‘The problem is why,’ said the health project officer of a British charity working in the marshlands of southern Iraq close to Basra. ‘No one answers why?’
He was talking to the BBC journalist Hugh Sykes about the state of Iraq, ten years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He agreed that the Americans and British had done ‘a good job’ in getting rid of the dictator but said that this had changed nothing in Basra, whose economy had been destroyed by Saddam as he drained the marshes, turning a landscape that was vivid green into burnt ochre. We also heard from the farmers who in the hours after Saddam’s fall set out with a JCB to destroy the dams and redig the ditches to bring back the water. It began to flow again, but was soon discovered to be salt water, and no longer any use for irrigation. In what was once thought of as the Fertile Crescent, blessed by both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, drinking water now has to be brought in by tanker.
The roads are even worse, little more than dirt tracks; power cuts are a part of daily life (under Saddam at least power of that sort could be relied on); and the streets of Basra are lined with piles of stinking rubbish. The liberators might have done the right thing in getting rid of Saddam, the health project officer explained, but they didn’t know, or perhaps crucially didn’t want to know, what was the right thing to do afterwards. ‘Billions of dollars have been spent,’ he said, ‘but there is nothing to show for it.’ He wanted to know why? Why is Iraq now such a mess?
Sykes was in Iraq for his two-part Radio 4 and World Service programme After Saddam (produced by James Fletcher). His analysis rang true because he’s been reporting from the Fertile Crescent since before Saddam’s fall in March 2003. He speaks Arabic. He knows the country. We know he knows the country.
He loves the way the children are always laughing amid the squalor, and is surprised they ask him not for sweets or Coke but for pencils. He talks to a medical student at Basra University who has visited the USA. She ‘feels sad’ on returning to the chaos and appalling poverty of her home town, but says she will never leave: ‘I care about my country. I care about my people.’
I heard this on Sunday after listening to David Morley’s much-heralded play The Iraq Dossier (Radio 4, Saturday), about the creation of the infamous report on Saddam’s 45-minute WMD capability. The contrast was revealing. The format was familiar. Take a government inquiry, or in this case three inquiries (Hutton, Butler and Chilcot). Unpick the best morsels from reams and reams of detailed documentary evidence (in this case mostly emails). Knit them back together to create a drama.
The first such factional plays along these lines were compelling, stirring, even gut-wrenching, as the truth of what had really gone so badly wrong within the governing institutions that are meant to defend and uphold justice became clear (I’m thinking here of the dramas about the Steve Biko case, or Stephen Lawrence). The fact that what we were actually watching, or hearing, was a carefully edited construction of the facts didn’t seem to matter. The artifice was all about dispelling the deceits and distortions layered in the evidence to get closer to the truth of what had actually taken place.
In The Iraq Dossier, the balance between fact and fiction hovered uneasily but didn’t quite settle, and listening to it was a disquieting experience. Partly this was because such plays are very difficult to pull off on the radio. We needed to see who was who. It would have worked better on TV, where it would have been much easier to recognise the various players. Instead of which, and in spite of Lindsay Duncan’s sultry narration, it was difficult to know whether it was Defence Intelligence, MI6 or John Scarlett who was speaking and who was really in charge of creating the infamous 45-minute dossier designed to convince the British public that Saddam must be overthrown.
Duncan was obliged to introduce each speaker, which turned her into a talent-show compère, while Alastair Campbell was so obviously being voiced by an actor the whole thing began to verge on farce. What we need now, ten years on, is not an analysis of how that disastrous 45-minute dossier was compiled. But why?
Most compelling radio of the week, though, was the poem dedicated to Rémi Ochlik, the press photographer who was killed in Syria alongside Marie Colvin at this time last year, and the extraordinary dignity with which his girlfriend Emilie Blachère read it to us over the air at the end of Broadcasting Hour (Sunday, Radio 4). Afterwards Paddy O’Connell was so moved he left us in silence for ten seconds as he struggled to gather himself. His lack of words said it all.