How a flying carpet took me back in time – until I landed in Baghdad

I tried out the new Beirut-Baghdad air service this week. It’s a sleek little 20-seater with two propellers, a Lebanese-Canadian pilot and a name to take you aback. It’s called “Flying Carpet Airlines”. As Commander Queeg said in The Caine Mutiny, I kid thee not. It says “Flying Carpet” on the little blue boarding cards, below the captain’s cabin and on the passenger headrest covers where the aircraft can be seen gliding through the sky on a high-pile carpet.

And it’s an odd little flight, too. You arrive at Beirut’s swish new glass and steel airport where you are told to meet your check-in desk handler in front of the post office in the arrivals lounge. There are group of disconsolate Americans – “contractors” who’ve been passing the weekend in the fleshpots – and fearful Lebanese businessmen and, well, you guessed it, The Independent’s equally fearful correspondent.

It was a while before I realised that the whole thing was a kind of Iraqi metaphor. From the Beirut arrivals lounge, you pass through the metal detectors in departures, breeze past the spanking new duty free, pick up a cappuccino and then – here we go – head for the special Mecca pilgrimage departure gate. In a box-like room painted all white, you wait for a small blue bus which eventually chugs guiltily off round the other side of the airport, past the shell-blasted freight cargo hangers from Beirut’s very own, pleased-to-be-forgotten war, to the steps of the only aircraft in Flying Carpet’s fleet.

Only when I had clambered, half-doubled up, down the tube to my seat did I realise that we were only a few hundred metres from the site of the old US marine base, suicide-bombed back in 1983 at a cost of 241 American lives. I remember how the air pressure changed in my Beirut apartment when the bomb exploded and how, a couple of days later, I saw Vice President George Bush Snr standing amid the rubble, telling us: “We will not let a bunch of insidious terrorist cowards change the foreign policy of the United States.” Ho hum.

Then within months, President Reagan decided to “redeploy” his US Marines to their ships offshore, a manoeuvre that ranked alongside other great military victories such as Napoleon’s redeployment from Moscow and the British redeployment from Dunkirk.

There, of course, were heretical thoughts as we climbed above the snow-frothed Lebanese mountains, crossed the Syrian border and then flew east across the ever-darkening, deep brown deserts of Syria and Iraq. I opened my morning paper. And there was old George Bush’s cantankerous son, wearing that silly smile of his, telling the world that while there may be a few problems in old “Ayrak”, the 30 January elections would go ahead; violence would be defeated; the bad guys would not be able to stop the forward march of democracy. In other words, he wasn’t going to let a bunch of insidious terrorist cowards change the foreign policy of the United States. Ho hum.

Of course, the moment you arrive at the scene of Bush’s great new experiment in democracy – and we are all looking forward to the elections in Baghdad with the same kind of enthusiasm that the people of Dresden showed when the first Lancasters flew down the Elbe – it all looks very different. Baghdad airport is crowded with heavily armed mercenaries and friendly, but equally armed, Gurkhas. And there’s a big poster not far from the terminal with a massive colour photograph of the aftermath of a Baghdad car bombing, complete with the body of a half-naked woman in the lower-right hand corner.

The text beneath this obscenity is in Arabic. “They want to destroy our country – they attack schools. These dogs want to keep our children in ignorance so they can teach them hatred. We need the help of the multinational forces to show them that we will do anything to get our country back and root out the killers and looters on our roads who bear the full responsibility for these terrible crimes committed against our peaceful Iraqi people. The Iraqi people refuse to be victims because they are a strong community which will never die.” Ho hum again.

Because while the Iraqis want security, an increasing number of them are coming to support the “dogs” and ever fewer want the assistance of the “multinational forces” which, in Baghdad and much of the Sunni provinces controlled by the insurgents, means Mr Bush’s very own army. Now of course, opinion polls – an invention of the West, not the East – do show that the majority of Iraqis would like some of Mr Bush’s democracy. Back in the days of the beastly Saddam, they surely wanted even more of it – though at the time, we were busy supporting Saddam’s regime so that he could root out all the killers in Iran, not to mention the Iraqi communists and Iraqi Shias and Kurds who were trying to destroy him.

Opinion polls would also show that a majority of Iraqis – an even larger majority, I suspect – would like some security from all the killers and looters whom the present-day multinational force doesn’t seem to be able to catch. And the greatest majority of all Iraqis would, no doubt, like US passports. Indeed, I’ve often thought that the one sure way of closing down Iraq’s war would be to give American citizenship to every Iraqi, in just the same way that the Romans made their conquered peoples citizens of Rome. But since this is not an idea that would commend itself to Mr Bush and his empire-builders, the Iraqis are just going to have to endure democracy in their violent, electricity-free, petrol-less towns and cities.

The Shias, of course, have been waiting impatiently for elections for almost two years. The American pro-consul of the time, Paul Bremer, was too frightened to hold them soon after the invasion – when they might have taken place without much violence – in case Iraq turned into a Shia theocracy. The Kurds are also waiting to put their stamp on the emerging statelet in the north.

The problem is that without the participation of the Sunni Muslims, the results of these elections – while they will be free in the sense that Saddam’s were not – will be as unrepresentative of the Iraqi nation as the polls which used to give The Beast 98.86 per cent of the vote. The Americans are now threatening to “top up” the parliament with a few chosen Sunnis of their own. And we all know how representative they’re going to be of the Sunni community which is the heart of the insurgency against American occupation.

All in all, then, a mighty mess to contemplate after the 30 January elections. The brush fires are already being lit but fear not, Bush and Blair will tell us that they always knew things would get violent on polling day – which will make it all right, I suppose – and that, if the violence gets worse, it all goes to show how successful those elections were because they made the killers and looters and “dogs” angry. A bunch of insidious terrorist cowards are not going to change the foreign policy of the United States. Well, we shall see. Meanwhile, I’m checking the flight schedules to see if my magic carpet can take me back to Beirut after 30 January.
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/fisk/story.jsp?story=601057

Middle East correspondent for London's Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media