by Dan Coakley © 2013
I worked for the UN as Technical Manager of the Electricity Sector of the Oil for Food Programme in Iraq during Saddam's time in 1998/99. Around December 1998 tensions arising from the Weapons of Mass Destruction controversy were high between Iraq and the US and these were heightened to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the US. When the scandal refused to go away Bill Clinton upped the ante and threatened to bomb Iraq. We were warned to be ready to leave at short notice and were under the impression that we could go through Turkey or Iran but these hopes were dashed when they both refused to allow us safe passage through their countries.
In Erbil preparations were going ahead for Christmas and we gave and received Christmas presents. Vianne, my Kurdish Secretary, gave me a figure of Santa Claus complete with drum and drum sticks and he would beat the drum furiously every time his clockwork mechanism was wound up. It underlined the fact that in this war-torn country the symbols of peace and joy were still surviving and that a beautiful lady of Parthian descent and Sunni faith gave an image of a Christian Saint as a Christmas gift.
My Santa Claus is still surviving sans drum. My twin grandsons made short work of the drum before I could rescue poor Santa
I also received a Christmas card from the PM, Nechirvan Barzani, of the leading Kurdish Barzani, dynasty and one from Massoud Barzani the present President of the Kurdish Regional Government.. We worked from day to day with one eye on CNN as the drama unfolded. When the bombs began to fall on Baghdad we were put on 30 minutes standby to be ready to leave. Eventually, on the 20th of December, we were given the word to depart. Roger Guarda, the UNDP Director, Mousa Olyan, our Financial Administrative officer and I got into our Land Cruiser and sped down through the length of Iraq at 100 miles per hour. We passed Tikrit, Saddam's home town, and noticed that the road checkpoint was unmanned and that the obstreperous policeman who tormented us in the past had disappeared. When the chips are down it is easy to separate the men from the boys. As we passed the villages and towns all the mosques were full to overflowing, out on to the courtyard and streets, with praying men. These men were like the men who would unleash the bombs on them. All they wanted was to bring up their children in peace and love. I thought of the words of my friend Imad Hannoudi in Baghdad whose home narrowly escaped the 1991 bombing. "My daughters are in hysterics Dan with the fear of having to go through this (the bombing) again". Down along the road, mile after mile, we could see Iraqi 214 ST Super transport helicopters parked under trees that lined the road. While American spokes-persons were announcing the destruction of airfield after airfield they did not know that the vital hardware was still safe and operational.
Iraqi 214 ST Super transport helicopter.
We passed the Saddam College of Armour at Taji with its two Soviet tanks acting as gate guards not realizing that it had been extensively bombed the night before as the camp itself was well in from the road. I was also un-aware that the Al Salam Palace that I used view from the Hotel Babil in Baghdad was treated again and was in ruins. It had just undergone a $1 billion dollars reconstruction after its 1991 destruction.
Eventually we reached UN HQ at the Canal Hotel Baghdad where we were met by Hans Graf Von Sponeck, (Graf is a German Count) the international Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq and successor to Dennis Halliday, and had lunch with him. He told us that the night before the Mukhabarat Barracks, that was located about 400 metres from the Canal Hotel (where we were eating), was smart bombed. The bomb entered through the roof and burst through every ceiling in the high-rise building and went right through about 5 levels of basement, where the prisoners were kept, before it exploded. Von Sponeck said the UN women were terrified and crying as they sheltered under the stairs of the building. Three buses were then brought to the Hotel and loaded with UN personnel from all over Iraq. Roger, Mousa Olyan and I led the convoy of buses in our Land Cruiser, with our UN pennant straining from the car aerial, and made for the border, about 5 hours away. Our little Land Cruiser racing through an Iraq that was being bombed by the UN put me in mind of a wagon train of homesteaders led by Cary Grant as they raced through hostile Apache country. As we journeyed through the night we passed numerous pick-ups armed with wicked looking machine guns and manned by Mujahedeen looking for any infiltrators in the desert.
This is a typical type of Pick-up armed with a heavy machine gun used by Mujahedeen
The SAS were in the habit of crossing the Jordanian-Iraqi border to seek out and destroy Saddam's Scud sites. From what I saw of Saddam's men I did not fancy their chances against the SAS. At the border (that was closed to all traffic at the time) we were put through a long slow rigorous process at the Iraqi and Jordanian customs posts. When we drove out of the Jordanian side of the frontier we were met by a squadron of Jordanian motorcycle police and escorted through the night to Amman, a further 5 hour journey, from where we all made it home for Christmas.
It was a welcome relief to enjoy the peace of Christmas at Cork and to hear the "Adeste Fidelis" and "Silent Night" playing in the magical atmosphere at home. When I viewed the self appointed celebrity Iraq experts, whose only qualification was the gift of the gab, pontificate on television on the Iraq situation it reinforced a dictum of my father's "Never believe anything you read in the papers". This stemmed from his experience in Canada in the 1930's, when he sold his business to go North to the Yukon on a gold rush only to find later that the rumour of the gold discovery was started by the owners of a hardware company.