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Raffique Shah


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Iraq before the Philistines attacked

January 15, 2006
By Raffique Shah

I CAME as close to a suicide grenade attack as one could, back in 1980 in Baghdad. A colleague and I were invited to a conference hosted by the PLO to mark its traditional "land day". Hundreds of delegates from around the world were present, including two from Guyana. It was staged at a university in the city, and ran for five to six days. It was on the "off day", when another students' conference was formally opened at the same venue, that a group of Shiite students set off two hand grenades that killed some six students and wounded many more.

That morning invitees to our conference had the choice of going either to the holy city of Karbala or the ancient relics of Babylon. We chose the latter. But we also wanted to go to the university where Tariq Aziz, then an even more internationally recognised figure than President Saddam Hussein, was due to make an appearance. Because the buses that would take us to Babylon left early, we had to abandon plans to try and see Tariq. The suicide bombers were among hundreds of students who had gathered for the same purpose-to meet a man who personified a progressive Iraq, one of the few secular states that lay in the midst of a host of Islamic countries.

Turned out that Tariq could not attend, so he sent one of his junior ministers. It was when the latter alighted from his car and the crowd surged towards him that the two grenades were hurled. Of course, in that atmosphere, the culprits did not escape, nor were they maimed or killed: presumably, they were arrested and either jailed or executed. Later, at the funeral for the dead, Shiite militants again struck, killing even more people with their hand grenades. That was the time when Ayatollah Khomeini had just come to power in Iran, and had branded Saddam an "infidel". Nightly, on radio, he called on the Shiite majority in Iraq to overthrow Saddam and the Baathist government, and replace it with an Islamic one.

Later, I thought how close we, my friend and I, had come to being killed. But we lived to tell the story of pre-war Iraq: later that same year, war broke out between Iran and Iraq, and since then neither country has been what they were prior to that murderous military campaign. What we saw in Iraq, though, was very impressive. With oil wealth flowing for around six years, the government had embarked on a massive modernisation of the country that was one of the more fortunate in the Middle-East. Because whereas others-Kuwait (once part of Iraq), the UAE, Saudi Arabia-had much oil but little else, Iraq, thanks to the mighty rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, also had fertile land.

We saw huge blocks of apartments, commercial and industrial complexes, under construction. There were road-enhancing and other infrastructural works underway. The city itself was quite modern. As representatives of farmers' organisations, we were shown farm-equipment like tractors manufactured completely in Iraq. But in the "old quarters" where there were cobblestone streets, one could get glimpses of not-so-prosperous people, old men, wrinkles etched on their faces, sipping black, strong coffee from tiny cups. On the drive to Babylon, some 80-plus miles out of Baghdad, we had glimpses of the desert and rural Iraq. We saw thatched compounds in which entire clans lived. And at Babylon itself, we were accosted by Gypsies who were begging.

Of course we knew nothing much about Saddam. He was yet to be lionised (or despised, I guess), since his predecessor, Hassan al-Bakr, was better-known. I cannot, therefore, say that Saddam was a good leader. For all I know, he may have been the tyrant the West now makes him out to be. But the country was so beautiful, such a reflection of what one expected to encounter in that part of the world, and most of all, a country that was obviously using its oil wealth to enhance the quality of lives of its people. Based on the grenade attacks, I opened this column with, I can also say that it was Khomeini who provoked Iraq into a war that drained the resources of both countries.

Even that war, though, failed to reduce Iraq to a poverty-stricken country. At the time of Saddam's misadventure in Kuwait back in 1990, Iraq had more qualified professionals-medical doctors, teachers, engineers, technicians-than all its neighbouring states, except perhaps Iran. Its utilities reached most of the population: potable water was plentiful, thanks to the great rivers; electricity reached almost every household; education was universal; and religious freedom, even among Shiites and Christians, was something to marvel at.

It pains me, therefore, when I see a once-thriving country reduced to rubble, its people to paupers, by a philistine who has arrogated unto himself the power to determine the destiny of sovereign states.