William Skidelsky visits culinary Baghdad

A glamorous woman turned up in Baghdad offering her services for free

Three years ago, a rumour started circulating in the Arab coffee shops of west London. For several months, Saddam Hussein had been training an elite squad of female assassins. Their mission: to travel to London, obtain work as belly dancers, and target Iraqi dissidents living in the city. Around this time, a glamorous young Iraqi woman turned up at Baghdad, an Iraqi restaurant on Westbourne Grove, and offered her services for free. She performed a few times, and then disappeared. It later emerged that she had worked in Iraq as a dancer for one of Saddam Hussein's sons. Her visit to London was never properly explained.

The proprietor of Baghdad, who asked to be called only Abdul, recounts this story with a gleam in his eye. It is the first Saturday night of the war and I have come to his restaurant with a group of friends. Despite the bombs raining down on the real Baghdad, the atmosphere in this one seems relatively relaxed.

Abdul opened Baghdad a little more than five years ago, since when it has become a prominent meeting place for Iraqis living in London. These number approximately 200,000, and include Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, as well as former members of the ruling Ba'ath Party and communist activists. Abdul tells me that everyone is welcome in his restaurant, no matter what their ethnic group or religious affiliation. "Iraq is a country where people are unable to express their opinions. But here in Britain you can say what you like."

On the night we visit, most of the customers are English. Next to us are two young men, who appear to be on a date. A vicar and his female companion sit at the table opposite, looking incongruous against the Arab decor. Abdul says that more English people have started coming to the restaurant since the talk of war began. Unlike him, however, most of them are opposed to military action. Earlier that day, I had conducted some research into Iraqi cooking. This proved difficult. Iraq, it seems, has been influenced by the cooking of its neighbours - particularly Iran and Turkey - to the extent that it lacks a distinctive cuisine of its own. When I put this to Abdul, however, he disagreed. "There is a distinctive style of cooking in Iraq. Our food is milder, less spicy than other Middle Eastern countries. We often simmer our dishes for a long time, rather than grilling them." He explained that burgul (or crushed wheat) is a speciality, having been the staple of the Assyrians who inhabited the region many centuries ago.

The food at Baghdad only partly bears out this assertion. Most of the dishes are standard Middle Eastern fare. The starters include hummus, baba ganoush (aubergine pate) and tabbouleh, as well as a tasty dish of mashed brown broad beans which bears the rather unenticing name of "foul medames". The main courses are more original: bamieh, a dish of lamb stewed with okra and tomatoes, is an Iraqi speciality. But even this wasn't particularly flavourful. Abdul is right to say that Iraqi food is mild. I got the impression that the real reason people come to Baghdad is to talk - about life, politics, exile. Abdul, certainly, is keen to discuss current events. He tells me that his family still lives in Baghdad, where his father runs a restaurant, just two miles away from the presidential complex. He had been in contact with them earlier that day. "Of course I am worried. But Iraqi people want to get rid of Saddam. And this is the only way."

At 10pm, the lights fade and Arab music starts blaring from the speakers. A woman dressed in colourful robes sweeps into the room, and begins gyrating furiously. She gets a mixed reception. The young male couple look unimpressed when she sidles up to their table. She doesn't even attempt to attract the vicar's attention. Fed up with the lack of interest, she approaches our table, and orders the female contingent to "Come up and dance!" Rather disappointingly, her accent is broad south London. But at least she is unlikely to be an assassin working for the Iraqi government.

Baghdad, 107 Westbourne Grove, London W2 4UW (tel: 020 7229 3868/3048)