Thursday, March 5, 2009

Going on ‘tour’ in Baghdad

In her second dispatch from Iraq, Press reporter NICOLA FIFIELD ventures out of the British camp for a spot of sight-seeing.

IT is a war-ravaged city that attracts few foreign visitors aside from high-level politicians, journalists and members of the military.

But standing at the foot of the famous Crossed Swords in central Baghdad, I felt strangely like a tourist. This is the monument that symbolises Saddam Hussein’s horrific dictatorship.

“Bad man,” said one Iraqi soldier to me as I looked up at the giant stone hands of the former Iraqi leader.

Beyond the Crossed Swords, the dusty parade ground – which was once the scene of Saddam’s annual celebrations to mark victory in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s – lies eerily deserted.
Below the monument, dozens of green helmets belonging to dead Iranian soldiers are scattered in the ground. During Saddam’s military marches, these would have been trampled on by Iraqi soldiers as a mark of defiance.

Today, Iranians are helping the Iraqis to get back on their feet and there are plans to dig up these helmets and pull down the infamous swords. A row of half a dozen Iraqi armoured vehicles parked nearby are a reminder that the city has not yet left its troubled past behind.

But the soldiers were full of laughter and, sprawled across the top of their vehicles, you sensed that they weren’t expecting an imminent attack from insurgents.

Admittedly, we were inside the city’s International Zone – a secure area that was returned to the control of Iraqi forces on January 1.

But nonetheless, to be stood in Baghdad wearing no body armour or helmet shows just how far the city has come. Little more than 100 metres away from the Crossed Swords is Iraq’s national memorial – the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier.

Nearly one million Iraqi soldiers lost their lives in the Iran-Iraq War – many whose bodies were never identified. In this tomb lies the body of one of these unknown soldiers and the site has become a Mecca for hundreds of families who believe that it might be their son, husband or brother inside.

The impressive structure around the tomb is stooped in symbolism and although nobody is allowed to visit the memorial today without being escorted by an Iraqi soldier, I wasn’t the only one who sensed a fledgling tourist industry.

“We get to see the recognisable sites that most people have grown up seeing on TV and at times I do feel more like a tourist than a soldier,” said Private Glenn Hunter, from Barlby.

“Obviously we train for the worst case scenario, but thankfully we haven’t needed the training.
“It’s good that we can show people around. It proves that the job is nearly done and it’s safe to be here.”

Private Hunter, whose wife Nicola is waiting in Barlby for his safe return, was speaking as he drove me in his armoured car from the British camp to see these sites.

The 30-year-old is part of the One Star protection team that provides secure transport for the British brigadier generals in Baghdad.

“With the International Zone still being closed, there is still a threat here,” he said.
“But the arrival of tourists is not going to be too far away.

“The Turkish airline already flies into Baghdad International Airport and once one flies, the rest will follow.

“Personally, I would like to come back in ten to 15 years time and see how things have moved on.”

Captain Laurence Roche, who works for the 20th Armoured Brigade, to which the Yorkshire Regiment belongs, said he thought the tourist industry would be booming in Iraq within five years.

“It’s a country full of history,” he said. “It has the Garden Of Eden and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

“They say Sinbad The Sailor sailed from Basra and they are looking to build a Sinbad park there to encourage tourists.

“Iraq also has the third oldest mosque in the world and there are some genuine religious pilgrim sites as well.

“I don’t think it’s such a crazy idea that the tourists will come.”

Capt Roche said he believed foreign visitors would also be attracted to Iraq for the very reason it was a war zone.

He said: “There is a whole generation of soldiers who have fought here in the First Gulf War in 1991 and we have returned here since 2003.

“This place will mean something to them. It might not always have been happy memories, but there will be a lot of pride in what they have achieved here and many will want to return with their families to see the country that Iraq has become.

Thousands of people visit the site of the D-Day landings in France and I can see the same happening in Iraq.”

Capt Roche, who lives in Harrogate, will be returning to North Yorkshire later this month during a two-week break from his brigade’s six-month tour in Iraq.

The 32-year-old said he was looking forward to visiting one of York’s most popular tourist attractions – Betty’s tea rooms.

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