Iraq, not a single train moved on the country's tracks.
And in the fantasy world of Iraq, the railways play their part. Because - just a couple of miles down the tracks - stand 50 spanking new green-painted Chinese diesel locomotives, newly purchased through the American-run Ministry of Transport to haul the long trains which can no longer run across Iraq.
On each is screwed a brass plaque with the words "Built by the Dalian Locomotive and Rolling Stock Works, People's Republic of China 2002" and the great Boy's Own Paper locos stand today amid a trashyard of older, smashed Canadian and German diesels and dirty French and Polish carriages of the Saddam era. One railway official - and there are a lot of them - conceded that the number of locomotives may well equal the number of carriages.
But Louai Hanna is ecstatic. Even in Iraq, there is a fraternity among railwaymen and Mr Hanna is the proud driver of one of the new Chinese locos which he has personally named The Gazelle after its blissful first (and only) journey from Basra. He climbs the steel ladder, unlocks the door and introduces me to what he calls his "home", with its shiny speed dials, little Chinese paper lanterns - the engines arrived to Umm Qasr port with 10 luckless Chinese advisers aboard the ship - his fridge and coffee stove.
The Gazelle can speed along with 12 carriages at 180km an hour. On the Basra track, of course, only four carriages work the line in each direction and most of the time, when there is a train, the maximum speed is 60kph.
Mr Hanna is a Christian but I find a cassette tape of Sunni Muslim sermons on the console beside him, speeches by an imam from Fallujah. So The Gazelle's co-driver is a religious Sunni, I suggest. Mr Hanna grins his confirmation. And I can tell who drives the other new locos; several have the images of Hussein and Ali, the great martyrs of Shia Islam, stuck on the side of the loco windscreens. If nothing else, the railway staff are multi-confessional.
We are walking back along the tracks through the wickedly cold wind when I notice, just beyond the muck and dirt and rusted rails, the twisting mud and brick tower above the tomb of the wife of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, Iraq's history of magnificence still standing amid its modern wreckage. Mr Hanna looks at the ground as he walks. "One of our drivers was executed by Saddam," he said. "I don't know why. I can only remember his first name, Abbas. He was in his diesel loco down in Basra in 1981 when the security people came for him. They took him off the train and we didn't see him again and later we heard he was hanged."
There is a further silence. Then Mr. Hanna suddenly looks at me. "I drove Saddam," he suddenly says. "We were never told in advance when he would travel by train. They put two special security men in the cab with me and told me to go to Mosul. We stopped and started many times.
"Saddam got on in Mosul and he travelled only one kilometre. I don't know why he bothered. He got off, dressed in civilian clothes with a black pullover. You had to be a member of the Ba'ath to drive Saddam but I wasn't in the party." Was he trusted perhaps because he was a Christian and not from the Muslim sects of Iraq where his enemies were strong? "You may be right. Yes, both me and the other driver got something for driving Saddam. He gave us each a tip of $150."
Which, by chance, is the same as Mr Hanna's new and improved monthly salary from Iraqi Railways. And as we reach the empty platforms, he greets his colleagues with warmth. They are all going to a wake for the wife of one of their fellow drivers and they ask to have their picture taken together. They are nice guys and Mr Hanna says that his money now allows him to buy a new television set. They joke and laugh and briefly there is a picture of a real "new" Iraq.
Plenty of smiling drivers. Pity about the trains.