Boris is oblivious to the bombs around him at the convention centre in Baghdad:
Had you told me that four shells had landed only 100 metres away, scattering shrapnel, I expect I would have hurled myself to the floor like any other self-respecting MP, a species widely credited with a cockroach-like instinct for survival.
When he visited one of Saddam’s bunkers he discovered a ‘security system’ that would kill anyone in the premises instantly – even his employees:
…the safety of his employees counted for nothing.
And why did they count for nothing? Because they could not vote to punish him for his madness. That is why we need to keep working to make this democracy thrive in Iraq
Even the bombs couldn’t spoil this day
Bombs? I said. What bombs? I heard no bombs. I don’t mean to affect any false war correspondent-style nonchalance, but when they mortar-bombed our meeting yesterday, I simply did not notice. Had you told me that four shells had landed only 100 metres away, scattering shrapnel, I expect I would have hurled myself to the floor like any other self-respecting MP, a species widely credited with a cockroach-like instinct for survival. Had the crump not been drowned out by other noises in the room, I would certainly have been scared, and I would like to reassure the poor, incompetent, deluded terrorists on that point, because they must, today, be feeling very disappointed. However many mortar bombs they fired at the convention centre in Baghdad, they totally failed to disrupt the event. For days we had been told to expect fireworks; and in the end the terrorists fizzled.
There took place yesterday morning on the banks of the muddy Tigris a ceremony that was in many ways beautiful and moving, and deeply consoling for anguished souls like me who voted for a controversial war. Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Assyrians, you name it: speaker after speaker stood up to hail the birth of a new democracy in the Middle East. Surrounded by vast sprays of plastic gladioli, reminiscent of a banqueting hall in Ceausescu’s Romania, the party leaders celebrated a free Iraq.
There were smooth émigré businessmen, returned in the search of power, and ancient caramel-coloured Bedouin in traditional headgear. There were angry Kurds, who insisted that every syllable be translated in their language, with all the passion of a Plaid Cymru man on a speeding charge, and above all there were the men of God. One man, a key figure in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, began with the words, “We praise Allah and thank him that he has accomplished the ambitions of the people”, and ended with: “You are the best lord and the creator of our destiny and we praise you lord of the world, peace be upon you.” In between, he attributed almost everything to the beneficence of Allah, foreign, domestic, monetary, fiscal.
And as the many Shias on his list gave tongue in response, and answered his Koranic invocations, we could see the difficulties ahead. First they have to form a government, which will be difficult enough, with the Kurds and the Shias jockeying for possession of the oilfields of Kirkuk, and then, before August 15, they must draw up a constitution. There is a risk that the Shi’ites will try to grab the steering wheel, and turn Iraq into an Iran-style theocracy, complete with restrictions on female education. Then there is the continuing risk to the security of every person in this room, the fury of the rejectionists and insurgents who make so much of Iraq a no-go area for foreigners and democratic politicians.
Yesterday the Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi – formerly a fervent supporter of the war – announced that it was pulling the 3,000 Italians out, in response to the killing of an Italian security operative at the hands of American troops. I think that is sad and regrettable. Something very remarkable is happening in Baghdad, and whatever the rights and wrongs of the war, those of us who were involved in it should stay until this nascent democracy is safe.
As I poked through one of Saddam’s bunkers yesterday morning, I came across a reminder of how much has been achieved, and why it was right to do it. It was a fantastic bunker, built by the Germans, with three-ton steel doors supplied by the Swiss. There were map rooms and war rooms and huge untouched generators, machines built by Siemens of Germany and Bobinindus of Belgium, so colossal that they had defeated even the looters. There were emergency operating rooms, and places where corpses were allegedly stored.
But as we poked around with our torches, the spookiest detail we discovered concerned the security system. Saddam cared so much about his bunker, and so little about the loss of human life, that he had installed a system to combat fire. As soon as there was the risk of losing the premises, they were automatically programmed to fill with halon gas, suppressing oxygen – and killing any human being left in his creepy passages. That is the kind of man he was, and the kind of regime he ran: where people could not only be tortured and killed, but where the safety of his employees counted for nothing.
And why did they count for nothing? Because they could not vote to punish him for his madness. That is why we need to keep working to make this democracy thrive in Iraq, and that is why it is so wrong of the Italians to retire. As it happens, Mr Berlusconi was wrong in his whole handling of the rescue of Giuliana Sgrena. By paying a huge ransom to the kidnappers, he merely added incentive to the nutcases to kidnap others; he raised the risks for the hundreds of British, among others, who are struggling to help rebuild the country.
Efforts to provide water, sewers and electricity are already being hampered by the need for every Western worker to be accompanied by his or her own private security detail, composed of hugely competent Ulstermen with shades and pistols on their thighs. The security problems are not only frightening; they are frighteningly expensive. We need Western troops to remain here until the Iraqis are capable of fighting the terrorists themselves. The day may not be far off, but in the meantime I did not meet a single person here who wanted us to leave – far from it – or who regretted the change we have brought about.
Having started this operation, whatever its faults, we have a moral duty to help see it through. If that means sending more British troops to make up for the Italian deficiency, we may have to do it – and there would be many brave Brits in Iraq who would agree.