I may not agree with his policies but  I like to read the leaders of the Times which Michael writes on an almost daily basis. I first met him in High Holborn when the court was deciding the fate of Al Masari’s application for asylum in the UK.
            I don’t know what he is going to tell us. We all hope that Iraq will have a future better than its past but things do not always work as we wish.


Michael Binyon: I can’t really promise that I will shed a lot of sunlight on the problem. I can perhaps look a little bit through the gloom and see what possible bright shining objects may be there that we could hope to guide ourselves towards.


I have to say straight away that I have not been to Iraq. So you might ask what can you say about Iraq when you haven’t actually been there and seen it. The nearest I have been is Kuwait where I was two weeks ago at an Arab media conference where, of course, there was a great discussion about Iraq and what was going on.


But to some extent what happens in Iraq doesn’t depend solely on what goes on on the ground though it will  very largely. It depends also on what goes on around Iraq, what its neighbours think, what Iran thinks and indeed what kind of international support Iraq receives.


Now I have to say that the Times was among quite a number of British newspapers that originally supported the war in Iraq I think wrongly. I think it was a mistake. We supported it on the grounds that we thought the government could not have been quite so stupid as to get the intelligence wrong. But we were wrong. They were wrong.  The intelligence was false. There were no weapons of mass destruction, there was no legitimate reason, in terms of national self defense, to invade Iraq. It was a very good thing that Saddam Hussein was overthrown but that is not a cause for going to war with another country, particularly if one is invoking national security as the reason for it.


Having said that the Times supported the war. The thing then is not to argue about whether it was right or whether it was wrong. But very few newspapers publish editorials saying we got it wrong. The Times, like every other newspaper has not done that.


We are trying, as any sensible analyst would, to see what can now come from the situation as it is. It is futile to argue about what was, or what could have been, or what should have been. What happened, has happened and Iraq has suffered enormously. Not only Iraq, many others have  suffered and quite a few  political reputations have been the casualties as a result.


Five years on one can look at Iraq and say what a mess, what a terrible situation. I think anybody looking at Iraq would not say it is more secure than it was before the war. In some ways, only in some ways, it is more free but it depends on what you mean by freedom. People are free to set up their own businesses, to travel, to import and export things, they are free to associate. But equally they are also free to commit all kinds of terrible atrocities. They are not free to do it but it is freely done.


I think you will also have to acknowledge that Iraq now has better official relations with the rest of the world. There are very many people coming and going from Iraq. It was cut off, shut off and treated as a pariah while Saddam Hussein was there. But there is a  monumental task of reconstruction.


To some extent that has begun, helped thankfully by the extremely high oil price. And the oil is being exported by those who would like to sabotage the pipelines and to wreck the chances for reconstruction. Money is coming in. It is not a question of money for Iraq’s future. It is a question of will, tolerance and liveability in a country that has been all but shattered.


The important thing is political will. Is there the political will among Iraqis to make the country function as a single unit? I don’t think that is absolutely clear yet. It is quite clear that certain parts of Iraq do function quite well as a unit, particularly Kurdistan in the north, where things are largely, quietly beginning to improve. There is a clear sense that the Kurds feel they have their own destiny in their hands, something they haven’t had for a very long time.


And given the fact that they are constantly threatened by Turkey’s unease – Turkey wishing to have a go at the PKK and occasionally invading Kurdistan. They do have a certain amount of protection, legitimacy and self determination and that is something that they are not going to lose.


There is also a feeling in the south that the oppression from the centre has largely ended. There is a largely Shia government in Baghdad and the discrimination against the Shia in the south is ending.


On the other hand you have the problem of the disaffected Sunni minority and all the other minority groups  that feel things have become very much worse for them. You also have the confrontation between the various gangs who are vying for control of the money, particularly in the south. That is what we have seen recently. The control of the money.


The oil wealth is potentially enormous and a clear indication of whether Iraq will function as a political unit is whether or not those large communities in Iraq, the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunni are willing to share the oil wealth equitably. There are large doubts about this. The laws were not passed for some time. There was the feeling that the money was being unfairly taken by some groups and not shared with others and there was a real worry in the centre, particularly among the Sunni community, that if the money was not fairly shared out then the profits would go to the north and they would be well off. Those in the south would also receive their share and the centre part would not have the money to repair the devastation which is greatest in the centre, not simply as a result of the war but as a result of the civil strife that has happened since then.


Now there has been amazingly in the recent weeks and months a series of agreements by the government to pull their resources, to pull together and not to think in terms of communities but in terms of  Iraqis as a members of one single country. The danger of Iraq splitting apart is receding. I won’t say it is gone but the danger is less. There was a very real fear that if the violence continued, if the  continued struggles by various groups and factions were out of control then in the end the country would fall apart and there would be no way of rebuilding it as a single unit.


To a large extent what happens on the ground – political will – will determined what happens. Also the kind of level of security that we see on the ground. Not good at the moment but marginally improving. The Americans will say it is because of the surge, the surge is working wonderfully, violence is  right down and we see an immediate effect.


Well do we? The car bomb that went off today killed 40 people and wounded 70. That was a figure I saw this morning. It may have gone up. It is not the only car bomb and although violence has gone down considerably it is still there. The question is whether the surge – whether the large number of foreign troops will actually prevent violence from recurring or whether it is simply a temporary measure which gives the Iraqi army a little more confidence to patrol a little more effectively.  This is not clear.


There clearly isn’t at the moment any question of withdrawing more troops either British or American. The numbers may go down to a certain extent but whether the Iraqi army  and the police gets on top of the situation is the key issue. The question is not whether the Iraqi police get on top of the situation but whether they do so fairly. There is a real worry that the police have been infiltrated by partisan groups and the hope is that they will exercise their authority as a police force should.


The evidence is that things are slowly getting better on the ground both in terms of security and the economy, in the rebuilding and in the realisation by a number of people that the suicide bombings and the violence is purely destructive. We have seen only today that various groups have announced that they are determined to resist foreign terrorists and that outsiders should be excluded from the conversation and the struggle about Iraq’s future. That is in every way a very encouraging sign. Whatever one thinks  about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the war, indeed of the occupation or the presence of foreign troops I don’t think anyone  with a humanitarian view  could seriously argue that it is legitimate for terrorists from outside to kill innocent people with car bombs as a way of furthering political aims.


Even those who felt marginalised and shut away from the political decision-making have now realised that the agenda of Al Qaeda,  this rather shadowy, indeterminate unclear group and its followers, is purely nihillistic. It is not an agenda that will bring religious security. Faith groups will not feel more certain nor will political groups be empowered by indiscriminate killings. And there is a clear evidence that in certain provinces some of the tribal leaders have come to the same conclusion.


What happens on the ground is also largely determined by what happens outside. One has to look at the three key horses from outside that matter. The first one is America. The Americans  are there. They are there in force and they are the country who will either ensure that Iraq maintains its unity as a country or they will pull out if the political pressures are such that they will leave whatever the situation in Iraq.


Now it is hard to argue that Americans should stay indefinitely. No one is arguing that. The question is at what pace should the troops be withdrawn and should there be a different external force to replace them to guarantee security? At what pace they are withdrawn depends on the domestic situation in America and who wins the coming presidential election. If McCain wins it is pretty clear there won’t be much change to the stragegy at the moment which seems to be hang on, keep up the strength  and the numbers until what looks like some better kind of political environment is in place. This is just hoping  for the best and not a succesful strategy that would guarantee  Iraq a pathway to democracy or a harmonious future. That is the strategy outlined by the Republicans. It is largely building on George Bush’s policies of  trying to avoid in some way what went wrong with those policies, namely the very poor implementation of the aftermath of the war.


For the Democrats both contenders have spoken about the need for a faster withdrawal. Both Olbama and Hilary Clinton would ensure that the numbers come down farily rapidly. Whether any force replaces the Americans is yet to be determined. If the Iraqi government feels that  it  would be left vulnerable by the lack of visible security there may be a new appeal to the United Nations to step in and fill the vacuum.


But the United Nations would be extremely reluctant to do that because the UN has had a pretty poor experience in Iraq. And the UN believes it is not there to do America’s or the British dirty work. It is not there to pick up the pieces left by the mess created by the war. But the UN is meant to be the organisation that ensures peace, stability and security. There is no point blaming others and saying you did it you clear it up. That is not what the United Nations is for. The UN is to focus the world’s efforts on improving situations  that are bad and clearly Iraq is a case where the UN could, and I would argue should, do something.


But the UN is not particularly brave and there is a rather unpleasant situation facing the UN particularly after their headquarters was bombed, one of their senior officials was killed and the UN is as much a target in the sights  of Al Qaeda as the Americans.  So a return by the UN would  not necessarily be guaranteed and would be dependent on what the Iraqi government itself wanted.


There is another very large – probably the determining factor – and that is Iran. Iran has won this war.  There is no way of expressing it in any other terms. The outcome has been highly satisfactory for Iran. First of all Saddam Hussein has been removed which is what the Iranians wanted all along. They did not want to remove him. They are quite happy that someone  else should pay the price,  take the blame and incur all the problems. And that country is obviously America. It suits Iran extremely well that Saddam is not there. It also suits Iran extremely well that  their co-religionists  are the majority group in the government and there is clearly an understanding between the Iraqi Shias and the Iranian government.


It would be a mistake to over-estimate the political closeness of the Iraqis and the Iraniains. The Iraqis even though they share the Shia faith with their co-religionists in Iran have shown that they do not see eye to eye with Iran on all things. There is a feeling in Iraq, as there is throughout the the Gulf, that Iranian nationalism is the driving force dominating the behaviour of the government in Iran. When I spoke to the  prime minister of  Qatar last year about how he saw the Iranian government moving he said I have been dealing with Iran for twenty years and they think we are the Persian empire, somewhere over there is the Roman empire and in between is the desert with no one living there.  This is a kind of old fashioned view that could have been expressed a thousand years ago to people living in the Gulf. Looking at Iran that is the feeling they get right now.


Iraq is clearly not an empty desert. It is an ancient civilisation, as ancient as Iran. Nevertheles the Iranians have something of a superiority complex in viewing the Gulf. They feel it is their Gulf, the Persian Gulf they still call  it. And it is a region where the Iranian voice should be dominant. And it certainly is dominant.


Iranian  diplomacy is extremely skilful. They know when to apply the brake, when to apply the accelerator, when to cause trouble and when to be co-operative. And it must depend on what their motives are. At times they can be extremely un-coperative and make things difficult. And this is very easy to do. You simply channel weapons to what ever groups is causing the Americans the most trouble and you give the Iraqi government a hard time. If things are going a bit better than the Iranian government would indicate some kind of positive response to the American pleas to Iran to come and talk about what to do in Iraq. There have been those pleas and to some extent the Iranians have responded.


There has also been a considerable reduction in the amount of weaponry going across to insurgents in Iraq and that has been an indication that Iran would welcome a role as guarantor of stability in Iraq. It is also the case that Iran is somewhat bemused by the conflicts between the various Shia groups in Iraq. These are conflicts for influence and for power.


The friends of Iran, either the Badr group or SCIRI that would  listen to Iran have found that they have been challenged by Moqtada Al Sadr and other groups who believe that Iran should not call the shots in the way it has done and the Iranians are loathe to intervene and to sort out inter-Shia disputes . They would like to see an Iraqi government that is both friendly and  to some extent, respectful of the opinions in Iran.


In Iran itself there is a conflict going on about how foreign policy should be conducted. Iran is an extraordinarily lively and I would say tumultuous democracy. It is not a democracy where everyone is free to say what they want but beneath the surface there are tremendous struggles for influence and power. It is simply not between those who want Western style democracy – there is very little of that – it is between those who would like a more nationalistic expression of policy, particularly those who are pushing for a nuclear weapon and those who want a more pragmatic kind of policy.


There is the feeling that Ahmedinjad is the prisoner of the hardliners. Well not simply the prisoner but he is the leader of the hardliners not only in terms of enforcing a very strict interpretation of Islamic law but hardliners in terms of their policies towards the West and Iran’s neighbours and really  representatives of rather crude Iranian nationalism.


On the other hand there are a number of people who take a much more pragmatic approach and believe that Iran cannot be isolated from the rest of the world indefinitely, would welcome an opening to the West and would be influenced by public opinion in Iran which curiously, and paradoxically is probably more pro-American then anywhere else in the Middle East. This is simply because it is a reaction against a government that wishes to keep control. So the youth in Iran is very American orientated while the government is still very keen to maintain a frosty distance from America.


The trick for Western diplomats is to widen the differences between Ahmedinjad and the pragmatists in Iran. You do that by a combination of pressure and inducements. You make it clear that there will be no reward for Iran as long as they  keep up a hostile policy and are not co-operative in Iraq. At the same time you make it clear that if Iran was to agree to a much more helpful posture towards Iraq and generally elsewhere towards the Arab world and towards the obvious question of the nuclear potential then the Western markets and everything else would open up. Iran would be back particularly in the area that really matters in world sport. They are there but there is the fear that because of the political threat a sports boycott could keep Iran out. That’s the one boycott that would probably have some effect inside Iran. Nothing else that I can think of would but that would. It would certainly hurt public opinion.


Trying to widen that split means keeping up a certain amount of pressure but not too much.  Any threat of overt pressure, any military threat, would be absolutely disastrous. Not just the threat but actual action would be disastrous. It is a real worry. Whether or not the rhetoric of Ahmedinjad and others is so goading that President Bush and his allies or the Israelis would take a pre-emptive strike on the grounds of trying to knock out Iran’s nuclear potential before Bush leaves office or within the next few months remains to be seen.  Such a thing would rally all the moderate Iranians around the government of Ahmedinjad and that would mean that the chances of making an accommodation with Iran would be absolutely zero.


But Iran would strike back very quickly and where it would strike back immediately would be in Iraq. And indeed the Iranians told me just that. I was at a meeting hosted by the Bahraini ambassador of a senior foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader. And he said quite openly  that all the Americans in Iraq are our hostages. If they try anything against us we will immediately hit them. And it is absolutely clear that they will.  It would not simply be attacks on American forces; it would be an attempt to destabilise the whole country. It would be an enormous destabilising effort to wreck Iraq’s structures and to make it ungovernable simply because this would be a way of humiliating, embarrassing and driving the Americans out of the region altogether. That would be the first repost – it would not be the only one – after a military strike.


Those issues must weigh up quite strongly in America at present and in the White House there is a real battle going on between the hardliners that are left – quite a few of them have gone with their tails between their legs because it is clear that their policies have not been very successful. There are some hardliners left – Dick Cheney for one – some pragmatists who feel that Mr Bush must have some achievements in the region to show for his legacy before he leaves office. They are the ones warning the President against any military step. My feeling is that it is unlikely that America would take  military action now, particularly after the publication of the pooled intelligence report which  said that appears that  Iran has halted efforts to produce a nuclear weapon.


A lot of  people are saying that that report is as badly wrong as the original report that said that Iraq had
weapons of mass destruction. Who really knows? But the effect of the publication of that report was to cut the ground from underneath the militants feet. It is extremely unlikely,  given the public declaration that Iran does not appear to be moving towards a nuclear weapon,  that the Americans would feel justified in  launching an attack. But whether the Israelis felt they could do it on their own is another matter. They are to some extent an unpredictable force in this. The Israelis feel that Iran is  a deeply hostile force and one that is threatening to their very existence. They feel that whatever the temporary difficulties they are having over resolving Gaza, or Lebanon or relations with Syria or any of that it is nothing they feel compared to the threat they feel they face from  Iran.


So even a weak prime minister like Olmert does see the need to use military force against Iran as paramount if the threat is  deemed sufficiently dangerous. And there are conflicting Israeli intelligence reports of who far advanced  Iran is in its nuclear developments and what the Israeli response should be.


Equally however it is unlikely that Israel would go ahead without something of a green light from America. They wouldn’t launch a military strike that would be catastrophic in terms of the military balance in terms of regional peace and would have profound effects for months if not years if there was no sanction. That doesn’t look at the moment as if it is going to come.


I have spoken about the outside force of America and Iran. Who else is involved? There is one group that ought to be involved and isn’t and that is Iraq’s neighbours. They have virtually shut their eyes to the whole problem. They have felt that this something that they did not want, they do not like the chaos, they do not want it spilling over into their countries, they don’t want to have anything to do with it. And they certainly do not want to get involved in the reconstruction effort because this would suggest that Arab governments are joining the Americans in trying to do something about Iraq which then leaves the Arab governments to the hated Americans. And that would not be popular with Arab public opinion.


There has been a cowardly reaction on the part of most Arab governments which is simply to say and do nothing. There have been appeals by many in Iraq for both aid and support and a kind of involvement to the challenges facing Iraq. The response has been a complete silence. There are hints that if things get very bitter and divisive some Arab governments would intervene on behalf of some groups. There is a suggestion that Saudi Arabia would not hesitate to come to the rescue of the Sunni community if the Saudis felt the Sunnis were really being harassed, bypassed or marginalised. They have more or less that they would intervene but that would not be a very helpful intervention. It could possible simply exacerbate divisions inside Iraq.


Other countries: Jordan has offered some economic help and they have also offered training. There is a certain amount of training going on of Iraqi military and others. But Jordan doesn’t want to get burnt. It had its fingers burnt several times by Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein their was a very lucrative and useful economic relationship. That  it all went wrong and left Jordan with a huge recession. They are now burdened with a huge Iraqi refugee population which is causing considerable strain in Jordan not just because of the numbers. The real worry for Jordan is a simple one: there is not enough water in Amman to support the size of the refugee population that they have got. So Jordan would like to see Iraq stabilised so that as many refugees as possible go home. And to a large extent the Syrians would like to see that as well.


But the Syrians are not doing much to help that stabilisation. It is the old thing the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Syria’s enemy to some extent is America which is putting pressure on Syria. America’s enemy are the insurgents and Syria says if we help the insurgents that will help keep the Americans out of our backyard. That is not a very good logic but it has meant that the Syrians  have not been very active in stopping outsiders infiltrating from their border. Every time America gets really angry about this and starts making trouble, the Syrians do close the border more tightly and there is a little more supervision. But I can’t say that it is a particularly constructive effort that is helping Iraq and the Syrians have not yet made a formal visit to Iraq. That is something that would give or should give the government there legitimacy at least in terms of the Arab world.


It is quite hard to know really whether Al Maliki’s government has any legitimacy in the region. Many people feel that because it is to a large extent a sectarian, Shia-dominated government a recognition  of it and co-operation with it will only increase the Sunni-Shia divisions in their own countries. This is the  real worry in the Middle East. The Sunni-Shia divisions  have not been very marked. Many people say these are new divisions. We never had this before it never used to exist, it  has all been stirred up by Western intervention. As a result we now have tense situations in a number of countries between groups that used to get on extremely well. And that is true. And whether or not it is the fault of America or it is because of Iraq, those tensions have now been imported into the region, which is extremely unfortunate.


But the response of the region has been can we not build a kind of wall around Iraq, protect ourselves and protect our civil society from these divisions. That is why I say that the Arab neighbourhood which could have done more, has done very little. The Gulf states in particular have done very little because they are simply frightened a) of Iran and b) Iraq is much more numerous. If the troubles of Iraq were to spill over, if there were huge movements of refugees it would be the Gulf states which might suffer. There is not much willlingness to admit to their wealthy zones large numbers of poor Iraqis. That rather rules out the neighbourhood which is a pity and makes recovery all the more difficult.


What then about the rest of the world? What about Western Europe? It is to some extent in the same position as the rest of the Arab neighbourhood. Namely they don’t want to know about it. They would rather shut their eyes and leave that problem alone. That is America’s  problem and to a lesser extent Britain’s problem. And most West European governments have withdrawn their troops from Iraq. They say they believe that things are getting better and that their troops are not needed. That is the excuse given. The real reason is that public opinion was deeply hostile to the war in the first place and did not see why they should send troops to Iraq that couldn’t obviously change the situation. And they would be the targets of suicide bombers. And that is what has happened. So one by one we have seen countries such as Poland, Italy, Spain the Ukraine etc have withdrawn them.  It has not been followed up with very much economic aid. That would be useful. Economic help, reconstructuion help, expertise.


Of course all of this does depend on the overall security situation. But it is chicken and egg. Which do you do first? If you improve the economic outlook for Iraq the security situation will probably improve. As people feel richer, more safe, more stable they are able to get on with their lives and resume the kind of development of things they had before. If there is constant sabotage of the pipelines and the electricity which is is the aim of the extremists to make the country ungovernable, then people will feel in chaos and there will be very little possibility of re-developing Iraq into the thriving, rich country that potentially it could be.


The Europeans have not been very interested in doing anything. They are saying it is up to the United Nations. There would be a European willingness to support a massive UN operation in Iraq both in terms of security and in terms of development if it was wanted. But again it boils down to what does the Iraqi government itself now want? The European view is that this is a sovereign government. It is a government that is no longer interim or temporary or wholy subservient to the occupation forces. It has been elected, it is free to make its own decisions.


The problem is that the government of Iraq at the moment is not very good at making any very difficult decisions. It still hasn’t got the backing of  all the different communities in Iraq. It has made more difficult decisions then it did but not very many.


So in summary the whole thing looks as if there is potential for recovery and development but it depends  on the political calcuations not only of the different factions in Iraq but of those around: of the Arabs, the Americans, the Arab neighbourhood and of the United Nations itself. To what extent is it willing to give Iraq a new chance. I think that in the end it will improve, I don’t think it will happen quickly. It will not be a sudden development nor will  there  be any sudden reduction in violence. That is not going to happen. Too many people have an interest in the present chaos. It will get better as people get wary of fighting and as the old human instinct for living together and forgetting the past comes into play. Thank you.


Karen Dabrowska: Thank you very much to Saeed  Shehabi and Fatima for inviting me to address this open discussion meeting and thank you all for coming. I hope my book will be worthy of a review in the Times. I am very sorry my co-author Geoff Hann can’t be with us – he is leading a trip to Afghanistan. Geoff also leads trips to Iraqi Kurdistan and when the security situation permits he will resume his archaeological tours of Iraq. I will pass around some information about these trips along with a flyer for the book Iraq: Then And Now.


Matter a fact open discussions were held in Baghdad during the time of the caliph Mamum  812 –833AD. As well as being a ruler he was also a religious scholar and the second of the only two caliphs in Islamic history who knew the Koran  by heart.  Under his reign one day a week was always set apart at court for literary, scientific or philosophical discussion. ‘Advance thine arguments’, said the caliph one day at the opening of a session for religious debate. ‘and answer without fear for there is none here that will not speak thee well’. If there was a dispute between the Sunnis and the Shias another Baghdad caliph brought the leaders of the two communities to his court and  told them to sort it. If they didn’t sort it he would tie them both together and throw them in the Tigris. And what do you know? They sorted it!


One of the tragedies of the conflicts in Baghdad and Iraq today is that between  the coalition and the people they are occupying  there is no open discussion.  Jonathan Steele devotes a whole book (Defeat Why They Lost Iraq) to the issue of the total lack of understanding between the Iraqis, the Americans and the British who could not grasp the fact that they are seen as occupiers not liberators and that they are not wanted.


            They had the wrong template. Most thought it would be like the successful American occupation of Germany and Japan in 1945, which met no resistance and went on peacefully for years. Some took their analogies from post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe. They saw Saddam’s Iraq as a one-party state with a state-controlled economy like Poland or Bulgaria. The solution seemed formulaic: remove the dictator, ban his party, and open the door to private enterprise and you begin the transition to a western style democracy and free market economics. The only opposition would come from a few ideologues and Saddamists.
            The fact that Iraq was in the Middle East seemed to escape Washington’s notice. The Bush administration did not understand that Arabs feel great sensitivity to assaults on their honour, dignity and independence, especially by Westerners. Most occupations fail. In the Middle East they fail absolutely.


Many excellent books have been published since 2003: The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, Alawi, Ali,  The Occupation War and Resistance in Iraq Cockburn, Patrick,  Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing Iraq Stewart, Rory, and many more. So why have I written another one?


The short answer is because the publishers, Bradt Travel Guides, saw a demand in the American market. Iraq: The Bradt Travel Guide was published in 2002 and after the change in 2003 people in America were saying that’s  all well and good but Saddam has gone now  – where is the next edition?  And for three years Bradt kept saying we are a travel publisher, and  with the exception of Iraqi Kurdistan its not possible to travel to Iraq so we can’t publish a travel guide. And then they changed their minds and said we will publish a guide to the country and its people with some travel information.


Iraq Then And Now differs from the hundreds of  books published since 2003 because it deals with events in Iraq since the times of the Sumerians to the  post-Saddam Iraq era. Its very easy to get bogged down in the tragedies of  the past  30 years,  which Abdul Malik a convert to Shism described as from Saddam’s tyranny to the gates of  hell and to forget that  many magnificent civilisations have flourished  in  Iraq and the country has always risen  ashes. I was talking to an Iraqi diplomat and he said the Americans are in  Iraq now so what?  What’s five years in terms of history? The Abbasids ruled for 500 years.


It was announced today that £350m have been allocated to reconstruction and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. In Basra it is the light of the oncoming train which has now resumed its Baghdad service. And, mother of all surprises, the economy is doing well, real estate and construction is booming, there are 34,000 registered companies. But ten hospitals can be opened and they don’t make as much news as one bomb going off.


So when we talk about then lets not limit our horizon to Saddam and after.  Iraq is the land where writing began, where zero was introduced into mathematics, and where the tales of the thousand and one nights were told.


In 1900BC Hamarubi developed his famous code of 282  laws ‘so that the strong do not oppress the weak’.. So who do the Americans think they are talking to when they talk about bringing democracy to Iraq.


How many of us realise that our superstitious impulse to turn back when a black cat crosses our path stems from the people of Babylon? Do they come to mind when we look at the twelve divisions on our watch-face, when we buy eggs by the shock (sixty), when we look up at the stars to read our fate in their movements and conjunctions?



Iraq was the home of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the mythical Tower of  Babel. Splendid mosques and palaces were built by rulers who insisted on nothing but the most magnificent. Through trade Iraq absorbed the best of what its neighbours had to offer and incorporated the innovations of others into its own unique civilisation. In the 20th century Arab nationalism was nourished in Iraq – it was the first independent Middle Eastern state.


When I discussing this book with Hilary Bradt the publisher she said: ‘Karen, if you want a book to sell there are two things you have to remember: the animals and the children. So what about the animals?


In mid 2007 monster honey badgers weighing 30lbs  appeared in Basra. The rumour mill became active and the  British were held responsible for releasing the creatures to frighten the locals.  The honey badger is one of the world’s most fearless creatures which preys on jackals, antelope, foxes, crocodiles and snakes. Its numbers are increasing as the marshlands are being re-flooded. Major David Gell, the British Army spokesman in Basrah  denied rumours that his forces had anything to do with the spread of the badgers. (They have also been accused of releasing serpents eggs into the Shatt  Al Arab waterway).


And the children? Raghda Zaid sent me this comment through the Iraq-in-Common yahoo discussion forum:  When Saddam’s government collapsed most of the Iraqis felt happy because they thought it would be the beginning of a new better life for them but they were wrong. At first everything went so well, I could actually travel outside Iraq to see the world for the first time in my life. Not long after that things went bad. Horrible things started happening, like kidnappings and explosions. Iraqis started to disappear. We couldn’t go out walking or even driving. We were afraid of getting killed with no mercy. Those bad people who were allowed to enter our country after the invasion started to control our lives and even told us what to wear and what not to wear. After that we did what most Iraqis did and left. Iraqis have a voice and no one wants to hear it.  I have a strong desire to save Iraq and bring life to it again but I am only 16 years old and no one will listen to me. I hope that our ‘leaders’ will wake up one day and actually start leading’.


Like Raghda we are here tonight because we care about Iraq.  History is undecided. We should  all set aside the psychology of failure,  the mentality of defeat, the feeling of impotence and be confident that we can make a difference.


Michael has given us an analysis of what’s happening in Iraq at present and  I would like to share a few more comments from Iraqi’s themselves.  Lets start with the north where the post-Saddam generation is not hung up on the terrible history. Mivan Majid is  the Kurdish dream personified. She had never known a day under the rule of Baghdad. Suleimaniyah, her hometown has been under unbroken Kurdish control since 1992, the very year of her birth. She wants to be an engineer, "because they build such cool things: houses, roads, shopping centers. It’s like, when you’re an engineer you don’t get hung up on our terrible history. You look ahead."
The founder of Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far Al-Mansour called it the city of peace but the story of the city is largely the story of continuous war. Where there is not war, there is pestilence, famine and civil disturbance. Such is the paradox which cynical history has written across the high aims implied in the name bestowed upon the city of her founder!
Saddam Hussein once said Baghdad is such a secure city a dog can’t bark without me knowing about it.  Today security is in short supply, like the electricity. We have all heard about the Mehdi army and the Awakening forces but there are no less than 28 militias in the city. The city is a collection of hostile Sunni and Shia ghettoes divided by high concrete walls. Different districts even have different national flags. Sunnis use the old Iraqi flag and the Shias a newer version.


Abbas, a driver who lives in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, describes his daily battle against rubbish, rats and the fear of explosions and gunfire. I live in a house in Sadr City, in the east of Baghdad. I work as a driver. The entire house has three rooms, in which  15 people live  – myself, my wife, 11 children, and my son’s wife and children. Most of us in Sadr City feel that the only institution which has ever really served the people here is the Mehdi Army. In the first month of chaos after the war they brought people food and drinking water and protected hospitals from looters.

And then there is the bravest ice cream seller in Baghdad. When  militants demanded he close because there had been no ice cream in the time of the prophet Muhammad he told them that he would stop selling ice cream when they rode up on camels to threaten him. There were no BMW’s in the time of prophet Muhammad either”.


If the Prophet Muhammed would come to Basra today he would be killed because he doesn’t have a militia. There is no state of  law,  the only law is the militia law. A Basrah law professor, tells us.


What have they done to us asks Um Mohammed? “Everything in my city has been looted, stolen and burnt. Basrah used to be full of life. Now, everything is black. Women are compelled to wear black robes and veils. My life has become black. Everything is forbidden now: laughter, coloured clothes, music, walking in the markets, going to the parks. And the British, who came in the name of liberating, just watch it all, smiling”.


And what’s happening in Qurnah site of the Garden of Eden? It  is now covered in concrete crazy paving and the tree of life is dead. If you want an apple you have to buy it from the market nearby!.”


I know I am standing between you and a excellent dinner so let me just say a few words about the looting of archaeological sites and the refugee crisis.


More than 100 Sumerian tells have been destroyed by looters since the beginning of the war. It’s a disaster that we all keep watching but about which we can do little says Abdul Amir Hamadani an archaeologist from Nasiriyah.  We are incapable of stopping the looting. We are five archaeologists, some hundred guards and occasionally a couple of policemen – and they are a million armed looters, backed by their tribes and the dealers.


But before we condemn the Iraqis for destroying their heritage let us remember that life in the desert is hard and  the people have been abandoned by the government. A cylinder seal, a sculpture or a cuneiform tablet earns $50 (£25) and that’s half the monthly salary of an average government employee in Iraq. The looters have been told by the traders that if an object is worth anything at all, it must have an inscription on it.  Preserving the cradle of civilisation from an early grave is not a priority for the coalition – but they found time to remove the mural of George Bush  which anyone entering the Al Rashid Hotel was forced to step on but not to stop the looting of the Iraq Museum.

Four million Iraqis have been forced to flee from their homes in fear – the biggest mass exodus since the Second World War. Two million have fled abroad while the remainder are internally displaced persons. In Britain 1,400 rejected Iraqi asylum seekers have been told that unless they sign up for a voluntary  return programme they face being made homeless and loosing state support. The UNHCR said its policy was that returns of asylum seekers to central and southern Iraq and for some categories to the north was not advisable because of the continuing conflict.


I will end as I began with the animals.The story of the rescue of the zoo has been told in Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue Of the Baghdad Zoo by Lawrence Anthony. The hissing 7ft ostriches were marched through ‘shoot-to-kill’ road blocks as gawping American soldiers raised their machine guns and yelled ‘Halt!’. ‘As we ran past the tanks I had to shout, ‘Sorry, we can’t stop’. Even with one man holding on to each wing the birds were barely controllable. “We didn’t have tranquillisers and while we’d persuaded one bird into an armoured carrier – with its head poking out of the top – we had to run others through the streets. It’s a miracle we weren’t shot’.



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