"come on over the water's lovely"

  1. 1,781 Posts.
    Mark Steyn
    Telegraph (London), June 1, 2003

    There's no dysentery or cholera, no sign of a human catastrophe, the roads and medical centres are empty and the countryside charming. Yes, writes Mark Steyn, there's no place like Iraq for a holiday

    I've spent the past couple of weeks on a motoring tour of western and northern Iraq, and I can't recommend it highly enough. The roads are empty except for the occasional burnt-out tank and abandoned Saddam limo. You can make excellent time, because it will be several months before a deBa'athified Iraqi highway patrol squad is up and running and even longer before they replace the looted radar detectors. On the boring stretches of desert motorway you can liven things up by playing D-I-Y contraflow. And best of all, if you avoid Baghdad and a couple of other major cities, you'll find the charming countryside completely unspoilt by Western reporters insisting that America is "losing the peace".

    For most of the Iraq war and its immediate aftermath, it was easy for any relatively rational person to dismiss the media doom-mongering. Hundreds of thousands of dead civilians? Never gonna happen. Hand-to-hand street-fighting as Baghdad morphs into Stalingrad? Dream on. Even that Iraqi National Museum "disaster" was an obvious hoax, though I was sad to see my friends at The Spectator fall for it and add their own peculiar twist that it was all a conspiracy of a sinister US antiquities lobby.

    But, when the naysayers started moving on to claim that the whole post-war scene was going disastrously for the Yanks, I honestly didn't know what to make of it. As a general rule of thumb, when two non-government organisations, the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, the BBC and the New York Times agree that the whole powder keg's about to go up, it's a safe bet that things are going swimmingly. But who knows? Even these guys have got to be right once a decade or so. So I decided to see for myself.

    Unlike those parliamentary delegations getting ferried around by the military and Continental television crews embedded with convoys of NGOs, I have no contacts either in the Ministry of Defence or the World Food Programme. So I hopped on a flight to Jordan, rented some beat-up Nissan piece of junk in Amman and headed east. After four hours, I passed a sign on the highway saying "IRAQI BOARDER 39km". I assumed this was a misprint, but 39km down the road there were indeed some Iraqi boarders, boarding in a United Nations refugee camp in the no-man's land between the Jordanian and Iraqi frontier posts. Lacking one of the gazillion pieces of paperwork necessary to get past the interminable Jordanian frontier bureaucracy and gamely bluffing my way through, I left the car on the shoulder just past the sentry box a few yards from the tents. I returned to find a woman and her children clustered round it and anxious to know whether I could offer them safe passage to a third country. It seems they lacked the relevant papers to satisfy the Jordanians and, unlike yours truly, had been unable to talk their way round.

    Although the camp had set up enough tents for hundreds, the members of this family were the only refugees in residence. The singular of that "IRAQI BOARDER" sign was a slight exaggeration, but not by much. And that underpopulated border camp is a fine motif for what's going on: vast numbers of bureaucrats are running around Iraq with unlimited budgets in search of a human catastrophe that doesn't exist.

    "Had a lot of refugees?" I asked the Jordanian customs officer.

    "We had about 10 through last week," he said. "Palestinians."

    "Where were they headed? Amman?"

    "No, he said. "They were going back to Iraq."

    Apparently, having fled across the Jordanian border to the UN facility near Ruweished, they concluded after a few days that the camp wasn't quite up to snuff and decided to go back home. Amazing. Over on the West Bank, the Palestinians have been in their grotesque UN "refugee" "camps" for more than 50 years. But, faced with a choice between Ruweished and the "chaos" and "insecurity" of Iraq, the Palestinians have finally found a refugee camp up with which they will not put. Incidentally, when I was there, every Iraqi refugee in the UN camp at Ruweished was Palestinian. In other words, this isn't a human crisis but Arab politics - the longstanding refusal by Middle Eastern regimes to accord Palestinian residents any kind of legal status.

    Many of those in the Ruweished camp are the husbands and children of Jordanian women, but it makes no difference: flee Iraq with Palestinian documents and you get slung in a refugee camp. The inability of their Arab brothers to resist screwing the Palestinians is not a problem George W Bush can fix, only King Abdullah, and all that UN refugee camp is doing is letting His Majesty get away with it.

    So that's the most basic thing about post-Saddam Iraq: for all the "anarchy", no one's fleeing. In the course of my trip, I drove as far east as the outskirts of Baghdad and as far north as Kirkuk. I spent a pleasant evening prowling round Saddam's home town of Tikrit, where I detected a frisson of menace in the air, but marginally less than in, say, Stockwell, south London. Come to think of it, I was wearing a suit and tie (the Robert Fisk look isn't really my bag) and carrying substantial amounts of hard currency, which I'd never do after dark round Tottenham. I had an illegally acquired firearm but, even in Tikrit, I was relaxed enough to leave it in the glove box.

    In the western towns, which were relatively unscathed by the war, it's the almost surgical removal of the regime that you're struck by. Every Main Street roundabout has its empty plinths where the Saddam portraits stood. There are generally a couple of large blocks plus a compound and maybe a fancy house with elaborate decorative stonework with their doors and gates hanging off the hinges and the odd goat or donkey defecating over the interior: these are the Ba'athist buildings, and they're the sole target of highly focused looting. Everything else is untouched - the poky grocery stores piled high with boxes of soda you could boil a lobster in, the ramshackle auto shops with their mounds of second-hand tyres, all these are open for business, and in the end they're more relevant to the future of Iraq than the legions of unemployed Saddamite bureaucrats in Baghdad or the NGO armies in their brand new, gleaming white Chevy Suburbans and Land Rovers cruising the streets touting for business like drug pushers in search of junkies.

    Last Sat*urday, I was back in Rutba, a town I rather like in its decrepit way, and stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant with big windows, a high ceiling with attractive mouldings and overhead fans, and a patron who looked like a Sinatra album cover, hat pushed back on his head. As I got out of the car, I noticed across the street a big, white sports utility - a sure sign that someone from the welfare jet set was in town. This one was marked Oxfam. "Hmm," I thought. "Must be some starvation in the neighbourhood."

    The winsome young Arab boy with a face as lovely as Halle Berry's and a lot less grumpy brought me a whole roast chicken - stringy but chewy - piled with bread and served with a generous selection of salads. I managed to determine that the Oxfam crowd was holding a meeting with the Red Cross to discuss the deteriorating situation. But just what exactly was "deteriorating"? As my groaning table and the stores along Main Street testified, there was plenty of food in town. Was it the water? I made a point of drinking the stuff everywhere I went in a spirited effort to pick up the dysentery and cholera supposedly running rampant. But I remain a disease-free zone. So what precisely is happening in Rutba that requires an Oxfam/ICRC summit? Well, the problem, as they see it, is that, sure, there's plenty of food available but "the prices are too high". That's why the World Food Programme and the other NGOs need to be brought in, to distribute more rations to more people.

    Can you think of anything Iraq needs less? If prices really are "too high", it's because storekeepers are in the first flush of a liberated economy. Given that the main drag in Rutbah has a gazillion corner shops lined up side by side, competition will soon bring prices down to what the market can bear, if it hasn't already. Offering folks WFP rations will only put some of those storekeepers out of business and ensure that even more people need rations. But perhaps that's the idea.

    And perhaps that's why I found rather more hostility towards the WFP, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees et al than towards the military. "Americans only in the sky," one man told me, grinning as a chopper rumbled overhead. "No problem." Down on the ground, meanwhile, the new imperial class are the NGOs. They shuttle across the globe, mingling with their own kind - other SUV users - and bringing with them the values of the mother country, or the mother bureaucracy. Like many imperialists, they're well-meaning: they see their charges as helpless and dependent, which happy condition has the benefit of justifying an ever-growing aid bureaucracy in perpetuity. It will be very destructive for Iraq if the tentativeness of the American administration in Baghdad allows the ambulance-chasers of the NGOs to sink their fangs into the country.

    I'm pleased to report, then, that the obscene Oil For Food programme has been radically privatised. In much of Iraq, the government petrol stations have been pillaged and the gas pumps stripped of their metal panels so that they stand on two thin metal pins, their hoses hanging loose, like R2D2 before he goes in for a service. Instead, entrepreneurial Iraqis stand along the roadside with small tanks of mysteriously acquired petrol. Heading back to Jordan, I pulled up in the desert. "How much for a fill-up?" I asked.

    "Ten dollars," the man said.

    "I've only got a 20," I said.

    "That's good," he said. "Bush," he added, pointing to the picture of Andrew Jackson on the bill.

    "Close enough," I said. Afterwards, he wanted another 20 for his seven-year-old boy. I'm a softie but not that soft, so I fished out a Canadian 20.

    "What this?" he said suspiciously. "American one dollar?" He pointed to the Queen's portrait. "Who this?"

    "George Washington," I said.

    He'll have a hard job getting rid of the Canadian but that Yankee 20 he'll change in one of the stores back in town and he'll do himself and the local economy more good than the UN's bloated boondoggle ever will.

    Of course, this is only one guy's experience of Iraq. But I'd like to think that it's catching on.

    In Ramadi, in another cafe, the maitre d', in honour of my presence, flipped the television over to BBC World. Some Beeb type was doing a piece about some Baghdadi who hadn't been paid since March. Now what sort of fellow hasn't been paid since March? A chap who worked for the toppled thug government perhaps? Might be a committed thug ideologue, might be just a go-along-to-get-along type. But, given that the new Iraqi government is never going to be as huge as the old one, maybe that chap should just stop whining to the BBC and look for a gig in the private sector. Ditto for the BBC reporter, come to that.

    As usual, the piece wound up with the correspondent standing in the children's ward of the Saddam Hussein Medical Centre predicting more doom and gloom. By contrast, every medical facility I went to in Iraq was well short of capacity. The NGO types concede that Iraqis aren't exactly rushing the hospitals, but say that's because they know that there are no drugs and/or they're worried that they can't afford them. Might be that. Or it might be that they don't want to be stuck on a ward trying to get a moment's sleep under the blazing lights of round-the-clock CNN and BBC camera crews filming their reporter yakking away in front of a telegenic moppet whose acute tonsillitis is somehow all Rumsfeld's fault. These days, I always laugh my head off at BBC World reports. And, in that Ramadi cafe, I was touched to find that, even though most of them hadn't a clue what he was going on about, within half a minute, the rest of the crowd was roaring along with me.

    Back in Jordan, I drove the long stretch of empty road through the dark towards Ruweished. Judging from the spectacular sodium blaze in the distance, the town was evidently a lot bigger than I remembered it. By night, it looked the size of Birmingham. But it wasn't the town at all, just the UN camp - hundreds of floodlights lighting up a colossal area in the centre of which were those handful of tents containing the unfortunate Palestinian spouses of Jordanian women while they plead with King Abdullah to be let in. Just 'cause you've only got a couple of refugees is no reason not to light up the sky. Money no object, that's the UN way. And anyway we all know it's Bush's fault.
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