Coda: Amateur Archaeology in Iraq

IN JULY OF 2007 my old magazine the New Statesman made an attempt to embarrass me by reprinting an article I had written from Iraq in early 1976. In those days, ran the snide prologue to the reproduction, “Young Hitchens saw Saddam as an up-and-coming secular socialist who would transform Iraq into a progressive model for the rest of the Middle East.” The implied accusation—of a U-turn or even of a turned coat—bothered me not at all. I had long since learned to ask John Maynard Keynes’s question: “When the facts change then my opinion changes: and you, sir?” But I was nonetheless conscious of two conflicting desires. The first was to point out that my original essay hadn’t got it all that wrong. The second was to give an account of how I had, in fact, almost completely reversed my opinion—and of how long such a process can take, and how painful it can be.

Iraq in March of 1976 was eight years into the rule of the Ba’ath Party. The nominal president Ahmad Hassan Abu Bakr, whose ugly face was on all the posters and banners, was understood to be terminally ailing from diabetes. Now and then, and always phrased in careful and oblique tones, one heard talk of his vice president Saddam Hussein, seemingly the head of the party’s security apparatus. “Make a note of the name,” I wrote in my dispatch, adding that “as the situation grows more complicated Saddam Hussein will rise more clearly to the top.” I am not so embarrassed to have written that—unless it be embarrassment for my rather leaden prose. But leaden prose always tends to be a symptom of other problems and if I am honest I think I can reconstruct the cause of my own langue de bois.

It was my second visit to Iraq and I knew approximately four things about the country. The first was that it had been a British colonial invention, carved out between the other arbitrary frontiers of the post-Ottoman Middle East, between Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. This meant that, as a British socialist, I had an instinctive sympathy with its nationalists. The second thing I knew was that it had a large Kurdish minority, and that the rights of this minority had long been a major cause of the Left. The third thing I knew was that the Ba’ath Party, which called itself socialist, was at least ostensibly secular and not religious. The fourth thing I knew was that the casinos and brothels and nightclubs of London, just then awash in Gulf Arab clientele after the free-for-all of the post-1973 oil embargo, did not tend to feature droves of greedy Iraqis throwing their country’s wealth away on drink and harlots. On the visible evidence, partly confirmed to me by guarded British diplomats at the Alwiyah Club near the River Tigris, Iraq was using its immense national income to create a serious infrastructure—of building and development, but also of health and welfare.[60]

My friend Gavin Young, the great travel writer and gay ex-Guardsman, had told me of the Marsh Arabs of the southern wetlands, pursuing an antique manner of life that still had strong biblical trace elements to it, but when I mentioned my wish for a visit down there, the relevant Iraqi officials steadfastly stonewalled me and tried to put me off. “Why do you want to see backwardness? We are a modern country now.” This dimly jogged my memory of visitors to the USSR being taken to see tractor factories while collectivization was ravaging the countryside, but in truth I slightly prefer the city to the countryside and meanwhile I had found myself an extraordinary companion of the urban sort.

My first meeting with Mazen al-Zahawi was, I would say, unpropitious. In return for a visa, the Ba’athists insisted on providing me with a “guide.” Many regimes do this as a means of keeping visiting scribes under control: you may sometimes escape a “minder” but there’s an art and a science to it and it can take time. As I stood in line at Baghdad Airport for my passport to be stamped, I could see a group of people waiting on the other side of the barrier and instantly made up my mind which one I hoped would not be for me. He was sallow, morose-looking, and wearing dark glasses indoors: a thoroughly bad sign. A secret-police or Mukhabarat type, bored and resentful and hard to shake. As I passed through the barrier he stepped softly forward and gave me a soggy, insipid handshake.

I can’t remember how we passed the time in the car—there was a chauffeur, in front of whom he was icily silent—but we got to the hotel and he said he’d let me check in and then meet me in the bar. I took my time. When I eventually pulled myself onto the neighboring stool, it was in order to feign exhaustion and to see if perhaps I might take an uninvigilated walk in the city while he thought I was napping. But he took off his shades, leaned toward me, placed his hand firmly on my knee and said: “I believe we are going to be such friends. My own little circle tells me that I am an exact blend of Adolf Hitler and Oscar Wilde.” If I say that I suddenly noticed how faultless his English was, I say the least of it. “Are you a member of the drinking classes?” he went on, gesturing effectively to the attendant. “I thought so. Later on we shall repair to my home. I shall play you my personal tape of The Importance of Being Earnest. I am of course Gwendolyn. The part of Lady Bracknell is taken by Gavin Young.” I think I can claim this as one of the more original introductions of an outsider to Ba’ath Party internal affairs.

Mazen did not at all disappoint. He took me to his family home near the banks of the Tigris, which proved to be the former house of Hitler’s envoy to Iraq at the time of the pro-Nazi coup in favor of Rashid Ali in 1941, a coup that, as I was to learn, had been supported by the political ancestors of the Ba’ath. There was a rather squawking home-made recording of Wilde’s three-act masterpiece, in which Gavin’s booming baritone and Mazen’s lilting response could be discerned. It all rather conformed to Susan Sontag’s speculations about “camp” and “fascinating fascism.” I wondered uneasily what Gavin had told Mazen about me: Young was one of those old queens who believes that deep down all men are queer as clockwork oranges. But Mazen’s own double life proved to be much more subtle and convoluted than that.

For one thing, he was by ancestry half-Kurdish. This was nothing special on its own; intermarriage between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, as between Sunni and Shi’a, used to be a commonplace. But Iraq had just emerged from a bitter border war with the Shah of Iran, in which Henry Kissinger had used the Kurdish militias in the north as a proxy against Baghdad and then famously abandoned them, to be massacred on the hillsides, in order to seal a deal with the Shah. This had opened Iraqi Kurds to the charge of disloyalty, bad enough at any time, and also of being tools of Iran and its ally Israel, which was even worse. But it wasn’t enough for Mazen to be half-Kurdish and (by night) all gay. During the rest of the working day he was on call to be one of the interpreters for Saddam Hussein. I had frequently met homosexuals who liked to live dangerously or on thin ice but this was the most daring feat of sociopolitical cross-dressing I had encountered to date.

Together we went to visit factories and dams and ministries—and mosques and museums and ziggurats—by day, and Baghdad’s demimonde at night. My friend Marina Warner, back in London, was thinking of writing an opera about the Gilgamesh legend, and Mazen arranged for me to meet a keeper of antiquities at Gertrude Bell’s National Museum to see if he might have anything useful to impart. (“Don’t be too tarty,” he warned me, I thought and hoped superfluously.) He repeated the same injunction when he asked me casually if I would care to meet Iraq’s nominee for the leadership of the Palestinian struggle.

I was increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinians by then, and was hoping that if any Arab state would outgrow the humiliation of the 1973 defeat by Israel, it would be a secular one and not a Saudi-type or otherwise theocratic manifestation, so I said “yes” without any particular reflection. Accordingly, I was taken to a villa to meet Sabri al-Banna, known as “Abu Nidal” (“father of struggle”), who was at the time emerging as one of Yasser Arafat’s main enemies. The meeting began inauspiciously when Abu Nidal asked me if I would like to be trained in one of his camps. No thanks, I explained. From this awkward beginning there was a further decline. I was then asked if I knew Said Hammami, the envoy of the PLO in London. I did in fact know him. He was a brave and decent man, who in a series of articles in the London Times had floated the first-ever trial balloon for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. “Well tell him he is a traitor,” barked my host. “And tell him we have only one way with those who betray us.” The rest of the interview passed as so many Middle Eastern interviews do: too many small cups of coffee served with too much fuss; too many unemployed heavies standing about with nothing to do and nobody to do it with; too much ugly furniture, too many too-bright electric lights; and much too much faux bonhomie. The only political fact I could winnow, from Abu Nidal’s vainglorious claims to control X number of “fighters” in Y number of countries, was that he admired the People’s Republic of China for not recognizing the State of Israel. I forget how I got out of his office.

Somewhat more intellectually testing was my encounter with the Iraqi Communist Party, then a real power in the state and in the society (and the only faction in Iraq which for secular and internationalist reasons did recognize the State of Israel). I was taken to its downtown offices, there to meet Dr. Rajim Ahina. It was amazing to see how closely he stuck to the party line on every detail. When I asked why the Communists had agreed to sit on the governing council with the Ba’athists who used to shoot them and torture them, he replied that Iraq under the Ba’ath had become the only Arab state to give diplomatic recognition to East Germany: a response almost as boring and dank as Abu Nidal on Beijing. But at this point Mazen did me a favor and left the room, abdicating for a while the role of “minder.” Dr. Ahina suddenly became less wooden and more animated. Many of the Party’s leaders and activists were being secretly arrested, he told me. Here was a list of their names, in English. Could I take it back with me to London? I slid the folded piece of paper into my inside pocket. A moment like that is obviously very much more eloquent and informative than any amount of choreographed question-and-answer.

Later that night Mazen took me to dinner on a houseboat on the Tigris to meet a man named Yahya Thanayan who owned his own printing press. This old boy, as I thought of him, had been in prison under every regime in Baghdad since the British. The worst of all, he told me, had been his imprisonment under the current one. He had received the personal attentions of the dreaded Nadim Kzar, head of the secret police (who had recently been executed as part of the process by which Saddam Hussein was annexing all such powers to himself). However, Thanayan went on, he nonetheless believed that the Ba’athist government was the best that the unhappy country had yet had to endure. He was a cultivated man and did not seem to be suffering from any gruesome repressed masochism. And Mazen, too, half-Kurdish as he was and absolutely not cut out for life in any sort of Sparta, seemed genuine in acknowledging the regime’s achievements. Oil had been nationalized and was not, as in neighboring Saudi Arabia or Iran, the property of a horde of venal monarchs and their princelings. Arab unity and secularism were being preached in the face of a tide of reaction sweeping the region.

So the article which I eventually wrote, while it certainly emphasized political repression, attempted to be fair on these points. Iraq was investing in its people; its constitution at least formally defined it as an Arab and Kurdish state (which was more than its NATO neighbor Turkey had ever done for its largest minority); it was modernizing and non-Islamic in its rhetoric. Yet I still grimaced when I re-read the piece, because what I left out was the most important thing of all: the X factor that was later summarized so well by the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya in the title of his book The Republic of Fear. What I omitted, because I didn’t really understand it, was the sheerly irrational. What I should have been noticing was hidden in the spaces between the ostensible words. I should have paid more attention to the way Dr. Ahina’s expression had changed when he found himself unobserved. I should have registered the way that people almost automatically flinched at the mention of the name Saddam Hussein. I should have been more observant when, taken to one of the vaunted new clinics of Baghdad after I briefly became ill, I had not been alone with the young doctor for upward of a minute when he asked me in a whisper if I could help him get out of the country. (Later on, reporters who had been in Baghdad would debate whether the fear was so palpable that you could cut it with a knife, or so thick that you could actually eat it.)

I followed developments in Iraq after I got home, and began belatedly to appreciate that I had been shown the way things were actually pointing. Saddam Hussein soon made himself president and not long after that launched an all-out assault on the Iraqi Communists, smashing his main rival to the Left with a campaign of arrests and torture that was a mere foretaste of things to come. He began to spend more of his country’s vast wealth on re-armament, clearly not intending to abide by the border truce he had signed with Iran. He also began to make Baghdad a haven for international gangsters. Just after New Year’s Day in 1978, hugely to my horror and dismay, an agent of Abu Nidal’s walked into the office of Said Hammami in Hay Hill in Mayfair and shot him dead. I had in fact gone to see Hammami on my return from London, and told him that this obscure Palestinian in Baghdad was making threatening noises at him. Said had shrugged—he had heard this kind of nasty bravado before. Now I was in the position, not just of having delivered a warning from a terrorist, but of having seen the threat explicitly carried out. This was the opening of an astonishing spree of murder and mayhem: in his day Abu Nidal’s name was almost as notorious as Osama bin Laden’s was later to become. He went on to bomb Rome and Vienna airports, and to assassinate several of Arafat’s more negotiation-minded lieutenants. Issam Sartawi, the PLO delegate to the Socialist International, was gunned down while talking to my friend Vassos Lyssarides, leader of the Socialist Party of Cyprus. Every time a possible “back channel” was opened between Israelis and Palestinians, a long arm would reach out from Iraq, and the Palestinian interlocutor would be slain.

Even Iraqis in London lived under the Republic of Fear. My main contact at the embassy was the cultural officer, Naji Sabry al-Hadithi. He was a fairly literate and civilized fellow with a wonderful feeling for English, and he would invite me to lavish lunches and once to an Iraqi soir?e musicale at his home. I invited him to dinner in turn at my crummy apartment in Islington and noticed after he had departed that he had left a bag behind. It turned out to contain a small rug, some Cuban cigars, some top-dollar single malt Scotch and a few other classy items: I could of course return them if I felt high-minded enough (I meant to, but I didn’t). This was interesting: I was a fairly junior writer on a small socialist weekly. What did the Iraqis do when they wanted to butter up more senior members of the media, or of other elements of the Establishment? I was later to find out. But before I could decide to start reducing my contact with Naji, he was recalled to Baghdad where first one and then two of his brothers had been accused of plotting against “the leadership.” One of them, a former envoy to Moscow, was very painfully killed. The other was very painfully treated but survived. Naji, who had such love for English, was put in charge of the regime’s English-language Baghdad Observer, an illiterate rag given over to the diffusion of menacing gibberish and abject leader-worship.

A small further inducement was offered to my magazine. The Iraqi embassy paid for a full-page advertisement, in which the Ba’athist regime offered all Iraqi Jews the right to come home and reclaim their property and citizenship. This attempt at restitution for the deportations and confiscations that had followed 1948—and the public hangings of Jews that had followed Israel’s victory in 1967—was no doubt as hypocritical as Saddam’s pro forma recognition of the Kurds. But at least it was the compliment that vice paid to virtue. In Baghdad I had sometimes teased Mazen by asking him how many Jews had accepted the offer and come back. “A trickle,” was his invariable reply, until one day he couldn’t keep it up anymore and said “not even Mr. Ben-Trickle has exercised his right of return.”

As the repression and terror in Iraq became more theatrically cruel, a group called CARDRI (Campaign for the Restoration of Democratic Rights in Iraq) was founded, by an old Communist friend of mine from Oxford named Fran Hazelton. It joined the list of many good causes from Chile to South Africa that drew the signatures of “Left” members of Parliament and intellectuals. I still have its archives and membership lists in my possession. But I admit that I let my own interest lapse a bit and that I wasn’t in any case able to get another visa to visit the country. I also stopped hearing from my former Iraqi friends as the pall over the country thickened and as the long insane war with Iran, launched by Saddam in 1979, with the support of the pious born-again creep Jimmy Carter, went pitilessly on. Under cover of this war, Saddam made a deliberate attempt at the extirpation of the Kurdish people by deploying weapons of mass destruction. He also began the building of a nuclear reactor at Osirak, badly hit but not destroyed by the Israelis in 1981. I kept in occasional touch with the Kurdish exile office in Washington, where by then I lived, and with some elements of the Iraqi Left. (My old Communist acquaintance Dr. Rajim Ahina managed to escape from Baghdad and died in London, where he is buried next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.)

In the spring of 1990 I flew from Washington to Aspen, Colorado, to attend a summit meeting between George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher. Mrs. Thatcher arrived seeming distinctly frazzled and out of sorts: the Bush administration was clearly leaning toward Chancellor Kohl’s reunified Germany as its new best friend in Europe, and her own good friend Ian Gow had been blown up by the Provisional IRA a few nights before. And then the entire picture was altered by one bold stroke: Saddam Hussein announced that the state of Kuwait, a member state of the United Nations, the Arab League, and many other international assemblies, had overnight become the nineteenth province of Iraq.

I spent that extraordinary weekend at Aspen in two minds and in two places. This was plainly a case of undisguised aggression and annexation, and one quaked to think what the civilians of Kuwait were undergoing. The Iraqi general in charge of the “operation,” I soon enough learned, was Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for his atrocities in Kurdistan. On the other hand, the Bush administration had been telling the Iraqis that it was neutral in the long-standing border dispute between Baghdad and the Kuwaiti royal family, and as between Ba’athists and feudal emirs there didn’t seem to be that much worth fighting over. It was true that Saddam Hussein had not long before employed poison gas against what President Bush insultingly persisted in calling “his own” people, but it was likewise true that the war material for this outrage had been supplied by the Reagan administration.

I have to admit, also, and with shame, that my own personal animosity against Bush was a factor in itself. I had simply detested the way in which he had lied his way as vice president through the Iran-contra scandal, cringe-makingly claiming to have been “out of the loop” while the White House ran an off-the-books private government based on illegal profits from the Ayatollah and some Central American mobsters. And I had coldly hated the way in which he won the 1988 election, allowing his less fastidious operators to smear the wretched Michael Dukakis with racist innuendo about Willie Horton. During the day in Aspen I hung out with my press colleagues and attended the increasingly bellicose high-level briefings at which Mrs. Thatcher shed all her earlier gloom and began to puff out like the ruff of some great cat in her enthusiasm for a fight. Here was an area of the world where the British had bases and traditions and expertise: What price fatboy Helmut Kohl now? One felt one could actually see her inserting the lead into the presidential pencil. In the evenings, I would go to the unfashionable edge of Aspen and hang out at Owl Farm in Woody Creek, home of the storied Hunter Thompson. In these booze-fueled and crepuscular surroundings, in the intervals of our own midnight gunplay with rows of empty bottles ranged against high-velocity rifles, the talk was all of the war-machine and its revival: of the United States finding a new fear-object after the fall of Communism, and speculations of a similar tone.

I have never been able to rid myself of the view that Bush was not really surprised to read the first reports from Kuwait—I watched him receive them very calmly—and only became upset when he learned that Saddam Hussein had taken the entire country. The whole thing stank of a pre-arranged carve-up gone wrong. It was almost impossible to read the transcript of his envoy’s last meeting with Saddam and to form any other opinion. Ambassador April Glaspie, whom I had known briefly in London, explicitly told the Iraqi dictator that the United States took no position on his quarrel with the Kuwaitis. Had Saddam taken only the Rumaila oil field and the Bubiyan and Warba islands, there would have been no casus belli. I printed the Glaspie memorandum in Harper’s magazine, along with some highly critical commentary, and made several speeches and media appearances saying that any war would be fought, in effect, on false pretenses. (It had not occurred to me at the time, or not with full awareness, that if Saddam Hussein could have been so crazy as to go for broke, and to steal all of Kuwait when he could have had a lucrative chunk of it for the asking, why then he might be such a deranged megalomaniac that he could no longer discern even his own interests.)

The official rhetoric of the Bush administration made me suspicious as well. Saddam Hussein was suddenly compared to Hitler by people who had never noticed the resemblance before. Alarmist official propaganda—about Iraqi armored divisions poised on the Saudi border, and about Kuwaiti babies being thrown out of incubators to die on the cold floor—proved to be exaggeration or fabrication. The Saudi tyranny appeared to be the chief beneficiary of the dispatch of Coalition forces, while Saddam’s mad blustering against Israel—and Arafat’s wicked and stupid decision to embrace Saddam—seemed to mean yet another excuse for relegating the question of Palestinian statehood to the end of the queue. So with a fairly good conscience I continued to write and speak against the impending war, and to point out all the contradictions in the Bush position. After all, if Saddam was really Hitler, then surely we were committed not just to rescuing Kuwait but to invading Iraq and finding it a new government? And what gave us the right to do that, we the pals of the Saudis, betrayers of the Kurds, and horsetraders with the Iranian mullahs?

Every now and then, however, I found myself repressing a misgiving or two. Kuwait may not have been a model state, but it had a certain openness and, as Edward Said pointed out publicly, had made room on its small territory at least for a limited parliament, as well as for many Palestinian refugees. All reports from Iraqi dissidents seemed to suggest that the reign of terror inside the country was actually even worse than Washington was alleging. And it seemed that Saddam Hussein was absolutely incapable of realizing that he had made a calamitous mistake. I flew with Bush’s party on Air Force One to Saudi Arabia, asking annoying questions at every opportunity and further irritating the Saudis by asking if I could have an interview with their honored Muslim guest, Field Marshall Idi Amin of Uganda. Then I went up to Dhahran, to the gigantic base where the Coalition was assembling its armada. It was at once clear that Iraq had no chance of holding off, let alone defeating, such a vast and sophisticated force. Any Iraqi conscripts put in the way of this juggernaut would simply be vaporized. Had the Ba’athists learned nothing from their previous military adventures?

When the war did come, not only were those luckless soldiers vaporized but so too were many civilians. Power stations, water supplies, bridges, and other crucial facilities in major cities were likewise hit with so-called smart bombs. And yet, it became clear, the Iraqi leadership was not going to be made to suffer alongside “its” people. Saddam’s Republican Guard units between Kuwait City and Baghdad were left unscathed, while a column of scruffy stragglers and camp followers, trudging away from Kuwait after the surrender, was hit from the sky again and again and smeared all over the road of the Mutla Pass: the press gave this the unimaginative name of the “Highway of Death” but I thought, and wrote, and still think, that it was a grotesque carnival of turkey-shooting sadism. Before the war, my old Marxist comrade Fred Halliday had broken ranks to some extent and told the Left: “You can avoid war, but only by leaving Kuwait in the hands of Saddam Hussein. You can be anti-imperialist, but you will have to decide if imperialism is worse than fascism.” I had been briefly swayed by this but was later to write with scorn that Comrade Halliday had been proved wrong. With Bush, you could have both imperialism and fascism: American and Saudi power restored and the Kuwaiti monarchy returned to power, with a chastened Saddam Hussein allowed to keep his own throne and bluntly admonished to remember from now on who was the boss. This was the very worst of both worlds. When General Norman Schwarzkopf gave his personal permission for Iraq to use its helicopter gunships to restore order in the Iraqi Shi’a south, I thought I had seen the absolute limits of political cynicism.

It was only on revisiting the region in the immediate aftermath that I slowly came to realize that my own logic could be turned, or rather could turn itself, against me. What if the war had led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein, instead of his confirmation in power? Would I not have been morally obliged to say that this was justifiable? The curse-word “fascism” is easily enough thrown around, including by me on occasion, but I give you my oath that it makes a difference to you when you see the real thing at work. Again, it was the element of the sadistic and the irrational—the G?tterd?mmerung aspect—that caught and held my attention. On his way out of Kuwait, with nothing left to fight for, Saddam Hussein had given the order to set fire to the oilfields and also to smash the wellheads, and thus allow the crude black stuff to run directly into the waters of the Gulf, and there thickly to coagulate. This deliberate eco-catastrophe was almost the equal of his draining of the southern marshes and subsequent incineration of the deliberately aridified environment: the smoke plume from that nightmare had been seen with the naked eye from the space shuttle. Yet with the birds and marine animals of the Gulf choked to death en masse, and the sky itself full of fumes and specks that sometimes blotted out the sun, the predominantly “Green” Left and anti-war movements could still not find a voice in which to call this by its right name. On my way through Europe I went to an anti-war “service” in a beautiful Renaissance church in Rome. The slogan was L’Italia repudia la guerra. “Italy repudiates war”—noble words taken from the country’s anti-fascist postwar constitution. As I sat amid this highly civilized and polished congregation, all of its members really quite put out by American vulgarity and militarism, I found myself abruptly and chronically bored and repelled by the prevailing smugness. To repudiate war in this morally neuter way was to allow fascism a clear run.

Once I had crossed Turkey and made an illegal entry into northern Iraq at the Habur checkpoint, I entered on a scene that did a bit more than merely change my outlook. The Kurdish provinces of Saddam Hussein’s dominion had been turned into a howling wilderness. In company with a clever, witty, tough-minded Iraqi-Jewish photographer who had seized this moment to “trickle” back to his ancestral country, and with two Kurdish militants as guides, I worked my way down the Zab River and through the mountains toward the once thickly populated towns and cities of the lower-lying areas. Nothing prepares you for how lush and green the uplands are.[61] Nor could anything have prepared me for the chain of wrecked and gutted and poisoned cities that showed Saddam’s unquenchable thirst for destruction. This is perhaps how the Scottish Highlands or the Irish farmlands might have felt after the “clearances”: village after village and township after township voided of population and then dynamited or bulldozed, while on charred and desolate bits of the landscape ugly blockhouse encampments had been built to “concentrate” those thereby dispossessed. This was grim enough but then, along a road dotted with the hulks of T-34 Russian-built tanks, came something more reminiscent of eastern Poland in the early 1940s.

The Kurdish city of Halabja had been hit by Iraqi chemical weapons in March of 1988, losing over five thousand of its citizens in just one afternoon. Three years later, it was still possible to interview and to photograph people whose wounds were still burning and suppurating, or whose lungs had been corroded. It was also possible to do a little work to counter the “denial” campaign that some “experts” had already begun, claiming that it had been the Iranians who bombed the town. There were several unexploded chemical bombs still wedged in the basements of ruined buildings, with Iraqi Air Force markings on their casings, and I had myself photographed by Ed Kashi while crouching next to one of these.

It was, in fact, only after the ghastly war with Iran was over that the truly horrific work in Iraqi Kurdistan had begun. Employing a Koranic verse—the one concerning the so-called Anfal, or “spoils,” specifying what may be exacted from a defeated foe—the Iraqi army and police destroyed more than 4,000 centers of population and killed at least 180,000 Kurds.[62] The remainder were packed into the concentration centers mentioned above, or else loaded onto trucks and deported to the southern regions, where their mass graves are being dug up to this day. In the town of Shaqlawa, where the Kurdish guerrillas had taken advantage of Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait to set up a provisional headquarters, I heard some gut-twisting but half-credible rumors. It was said that thousands of men and boys of the Barzan clan had been taken away—this much could be proved—but taken away to be used as guinea pigs in tests of biological and chemical weaponry, and of fragmentation weapons. I have since learned that it’s very incautious to doubt any atrocity story, however lurid, if it is laid to the charge of Saddam Hussein.

From Shaqlawa it wasn’t too terribly far to the still-disputed cities of Suleimanya and Kirkuk, to which the temporarily demoralized Iraqi army had withdrawn. Our crappy Turkish rental car had died on us without a whimper. Jalal Talabani, the bearlike socialist who was the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, lent us a jeep and two stalwarts so that we could proceed farther and faster. The two Pesh Merga soldiers, Hoshyar Samsam and Ali, had taped a photograph of President George Bush—wearing a jogging suit, of all things—to the windshield of the jeep. After a while, I was moved to ask if they felt they had to do this. (I think I may have wondered what I would say if we ran into any smart-ass reporter I knew.) The straightness of their answer shamed the deviousness of my question. “Without your Mr. Bush,” they said, “we think we and our families would all be dead.” I didn’t have to look very closely at my surroundings to see, and to appreciate, the blunt truth of this. It was one of those common-sense moments that make one doubt the value of one’s superior education. I decided that it would be merely flippant to say that he was not “my” Mr. Bush.

The Western soldiers up in this part of Iraq were mainly British, as were many of the planes and helicopters, but the vast airdrops of food and clothing and medicine were largely American-organized and the emplacement of a “no-fly zone” over the region, preventing the renewal of any coordinated assault by Saddam, depended very considerably on United States Air Force bases in neighboring Turkey. Though Bush and Thatcher had had no desire whatever to become drawn into the internal dynamics of Iraq after the retrieval of Kuwait, domestic public opinion had rebelled at the sight of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in flight, starving on the hillsides and machine-gunned along the roads. Was this any way to end a war for “liberation”? For me the immediate question became, Was I to be a part of this public opinion or not? I felt that I had no choice. Well then, what had become, or what was left, of my formerly proud “anti-war” stance? Was it anything much more than an affectation, or a residue?

All those who have had similar or comparable experiences will recognize the problem at once: it is not possible for long to be just a little bit heretical. To see American and British forces greeted by the people as liberators; to see the people’s evident disappointment that this liberation was only to be partial; to see a nearly exterminated population regain its pulse and begin returning and rebuilding: this took a bit of assimilating. And my old Left training wasn’t entirely useless to me, either. With the exception of the Mahabad Republic, briefly proclaimed with Communist support in Iranian Kurdistan after the Second World War and swiftly put down by the Shah, this was the closest that the Kurds, the largest population in the world without a state of its own, had come to controlling a piece of the earth that was distinctively theirs. Nor could I help noticing how many red flags were on display, how few mullahs there seemed to be, and how many invocations of old internationalist slogans were to be heard. It was chaotic and improvised; the men had a tendency to give the women back seats and to feel themselves naked unless festooned with weapons; the atmosphere was somewhat tribal for my taste but, as Orwell said when analyzing his own mixed feelings about republican and anarchist Catalonia, “I recognized it at once as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” The idea of “Reds for Bush” might seem incongruous, but it was a very great deal more wholesome than “pacifists for Saddam.”

With Ed Kashi I produced a short book about the Kurdish struggle, and I kept in touch with Barham Salih, the Kurdish representative in Washington, who had gone home to start reconstructing his country. (He is today the elected prime minister of the autonomous northern region.) The rest of Iraq meanwhile was retaken by Saddam Hussein as the private property of himself and his horrifying sons. Limitations to the reach of this crime family took the form of UN-mandated international sanctions, and of “no-fly” zones in the airspace of the country’s northern and southern provinces, which at least prevented a renewal of air-supported mass murder against the Kurdish and Shi’a populations. Almost every single day, Saddam’s forces fired on the British and American planes that patrolled and enforced those zones. As well as being in a state of unstable ceasefire, then, Iraq was also in a condition of being “half-slave and half-free”: a volatile situation that clearly could not continue indefinitely.

Other things—Bosnia, Rwanda—emerged to trouble the sleep of those who cared about human rights. But what I had learned in Iraq was working somewhere in my mind. I got hold of a copy of the video that showed how Saddam Hussein had actually confirmed himself in power. This snuff-movie opens with a plenary session of the Ba’ath Party central committee: perhaps a hundred men. Suddenly the doors are locked and Saddam, in the chair, announces a special session. Into the room is dragged an obviously broken man, who begins to emit a robotic confession of treason and subversion, that he sobs has been instigated by Syrian and other agents. As the (literally) extorted confession unfolds, names begin to be named. Once a fellow-conspirator is identified, guards come to his seat and haul him from the room. The reclining Saddam, meanwhile, lights a large cigar and contentedly scans his dossiers. The sickness of fear in the room is such that men begin to crack up and weep, rising to their feet to shout hysterical praise, even love, for the leader. Inexorably, though, the cull continues, and faces and bodies go slack as their owners are pinioned and led away. When it is over, about half the committee members are left, moaning with relief and heaving with ardent love for the boss. (In an accompanying sequel, which I have not seen, they were apparently required to go into the yard outside and shoot the other half, thus sealing the pact with Saddam. I am not sure that even Beria or Himmler would have had the nerve and ingenuity and cruelty to come up with that.)

So, whenever the subject of Iraq came up, as it did keep on doing through the Clinton years, I had no excuse for not knowing the following things: I knew that its one-party, one-leader state machine was modeled on the precedents of both National Socialism and Stalinism, to say nothing of Al Capone. I knew that its police force was searching for psychopathic killers and sadistic serial murderers, not in order to arrest them but to employ them. I knew that its vast patrimony of oil wealth, far from being “nationalized,” had been privatized for the use of one family, and was being squandered on hideous ostentation at home and militarism abroad. (Post-Kuwait inspections by the United Nations had uncovered a huge nuclear-reactor site that had not even been known about by the international community.) I had seen with my own eyes the evidence of a serious breach of the Genocide Convention on Iraqi soil, and I had also seen with my own eyes the evidence that it had been carried out in part with the use of weapons of mass destruction. I was, if you like, the prisoner of this knowledge. I certainly did not have the option of un-knowing it.

From time to time I would be asked to sign a petition against the sanctions, which were said to be killing tens of thousands of young and old Iraqis by the denial of medical supplies and food. I couldn’t bring myself to be persuaded by this pseudo-humanitarianism. In the same period, Saddam had built himself a new palace in each of Iraq’s eighteen provinces, while products like infant formula—actually provided to Iraq under the oil-for-food program—were turning up on the black market being sold by Iraqi government agents. More and more, it seemed to me, anyone who really cared for the well-being and survival of Iraqis should be arguing for the removal of the insane despotism that had necessitated the sanctions and that was eating the country alive.

The verdict of insanity was important all by itself. It seemed increasingly obvious to me that Saddam Hussein was not a rational actor, did not understand the elementary business of deterrence and self-preservation, and for this reason remained a danger, as psychiatrists phrase it, both to himself and to others. One of the manifestations of his megalomania was an ever-increasing piety. He had himself photographed, and painted on huge murals, in the robes of a mullah. He ordered that the jihadi slogan Allahuh Akbar (“God Is Great”) be added to the national flag of Iraq. He began an immense mosque-building program, including the largest mosque in the Middle East, named for “the Mother of All Battles.” He had a whole Koran written in his own blood: this macabre totem was to have been the centerpiece of that mosque. His party and state rhetoric became increasingly frenzied and jihadist in tone, and he stopped supporting secular forces among the Palestinians and instead began financing theocratic ones, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. An Iraqi bounty was officially and openly paid to the family of any Palestinian suicide bomber. Yet none of this—none of it, including the naming of the slaughterhouse-campaign against the Kurds after a sura of the Koran—would unconvince the utterly smug Western “experts” who kept on insisting that his Caligula regime was a “secular” one. To the contrary, it was precisely the genuine secular forces in the country—the Kurds, the Communist and Socialist movements, and the independent trade unions—that Ba’athism had set out deliberately to destroy. And it then filled the resulting vacuum with toxic religious propaganda of the crudest kind. Anyone who heard an Iraqi radio or television broadcast in the last decade of the regime can readily confirm that the insistent themes were those of “martyrdom” and holy war.

I slowly began to make friends with the Iraqi exiles—authentic secularists for the most part—who were advocating “regime change.” Quite where this rather awkward, euphemistic formulation originated I cannot be certain. It seems to have crept into currency at about the time, during the Clinton administration, when Congress passed the Iraqi Liberation Act, making it long-term American policy to replace Saddam Hussein and short-term policy to set up a budget for his Iraqi opponents. This half-way house gave a temporary home to the idea that, while Iraqis were not strong enough to do the job themselves, the USA was not exactly undertaking to do it for them, either. Out of such sheepish, shame-faced half-acknowledgments, the “regime change” discourse began to chug into a sort of life.

Spike Milligan once wrote a book about being a shambolic conscript in some forgotten cookhouse in the wartime British Army and titled it Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall. The attempt to change political Washington’s mind about Saddam Hussein has since been the subject of so much lurid invention and paranoid disinformation that I really think it is time that I named myself, along with the other conspirators involved, and gave an account of what we did and why we did it.

The first of our faction was Kanan Makiya. In his books The Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence, about the Saddam tyranny and the wars and famines and plagues it had sponsored, he had shown remarkable forensic skill combined with a nicely astringent polemical style. I knew that he had in an earlier career been a Trotskyist, of a faction different from my own, and so when I read his critique of my own previous stand in his Cruelty and Silence, I was most of all impressed by how accurately he quoted me and by how gently he delivered his reproofs. (I had become too accustomed to the pseudo-Left new style, whereby if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one. This vulgar method, which is now the norm and the standard in much non-Left journalism as well, is designed to have the effect of making any noisy moron into a master analyst.)

Makiya is an Iraqi of partly English parentage whose family calling was that of architecture. Possibly the most penetrating of his many books about Saddam and Saddamism is called The Monument. It is an intense, illustrated study of the vast parade ground and double arch in central Baghdad, constructed by Saddam Hussein to immortalize his “triumph” in the wars against Iran. I enclose the word “triumph” in quotation marks here not to ironize it, but to draw attention to its root in Roman barbaric and sadistic display: if modern public relations had allowed such a thing, then Saddam would certainly have dragged Persian captives at his chariot wheels before having them butchered as gladiator-fodder or fed to the feral. I have visited this obscene place several times now. The matching “arches” are each of two crossed swords or sabers or scimitars held by beefy forearms that were modeled, by trembling sculptors, from the dictator’s own limbs. The big blades meet, and intersect. From the wrist of each arm are slung great steel nets, filled to overflowing with the empty helmets of Iranian soldiers, holed with bullets and shrapnel, and gloatingly heaped up. They purposely evoke a pyramid of skulls. Iraqi schoolchildren were paraded to see this foulness. I think of it whenever I hear some fool say, “All right, we agree that Saddam was a bad guy.” Nobody capable of uttering that commonplace has any conception of radical evil.

My first instinct might have been to dynamite such a Golgotha but Kanan was always collected and cool. “No, Christopher, we shall ask to have it rededicated as a place of memorial for all the victims of Ba’athism, Arab and Kurdish and Persian. I don’t even want it bombed if the bombing ever comes. There will be an Iraq Memory Foundation, and this will be where we put it.”[63] We were talking on the campus of Brandeis University, where he taught then, and I had finished explaining to his class how I had begun to change my mind about the first Gulf War. It seemed to me that in Kanan I had found someone who preserved in himself everything that was worth keeping about the tradition of the “Left Opposition” that had so encouraged us when we were younger.

At a certain moment at the end of that first Gulf War, the Kurdish guerrilla forces had briefly occupied the centers of two or three northern Iraqi cities and captured a huge trove of documents belonging to the Saddam regime. These massive steel file cabinets contained the sort of self-incriminating evidence that would make future “denial” impossible: here were the still-reeking records of the killing fields, the mass graves, the torture sessions, and the illegal weapons. The Kurdish leadership had about one satellite phone to go around in those days, but it knew enough to call Peter Galbraith, whom I briefly introduce as our next co-conspirator.

I had known Galbraith, son of the author of The Affluent Society, since my first year in Washington in 1982. With a handful of others, he shored up or otherwise constituted the human-rights “Left” on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Whether it was helping Benazir Bhutto run in a reasonably free election in Pakistan in 1988, where I joined them both in Karachi, or getting a hearing on the Hill for Chilean or Czech or South African dissidents, Peter was one of those who would always be available for a late-night phone call pleading for a break for just one more victim. He not only arranged to get this massive file of Iraqi documents picked up, and personally saw to its being transported across the Euphrates River under fire, but then made sure that it was adopted as an official public resource by the Library of Congress. One by one, the building blocks for a legal and international arraignment of the Saddam Hussein regime were being assembled.

A tremendous comrade in precisely this aspect of the work was Ann Clwyd, who had been the Wales correspondent of the New Statesman when both of us were young. As a fiery leftist MP on Tony Blair’s backbenches, she sponsored an initiative-group called “Indict,” which called on Britain’s attorney general, and the law officers of equivalent nations, to prepare to bring Saddam Hussein to trial for international offenses that ranged from the taking of British hostages in Kuwait to the gassing of Kurdish civilians. (That this never quite happened is probably the fault of the bad conscience of those Western governments who had colluded with Saddam Hussein when he was a profitable business partner, but that doesn’t in the least affect the case that we regime-changers were making: indeed, it rather reinforces it.)

Again, if one were trying to assemble an informal international for the overthrow of fascism in Iraq, one could not dispense with Rolf Ekeus. He was and is the quintessential Swedish Social Democrat, personally and politically dedicated to every conceivable good cause from multilateral disarmament to the abolition of apartheid. (His brilliant wife, Kim, had been Sweden’s liaison with Nelson Mandela and the ANC since the 1960s.) Rolf had represented his country as ambassador in Washington and at the UN, and had after the Gulf War been placed in charge of the United Nations inspections in Iraq. It was said of him, correctly, that he had found and destroyed more Iraqi WMDs than the Coalition forces had managed to identify, let alone to neutralize, in the entire course of the war. And it had been, for him, a highly educational experience. Invited to a private meeting with Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s Catholic Christian crony and then–foreign minister, he had been offered a straight-out bribe of $2.5 million on condition that his inspection reports become more lenient. In that eventuality, he was calmly assured, this little trifle would be considered a mere first installment. (Ambassador Ekeus had a long and deserved reputation for incorruptibility, and the chances of his acceptance must have been reckoned as extremely close to nil, so if you conclude from this that the Iraqis were trying the same strategy on all United Nations personnel, you are probably using your head.) After the bribery was refused, an attempt was made to poison Rolf. And after that failed, his crucial defector-informants, the Kamel brothers, who were Saddam Hussein’s in-laws and who had exposed the special “ministry of concealment” set up to deceive the inspectors, were lured back from Jordan to Iraq and murdered under a flag of truce. But those who make the presumption of innocence in the case of homicidal dictators take a lot of persuading. When it was decided to resume UN “inspections” once more, as a weak alternative to the Bush-Blair call for the existing resolutions to be enforced, Kofi Annan did at least call for Rolf Ekeus to be reappointed to the task he had already shown that he could do. The French and Russian and Chinese delegations made certain that another quite different Swede got the post instead: a bureaucrat under whose supervision both Iraq and North Korea had made the word “inspections” look risible.

The other great influences in our little conspiracy were Barham Salih, the aforementioned Kurdish envoy to Washington, and Kenneth Pollack, a liberal member of the Clinton administration’s National Security Council. In 1990 he had vainly tried to warn a sunken and complacent CIA that Saddam Hussein was mobilizing for an invasion of Kuwait and had been met with stupid condescension from the sort of “intelligence” bureaucrat who believed that Iraq was run by a cynical but rational calculator. (And also, needless to add, by a modernizing “secularist.”) Ken’s book, regrettably and sensationally titled The Threatening Storm, was in fact one of the best pieces of closely marshaled evidence and reasoning ever to emerge from the wonk-world, and made a lucid, devastating case that Saddam Hussein and his system should be treated, on all the past and then-existing evidence, as staggeringly guilty until proven innocent. And such innocence could only really be established by having a government in Baghdad that was not a genocidal and paranoid and megalomaniacal version of the Sopranos. To call for real inspections was actually to demand regime change. People choose to forget it now, but the Pollack book did more than any presidential speech ever did to win over the “policy community” in Washington, just as it was Barham Salih who did more than anyone else to persuade the Congress, one vote at a time.

There came a day when my friend Jim Hoagland, an extremely knowledgeable and careful correspondent and columnist for the Washington Post who had been visiting and studying Iraq for several decades, asked if I would like to meet Ahmad Chalaby, the founder of the “Iraqi National Congress.” I naturally said yes: every other Iraqi I knew who had stood up to Saddam Hussein had lost at the very least a family member, or at the very most a whole villageful of relatives and friends, so a man who hoisted a public standard against the regime and made a full-time job of it commanded my axiomatic respect. He presented himself at my apartment in Washington, wearing a leather jacket that didn’t especially suit him, and greeted the friends I’d hastily assembled to meet the person who maintained that he could bring down the despot. Chalaby has since become so well hosed with bile and spittle that I feel obliged to say several things in his defense. The first is that he made no grandiose claims. The case against Saddam Hussein was already complete, and whatever their reservations might be, in their hearts everybody knew this. How could one bring an end to the misery of the Iraqis, and the ongoing insult to international law and comity, with the minimum of violence? Chalaby’s preferred strategy at that stage was to get American support for the indigenous Iraqi and Kurdish opposition forces, so that Saddam’s clique—a Sunni tribal minority of the Sunni minority—could be isolated and brought down. Much of the Iraqi Army was on or near the verge of mutiny and desertion (this later proved to be true). The Shi’a were ready to rise in revolt if they could be persuaded that they would not again be abandoned as they had been in 1991. (This also proved to be the case.) In quasi-autonomous Kurdistan there were bases, and battle-tested fighting forces, which could lend serious back-up to any coordinated initiative. (Such had already been demonstrated, as I knew without having to be told.) Truth to tell, though, I was more impressed by the “civil society” element in Ahmad’s conversation. If I mentioned or inquired about any Arab or Kurdish or Iranian intellectual, he seemed to have read their most recent book the day before. When it came to Marxism, he knew all the Iraqi Communists I had ever met, and even when it came to Trotskyism, he actually knew the meaning of the phrase “permanent revolution”—this is an acid test by the way—and furthermore knew that it was an expression originated by Parvus and not by Trotsky. On the next occasion when we met, he spent a good deal of time discussing the Bloomsbury Group and the shadings of difference between Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes. Perhaps I seem too impressionable: at the time it seemed exciting and interesting that someone with a genius for politics was not just another monomaniac, but could discuss culture and literature as if these things, too, were at stake in the battle against the mirthless, ruthless totalitarians.[64]

An Anglo-Arab Trotskyist; a son of a Canada-born socialist economist; a passionate Welshwoman of the Labour movement; a Swedish Social Democrat and internationalist; a Kurdish socialist who had spent many years as a political prisoner; a mild and almost wonk-like think-tanker (if I do beg his pardon for saying so); and an exile member of the old Baghdad financier class, whose first training was that of mathematician. What a multifariously sinister crew! But this was the original combination of influences by which political Washington was eventually persuaded that Iraq should be helped into a post-Saddam era, if necessary by force. I specify the dramatis personae because of the near-unbelievable deluge of abusive and calumnious dreck that has since descended, and become encrusted and hardened. Those who tried to rid Iraq and the world of Saddam Hussein have been represented as part of a “neoconservative cabal,” agents of a “Jewish lobby,” and accused of forging evidence and fabricating pretexts for war. Chalaby’s organization alone, with its negligible budget and minuscule staff, has been credited with single-handedly poisoning the informational well of the intelligence services of the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, all of which at different times had independently certified that Saddam Hussein had possession of, or was in measurable reach of, weapons of mass destruction. In reality, this amateur coordination of small battalions and discrepant individuals was the most open conspiracy in which I have ever taken part.

After I had written a few polemics about Iraq, and taken part in several television debates on the subject, I received a call one day from the Pentagon. It was from Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy, asking if I would like to come and see him. This would make my second visit to the Defense Department, since during the run-up to the previous Gulf War I had been invited to speak to the Policy Planning Staff against the intervention. So I thought, sure, if only for the sake of irony and symmetry. Wolfowitz I only knew by reputation, and by reputation he actually was a member of the neoconservative cabal: one of that influential group of former liberals, strongly pro-Zionist, some with connections to the Leo Strauss school of intellectuals at the University of Chicago, who had moved into the study of strategy during the Reagan years and made their peace with the hawkish wing of the Republican Party.

The thing that struck me most, once I had presented myself at his office, was the extent to which Wolfowitz wanted to live down precisely this image. The first thing he showed me was a photograph of the “Situation Room” in the mid-1980s, where, around the table I could see President Reagan and most of his foreign-policy team, from Weinberger to Shultz to Donald Regan, slumped in attitudes of mild exhaustion. Off to the side was a more youthful Wolfowitz. He told me that this picture, which had pride of place in his office, was of exactly the moment when the Reaganites had narrowly voted to dump the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines in 1986 and to recognize the election victory of his opponent Cory Aquino.[65] “It was the first argument I won,” said Wolfowitz proudly. “I said that if we supported a dictator to keep hold of a base, we would end up losing the base and also deserving to do so. Whereas,” he went on, “by joining the side of ‘people power’ in Manila that year, we helped democracy movements spread through Taiwan and South Korea and even I think into Tiananmen Square in 1989.” He gave me a friendly smile: “It was the opposite of a Kissinger policy.”

All right, I admit I was intrigued. Wolfowitz took the view that, great as the risks of “democratization” might be, they were as nothing to the risks of dictatorship: the most unstable and volatile system of all. The only area of the globe after 1989 where this had not been tried was the Arab sphere. It was time to confront the Bush/Powell/Kissinger consensus that had left Saddam Hussein in possession of Iraq after 1991. I suspect that, if the Democrats had won the election of 2000, and if Wolfowitz had remained a Democrat and been given the self-same job, many liberals and leftists in Washington would have been praising him for tackling the racist assumption that Arabs preferred, or even needed, to be ruled by despots.

That night I was going with Kanan Makiya to a private dinner in the Cleveland Park section of the city, to help set up the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. It turned out that Wolfowitz was to be the after-dinner speaker. He made a very forceful and lucid presentation, without notes, so that in a way I could have skipped the meeting we’d had at one of America’s three “Ground Zeros” that afternoon. But I still would not have missed seeing that Reagan-era photograph. When the dinner was over—we had heard the news that Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa would adorn the letterhead of the Committee—Kanan and I walked slowly back through a drenching rain that neither of us really noticed. It had been a whole quarter of a century since Saddam Hussein had taken control of Iraq: Hitler had ruled for twelve years and Stalin for about twenty-five. “I think, comrade,” I told him as the water started to run down my back and we bid au revoir, “that this time you are really going home.” We closed with “next time in Baghdad”: a promise that we kept the following summer.

It is here that I ought to make my most painful self-criticisms. I saw Wolfowitz a few more times between then and the ultimate decision to intervene, which was made about six months later. I also got to know a bit about the near-incredible incompetence and disloyalty of the CIA and the State Department. I was able to satisfy myself that those within the administration who were making the case for “regime change” were sincere in what they believed and were not knowingly exaggerating anything for effect. And I was able to ask for assurances. For example, it was widely alleged on the anti-war Left that General Ariel Sharon would seize the pretext offered by the fog of war in Iraq and expel all the Palestinians from the West Bank. The then-head of the Middle East Studies Association actually came to my house to try and persuade me on this point. When I asked Wolfowitz if the Pentagon had thought of this contingency, he said that he had had one of the Israeli commanders into his office only the previous day, and told him that American sympathy for Israel did not extend to expansion or colonization and that once one of the Arab “rejectionist” strongholds had been removed from Saddam’s control, the United States would be in a position to ask for the dismantlement of settlements to begin. (At a rally not long before this, called by American Jewry to protest the suicide-bombing campaign that Saddam Hussein was helping to bankroll, Wolfowitz had been aggressively booed for reminding the crowd that the Palestinian people were suffering, too.)

On another occasion, when the Turkish government was being more than usually obnoxious, and refusing the use of American bases on Turkish soil for the deployment of a “northern front,” unless Turkish troops were also to be allowed into Iraqi Kurdistan, I asked Wolfowitz whether the United States would permit such a sell-out. Again he was without ambivalence: Turkish boots on Iraqi soil would not be allowed. If the Turks insisted on exacting that price, the liberation of Iraq would go ahead without them (which it did).

Wait a moment, did I not just promise to be “self-critical”? Of course, what I should have been asking Wolfowitz, instead of bending his ear about these enterprises of such moral pith and geostrategic moment, was: “Does the Army Corps of Engineers have a generator big enough to turn the lights of Baghdad back on?” or perhaps “Has a detachment of Marines been ordered to guard the Iraq National Museum?” But, not being a professional soldier or quartermaster, nor feeling myself able to advise those who were, I rather tended to assume that things of this practical sort were being taken care of. It would have been like asking if we’d remembered to pack enough rations and ammunition. I feel stupid and ashamed to this day that I didn’t ask the sort of question that Commander Hitchens would have insisted upon before even taking a ship into convoy. As Peter Galbraith was later to say so ruefully to me, surveying the terrifying damage done by unchecked looting, and the misery that this in turn inflicted on Iraqi society: “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” This was to say the least of it: I probably now know more about the impeachable incompetence of the Bush administration than do many of those who would have left Iraq in the hands of Saddam. Some of it was almost quixotically American—the huge gleaming generator brought by truck across Jordan to Baghdad proved to be too digital and streamlined to be plugged into the Iraqi “grid,” and we might have done better to buy some clapped-out equipment from Belarus or Ukraine. But some of the failures were infinitely more culpable than that and, even though they don’t alter the case against Ba’athism, have permanently disfigured the record of those of us who made that case.

As the Iraq debate became more intense, it became suddenly obvious to me that I couldn’t any longer remain where I was on the political “spectrum.” Huge “anti-war” demonstrations were being organized by forces that actually exemplified what the CIA and others had na?vely maintained was impossible: a declared alliance between Ba’athist sympathizers and Islamic fundamentalists. The partisans of the failed One Party/One Leader state were now linking arms with the adorers of the One God. Some saw, or thought they saw, something “ironic” in this. My old friend Nick Cohen wrote scornfully that on a certain date, “about a million liberal-minded people marched through London to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime.” But what is “liberal-minded” about the Muslim Brotherhood and its clone-groups, or about the rump of British Stalinism, or about the purulent sect into which my former comrades of the International Socialists had mutated? To them—to the organizers and moving spirits of the march in other words—the very word “liberal” was a term of contempt.[66]

I did a few things in swift succession. I resigned my position as columnist for The Nation after an unbroken stint of twenty years man and boy as a bi-weekly contributor. There was no further point in working for a magazine that sympathized with the sort of “anti-war” culture I have just mentioned. I then booked a ticket for Quatar, the small but relatively open monarchic state which now housed both Al-Jazeera (then a new idea in the media) and the American Central Command or “Centcom.” I could see that the endgame was approaching and I wanted to make my plans in advance. Changing planes on the way through England to the Gulf, I consciously made my last appearance as a man of the Left. I had said “yes” to the invitation—a very flattering one—to be a speaker at the annual Tribune rally at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool. This by tradition was the climactic event for the radical rank-and-file. And Tribune, often all over the map politically and journalistically, and frequently looking as if it had been designed and printed at the last moment and in the pitch dark, had at least been the only paper in England to furnish George Orwell with a weekly column. May I be forgiven for quoting My Life in the Bear Pit, the taped diaries of David Blunkett, the blind Yorkshire socialist and proletarian who at the time was Tony Blair’s home secretary:

Odd little snippet from conference: I don’t think I recorded the weird little paradox about the Tribune meeting and the fact that they’d made a terrible blunder by inviting Christopher Hitchens, who they believed to be a left-wing journalist—which he has been, but he is vehemently anti–Saddam Hussein and gave the most brilliant lecture about the background and the detail of the individuals and why taking on Saddam Hussein was so important. Everybody sat there in absolute silence…

I don’t remember the silence being quite absolute, because I had mentioned some courageous socialists like Barham Salih and Rolf Ekeus of whom some of the audience had at least heard. Attending the rally was Chris Mullin, one of the best and bravest and wittiest Tribune socialists ever elected to the House of Commons. May I quote his published diaries, too (A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin), concerning the same evening?

The speeches were lacklustre with one notable exception: Christopher Hitchens, who argued the case for military intervention in Iraq. He appealed to those present “as internationalists, as people who can think for yourselves.” It was not a war on Iraq that was proposed, he argued, but a war on Saddam. He urged the left to be a bit self-critical….“If the left had had its way, General Galtieri would still be the President of Argentina; Milosevic would still be in power in Belgrade; Kosovo would be an empty wilderness; Mullah Omar would still be in Kabul.”

I step over some further kind things that Chris had to say, and come to his “counterarguments,” put to me over a subsequent cocktail: “chaos, civilian casualties, the danger that Saddam Hussein if cornered will resort to chemical weapons. Christopher dismissed them all. He reckons the regime is crumbling and that the odds are it will implode without the need for an invasion. Fingers crossed that he is right.”

The “WMD” question, as everybody hopes now to forget, was very often a rhetorical tool in the hands of those who wanted to leave Saddam Hussein in power. Attack him, and he would unleash the weapons of horror that he had wielded so promiscuously before. This resembled one of those “prisoners’ dilemma” games, where each forced choice tightens the noose and reduces the number of options. Meanwhile, every concession that Saddam did make was the direct consequence of the believable threat of force. Do any of the anti-war types ever ask themselves what would have happened if the Coalition forces had sailed home without firing a shot?

I had been closer to the scenery of WMD-use than most people, but I thought, and wrote, that Saddam’s command over such weaponry in 2002–2003 was more latent than blatant. He certainly had some resources, some scientists, some elements and ingredients, and a long criminal record of both use and concealment. If I could have had it proved to me beyond doubt that he did NOT have any serious stockpiles on hand, I would have argued—did in fact argue—that this made it the perfect time to hit him ruthlessly and conclusively. It would both punish the previous use and prevent any repetition of it. It would also bring Iraq into verifiable compliance with the ever-flourished and ever-cited UN and its important resolutions, thus allowing the lifting of economic sanctions and—according to the most vocal critics of such sanctions—saving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from being or becoming civilian casualties.

In all my discussions with Wolfowitz and his people at the Pentagon, I never heard anything alarmist on the WMD issue. It was presumed that at some level Iraq remained a potential WMD state, and it was assumed that Saddam Hussein would never agree to come into compliance even with Hans Blix’s very feeble “inspections” (which indeed he never did). This in itself was yet another proof of the inherent lunacy of the regime, and of the na?vet? of those who thought that it, or its deranged leader, could ever be treated as a rational actor. It was this that I had meant when talking to Chris Mullin about the approach of an “implosion” point. By holding a referendum and claiming the first-ever 100 percent turnout (and 100 percent proportion of the turnout as a “yes” vote, at that) and by opening the wings of the horrible Abu Ghraib prison that contained the murderers and rapists and thieves who were part of the surplus value of his system, Saddam had given warning of the approach of his Ceausescu moment: a crazy meltdown of authority. Given the already-existing “chaos” in Iraq, and the divide-and-rule means by which the regime exploited religious and tribal hatreds, a meltdown was more likely to lead to a Rwanda on the Gulf than to a Romania. Absent a Coalition force, it would also lead to invasions from Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Everything therefore pointed to the need for the international community to intervene at last, and on the right side for once, in maimed and traumatized Iraq, and to help it make the transition to some version of its right mind.

The WMD could be taken as emblematic of everything foul and wasteful about the Ba’athist system. I can remember only one instance where I was in any way “briefed” by anyone at the Defense Department. Underneath a Sunni mosque in central Baghdad, the parts and some of the ingredients of a chemical weapon had been located and identified with the help of local informers. I was told this off the record, and told also that I was not to make any use of the information. It was thought that, when the use of a holy place to hide such weaponry was disclosed by the intervention, it would help to change Muslim opinion. I still have the photographs that were taken in that mosque after the liberation, showing the cache of weaponry just where I had been told it would be. But if I was ever na?ve about anything having to do with Iraqi WMD, it was in believing that the production of evidence like that, or indeed any other kind of evidence, would make even the most limited impression on the heavily armored certainties of the faithful.

Terror, the most abject terror, is in the atmosphere about us—a consuming passion, like that of jealousy—a haunting, exhausting specter, which sits like a blight upon life. Such a settled state of terror is one of the most awful of human phenomena. The air holds ghosts, all joy is dead; the sun is black, the mouth parched, the mind rent and in tatters.

—H.F.B. Lynch: Armenia: Travels and Studies [1901]

During all this I never quite lost the surreal sense that I had become in some way a pro-government dissident and that of all the paradoxes of my little life this might have to register as the most acute one. But it was the demonstrators in the streets—I was teaching at Berkeley for much of the first spring of the Iraq war—who struck me as the real conformists of the scenario. Accused of becoming a sell-out by working for the interwar Yugoslav republic, Rebecca West’s guide (and covert lover) Constantine, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, confesses that, yes: “For the sake of my country, and perhaps a little for the sake of my soul, I have given up the deep peace of being in opposition.” I, too, began to find that I could see things from the point of view of the governors and that I was on the side of those now striving to build up a new state in Afghanistan and Iraq. In any case, the opponents of the war were themselves aligned with the views of other governors and states, many of them much more smelly than George W. Bush.

I still cannot bear to imagine the idea of a victory for Putin and Chirac and Annan and Schroeder, let alone the Chinese or the Saudis, but in the event the glad moment came when Saddam Hussein outdid himself and refused to save his evil system even by making the small concession of admitting and proving to the UN that he didn’t currently possess any workable WMDs. I crossed the Kuwaiti border into Iraq not long after the first wave had gone racing up toward Baghdad and saw a little of the barbaric state to which southern Iraqi society had been reduced by a combination of Saddamism and the sanctions that it had necessitated. In Kuwait City I had watched Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles being shot out of the sky as they were fired randomly toward his now-liberated former colony, and smiled as I saw all the members of the press corps donning gas masks and running to the shelters to avoid the shower of chemical weapons, gases, and nerve-agents which never turned up—and in which they later claimed never to have believed. I can say for myself that I didn’t bring, or wear, or own, a gas mask, or believe that any element of Saddam’s armed forces—except the imported and jihad-minded “Fedayeen Saddam” (a suggestive name in its own right)—would do any real fighting. As I left Kuwait, the European press was awash in ridiculous babbling about a last-ditch defense of Baghdad that would be the equivalent of “Stalingrad.”

And that was just the hacks. A few days later came a more considered piece by the cultivated Jonathan Raban, deploying almost faultlessly the wrinkled lip across which he and his fellow members of the Anglo-American bien-pensant classes viewed the deplorable crudity of the U.S. of A.:

Passionate ideologues are incurious by nature and have no time for obstructive details. It’s impossible to think of Paul Wolfowitz curling up for the evening with Edward Said’s Orientalism, or the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, or The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, or the letters of Gertrude Bell, or the recently published, knotty, opaque but useful book by Lawrence Rosen, The Culture of Islam, based on Rosen’s anthropological work…

Made perhaps unintentionally absurd by that use of the expression “curled up” to depict the act of reading (“You’ll usually find me,” says Bertie Wooster to Florence Craye in Thank You, Jeeves, “curled up with Spinoza’s latest”), Raban’s Guardian effusion became ever more vulnerable to ridicule as he began to discourse knowingly on the “body” of the Islamic ummah or “community” as if it were a passive female form capable of violation, for all the world as if Saddam Hussein had never invaded and tried to amputate and subjugate the two Muslim states of Iran and Kuwait, besides repeatedly raping and torturing and disfiguring his “own” captive nation.

In point of fact, Paul Wolfowitz wrote his doctoral dissertation on water and salinity in the Arab world, has lived for many years with an Arab woman scholar with close connections to Palestinian reformers, speaks more Arabic than Jonathan Raban, was married previously to an anthropologist with a special interest in the Muslim societies of Malaysia and Indonesia, was himself a diplomat in Jakarta and speaks some of the Bahasa language, too, and once telephoned me to disagree with a detail in something I had written about the Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Wolfowitz was for many years the dean of a major school of Johns Hopkins University and is thanked by name in the acknowledgments of Azar Nafisi’s brave, beautiful book Reading Lolita in Tehran: a study of the relations between literature, sexuality, and power under Muslim theocracy that can stand comparison to anything written by Edward Said or even Naguib Mahfouz. If anyone was being colonial or “orientalist” here it was Jonathan Raban, a most refined Englishman who didn’t believe that a mere Yank could know anything about the exotic latitudes where only travel writers like himself were authorized to tread. But his tone of infuriated condescension was vastly preferable to the way in which the BBC’s on-air bookers and interviewers, telephoning me as if to make sure they couldn’t be accused of undue bias, would flatly and simply decline to pronounce Paul Wolfowitz’s name correctly. “Volfervitz,” they would say, putting a sinister top-spin on it. I remember a time in the 1970s when a certain Colonel X of the old le Carr? school would sit in a discreet office at the BBC, occasionally asking program producers if they intended to make regular use of “this chap Hitchens, fascinating as he no doubt can be.” But at least in those days of nudge-and-wink political invigilation, it was considered minimal good manners to get someone’s name right. How hard could it be, I would inquire icily (and sometimes after the BBC caller had begun by addressing me as “Chris”) to pronounce the name phonetically or as it was spelled? “Oh all right,” one of them said grudgingly: “this fellow Wolfervitz who seems to be the power behind the scenes, with his neo-con cabal…” I made the man stop and begin all over again.

I prefer to think that I am not unusually thin-skinned when it comes to clumsy innuendos on the Jewish question. But this sort of stuff was a complete give-away, and I do think that one must never just sit there when it is being vented. As an undergraduate at Oxford I was once asked by a friendly don at All Souls if I would help him arrange a gentle punting trip for Sir Max Mallowan—also a fellow of the college, by then rather elderly—and Lady Mallowan. I agreed readily, and not just because Lady Mallowan was better known as Agatha Christie. Sir Max had been the doyen of the British archaeological expedition in Mesopotamia between the wars, and could be mentioned in the same breath as Gertrude Bell when it came to the treasure-house that was the Iraq National Museum. The afternoon drifted by agreeably enough and I must have passed muster in some way because I was then invited to dine at the Mallowan home in nearby Wallingford. Around their table, in a house festooned with Middle Eastern miniatures and statuettes, I very suddenly felt myself congealing with unease. The anti-Jewish flavor of the talk was not to be ignored or overlooked, or put down to heavy humor or generational prejudice. It was vividly unpleasant and it was bottom-numbingly boring. (I had the excuse, if I can call it that, of not having read any of the “Agatha Christie” effusion. I have checked it since, and been surprised by many things about it, most of all its popularity. How right Raymond Chandler was to scorn her trudgery. There must be some connection between the general nullity of Christie’s prose and the tendency of her detectives to take Jewishness as a symptom of crime. After 1945 she learned to hold down the bigotry a bit but one of the 1950s efforts, titled They Came to Baghdad, is all about a well-funded and Iraq-based plot for a New World Order, featuring clammy Jewish employers and a deeply sinister scheme called “the Wolfensohn merger.”)

When I went back to Iraq again, after the liberation was complete, I was myself engaged on a sort of “dig,” and I decided to travel with Paul Wolfowitz. It was in its own way an archaeological and anthropological expedition. Here are some of the things we unearthed or observed. Unnoticed by almost everybody, and unreported by most newspapers, Saddam Hussein’s former chief physicist Dr. Mahdi Obeidi had waited until a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad to accost some American soldiers and invite them to excavate his back garden. There he showed them the components of a gas centrifuge—the crown jewels of uranium enrichment—along with a two-foot stack of blueprints. This burial had originally been ordered by Saddam’s younger son Qusay, who had himself been in charge of the Ministry of Concealment, and had outlasted many visits by “inspectors.” I myself rather doubt that Hans Blix would ever have found the trove on his own.

Not long after that, a sandstorm near Baghdad uncovered a bizarre row of shimmering airplane tailfins. These proved to be the gravemarkers of a squadron of expensive Russian-built MIG-25 jet fighters. The point of the burial was and still remains unclear: one might as well set a jet engine on fire as immerse it in a dune. But the instinct for “hugger-mugger interment” among the eerie upper echelons of the Ba’ath Party seems to have been strongly ingrained. Iraq is almost the size of California. I dare say that they buried other military secrets that we will never know about.

Near the northern town of Kirkuk, in the June that followed the invasion, a total of eight million dollars in cash was dug out of the garden of Saddam Hussein’s personal secretary. Along with this came a further few million dollars’ worth of jewelry, “belonging” to Saddam Hussein’s wife. In the end, Saddam Hussein himself was pulled in an undignified manner from an underground hole where he had taken ignominious refuge.

But the worst of all the unearthings and diggings and disinterments took place not far from the ruins of Babylon, in the town of Al-Hilla. On 13 May 2003, not long after the liberation, frenzied local people had begged American forces to come and help, and also to bear witness. Ever since 1991 and the massive repression of the Shi’a uprising, the site had had an evil and disgusting reputation. It was said by witnesses that three truckloads of people, three times a day, for a month, had been driven here. Forced into pre-dug mass graves, they were then either shot or buried alive. Seizing the chance to identify their missing loved ones, local people had swarmed to the place as soon as Saddam’s regime disintegrated, and uncovered three thousand bodies with their bare hands before calling for help from the Coalition. By the time I got there, the excavation process was becoming more dignified and orderly but nothing could render it less obscene.

Lines of plastic body bags were laid out on the ground, sometimes “tagged” with personal items and identifying documents. Where digging was complete, the ground had been consecrated as a resting place. Elsewhere, the ghastly spadework continued. The two men in charge of the scene were a Major Schmidt from New Jersey and Dr. Rafed Fakher Husain, a strikingly composed Iraqi physician. “We lived without rights,” he told me with a gesture of his hand toward this area of darkness. “And without ideas.” The second sentence seemed to hang in the noisome air for longer than the first, and to express the desolation more completely. There were sixty-two more such sites, I was to learn, in this province of southern Iraq alone.

It was mid-July, when the Mesopotamian heat can without effort bring off the achievement of 120 degrees. This means a constant smearing of oneself with sunscreen and the exuding of drenching perspiration. The hair becomes matted and damp. The clothes cling. And then the wind gets up… I suddenly realized that a paste was forming all over me, made up of various greases and slimes, natural and artificial, and thickly overlaid by a crust from the clinging filth of a mass grave. I hope never again to feel so utterly befouled. It was in the nostrils, in the eyes… on the tongue and in the mouth. And the chance of a wash, let alone of a cleansing shower, was a good way off. I was eventually able to have that shower, almost weeping with mingled disgust and relief, in the al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad, but the rest of Iraqi society was still digging itself out of a shallow grave and those who fetishized the ideal of death and the grave—Ba’athist and Islamist—were getting ready to blast further hecatombs all across the landscape. “Scum of the earth,” I wrote in my notebook, meaning by this clich? the Saddamist–Al Quaeda alliance and not the gritty residue that had been my nauseating carapace. After that, not even the abattoir stench from the execution sheds in newly liberated Abu Ghraib could shake me as much. I do remember thinking that attempts to clean out and restart that horror-prison were doomed, and that it should simply have been demolished, with salt strewn over the ruins. I wish that I had made that point more forcibly, too.[67]

Also unearthed, but this time in paper form and in the state archives, were documents showing that a surprising number of “anti-war” politicians in several countries were the beneficiaries of “Oil for Food” kickbacks—in other words of money stolen directly from the suffering Iraqi people about whom they orated. There was also a letter from my old friend Naji Sabry al-Hadithi, who had ended up as Saddam Hussein’s last foreign minister. It was addressed to Saddam himself, in the closing moments of the regime, and it expressed concern, of a sort that I believe is worth recording.

It was distressing, wrote Naji, to see the reports of Iraqi civilians rushing forward to greet advancing American and British soldiers. Such deplorable events were discrediting the heroic Saddamist struggle in the wider world. Might it not be advisable, he suggested to his leader, to send some of the suicide-martyrs of the Fedayeen Saddam, disguised as civilians, to detonate themselves as soon as they drew close enough to the new arrivals? That would soon enough teach the British and Americans to suspect all Iraqis as “terrorists,” and to keep their distance.[68] There was something horribly simple about this idea, and I wondered for a while why a foreign minister should even be suggesting such a vile thing. Later reports, to the effect that Naji had been shopping on the other side of the street and providing secret information to the Coalition via “back channels,” at least supplied a likely motive. In Saddam’s Iraq, if you wanted to cover yourself, the best thing was to propose the most exorbitantly cruel and extreme measures. Poor old Naji, then, to be reduced to this wicked expedient.

Anyway, Naji’s scheme was indeed adopted, as were some other “measures.” A woman in the town of Nasiriyah was publicly hanged for welcoming the liberators. We have video footage of other Iraqis having their tongues cut out or their extremities lopped off for the same offense, by the sort of black-cowled holy warriors who have become so drearily familiar to us since. It matters to me to remember this Saturnalia of butchery, because of third-hand observers who like to mock the idea that Iraqis ever saluted their liberators with “sweets and flowers” or whatever the sneer happens to be.

I cannot exactly vouch for the kinds of sweets or the sorts of flowers, but in Iraq I saw some quite extraordinary things and I will not be made to deny the evidence of my own eyes. Along the road from Basra one day in the summer of 2003, traveling all the way to the holy Shi’ite cities of Najaf and Karbala, I sat in a very lightly armed American convoy of civilian cars and saw people run to the roadside, with no advance notice of our arrival—I know this because I know we hadn’t planned in advance to take that road—and simply wave and smile and show signs of happiness. It was completely unlike anything stage-managed, which in the Iraq of Saddam had involved great orchestrated ululations and contortions and mad avowals of the willingness for blood-sacrifice. It was normal and proportional, and in its way rather beautiful, and I give the lie to those who say I did not see those crowds or clasp those hands.

Landing by chopper on another occasion in the Marshes, I did see a less-spontaneous (they knew we were coming) and more hysterical greeting. But the Marsh Arabs were hardly likely to react any other way, having had their ancient riparian habitat once destroyed by Saddam and now reflooded by the Americans. In those amazing reed palaces that could by a stretch have dated back to the mythical Abraham, the enthusiasm and hospitality might have been prepared but could not possibly have been feigned.

As for Kurdistan, I had already seen this land when it was Saddam’s people who had the mastery of it. Here one met an even more respectful joy, in a territory which did not any longer require—or ask for—a single Western soldier. Here, we were the guests in a different sense because the people of northern Iraq already had secure stewardship of their own affairs and were firmly but politely outgrowing their former protectors. To witness this was wholly, profoundly satisfactory: I am sorry for those who have never had the experience of seeing the victory of a national liberation movement, and I feel cold contempt for those who jeer at it.

Naji Sabry’s horrible suggestion that such enthusiasm be quelled in such a way—he had the grace to look abashed when I next saw him in exile in Quatar—of course makes the additional implicit point that the Ba’athist leadership knew, and took for granted, that it had suicide squads at its disposal. This in turn suggests a long and official collusion between the Saddam regime and the religious zealots. Abu Nidal had become by this time quite old hat (he was actually murdered by Saddam’s police just as the Allies were surrounding Baghdad Airport, lest he disclose anything inconvenient). Captured by the Coalition while still under Iraqi protection was Abbu Abbas, leader of the gang that had rolled Leon Klinghoffer in his wheelchair from the deck of the Achille Lauro cruise ship. He had had to be released after his arrest in that episode because he was traveling on a diplomatic passport. An Iraqi diplomatic passport. Now, belatedly, he was under lock and key. Still not yet apprehended is Mr. Mehmet Yassin, the man who mixed the chemicals for the bomb that hit the World Trade Center in 1993, and then flew straight to Iraq after the FBI so incautiously granted him bail. Iraq was then a country that was as difficult to enter as it was hard to leave…

This thieves’ kitchen dimension, of a country run by criminals and sadists, was not confined to the drugs-and-thugs corruption and terrorism side. And once again, I was to pick up the spoor of an old connection. Rolf Ekeus came round to my apartment one day and showed me the name of the Iraqi diplomat who had visited the little West African country of Niger: a statelet famous only for its production of yellowcake uranium. The name was Wissam Zahawi. He was the brother of my louche gay part-Kurdish friend, the by-now late Mazen. He was also, or had been at the time of his trip to Niger, Saddam Hussein’s ambassador to the Vatican. I expressed incomprehension. What was an envoy to the Holy See doing in Niger? Obviously he was not taking a vacation. Rolf then explained two things to me. The first was that Wissam Zahawi had, when Rolf was at the United Nations, been one of Saddam Hussein’s chief envoys for discussions on nuclear matters (this at a time when the Iraqis had functioning reactors). The second was that, during the period of sanctions that followed the Kuwait war, no Western European country had full diplomatic relations with Baghdad. The Vatican was the sole exception, so it was sent a very senior Iraqi envoy to act as a listening post. And this man, a specialist in nuclear matters, had made a discreet side trip to Niger. This was to suggest exactly what most right-thinking people were convinced was not the case: namely that British intelligence was on to something when it said that Saddam had not ceased seeking nuclear materials in Africa.[69]

I published a few columns on this, drawing at one point an angry email from Ambassador Zahawi that very satisfyingly blustered and bluffed on what he’d really been up to. I also received—this is what sometimes makes journalism worthwhile—a letter from a BBC correspondent named Gordon Correa who had been writing a book about A.Q. Khan. This was the Pakistani proprietor of the nuclear black market that had supplied fissile material to Libya, North Korea, very probably to Syria, and was open for business with any member of the “rogue states” club. (Saddam’s people, we already knew for sure, had been meeting North Korean missile salesmen in Damascus until just before the invasion, when Kim Jong Il’s mercenary bargainers took fright and went home.) It turned out, said the highly interested Mr. Correa, that his man Khan had also been in Niger, and at about the same time that Zahawi had. The likelihood of the senior Iraqi diplomat in Europe and the senior Pakistani nuclear black-marketeer both choosing an off-season holiday in chic little uranium-rich Niger… well, you have to admit that it makes an affecting picture. But you must be ready to credit something as ridiculous as that if your touching belief is that Saddam Hussein was already “contained,” and that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair were acting on panic reports, fabricated in turn by self-interested provocateurs. So I am proud of what our little international of volunteers was able to manage in this element of the crisis, too. It can be just as useful to expose the laughable as it is important to unmask the hateful: as I had slowly discovered in those riverside Thames-to-Tigris moments, covering as they did the waterfront from Adolf Hitler through Agatha Christie to Oscar Wilde.

 

[60]Recently declassified papers show the British embassy in Baghdad reporting back to London in these terms: Saddam’s accession to office was “the first smooth transfer of power since 1958” and, though “strong-arm methods may be needed to steady the ship, Saddam will not flinch.”

[61]I used to make a point, later on in Washington, of arguing that no operations in Iraq should ever again be given the stupid code-name prefix of “Desert.” Mesopotamia is not a desert.

[62]Today, in an echo of the Latin American vernacular about those who were, rather than had, “disappeared,” Kurdish people describe certain towns or groups as having been “Anfalled.”

[63]Kanan got his museum, and the Memory Foundation is now an archive for victims and survivors whose narrative would otherwise never have been set down. This remarkable achievement remains a continual cause of spite and resentment.

[64]I had of course heard that Ahmad had once been indicted—by a military court in Jordan when it was Saddam’s ally—for being a shady businessman. I have also read persuasive evidence that this was a frame-up, as were many other charges—“puppet of the CIA,” for one absurd example—that were made against him. My main difference with him is, and remains, his alignment with a confessional bloc in the Iraqi parliament. But without him, there might well not be an Iraqi parliament.

[65]See, for the best account of this upheaval in real time, James Fenton’s book The Snap Revolution.

[66]To be fair, Ian McEwan’s highly acute novel Saturday, which is easily the best evocation of this street-theater event, does capture the anguish of many “liberals” who did turn out. His work was also the first to isolate the unstinting self-regard that underlies the terribly OK-seeming mantra of “Not In Our Name.”

[67]It impressed me very much to see my Kurdish friends, including Iraq’s first-ever democratically chosen president, Jalal Talabani, publicly voice their opposition to the death penalty for Saddam Hussein and the other convicted war criminals. This appeal to clemency arose partly from their adherence to the Socialist International and also from their wish to begin Iraq again without a blood reckoning. After what they had endured, their forebearance was something extraordinary. In Kurdistan itself, where tribal retributionism was not so much in evidence, Barham Salih personally declined to sign death-warrants for the Islamist gangsters who had murdered his guards and very nearly slain him on his own doorstep.

[68]This document was originally published by my old friend Patrick Cockburn, perhaps the best chronicler of the war and certainly its most fervent and intelligent critic.

[69]This verifiable account is often confused with a bungled attempt to sell some forged documents from the embassy of Niger in Rome: a false trail that, whether out of cupidity or design, wasted the time of several already time-wasting “inquiries.”

Contents