Iraq yesterday observed the seventh anniversary of its war with Iran in the presence of journalists invited from all over the world. I was invited on the occasion of the second anniversary of the war.
Victory, then seemed to be within Iraq's grasp, or at least, the Iraqis thought so. There were flags and buntings everywhere and a display of fireworks from the barges in the Tigris. Mr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, the present vice-president, represented India at the celebrations.
The Iraqi government was most hospitable. It took us to see the ruins of Babylon, much of them carefully restored sand grain by sand grain, it took us into the desert to see a Tower of Babel, it arranged a special screening of a film on the Arab conquest of Zoroastrian Persia, it feasted us on kababs and large Arab rotis and various extracts from the date palm.
It did not show us the site of the Iraqi nuclear facility, which a few mjonths earlier had been bombed out of existence by Israeli planes. In fact, when we were passing near it one morning, the guides put up the blinds in the bus windows so that we would not see it and the Japanese journalists with their expensive cameras would not photograph it.
But the government took us to the warfront, several miles into conquered Iraninan territory, and it organised a press conference with President Sadam Hussein.
The conquered Iranian town had been reduced to piles of stones. Only a mosque, in what must have been the centre of the town, had been left, scarred but still standing. The Iraninans, it seems, had used it as an arsenal.
Iraqi soldiers, most of them not much more than schoolboys, stood on the rubble pliles, making Churchill's V for Victory signs for Japanese television and Indian Click cameras. All around was rough desert country, no trees, no oil, nothing. The twon seemed hardly worth capturing and how many lives must have been lost in doing so.
The town was called Kaza Shirin. A year later, I read in the papers that it had been recaptured by Iran in the see-saw war. Possibly, with more heavy casualties.
President Sadam Hussein's press conference was like that of most soldiers who become rulers. We were frisked again and again passed through several security barriers, checked against official lists, then made to wait in a hall from 5 p.m. to 9.45 p.m. drinking 7 Up, before the President arrived.
We had already been made to submit questions in writing, several days ago, aboard the plane on our way to Baghdad, though we did not know then that the President him self would be answering them. At the press conference, we were told that we could not ask any questions. Just sit and listen.
President Sadam Hussein stood at one rostrum, an official at another. The official would read out a question in Arabic ("would the President consider negotiating peace with Iran?"), the President would then make a speech in Arbic. Then the official would read out the next question and the President would make another speech. We listened to simultaneous translations on our ear phones.
And yesterday it was seven years and there seems to be no end to the war and the speeches.