Suede boots, pink ladies

Lindsey Hilsum finds some curious visitors on the streets of Baghdad

As the band played ear-splittingly discordant martial music, my eyes strayed down and I watched the shoes marching past. Trainers, clumpy high heels, clogs, platform sandals. These were the female fighters in the Jerusalem Army, the popular militia which is meant to confront the Americans in hand-to-hand combat on the streets of Iraq's cities. We were in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's birthplace, for Revolution Day, and the authorities had staged a military parade for our benefit.

At least, I assume it was for our benefit because very few members of the public were present to witness the event. I felt as if we were on a film set. Saddam Hussein's deputy, Izzat Ibrahim, saluted from a grandstand above the parade ground as the militia marched past in companies of about a hundred. It took two hours. The women wore black skirts and blouses with different-coloured sashes bearing the legend in Arabic "Yes, Saddam". Some had black-and-white, Yasser Arafat-style kuffiyeh headscarves across their faces. One group were carrying Kalashnikovs.

Then came the men. A few companies of regular troops, with full uniforms and polished black boots, followed by the militia. Some wore camouflage trousers topped with machine-knit sweaters - style M&S, circa 1975. Others had denim jackets. One old man in a white turban shuffled along in a pair of gold slippers. Several companies carried rocket launchers on their shoulders; one rather sweaty group marched past in gas masks. A tribal elder with traditional blue tattoos on his wrist waved aloft a Second World War vintage bolt-action rifle, while a small band of armed Bedouin wandered behind him.

We may have been representatives of the enemy, but they seemed only too happy to see us. One man shouted: "I will destroy you, America!", but when I waved and smiled, most smiled back. Someone stepped out of formation when the al-Jazeera crew asked for an interview, only to be hustled on by an officer.

Rumour has it that small bands of Special Republican Guards are holed up in houses throughout the capital, but we have seen little armour and only a scattering of anti-aircraft positions. The official line is that no one is scared, but those who can are sending their families away to Syria or Iran, or to the countryside. The problem is that few can afford it.

"My wife won't go unless her sisters go, too," explained one man. "She has six sisters, and they all have families. I have ten children, and they have children, too. Then there's my eight brothers and sisters and their families . . ." He had about 150 people who needed to be evacuated. "So we'll just stay in Baghdad," he concluded.

We journalists want to stay in Baghdad, too, because that's what we do. I think that the Iraqis understand what we are doing, but I'm not sure what they make of the Women in Pink. They are peace protesters who have chosen to make their stance against the US government here in Baghdad. Since their message is primarily for Washington, they spend most of their time outside the ministry of information press centre trying to get on American network television or, failing that, any kind of television. They wear pink T-shirts with the words "It's About Oil" inscribed in black felt tip. Sometimes they unfurl a pink banner that says: "I have found the Smoking Gun", and stand draping petrol pump hoses and nozzles over it to emphasise the point. A consortium of peace groups has erected a "peace tent" opposite the Canal Hotel, where the weapons inspectors work, with the aim of providing encouragement, because they regard inspections as an alternative to war.

"I am against the bombing," said Elaine Broadhead, a Pink Person from Virginia. "Some new things came out in Colin Powell's presentation, but not enough to go and kill the people I've been meeting on the streets." Her sincerity was undeniable - and she may well be right - but the protesters and volunteer human shields undoubtedly provide propaganda fodder for Saddam Hussein. The newspapers are full of anti-war demonstrations from Indonesia to Ireland, and fraternal declarations from visiting delegations, a way of convincing the Iraqi public that the world is with Saddam Hussein.

Among those visiting Baghdad this month was "Jany" Le Pen, wife of the far-right French politician, touting copies of her book SOS Les Enfants d'Irak. With her bouffant hair, tight jeans and stiletto-heeled dark-blue suede boots, she looked better prepared for dinner in a chic Paris restaurant than for a bombing campaign. "I've been here 14 times," she told me. "I like this country."

"And the government?" I asked.

"This is a free and sovereign country," she replied.

The left-wing peace campaigners are less enthusiastic about the government, but blanch only slightly at the company they're keeping. "War makes strange bedfellows," said Bret Eartheart from Bloomington, Indiana. "This is not a regime we support, but we have a mutual cause. Human consciousness is growing on the planet."

I don't know if human consciousness is growing in Tikrit. The men and women dragooned into the Jerusalem Army seemed relaxed enough, but they may soon have to choose between getting slaughtered if they take on an invading US army, and risking the wrath of the regime's lieutenants if they wisely put up the shutters and stay at home.

"We want a new government," whispered one man, when he was sure no one else could hear. "But war is not the way to do it."

Lindsey Hilsum is diplomatic correspondent for Channel 4 News