Barrels of Anthrax, No Laughs

In a previous life I was once assigned to spend six months on a black and brown rocky island off the coast of Oman, a place called Masirah, which had a bleak military airfield, an even bleaker BBC Eastern Relay station and ... er, that's it. Outside the air base there were no inhabitants apart from a handful of illiterate nomadic Arab fishermen. No women were allowed on the island. We had a small officer's club with a small movie house and a sparse bar and ... er, that's it. Before leaving for the dreary assignment I asked a guy who had just come back what it had been like to spend six months there. His eyes developed an unfocused faraway gaze. "Not a barrel of laughs, I can tell you, old chap. Not a barrel of laughs at all."

There was one spot of greenery on the island - a lone, carefully nurtured cotton plant that lived on water dripping from a small, rusty, and possibly Victorian-era desalination unit behind the BBC. One night a desert storm uprooted the plant and blew it away - an omen of sorts, for several years later a freak cyclone tore up and blew away the entire BBC relay station. Not a barrel of laughs, not at all, and this phrase for me stills sums up the entire alien concept of the Middle East in the Western mind.

Words like Masirah, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Ramallah, do not bring the same beam of pleasure to a foreign face as words like France, Tuscany, Algarve, or Andalusia. Its not entirely Euro-centric - there are some truly lovely havens in the Middle East, like southern Oman, Dubai, western Iran.

When you mention "Iraq" in these parts, you instantly smell the rubber of the gas mask that didn't work, the ludicrous polyethylene of the "heder atoom" (sealed room). There is a distant crunch of an exploding Scud, the monstrous leer of sado-Saddam patting a wincing little British boy on the head, CNN pictures of green moss on the screen that we are earnestly assured is a scoop from Baghdad, and Kuwaiti skies black and greasy from hundreds of oil fires we assumed would take decades to put out.

That was Iraq, Gulf War II, and before that there was Iraq's Gulf War I with Iran. Having covered part of that, images of Iraq left a similar metallic taste in my mouth. It was a world of military greens and browns, of mud, barbed wire and bodies under a wet gray sky on the Shatt al-Arab front that all added up to a retro World War I. At some military airfield where we were brought to cover some now-forgotten "important diplomat" arriving, squeaking and yelping Iraqi security guards - whom we contemptuously called "the hamsters" - made arbitrary instant rules for how we should cover the non-story. "No, no," they screamed at the TV crews - "You, here!" (inside the fence). "Cameras there!" (outside the fence). "No film! No talk! No write! No questions! After, we make official statement."

And now, here we go again. The same idiotic Saddam - this time on a balcony, dressed like a Scottish country gentleman in a silly hat, firing a rifle in the air. There are pointless "resolutions" and boring "inspectors" and lying "hamsters," and a silly president called "Bush," and his British poodle yapping away at the Baghdad gate, trying to look like a bulldog. Already we can smell the gas masks that won't work, and the "heder" that's probably more of a tomb than "atoom." These are rumors of bombs of small pox and barrels of anthrax - but not of laughs.

Does Iraq really exist, or has George Bush had to reinvent it because he screwed up the great "crusade" against global terrorism? Of course we have nothing against "the Iraqi people" - but do they exist either, any more than those "Palestinian people" we cheerfully occupy and murder but have nothing against? Iraq has become the dark and sand-swept planet Arrakis of Frank Herbert's great science fiction saga "Dune." It is presided over by a sinister Baron Hakkonen, who held the universe to ransom for the "spice melange" that keeps it running.

"The planet sheltered people that lived at the desert edge, ignoring any caid or bashar who would command them: will-o'-the-sand people called Fremen, marked down on no census of the Imperial Regate." Yes, Herbert's future is already with us, even to "the witches of the Bene Gesserit" war-mongering with the Emperor in "The Great House" to invade Arrakis and "finally seize control of the spice melange."

For all Israel's pretense of being some nerdy and fawning appendage of the United States, it is Middle Eastern, and here we have all met former members of "the Iraqi people." But reading the Western press these days, it is hard to find anyone who actually walked among the Fremen we are gleefully looking forward to killing like flies. Does there exist any Mahmoud the friendly barber who doesn't slit your throat while shaving you, a Mohammed the friendly baker who doesn't lace his pita with anthrax, a Fatima the friendly Mom who doesn't teach the kids how to handle a Kalashnikov? It's like an Israeli press without an Amira Hass - if she didn't exist, neither would the Palestinians as human beings.

"I'd have preferred to escort the Iraqi ambassador's wife," writes my wicked compatriot Eamon Delaney in "An Accidental Diplomat," a runaway bestseller two years ago that used my favorite quote about diplomats as its motto - a diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing. "With her chunky gold jewelry and strong calves, she was in that sexy `mature woman' bracket that gets young men excited at the start of their careers. I imagined her vaguely bored in a hot foreign posting and looking for a bit of (youthful) action. What would the Iraqis do if you threw the leg over? Throw the rest of you over to join it, I suspect."

When he was at the United Nations, Delaney played the strange role of many affable Irish diplomats in his position, who have to sit "between Iraq and a hard place" - for the UN seats its delegates alphabetically. "I shook hands with the delegates of Iran and Iraq, who wouldn't speak to one another, and then with the delegate of Israel whom the other two wouldn't even look at." Delaney sat "between the I's" as the world ganged up on Iraq in 1990 over Saddam's despicable occupation of Kuwait, but he personally declined to join the official consensus of making all Iraqis into monsters. "The Iraqi delegates were really OK people and far more personable than the Iranians or, at times, the Israelis. The Iranians were the most chilling people in the room - compared to them the Iraqis were a bit of crack, talking about shopping or sports. They even warmed to [my friend's] search for a girl friend, suggesting one of the El Salvador delegates. `But she's so big,' we said. `Yes, yes, big is good,' said the Iraqis."

As the vote that led to inevitable war loomed, the Iraqi delegate told Delaney about the great weekend he had just had with his wife when they took the kids to the Five Flags Adventure Park in New Jersey. "I found this unbearably sad on the eve of a war in which thousands would die, and here was the Iraqi delegate, an ordinary man having a day out with his kids - his kids playing with American kids, who wouldn't know or care who they were."

Unbearably sad indeed - and here the Israeli government and press is foaming at the mouth to go to Iraq and do it all again with lots of "inevitable collateral damage." But of course, we have nothing against the Iraqi people. You have to know people - like our neighbors - to care a fig about them.