Finding the real Iraq

In the shadow of their Glorious Leader, Iraqis are struggling with malnutrition and illiteracy. But

A sign at the border between Jordan and Iraq reads: ''Every Iraqi comer should reverting centers of comer checking in boundaries ports to perform Aids checking". Roughly translated, this means that those entering Iraq will be forced to have an Aids test unless they know the system and can therefore avoid it. Luckily, my driver crosses the border frequently, so I was ushered into a dilapidated office with the sign "Doctor" over the door and spent only a few minutes there before the matter was resolved by discussion. A piece of paper was issued and the doctor rose to shake my hand.

"Thank you," I said. "Goodbye."

"Hello," he replied.

This happens a lot in Iraq. In Arabic, the same word is used for greeting and farewell, so the distinction is frequently forgotten, which is disconcerting for visitors.

A few metres on, I realised we had not finished with the entry formalities. I was taken to an air-conditioned room marked "Rest House of Senior Government Officers". A blue-and-white sign added: "Welcome to the Hosts of Iraq and the Great Leader Saddam Hussein". A young man in a crisp white shirt did the honours.

"I look after VIPs such as yourself," he explained. "I have greeted George Galloway."

"Ah!" I cried. "The honourable Member for Baghdad South. I understand he has even met The President."

The man in the white shirt looked uneasily at a ten-times-life-size portrait of The Great Leader, Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, President and Prime Minister, Ba'ath Party Regional Command Secretary General and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, otherwise known to the nation as Great Uncle, his head swathed in a Yasser Arafat-style black-and-white keffiyeh, staring down at us.

"The president is a very busy man," he said reprovingly. "Maybe he met the vice-president."

And so I entered "Iraq", the fantasy land which exists in parallel to the real Iraq. In "Iraq", the junior policeman assigned to spy on the visiting journalist is a "guide", the Great Leader is beloved and honoured, and the united Iraqi people will defend the motherland against the "evil crows" of the American air force and their ground assault forces with Kalashnikovs, sticks, stones and bare hands. In the real Iraq, unemployment runs at 60 per cent, one-fifth of children are chronically malnourished, the lights keep going out and less than half the population has an adequate water supply.

I spent most of my few days in Baghdad in "Iraq", because this is the land that the authorities wanted me to see. I walked in to the Al-Rasheed Hotel, stepping like thousands before me on the mosaic of a snarling George Bush Sr bearing the legend in English and Arabic: "Bush is criminal". It is like a game of statues where everyone stood still at the end of the Gulf war. Young people who 15 years ago might have studied in Paris or London grasp wildly at ideas half-heard from the world beyond. My "guide" - a young, mild-mannered man with nervous, darting eyes, who loved to practise his French - would ask me questions as if we were playing an interplanetary game of Mastermind.

"Where are the Tiger Woods, and what is their relationship to golf?" he inquired.

I visited the Mother of All Battles Mosque, completed last year, where four of the minarets sport golden phalluses, designed to look like Scud missiles, with the Iraqi flag emblazoned around them.

"The outer minarets are 45 metres high for the 45 days of the Gulf war," explained Abu Najim Yunis, an elderly man with a white beard who chants the call to prayer. "The inner minarets are 37 metres high, because the president was born in 1937." The central praying area can accommodate 2,000 of the faithful, and is dominated by a huge glass chandelier weighing 2.5 tons. The dome is 28 metres high, because the president was born on 28 April. The lake outside, built in the shape of the Arab world and meant to symbolise the interconnectivity of Arab brotherhood, had unfortunately been drained for cleaning.

The real Iraq has none the less succeeded in its attempts to reconnect with Arab nations that abandoned it during the Gulf war 11 years ago. The Al-Rasheed Hotel reception is full of businessmen with five o'clock shadow and ill-fitting suits. While I was there, Tunisian and Jordanian delegations visited. Despite the embargo, Iraq has signed free trade agreements with most countries in the region. Parts of Baghdad are booming, with restaurants and fancy clothes shops springing up; of an evening, the young elite cruise the streets in spanking new cars. No wonder the government is not interested in the terms of an improved United Nations "oil for food" deal, where Iraqi oil is sold and the proceeds put into a UN escrow account to be spent on an approved list of goods, meant to improve the welfare of the people. Sanctions have long since failed - only the poor can't get what they need.

In the afternoon, the temperature rises to 50 degrees and a stifling torpor falls upon the concrete city. I went to the Museum of Leadership, which houses all the gifts given to the Great Leader by his loving people (a decorated leather scabbard, a jacket made of goat hair, a pair of shoes). The story of His life is told in pictures, starting with a black-and-white shot of the humble, flat-roofed house where He was born, in a village near Tikrit, and moving through His school certificates to a photograph of the motorbike He escaped on after He failed to assassinate Prime Minister Abdul-Karim Qassim in 1959. Meetings with other leaders are chronicled ("Jacke Sheracke" of France, the Romanian president "Showshiskoe"). We see Him visiting the sick in hospital, pulling a mud-splattered boat to shore, waving a pistol in the air in front of a huge crowd. He is a man of many parts, with many hats: a panama, a bowler, a Russian-style fur hat, an army beret. In the centre of the museum, above an idle fountain, hangs a hollow globe encasing four gold-plated Kalashnikovs.

The Americans have a fantasy "Iraq", too, in which the Kurds will play the part of the Afghan Northern Alliance, careering on horseback to liberate Baghdad as a vanguard for less expendable American soldiers. At the same time, a group of Iraqi generals who committed war crimes in the past will unite with sundry exiles and chancers to form a credible and stable new government. American troops will be welcomed as liberators, the populus tossing garlands at the tanks as they did in Kosovo. It's just possible. After all, none of us knows what the Iraqis really think because they are not so stupid as to tell us.

"I have been here ten years," said an Arabic-speaking western diplomat. "I don't think one Iraqi has yet told me what he really feels." But this country has a long history of nationalism, and fear or hatred of Saddam Hussein may be tempered by pride and anger at the idea that those who have imposed 12 years of sanctions will now impose a government. "The American people don't have the right to tell me what to do," said one man. "They have this 'mercy killing' when you get old in the west, don't they? So if we as a nation want to commit suicide then it's our business."

On TV, the old men of Saddam's cabinet are paraded in army uniform training for the coming battle. With grey moustaches and fatigues pulled tight over their paunches, they look like an Arab Dad's Army. "We have eight million citizens who can fight," said an official. "The American doctrine is to outnumber the enemy three to one, so that means they need an army of 24 million. Where will they find that?" Diplomats say anti-aircraft batteries have been moved north, and the president has held meetings to secure the loyalty of tribal leaders - the uprisings against the government in the brief days of chaos after the last Gulf war have not been forgotten. Everyone I met in Baghdad believes war is inevitable; no one thinks there is anything they can do to prevent it.

In the Seventies, Iraq grew prosperous from the oil boom and peace with the outside world. But since then, a generation has grown up knowing nothing but war, from the nine-year war with Iran in the Eighties to the war over Kuwait, followed by 12 years of sanctions and sporadic bombardment. If the coming conflict would end all privation and repression some might support it, but experience tells Iraqis that war brings only poverty and suffering.

As I drove out, through miles of flat, rocky desert, I wondered how young Iraqis would cope with a new system where telling lies and feigning obeisance would no longer bring reward and advancement - if they were to live in a real country called Iraq with no parallel, fantasy reality. As the sign about Aids testing at the border put it: "This instruction were applied as long as the comer were inside the country and it useless when he leave." Hello.

Lindsey Hilsum is Channel 4 News diplomatic correspondent