MP visits Iraq

22/12/2003

I’ve described before how the decision on how to vote in the Commons on the war with Iraq as the toughest I’ve had to make in my time as your MP. As the vote came ever closer I spent more time doubting that I was right than believing that I was right. I realise it may not always be apparent, but I am usually more than prepared to accept that my opponents have a fair point. On the eve of the vote in March I sat alone in my office just next to the Commons chamber and reflected that if I voted for war and the motion was carried, then some young British servicemen not much older than my own sons would surely die, and with them many Iraqis. And for what?

Well, fast forward from March to a Sunday in December. In a departure lounge at Heathrow I’m watching Sky News as a newsflash breaks: Saddam has been captured alive. Booked on the same flight as me are many Iraqis and Kuwaitis. They gather around the television, the joy and relief palpable on their faces. It is as though a dark shadow has been lifted from their lives and they can scarcely believe that it is true. In a moment something that they had doubted for six months has now been made abundantly clear: Saddam and his Ba’athist thugs are not coming back. I wished that I could have seen the looks on their faces that December morning when I had voted the previous March.

The following day I land at Baghdad International Airport in an RAF plane. We are met by British officials who look even more unflappable than usual. Maybe there is more flap to be unflappable about here. We were escorted from the airport through an area that was perhaps not entirely secure from danger. I later learned that the American in charge of Iraq at the moment, Ambassador Paul Bremer, had been nearly killed on that road the week before by an insurgent attack. The central reservation on this road had been defoliated, by the looks of it with flamethrowers, to prevent snipers using it as cover to take pot shots at allied troops or, indeed, visiting MPs. In Baghdad itself we enter the ‘Green Zone’ from which the country effectively is governed. But this is an odd area, for street after street there is no housing, no shops, no places of work, just palaces. Imagine an area say the size of Oswaldtwistle, and there is nothing there but palace after palace. After a while we arrive at one of the smaller palaces that has been fortified and is serving as the British diplomatic mission. That night we eat in a hotel that has been closed due to the number of times it has been hit by rockets recently, but its restaurant seemed to be doing a fine trade. The scene is surreal: a restaurant in Baghdad is serving me a chicken kebab to the background music of a medley of Sinatra Christmas songs whilst everyone else except me is carrying at least a pistol. Most carry a pistol and a machine gun. In the entrance area Baghdad’s equivalent of Del Boy is selling fake medals from the Saddam era, old Iraqi notes with Saddam on them, and a pocket watch bearing Saddam’s features. He helpfully points out that they have stopped making watches like this.

Over the following days I meet a large number of people in a dizzyingly short amount of time, many of them in Saddam’s personal palace now converted to be coalition HQ; to give you some idea of the scale of Saddam’s egomania this palace is about the size of the Houses of Parliament, very large indeed. Ambassador Paul Bremer and the officer in charge of coalition forces in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, are both understandably pleased at Saddam’s capture. Forget Rambo, these guys are the good guys. I ask Ambassador Bremer what they have achieved on the ground and he proudly tells me that the coalition has just repaired and refurbished its 1500th school in Iraq. Electricity is back to pre-war levels, although this has taken longer than expected due to the fact that there had been no investment in the infrastructure for decades. Puzzlingly for such an oil-rich country there are long queues everywhere for petrol and I am unable to get to the bottom of this. Some say that the Americans keep the fuel for their ubiquitous humvees (a type of armoured jeep), others blame insurgent attacks on fuel convoys.

Later in the week I fly to meet British troops in Basra. Nell McAndrew had got there before me on a goodwill visit and I think our boys may have been slightly more pleased to see her rather than me. However, apparently she took one look at the chemical toilets and basic shower facilities and left, a case of “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here” I guess. British troops are stationed at Basra Airport and I slept in a bunk bed in what was once an office next to the check-in desks until woken for breakfast at 0530. As my body clock reminded me, this is actually 0230 British time.

Conclusions? Well, I came to a few: I know it’s a cliché but, like all clichés it contains an essential truth, and that is that British troops are very, very professional and are doing a job that we can and should be proud of; I met many Iraqis who are overjoyed that Saddam and his evil regime are gone; most Iraqis I met think that the coalition powers should go sooner rather than later, and they seem to resent us Brits much less than the Americans (or maybe they were just being polite to me, although I don’t think so as things do seem better in the British zone generally). But Iraq still has a long way to go. Will we succeed in turning Iraq into the kind of liberal democracy that we take for granted here? No, certainly not. But if the question is will we turn Iraq into an immeasurably better country than it was before the war, then the answer is surely a resounding yes.

Greg Pope MP

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