Tuesday 18 March 2003

Baghdad is a city sleepwalking to war

In vain, I looked for signs of the storm to come.

by Robert Fisk

click here to visit his website For Baghdad, it is night number 1,001, the very last few hours of fantasy. As UN inspectors prepared to leave the city in the early hours of this morning, Saddam Hussein has appointed his own son, Qusay, to lead the defence of the city of the Caliphs against the American invasion. Yet at the Armed Forces club yesterday, I found the defenders playing football. Iraqi television prepares Baghdad people for the bombardment to come with music from the Hollywood film, Gladiator. But the Iraqis went on with their work of disarming the soon-to-be invaded nation, observing the destruction of two more Al-Samoud missiles.

The UN inspectors, only hours from packing, even turned up to observe this very last bit of the disarmament which the Americans had so fervently demanded and in which they have now totally lost interest. With the inspectors gone, there is nothing to stop the Anglo-American air forces commencing their bombardment of the cities of Iraq.

So is Baghdad to be Stalingrad, as Saddam tells us? It doesn't feel like it. The roads are open, checkpoints often unmanned, the city's soldiery dragging on cigarettes outside the United Nations headquarters. From the banks of the Tigris river – a muddy, warm sewage-swamped version of Stalingrad's Volga – I watched yesterday evening the fishermen casting their lines for the fish that Baghdadis eat after sunset. The Security Council resolution withdrawn? Tony Blair calls an emergency meeting of the Cabinet? George Bush to address the American people? Baghdad, it seems, is sleep-walking its way into history.

How come I found a queue of Iraqis waiting outside the Sindbad cinema in Saadun Street last night, queuing for that ancient Egyptian clunker Private Lives, its posters displaying the ample size of its heroine? Talk to any Iraqi and they will tell you they adore – more than adore – Saddam. But they would, wouldn't they? And we've heard that for well over two decades. True, the local Baathist papers regale us with peace marches and peace protests around the world – as if Mr Bush is going to call back his quarter of a million men because Jordanians burnt American flags on Sunday.

The detachment is quite extraordinary, as if we are breathing here in Baghdad a different kind of air, as if we exist on a planet quite removed from the B-52s and Stealth bombers and cruise missiles and Mother of All Bombs, which will soon make the earth tremble beneath our feet. The very history and culture of the Arab world is about to be visited by a Western-made earthquake, the likes of which has never been seen.

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