Call Paul in Iraq

By Paul Eedle

Iím in Iraq for 10 days from Friday, 3rd April with a laptop, digital camera and satellite phone to cover what you want covered about the country where Americaís most likely to go to war.

Send me a message saying what youíd like me to report. Iíll pour out my notebook in Raw News each day and we can chat live every evening at  7.00 pm London time.

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Starting points...

February's near-war between the United States and Iraq made Western policy towards Saddam Hussein look like a shambles. Seven years of sanctions have killed Iraqi children but not hurt the Iraqi government. UNSCOM inspectors have failed to destroy all Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Military force has proved an empty threat - it doesn't work and world public opinion has turned against it.

I'm going to Iraq because I think we need to look at the whole Iraq crisis again.

We need to cut through the propaganda, find out more facts and decide what message to give to governments before they wreck even more lives - Western governments by sanctions and threats of force, the Iraqi government by its repression and aggression, and Arab governments by their desire for a quiet life.

The point of online journalism is not to do this alone.  If you agree - or even if you don't but are prepared to be curious - then please join in. Tell me what you'd like me to report, let me know what you think of the stories I put up each day, chat about them with me online each evening, and suggest what I should cover next. Post messages on the message board or if you've got something private to say, send an email.

I'm taking a laptop, digital camera and satellite phone so I can get online every day. I'll put up the best material from my notebook here each day for you to react to, and I'll be online in the chat room each evening at 8 p.m. London time (11 p.m. in Baghdad). I'll also do my best to get one or more senior Iraqi officials into an auditorium so you can talk to them directly. Past days' material will stack up in the Raw News section.

The Arab point of view often reaches the rest of the world only after itís been filtered by Western journalists. Arabs speak lets you read what theyíre saying directly.

I've been to Iraq three times before because I covered the first Gulf War, the one from 1980 to 1988 between Iraq and Iran, and I speak reasonable Arabic.

It's an amazing place. The government manipulation of visiting journalists can be straight farce. I was once on an Information Ministry trip to prove to the world that the Iraqis had captured the Iranian city of Khorramshahr. When we got to the outskirts, it sounded like the fighting was still going on so we stopped an old man by the side of the road.

Old man (in Arabic): "You don't want to go down there. The Iranians are shelling all the time. It's far too dangerous."

Ministry translation: "This man was tortured by the Iranians. They hung him upside down and tortured him with boiling water."

Sheer genius.

But the Iraqis are talented, disciplined and extremely thorough. When we visited the Iranian border town of Qasr-e-Shirin one year, we were puzzled to see an Iraqi military engineer sitting on top of one of the few multi-storey buildings with an oxy-acetelene cutter. When we went the next year, we understood why. The Iraqis had dismantled the entire town, brick by brick and girder by girder, and ploughed it over. They took everything away in trucks and we found Iraqi bunkers high in the hills with tidy paved patios and red and white curtains. Do not underestimate these people.

Here's my initial list of questions:

1. Who's to blame for Iraqi children dying of starvation and lack of medicine? Is it America for using sanctions for a futile vendetta against Saddam Hussein, or the Iraqi regime for blocking the UN weapons inspectors?

2. Are sanctions even stopping Iraq importing and exporting goods, or are they just creating a rich mafia of smugglers?

3. Is Saddam's regime about to fall, or are the sanctions actually making Iraqis hate America and rally round their government?

4. Is UNSCOM (the UN weapons inspection team) influenced by the Western intelligence agencies which give it essential support, or is it truly independent?

5. If sanctions+UNSCOM+military threats don't work, how should the world deal with Iraq?

The first report and live chat will be on Thursday 3 April. See you online.

Paul Eedle