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Last Updated: Monday, 5 July, 2004, 08:59 GMT 09:59 UK
Reporter's diary: Saddam's transfer

By Omar Razek
BBCArabic.com in Baghdad

Omar Razek, a correspondent for BBCArabic.com, is writing an online diary of his experiences in Baghdad following the handover of power and former president Saddam Hussein's transfer into Iraqi custody.

You can follow his diary here in English and also in Arabic every day at www.bbcarabic.com

BAGHDAD :: Saturday 03 July 2200 GMT

Trading starts very early in the Baghdad markets ahead of the midday heat.

By 1400 the big markets close down, but buying and selling never stops in commercial streets such al-Mansour and al-Arsat.

I went for a walk along Hafeth al-Qadi Street, which was crowded with thousands of people and hundreds of cars.

You can buy anything there.

A lot of the goods are imported from Iran, Dubai and China.

I asked a merchant: "Who buys all these things?"

"The market is very thirsty," he said, "after years of embargo".

Prices of electronics, cars and clothes have gone down after the fall of Baghdad, because the imports are no longer taxed.

Al-Nahr Street is known for its antiques shops. In one shop I saw a big collection of swords, pistols and jewellery.

Many items were more that 200 or 300 years old.

BAGHDAD :: Thursday 01 July 2200 GMT

In the blistering midday heat of Baghdad, Iraqis gathered around television sets to watch the former president appearing before an Iraqi judge.

In cafes and in shops, Iraqis seemed of the opinion that the trial was necessary, but they differed on how it should be conducted and on what the charges against him should be.

Tariq, a young Iraqi doctor, told me that the trial was "divine justice".

But another Iraqi, Khalid, said that he thought that the judge was "too young".

In al-Zahawi Cafe, in al-Rashid Street, Abu Idris (not his real name) was confident that Saddam Hussein would get a fair trial and added "Iraq has now recovered its liberty."

Meanwhile, a trader on the same street was almost in tears, telling me that he thought the former Iraqi leader faced difficult circumstances and that the wars were "forced on him".

But there is one difference from past public appearances of the former Iraqi leader.

This time, I haven't heard anyone say that the person appearing before the judge was not the real Saddam Hussein.

BAGHDAD :: Wednesday 30 June 1230 GMT

Any decision taken in Iraq has to stir controversy and suspicion - and the decision to transfer Saddam Hussein and 11 senior members of his regime to Iraqi legal custody, was no exception.

Some saw the decision as an important step to exorcise all the ghosts of the Saddam era, but others questioned the notion of independent Iraqi judicial system, when the whole country is, like Saddam, guarded by American forces.

Some Iraqis I met also questioned the benefit of this sudden and hasty move to try Saddam and his lieutenants.

Through this debate, I felt a love-hate relationship between Iraqis and the US.

Iraqis blame the Americans for everything.

Any move by Washington is met with objection from most Iraqis, but they realise that their country needs American forces and support to rise from the current state of collapse.

I asked a former Iraqi dissident to explain this.

He said: "Listen brother, we in Iraq have been brought up on confronting America, and we share a sentiment that exists in the whole Middle East."

A prominent Iraqi lawyer told me: "Saddam is the one to blame for this schizophrenia, but I wish him a fair trial so that we can prove to the world that we are living in new Iraq."

BAGHDAD :: Tuesday 29 June 1230 GMT

There was a sigh of relief in Baghdad on the night after the handover of power. I saw signs of life in the city despite the heavy police presence on the streets.

Shops and kebab vendors were busy till late in the evening in the al-Karrada district in central Baghdad.

The Ashuri Family Club is one of the very few places that stays open till late in the evening, protected by tall concrete barriers with bright lights.

From the outside it looks like a quiet place, but when my friends and I entered the garden of the club I saw dozens of crowded tables with Baghdadis enjoying a hot summer night.

A lot of the club guests were drinking alcohol, which was banned by Saddam Hussein's regime. Arak is the most popular drink, served with traditional Iraqi appetisers.

Later, we went for dinner in a restaurant near Kahramana Square, which was still crowded at midnight. Customers were watching Arab satellite television news channels while eating.

As I returned to the office after midnight, I heard the sound of explosions coming from the Green Zone.

It seems that normality and mayhem will co-exist in Baghdad, until further notice.

BAGHDAD :: Monday 28 June 1400 GMT

Iraqis are, as usual, preoccupied with thoughts of earning their daily living and dreams about security and peace on the day the handover of power was officially announced, two days ahead of the schedule.

There are no celebrations in the streets of Baghdad, no demonstrations and no banners or flags marking the occasion.

A few flags can be seen on the rooftops of some government buildings in the Green Zone.

Power was handed over in secret, before Baghdad residents woke up. It was a surprise for everyone here.

The Iraqis I met had simple dreams.

An elderly woman was fighting off tears as she said: "I pray that some good comes out of this. We want our youth with us. We don't want them to start dying again."

A middle-aged man thought the handover was nothing more than a show and asked: "How can the prime minister make sovereign decisions while under American protection?"

I asked a young man about his aspirations for the new government.

"They must allow the bars to open again," he replied.

Iraqis are not ignoring what is taking place, but they have learnt to be cautious before setting their hopes high.

BAGHDAD :: Sunday 27 June 1600 GMT

Ever since the start of the occupation of Iraq, the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in the Green Zone has been a symbol of the influence of the US.

The "zone" contained the official conference hall, the US embassy and one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, which was used by the US overseer, Paul Bremer.

There is also a small villa said to have been the home of Hussein Kamel, the late son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, who defected to Jordan in 1995 and divulged military secrets to the West.

Kamel was offered a pardon if he chose to return to Iraq, which he did, only to get killed along with his brother.

The villa later became the headquarters of the now defunct Iraqi Governing Council.

I visited the Green Zone, which is mockingly called "the CIA empire" by the Iraqis.

We were told that after the handover of power, the Green Zone would be opened to traffic.

I imagined seeing roadblocks and checkpoints starting to be removed but, on the contrary, I saw more checkpoints and armed men everywhere.

Then I heard from the spokesman of the CPA that the US will keep its embassy in the same area because the security situation does not allow the building of an embassy anywhere else.

BAGHDAD :: Saturday 26 June 1600 GMT

I do not feel easy about travelling around the streets of Baghdad now that the explosions and car bombs have become a daily occurrence that can strike anywhere and at any time.

When the sun sets on Baghdad, the temperature drops from about 45C (113F) to about 28C (82F), which seems to encourage some Iraqis to break through their wall of fear and enjoy a night out. Maybe they do this because they have become so used to living in danger.

I went with colleagues for dinner in al-Ghouta restaurant, one of the very few places that stays open till 2300.

There I saw several Iraqi families having dinner in the restaurant's garden.

Seeing children, women and men enjoying an evening in a public place in Baghdad may signal a partial return of the lost security, but will we continue to see this in the days ahead?

BAGHDAD :: Friday 25 June 1400 GMT

The closer we get to the date of the handover of power in Iraq, the more rumours circulate in the streets.

Some talk about a wave of looting and sabotage that will hit the country the moment the Americans hand over the responsibility for security.

Others talk about "death squads", under orders to "shoot to kill" looters caught red-handed.

The interim Iraqi government is trying hard to contain these rumours and to portray the 30 June as an occasion to rejoice, not a reason to be fearful.

The last page in all Iraqi newspapers today carried a full page advert that says: "On 30 June, we reclaim our home."

The page is headed by a banner saying: "In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate", with a drawing of an "eye" - which is a traditional way to ward off the "evil eye" - and a map of Iraq.

Everybody here is anxiously waiting for the handover.

Meanwhile, congratulations are published in newspapers, security is stepped up and so are the attacks.

I do not sense any genuine joy - which I thought Iraqis would feel - and I do not know why.

BAGHDAD :: Thursday 24 June 1200 GMT

I am back in Baghdad on a new assignment six months after my previous one.

I spent a quiet night in the temperate Jordanian capital, Amman, and at noon I took the Royal Jordanian Airlines flight to Baghdad International airport, previously known as "Saddam Airport".

This is the only civilian flight to this desolate airport.

The area around the terminal has the biggest concentration of US forces in the Iraqi capital.

Among some 70 passengers on board the plane, I only noticed one Iraqi family. I think they were on vacation in Jordan.

The rest were journalists or businessmen.

The scariest moment during the flight was landing in Baghdad.

The pilot of the Fokker 28 had warned us beforehand that the descent would be very quick and steep to minimise the danger of getting hit by stray or hostile fire.

During the journey from the airport to the BBC office, I read the same graffiti on the walls - denouncing the occupation, the former Baath party and Saddam Hussein - which I used to read six months ago.

And when I arrived, there was a prevailing sense of apprehension after today's apparently orchestrated attacks, which killed more than 85 people.



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