KERBALA, IRAQ, December 2003
Six months from now, America wants to hand over the government of Iraq. But what sort of people might form the new government.
Zayeed Abdul Kareem cut a tall, arresting figure on the deck of the old ferry that was taking us from Dubai to southern Iraq. He was amiable, urbane and full of curiosity. But when alone he became deeply pensive, staring for long periods at the wake of the ship which was churning up the murky waters of the Gulf.
It wasn’t until the end of the three-day journey that Zayeed approached me and told me what was on his mind.
Earlier, I had chatted with a whole group of Iraqis – including Zayeed – who were coming home for the first time since the war.
The insurgency against the American occupation force had done little to dent their overall optimism.
‘This is my dream,’ Zayeed, had told me. ‘When I enter Iraq, I will not see any picture of Sadaam. The Americans, they came and removed Sadaam Hussein. I would like to thank them.’
Now as we sailed slowly passed the flat mud grey landscape of southern Iraq, Zayeed said: ‘Mr Humphrey, my daughter she is fifteen years old. She has Thalasemia. It is a blood disease. I am going back to help her. I am very worried.’
We left Zayeed at the port in Um Qasar, but he lived in Babylon, near the holy Islamic city of Kerbala. So we said we would drop by on our way to Baghdad.
The murals of Saddam had gone. But they had been replaced everywhere by faces of Islamic leaders. In the Basra market, they were selling posters of Ayotollahs, as they had been once selling Saddam memorabilia, restaurants were banned from selling alcohol, and in the mosques the Imams were recounting historic battles as if they had happened the day before and not hundreds of years ago.
They must have known it in Washington, but – amazingly – by getting rid of Saddam the Americans have seamlessly given birth to Islamic fundamentalism.
Then, heading north, it was as if the war had only ended yesterday. Billions of dollars might have been allocated to construction, but nothing was being rebuilt. It was a totally dreadful landscape of despair, uncleared rubbish watched by the unemployed, so unmotivated that they would do nothing to clear it.
It was as if New Yorkers had thrown up their hands and said they were too tired to rebuild after Nine Eleven.
Zayeed welcomed us into his house to proudly show off a poster of (footballer) David Beckham and an American flag draped over the sofa.
Fatima, his daughter, had brilliantly sparkling eyes, but because of her disease her face was pale. She looked more like ten than fifteen years old.
‘I only feel really strong after I’ve had a blood transfusion,’ she said, then smiling cheekily. ‘I don’t tell my friends. I don’t want to be boring about it.’
It turned out that since 1995, the UN had been giving Fatima the key drug she needed – but the problem was getting blood for transfusions and a bone marrow match for a transplant.
‘The hospital is so much better now that Saddam has gone,’ said Fatima’s mother. ‘They used to treat Fatima like dirt. But now we can ask any questions and everyone is very nice to us.’
I asked Fatima what she wanted to do when she left school, and without hesitation she said: ‘A teacher. An Islamic teacher.’
Would she like to come to see the holy shrines of Kerbala with us, I asked – and her eyes lit up so off we all went.
Kerbala is to the Shia Muslim what Rome is to the Catholic. The central square buzzes with worship, hawkers and tourists, many on package trips from neighboring Iran.
We had arranged to meet a leader from the Dawa Party, an Islamic movement banned under Saddam, but now re-emerging as one of the biggest forces in the new Iraq.
I was keen to find out what their policies were, not on religion, but on the practical things like transport, education and health, things such as getting blood transfusions for someone like Fatima.
I left Fatima to sight-see a bit, while I went to check if it was all right for her to sit in on the interview.
The Dawa Party official, Abu Mohammed was a short, stocky man in an ill-fitting suit. He greeted me with a smile, but his was a face of hardship and suffering. ‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘There is no problem in bringing the little girl.’
But he didn’t mean a word of it.
As soon as he saw Fatima in the square he backed off and turned against us. He took no interest in her, but poured plenty of invective at me, making Fatima grip her father’s hand and recoil.
‘Our agreement was to meet just you. Not this woman and child,’ he said.
Stupidly, I tried to deflect things by asking what the Dawa Party’s policy was on health care, but it only made matter’s worse. There was no policy, only threats.
‘I want you to know that I am head of security for the Dawa Party. You must show me you identification. The way you are acting makes me think you are a spy.’
By now Zayeed’s own temper was frayed. ‘When does any leader of Iraq ever give help to the normal people,’ he snapped.
The police came and stopped us leaving. Why? We asked. The officer shrugged. The Dawa Party is very powerful. If they tell us to do something we have to do it.
I caught Zayeed’s eye as he wisely manouevred his wife and daughter into the crowd and out of sight. He knew what Iraq could be like if you stepped over the line.
Eventually, we negotiated our release. Both Zayeed and I had witnessed the face of the new leadership. It was about power, identity cards and threats – not about the healthcare for a sick little girl; not that much different from the regime which had been deposed.