My diary in Iraq: Day One [Archives:2004/728/Opinion]

April 12 2004

By Emma Bomino
For the Yemen Times

At the intergovernmental conference in Sana'a, Yemen, organised in January of this year by No Peace Without Justice, Iraqi ministers invited Emma Bonino to Baghdad. A delegation of Radical MEPs – Bonino herself, Marco Cappato and Gianfranco Dell'Alba – accepted their invitation. This is the first of a four-part serialisation of their diary in Yemen Times.

I am in Iraq. We set out at dawn from Kuwait City, with an Air force C130 which flew zigzag to reduce the risk of being hit by portable missiles: the Bedouins sometimes fire them at passing planes. Finally the plane touched down on the runway at the Italian base in Nassiriya, at the centre of a wide area assigned to Italy. It was the region most badly hit by Saddam's oppression, to the extent that I was not allowed to visit during my last trip to Iraq as European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid in 1997. Waiting to welcome the Radical Delegation is the commander of the 132nd Ariete Armoured Brigade, General Gian Marco Chiarini, and all his staff.
Chiarini immediately gives us a general picture of the situation on the ground: 2,893 Italian troops, and over 600 Romanians and Portuguese, to control an area as big as Kosovo, sparsely inhabited and marshy – with problems of pillaging, theft, and assaults on trains – in the South; more densely populated to the North, with problems of religious fundamentalism linked to Iranian infiltration. From the General's words there emerges an awareness that the Italians are trying their best to fulfill their job: to protect the institutions of the coalition and of the provisional government (also by means of a telephone emergency service), to train the local forces, and to reconstruct and begin to operate basic services and rebuilt the infrastructure, beginning with schools and hospitals.
The Italian contingent – the Army and the Carabinieri – has to deal on a daily basis with the three main actors who are attempting, also by means of violence, to fill the void created by the fall of Saddam: tribal chiefs (so powerful that they supply the police with men), political parties (over 20, devoid of any real programme), and Shiite religious leaders, particularly strong in the South (and the 'owners' of the only means of mass communication: Friday Prayer). After an excellent espresso we begin the meetings scheduled. The Governor of the province of Dhi Qar, Ramadi – “When he wants he can speak English,” the General tells us, mischievously – describes a situation of extreme hardship, inherited from the period of the regime. Four hours of electrical power a day during the time of Saddam's regime, two asphalt roads in the whole of Nassiryia, a dramatic health situation. Things are now improving (the Governor acknowledges the work of the Italians), but not fast enough: “I am not happy, there is not much time left before the transfer of power on 30 June.”
Next I meet Widad Kareem, the President of the association most committed to the promotion of women's rights: 10 women in Nassiryia, and 85 in the whole province, to distribute food and medicines and to help women finally to play a leading role in civil society. The General trusts her: “With her I know where our aid is going.”
After Iraqi women, the Italian women in Nassiryia: the soldiers and Red Cross volunteers who we meet in the camp used for operational meetings. I had met some of them in Kosovo and Bosnia, others are veterans from Afghanistan. Together they convey their enthusiasm for their mission.
The lunch break in the brand-new camp refectory is also a chance to greet the many soldiers present, rather surprised and curious, though ultimately, I think, happy to see us here. There is also Colonel Burgio, Commander of the Carabinieri Regiment that paid such a heavy toll in human lives in the performance of its mission.
Our visit to Nassiryia ends with a meeting that foreshadows the future political debate in a society that has suddenly become freer, but at the same time full of tensions and contradictions. We spend over three-quarters of an hour with a dozen Iraqi women from a whole range of professions: an engineer, a primary school teacher, a provincial councillor, and so on. Five of them are close to the most fundamentalist Islam; they are also the ones who believe the time has come for power to be handed over to the Iraqis. The others, more open-minded, are more cautious about the transition, like the Governor: “The next time we meet will be for a conference in Baghdad,” I say as we are about to leave, the almost unconscious expression of a hope, and of a promise, made to women who want to look to the future at a decisive, delicate moment for the fate of Iraq.

* Emma Bonino is a Member of the European Parliament. Committee on Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Common Security and Defence Policy. She is also an active member of the Transnational Radical Party.