In Saddam's land, they hold their breath

Iraq's streets are full of people buying and selling goods from all over the world. Sanctions have f

I flew into sanctions-closed Baghdad from Amman on a regular flight by Royal Jordanian airways. The plane has been making the one-and-a-half-hour journey four times a week for the past couple of years, and it is so commercially successful that the airline hopes soon to fly daily. I had imagined making the 12-hour trek to Baghdad from Amman by bus, or the even more taxing one from Damascus. But the UN-imposed sanctions against Iraq, now entering their second decade, have been collapsing in recent years, and its capital city is no longer as inaccessible as it once was. Four flights a week into a modern metropolis of five or six million people is not exactly mass tourism, but a vivid symbol, certainly, of the failure of the west's policy of containment of Iraq.

I feel as if I were at the still point of the turning world, the forgotten capital of what Tony Blair describes as "a despicable regime", the country that is supposed to be constructing "weapons of mass destruction", and the place where George Bush plans a "regime change". Soon there will be Anglo-American bombing - yet again - and perhaps an invasion with ground troops. I have in my hands a copy of the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the influential bimonthly magazine of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations. "The United States should invade Iraq," writes Kenneth Pollack, a former staffer on the National Security Council, "eliminate the present regime, and pave the way for a successor prepared to abide by its international commitments and live in peace with its neighbours."

Passengers arriving at the airport are greeted with an unequivocal statement of defiance. The words "Down America" are painted several times on the floor.

The drive in to town from the airport is a familiar developing-world experience, a wide tree-lined dual carriageway designed to show a commitment to modernity. The only things lacking are the traditional poster sites advertising the virtues and ubiquity of multinational companies. Instead there is the occasional portrait of the nation's great leader, or a reference to a nationalised bank.

I am visiting Baghdad at the invitation of a government think-tank to participate in a conference on globalisation. I am scheduled to present a paper on the recent changes to oil legislation in Venezuela, Iraq's partner in Opec. The conference has been organised by Baytol Hikma, a government academic institute established in 1995, in an ancient palace on the banks of the Tigris.

For three days, with fellow delegates, we are cooped up in a conference centre to discuss "the Arab response to globalisation". On the first morning, we are addressed by Tariq Aziz, the Zhou Enlai of the Iraqi regime, the great survivor who has been translating Saddam's policies into formulae comprehensible to the outside world since the 1970s. He is an intelligent, articulate and persuasive politician. "All states that have linked their economies to the globalised system," he tells us, "have failed to raise the standard of living of their peoples."

Iraq has not been given much chance recently to join such a system, and Aziz, the deputy prime minister, is keen to emphasise that the regime is happy that way.

It has, however, taken the internet to its heart in the past couple of years and imported the necessary machines from Korea. The service can be accessed, at a cheap rate, in the home or at the equivalent of internet cafes.

Outside the conference, I explore the city. Saddam's picture is everywhere, yet no two portraits ever seem to be the same. An official explains to me that the pictures are distributed centrally, but the choice of which picture to display can be made by the individual office or shop or barracks. Many appear to be paintings rather than photographs. Here is one in military fatigues, there another in a lounge suit. The end of a building, overhanging the street, has a profile in stone, an effigy designed to recall the era of Hammurabi. Next comes a picture in Arab headdress and white robe, then one in shirtsleeves.

All over the Arab world, the various regimes post up the portrait of their king or president, but the cult of Saddam's image appears excessive even in this regional context. Yet what is particularly striking is the absence of any graffiti. These pictures are never destroyed or defaced. Terror, or apathy, or a cultural reluctance to disturb something associated with the state? It is difficult to say, but of overt signs of opposition to the regime, there are none.

Every second street in Baghdad is an impromptu market place, and buying and selling seems to be the principal economic activity. I passed an endless succession of shops selling shoes and shirts. All the necessities of human life are on display: hairdressers and shoeshine men, carpenters and metal workshops, pistachio nut sellers, orange juice squeezers, fast-food outlets selling roast chicken and doner kebabs. In the more formal markets, an immense amount of basic equipment is on display, much of it coming from China and Korea, and from Malaysia and Indonesia. The dress code appears quite relaxed. Women always wear long skirts or trousers, and often they appear with headscarves, but veils are optional and unusual in the city. Men are dressed in western style, though sometimes the older ones wear traditional robes.

When I tell an Iraqi journalist that I find Baghdad to be rather more prosperous than I had expected, she turns on me in fury. "No one has enough to eat," she says, "because of sanctions."

But, I say, I have walked through several markets piled high with goods and food.

"You don't understand," she says, "no one has any money. People have to live on two dollars a month."

The figure may not be exact, but her remark seems close to the truth. Everyone I meet, even government officials, laments that their incomes are so low that it is difficult to make ends meet. Inflation seems uncontrollable; and, if you change ten dollars, you stagger away with a bundle of 70 over-large 250 dinar notes.

Everyone shops, yet everyone feels the pinch. Health and education are supposed to be free for all, but teachers are so badly paid that they give moonlighting lessons for cash in the evenings, and healthcare often requires the outlay of more than a nominal sum. Yet the population is being fed, and hunger has successfully been kept at bay over the past decade. Each family receives a monthly basket of flour and rice, and other basic foodstuffs. It may be the very minimum needed, but it has kept the population alive - and politically onside.

The official line is that sanctions are causing great poverty, and this has been given much publicity abroad. Doubtless there was truth in this claim in the 1990s, and certainly many children must have died from a lack of food and drugs. But it is clear today, from the quantity of goods in the shops, and the heavy traffic jams in the crowded urban motorways, that the sanctions menace has in effect been defeated.

Politics are another story. Iraqis remain depoliticised and demobilised, as they have done for many years. The Iraqis are nationalistic, but not excessively so. They speak up in strong solidarity with the Palestinians but, because this is also the position of the government, they do not organise demonstrations of the kind that have been taking place elsewhere in the Arab world. Saddam puts a great emphasis on "the Arab homeland", and he would like to be seen as a spokesman for the kind of nationalism that Nasser once espoused. But times have changed, and maybe no Arab leader can hope now to be successful in that ambition.

Saddam is 65, and he has been in power, in effect, for more than 30 years. At one level, he is much like many other leaders of developing nations, motivated by half-forgotten, half-baked notions of socialism, who once hoped to bring free education and free health systems to their peoples. Like so many of his peers (and, indeed, his Iraqi predecessors), he has sought to revive the grandeur of some notional and recreated past. Yet he is not a charismatic leader.

His unconvincing rhetoric stirs neither the chancelleries of the Arab world, nor the Arab "street". He is incompetent at getting his message across, and although this may be partly due to the country's relative impoverishment in the wake of sanctions, it is also the result of his own lack of sophistication and the secretive nature of his regime. He must sometimes wish that he had a television station such as al-Jazeera at his command.

Saddam has had a violent past, at home and abroad, but in the isolated, looking-glass world of Baghdad, Iraqis are led to believe that they are threatened by Iran, by Kuwait and by Israel, rather than the other way round. Many Iraqis feel that they have been robbed of their future, and they blame the bombing and the sanctions for their fate, not Saddam.

It looks as though war will soon come again to Iraq. I ask a young Iraqi economist whether he would be prepared to fight. He has done his military service, and is on a reserve list ready to be called up. He looks unhappy at the question, but agrees that he would have no choice but to do his duty.