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EDITIONS
 Saturday, 7 December, 2002, 13:15 GMT
Surreal search for Iraq's weapons
Photographers peer into Sijood palace
The chance to get inside a palace is not to be missed

There used to be a cartoon series I watched when I was a child. It was called the Wacky Races, starring Dick Dastardly, Penelope Pittstop and the Anthill Mob.

Well, suddenly Baghdad has got its very own version of the Wacky Races.

They start at 0830 prompt every morning when the United Nations weapons inspectors embark from their headquarters at the Canal hotel in Baghdad.

They're all in their shiny white four-wheel-drive land cruisers, and they tear off at high speed.

UN inspectors in Iraq
Inspectors' convoys move at speed through the streets

I'm never quite sure whether it's because they want to catch the Iraqis by surprise - or because they want to lose the posse of international reporters and camera crews who pursue them wherever and whenever they go.

Either way, it all ends up with a frantic, farcical convoy of up to 50 vehicles, hurtling through the crowded streets of Baghdad.

Hot pursuit

As we try to follow the inspectors in hot pursuit, our cars weave in and out of the traffic at sometimes lunatic speeds - I dare not tell you just how fast, for fear of a severe telling off from the Iraqi traffic police or, far worse, from the BBC's safety managers.

Our driver is quite brilliant, but I'm sure he fancies himself as Formula One material, the Michael Schumacher of Iraq.

He always likes to make sure he has pole position on the grid as we line up with the other journalists' cars, waiting to give chase.

Sijood palace gardener
Few people have been inside Saddam Hussein's palaces

And if, unusually, he makes a sluggish start, he always claws his way up to the front, by zig-zagging through the traffic, careering over central reservations or taking crazy short cuts you think are going nowhere - until you've actually ended up in front of the UN inspectors who are your quarry.

I'm convinced someone may die soon in one of these insane car chases - forget weapons of mass destruction, the real threat to human life here are the Baghdad Wacky Races, or should I call them the demolition derbies?

Because occasionally, a hapless, dazed Iraqi motorist gets caught up in the frenzied rush of dozens of four wheel drives, his car simply shunted off to the side of the road.

It was during one of these races that my driver suddenly got even more excited than usual.

"Wow," he said. "We're on the road to the palaces." My heart, already beating fast, beat even faster.

Palace tour

A surprise inspection of one of Saddam Hussein's eight presidential palaces was what we had been waiting for - a real test for the weapons inspectors of their tough new UN mandate that they could go anywhere, anytime.

When we all screeched to a halt at the imposing iron gates of the Sijood palace, the guards seemed puzzled and confused.

Sijood palace reception room
Inspectors were afforded a glimpse of Saddam's state rooms

There was a delay before finally, reluctantly, the gates swung open to reveal the magnificent splendour inside. There was an ochre driveway lined by palm trees leading up to the palace itself, a majestic domed building shimmering in the morning haze.

The inspectors roared in but spent only a couple of hours there.

It seemed like a token visit, a case of flexing their muscles and proving to Iraq that they could go any where they wanted.

The Iraqis invited us in, too, an attempt to prove to the world they have nothing to hide. We raced up the driveway, tripping over ourselves to get a rare glimpse of one of Saddam's homes.

What are the inspectors really looking for, and even if they find it, can they stop a war?

Inside the lavish grounds, his garderners barely looked up from their work - they were turning over the soil in the flower beds and tending to the roses.

Sadly Saddam himself was not at home, but we were allowed into his octagonal atrium, deliciously ornate and carved from marble, the walls inscribed with poetry in praise of the president.

We "oohed and aaahed" like tourists gazing at some wonder of the world.

Surreal search

As for the weapons inspectors themselves, they'd been busy searching darkened corridors with their torches, even poking their noses into broom cupboards and, yes, the palace fridge.

Iraq inspection
Little appears to have been discovered so far

Dimitry Perricos, the senior inspector of the biological and chemical weapons team, picked up a jar.

"What's this?" he asked, suspiciously. "Marmalade", he was told.

Inevitably the press corps cracked jokes about it - we'd heard of mustard gas, we said, but perhaps the dear old Iraqis have come up with a new weapon of mass destruction - marmalade gas.

It all seemed slightly surreal. We wondered if this really is the way you're going to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - going from room to room, cupboard to cupboard, fridge to fridge.

We could be chasing after the inspectors for a very long time to come.

The Iraqi officials were outraged with the inspection of the palace - one of their so-called "sensitive" sites. For the inspectors, the honeymoon was now over.

Criticism mounts

At first they had been greeted at the gates of whatever factory or laboratory they turned up at, guards throwing open the gates with beaming smiles as if to say, welcome, come in and stay as long as you like.

But, after the palaces, Iraq's vice president said the UN weapons experts were spies.

Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein has said Iraq has nothing to hide

Now they were getting it in the neck from the Iraqis for being too intrusive, and from the Americans for not being intrusive enough.

No wonder they needed a holiday, and they got one with the two day Muslim festival of Eid which meant the inspections came to a brief halt.

But if our visit to the palace was awe-inspiring, our visit to a place called al-Muthanna was frightening.

We drove with the inspectors for two hours north of Baghdad, deep into the Iraqi desert past herds of camels, more camels than I've ever seen in my life.

When we got to al-Muthanna, the camels were wandering into it through its broken down fence.

Al-Muthanna is pretty much all destroyed now, just a collection of disused, rusting buildings.

Grim site

But this is the place they used to call the Iraqi state establishment for pesticide production.

It sounds innocuous enough, but in fact before the Gulf War, it produced 4,000 tons a year of chemical warfare agent, mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agent among others.

We heard the inspectors had found several shells of mustard gas... It made me feel distinctly queasy just to have been near the stuff

The inspectors went in with special protective suits, but we journalists were also invited to take a look.

The Iraqis were eager to show they have nothing to hide - we were distinctly nervous.

There was no rush in as there had been at the palace, for we were dressed in nothing more protective than t-shirts, jeans and chinos.

There was a nasty smell lingering in the air - old chemical weapons?

No we were told, just the rotting corpse of a dead dog.

But later we heard the inspectors had found several shells of mustard gas, which they had inventoried and listed when they were last here back in the 1990s, but not actually destroyed.

They will be blown up in a few days' time. It made me feel distinctly queasy just to have been near the stuff.

And when I got home that night, back to my Baghdad hotel which has a little kitchenette, I looked into the fridge. There was a lone jar of marmalade.

I felt confused, my mind besieged by questions. Marmalade and mustard gas, what are the inspectors really looking for, and even if they find it, can they stop a war?


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06 Dec 02 | Middle East
27 Nov 02 | Middle East
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