Saddam Hussein may be an international pariah in some quarters, but an eclectic mix of visitors has made the pilgrimage to Baghdad in recent weeks to express solidarity with the Iraqi leader.
Russia’s vociferous nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was here this month. A delegation from France’s parliament has paid its respects. And Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, delivered an impassioned appeal for an end to the United Nations trade sanctions that was greeted with shouts of “Down, down with America!”
Travel to Baghdad, of course, is no easy matter. A United Nations ban on air flights to the country remains in effect, and visitors face an arduous 16-hour drive from Jordan by bus or car. Most end up at Al Rashid Hotel, where the lobby’s marble floor still is decorated with a tiled mosaic likeness of former President Bush emblazoned with the slogan “George Bush, criminal.”
One recent evening, the hotel pianist played “Strangers in the Night” as scowling Russians and robed Persian Gulf sportsmen carrying blindfolded hunting falcons rubbed shoulders with about 20 members of Farrakhan’s entourage, some dressed in black leather coats, high-top sneakers and gold chains.
Bush’s portrait presented an opportunity some of the visitors found irresistible. Zhirinovsky, for example, stamped his feet on it, largely for the benefit of a CNN camera crew.
In the seven years since Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Western allies have largely maintained the diplomatic isolation of Baghdad. But there have been other, less formal ties to the outside world.
Indonesian, German and Pakistani businessmen are here, exchanging business cards and looking forward to the day when the sanctions end. Several delegations of Americans, including one from Seattle, have come to Iraq to deliver antibiotics, which are in short supply.
The visitors to Baghdad seem impervious to recent political developments, which include Hussein’s stand-off with United Nations weapons inspectors.
The official visits to Iraq are exhaustively covered by the state-controlled media. Recently, Ahmed Jassem Thania, a Qatari sheik who is head of his country’s royal guard, met with Hussein to convey what the Iraqi press later called “brotherly relations.”
Television coverage of the handshake and meeting was all pictures, however, save for an introductory voice-over accompanied by classical music.
Farrakhan’s reception was more elaborate. A group of Bedouin poets sang his praises before he began his speech at the Rashid theater, a modern building in the heart of Baghdad.
Farrakhan’s ringing plea for solidarity among the world’s Muslims was translated phrase by phrase into Arabic. Some women in the audience responded with the high-pitched cry traditionally used to express happiness or celebration.
Surrounded by cameras, Farrakhan told the crowd of Muslim and Christian religious leaders and journalists that America was in need of a “moral awakening.” As he demanded an end to the sanctions against Iraq, Farrakhan’s words were met with wild applause and shouts of “God is great!”
The next day, the Iraqi daily Al Thawra praised his visit for strengthening the ties between American and Iraqi Muslims.
The Persian Gulf war disrupted the longstanding alliance between Iraq and Russia, which supplied most of the weapons used by the Iraqi Army, and Zhirinovsky, the Russian nationalist and vocal critic of his country’s ties to the West, suggested it was time to reinvigorate the relationship.
Zhirinovsky met with Saddam and other senior officials. At a news conference, he underscored his solidarity with Iraqis, brushing aside a British journalist’s question with the comment, “You speak the language of the aggressor.”