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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 March, 2003, 13:31 GMT
Up close with Naji Sabri
By Mark Doyle
BBC correspondent in Cairo

The first and only Iraqi I have ever met is Saddam Hussein's Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri.

I had two interviews with him. They were strange encounters: two late-night meetings - journalistic ambushes in the lobby of a Cairo hotel.

Naji Sabri
Naji Sabri faces the media in Cairo
On the first night the minister was surrounded by bodyguards with square shoulders, short haircuts and machine guns. Naji Sabri refused my request for an interview immediately.

"I know your game," he said in flawless English. "You want to pretend the BBC is objective. You'll follow my interview with 10 people knocking down what I say."

I made a token protest, but only a token one. The minister had seen the BBC microphone and had that politician's glint in his eye.

The invaders, he proceeded to say with absolute certainty, will be beaten. They will die and be buried in the deserts of Iraq.

Public face

These were strange meetings. During the first interview, in that five-star hotel lobby with picture windows looking onto the Nile, there was a singer.

As the minister spoke to me, I realised with mounting alarm that the Egyptian singer was crooning the 1970s disco hit by Gloria Gaynor - I Will Survive.

Armed Iraqis stand outside bombed public communications centre in Baghdad
The foreign minister said Iraq would win out against the US
Oh no, I thought, he is going to think this is a set-up - some sort of bad-taste joke. But thankfully he did not notice the singer and when I met him again the next day to do a second interview he laughed a belly laugh when I told him about the song.

Bu the real reason I found those meetings so strange, so disturbing was that I was aware all along that my government, the British Government, would almost certainly try to kill Naji Sabri, the man in front of me, if he had been in Baghdad.

The leadership is a target and Naji Sabri is number four or five in the hierarchy.

The public face of that regime, the public face that most of us see on TV, is first Saddam Hussein, and then a succession of bombastic men in green quasi-military uniforms. In fact most of them are not soldiers, but ruling Baath party officials.

The impression these men give in their mock military uniforms as they blast away in formulaic terms at the criminal [US President George W] Bush and his puppet [UK Prime Minister Tony] Blair is of a rather unsophisticated Iraq.

I am serious. We will win, just like the Palestinians
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri
I have never been to that country, but here in Egypt I have heard from Arab friends about the poetry of Iraq - the great sites of early civilisation there - Babylon, Assyria, Mesopotamia.

And here in front of me was a man from that country.

During the first interview he was combative. During the second interview he was to me a man in a business suit, tired after long days of diplomacy. A foreign minister, yes, but his tie off, his shirt unbuttoned.

The truth is that when you have met an Iraqi it all seems so different.

'We will win'

So what did the minister have to say? I think the most striking thing that Naji Sabri said to me was that Iraq would beat the American army.

"You cannot," I countered, "be serious. This is the largest military machine in the world."

"I am serious," he said with more calm certainty. "We will win, just like the Palestinians."

I seized on that cue.

"You seriously think the Palestinians are winning," I scoffed. "Against the Israelis?"

"Oh yes," he said. "Oh yes, they are resisting. If you invade my land, and I resist you, I am winning."

And that, I think, was the key to his message - resistance, intifada - call it what you will. Today's battle is not the whole war. We shall see.

Objectivity

I do not personally believe all of what Naji Sabri told me. I do not believe for example - and it is only one example - his factual claim that a peasant with an old hunting rifle had shot down a heavily-armoured American helicopter.

Like most people, I am observing this war by watching the television and listening to the radio. However, now I have met an Iraqi, I shall observe it differently - objectively I hope.

That is my job, and in any case that is the way I want to see things.

But I did come away from those strange hotel lobby encounters with the Iraqi foreign minister thinking he had some convincing points.

And I also came away, subjective though it sounds, hoping that my government does not kill him.

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