The room is filled with an eclectic crowd, old English gents in their tweeds, a handful of Somalians of varying ages, student types, badge-studded socialists, smart middle-aged matrons and literary types. The venue is the second floor gallery of the century-old Foyle’s Bookshop on Charing Cross Road. The gathering is a reading and reception for BBC reporter Rageh Omaar, whose book, Revolution Day, which chronicles his experiences in Iraq before and after the US led invasion has just been published. Omaar whose reporting and boyish good looks earned him the nickname of the Scud Stud is a darling of the anti-war movement and in the continuing recriminations over the war, it is little surprise that the room is packed. The event is made more poignant by the explosions earlier in the day in the Iraqi city of Karbala and many are eager to hear what Omaar makes of it all.
Some fifteen minutes behind schedule, made more bearable by the refreshments set out at one end of the room, a besuited grey-bearded English gentleman approaches the lectern to introduce the man of the moment. He pays tribute to the BBC reporters for their impartial and balanced reporting in troubled times and singles Omaar out for praise. He characterizes Omaar’s reports as personalized and yet objective, and therefore refreshing. As he finishes his few sentences, there is a burst of applause and Omaar emerges from behind a set of double doors. He looks shy, diffident and slightly awed at the size of the audience and he smiles, gripping the lectern as he thanks everyone for coming. He is simply dressed in a dark blue jacket over the infamous red parka which he wore in many of his reports from Baghdad. Actually we learn this is a replacement bought by friends on his return. He begins to speak, in a clear BBC accent, his Oxford education and years at the BBC coming through.
It has been an odd week he says, meeting lots of friends and colleagues from Baghdad and reliving the events of a year ago. They are amazed, he says at how the events they witnessed have remained such an important issue globally. They are saddened he adds at the “lack of thought, disappointment and chaos” that characterized the process of regime change. He explains that he wrote his book in order to capture the voices of ordinary Iraqis during and after the Saddam era (he was in Iraq for six years under Saddam), trying to explain what had happened to their country, trying to understand the forces that have been unleashed on their country in the last twenty five years. He describes the book as intensely personal, capturing the lives and views of ordinary people in a country he loves. He is almost misty eyed as he speaks, going on to describe how he has tried to explore the question of “What has freedom for the Iraqis meant?” Not just to the Iraqis but to people in the West as well. He marvels that ultimately the political epitaphs of major Western leaders could eventually be written or defined by the voices and experiences of these ordinary Iraqi people. Rather abruptly, he stops and asks for questions from the audience.
There is no mad waving of hands, as if the audience has been lulled by his charm and then an elderly gentleman with a North American accent asks why Iraqis are attacking Iraqis. Omaar, without missing a beat replies that while the current events may seem inexplicable and perhaps, even savage, that there is a sad logic to them. He points out that there are a collection of different interest groups in Iraq who under Al Qaeda now see Iraq as the newest battleground to continue their fight against the United States. Some groups are concerned at the prospect of Iraq being under foreign occupation, while others are keen to shut down escape avenues for Britain and the US, to lock them into Iraq and at the same time to send a message to ordinary Iraqis that the most powerful nation on earth still cannot protect you. He reels off several examples to support his thesis that each time some measure of stability appears on the horizon, some major terrorist attack occurs. The next question from a young woman is about whether Shiites and Sunnis can live together in Iraq. Again, Omaar is quick to assert his opinion that too much is being made of sectarian differences in Iraq. In his opinion, the middle-class Shiites have more in common with middle-class Sunnis than with impoverished rural Shiites. He is however conscious that it will take a long time for Iraqis to exorcise the last twenty five years from their hearts and minds, and points out that so much has happened so fast in Iraq that millions live in fear of the unknown.
Another question asks if the Iraq invasion would have happened without September 11 preceding it. Omaar’s words are more measured, more reflective. He acknowledges that September 11 did change the world fundamentally and so it is difficult to say, but he suggests that the events did make Saddam’s removal inevitable.
Someone else asks what ordinary Iraqis make of the soul-searching and debate going on in the West. He replies that ordinary Iraqis are in some ways more sophisticated than people in the West in their analysis of events in Iraq. To illustrate his point, he describes the night when Saddam was captured, how he rushed to the main city square in Baghdad, expecting an outpouring of people, a cathartic release of feelings many in the West felt had been suppressed for fear that Saddam would return. Only a couple of hundred people turned out to celebrate. In Omaar’s opinion, the Iraqis knew, unlike many in the West that capturing Saddam was not the end, that more lay ahead.
Someone else asks what the terrorist groups in Iraq hope to gain from the chaos they are causing. In reply, again, Omaar turns to an example, this time using a recent visit to the Iraqi Kuwait border which used to be one of the most sensitive borders in the world, but which he and friends were able to pass through with the most perfunctory of checks. He queries how the young British and American soldiers can carry out proper security checks with a rudimentary knowledge of the language and culture of the area. Besides he adds, arms are very easy to get hold of, even within Iraq. Coming back to the question, he points out that many of these groups have a visceral, atavistic non-negotiable grievance with the West. It is not about trying to gain power, it’s more about punishing the West.
Was the war justified?, the question comes from the back of the audience. Again, a measured response. It’s a very difficult question he says, because the war was not about absolute right or absolute wrong. But, he adds, from his personal experience of what the governments said the war would achieve, he is conscious that most of that remains unfulfilled. He adds that reports from friends in Baghdad are still devoid of any optimism, and laments that the one thing the UK and US governments need in Iraq is TIME which is the one thing they have not got.
A young Asian-looking man in an impeccable English accent asks whether he believes that the extremists in Iraq are funded by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Omaar quickly replies that he has no idea but reiterates his earlier point about how easy it is to get arms even within Iraq. The next question asks whether Saddam will ever be brought to trial or would it constitute too much of an embarrassment for the US? Again in measured tones, Omaar points out that less and less is being said about a trial. Nevertheless, he thinks Saddam will be tried “much later” and probably in Iraq.
From the back, a gentleman in a suit who describes himself as “a lowlife from the House of Commons who consistently voted against the war” asks whether ordinary Iraqis will one day look back on the war and judge it as misjudged. Making reference to what he calls the empty shell of regime change, he points out that the tragedy was embarking on the war with so little understanding or preparation for the aftermath, citing the earliest ill-fated attempts by the coalition to purge the public services of all Baathist party members, when it was common knowledge in Saddam’s Iraq that you could hardly work as a nurse, for instance, without belonging to the Baathist party.
A young woman, sitting near the front sounds exasperated as she asks “Who are ordinary Iraqis? Is it the Kurds, the Shiites, the Baath party generals. Omaar replies, half-jokingly that any Iraqi not on the deck of 55 most wanted by the US is an ordinary Iraqi. The young lady is not mollified and persists. Including Saddam’s daughters? Yes, to some extent, Omaar replies and goes on to expatiate – the thousands of soldiers conscripted into Saddam’s armies, the thousands persecuted and who lost family and friends to Saddam’s regime, the people outside the regime who for twenty five years were defined by the face of one man.
Now, exasperated some one else asks – What’s the way forward? The audience laughs but Omaar is unfazed. ” I don’t know” he says, softly, shaking his head. “I wish I knew but I don’t” Were there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Omaar admits that from his discussions with weapons inspectors over the years, Saddam retained a small amount of very crude weapons such as mustard gas, but beyond that, he can’t say.
From the back, a booming voice with a plumy accent, draws all attention, a middle aged gentleman clad in dark glasses and a fur fronted winter-coat announces that in his life , he has only ever respected one man – T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). However, he adds dramatically, he has added Rageh Omaar to the list as a result of his brilliant reporting from Iraq, explaining that he has cycled all the way from Hammersmith to tell Omaar this. Amidst laughter, there is loud applause and Omaar again looks like a schoolboy, shy and embarrassed.
The last few questions are about the role of the media in the war. Does he think they played the right role? Omaar takes his time in answering the question, he reminds the audience that at the time he and many others were cut off from events at home and were conscious that they were broadcasting to a divided audience across the world. For himself, and he ventures to suggest the majority of his colleagues, they made conscious efforts to ensure balance in their reporting. But he accepts that this is his personal judgement. A signal from the back of the audience, Omaar steps down from the podium and is immediately besieged by eager members of the audience, thrusting forward their copies of his book to be signed. He obliges with diffident grace, until he is rescued by one of the bookshop staff who lead him to the table where he settles down to begin signing. A long queue soon builds up and it is obvious that the Omaar phenomenon has won a broad range of supporters. In the queue, a young Somali girl explains why she has made the effort to come to the reading. Having left Somalia as a child refugee, she says Omaar has become an icon and a role model for her. Judging from the events of the evening, she is not the only one.