Tales from our man in Baghdad

Graham Tottle was caught behind enemy lines during the 1990 Gulf war when he was the United Nations specialist providing the...

Graham Tottle was caught behind enemy lines during the 1990 Gulf war when he was the United Nations specialist providing the Iraqi government with advice on the development of agricultural database systems. Here is his story.

When I saw coalition artillery rain down on Baghdad's government buildings 11 weeks ago, I could picture precisely the area of the city the tanks had in their sights. Thirteen years before, I had worked in one of those buildings three floors below Saddam Hussein.

In April 1990, I worked in Iraq as a United Nations specialist on agricultural databases. I was the only foreign national advising Hussein's planning ministry - equivalent to the Treasury in the UK. The office's fortifications were vastly more formidable than any US embassy: outside were grey shutters, 4in thick, of hardened Posnan steel, three massive angled slabs of it for every office, wedges 5ft by 30ft.

The director of the division was Majeed Dujaily, an astute statistician and agronomist who had the look of an Arabian James Bond. I was struck by Dujaily's charm and humour, and by his easy leadership of the argumentative scientists under him.

Dujaily had studied at Aberdeen University; when I entered his office each day he would greet me with "Och an' awa", or some other broad Scots. As I left, he would often disconcert me by saying cordially, "Hallo, hallo" - the 'in' way of saying goodbye in the upper echelons of Baghdad society at the time. I heard rumours from other UN workers that Dujaily was tolerated by the regime for his vital role, but certainly mistrusted.

We were re-designing the Iraqis' agricultural projects database, previously held as Lotus spreadsheets (Arabic Lotus) to form a networked relational database under dBase. It was a challenging task, to get relational concepts across to a team of able statisticians whose English was often severely limited. That it was a success hinged on a middle-aged Kurd in the team - his statistics were below par but his English was superb. Language is an abiding fascination in all UN IT projects.

Iraq's agriculture was in part centrally planned, and the database was to hold a massive amount of information on each of 850 projects - areas, crop, inputs, expected outputs, finance and historical records. This could then be summarised to predict and direct total production much more powerfully than they could under Lotus. This information was soon to become crucial.

I knew the team well, except for two superbly dressed guys, athletic, smooth, with particularly cultured English accents. Clearly senior and important; but unforthcoming.

Hussein's invasion of Kuwait took place on 2 August. I spent an uneasy night. What do you say to your friends and hosts the next morning when their country has suddenly gone berserk? I resolved to see Dujaily and to tell him the Iraqis were marching over a precipice. To make the point graphically I would walk my fingers across his desk and over the edge. I went in and sat opposite him, next to Ahmed, a humorous young statistician who was discussing a spreadsheet with him. My back was to an open archway into the smaller adjoining office.

I launched agitatedly into my prepared spiel, saying I feared the Iraqis faced military disaster from the West, doing my finger-walking bit. Dujaily's face froze, then he behaved quite extraordinarily. He rolled his eyes violently and continuously from side to side. As he did so he ran into a long, heated tirade about Iraq's soldiery and rocketry, air force, secret weapons and so on - they were without question invincible. Ahmed looked sideways at me, crinkling his eyes, giving a faint, quizzical, smile. I twigged and hastily backed off. I had not realised, I said, their technology was so advanced, and there were of course questions of Iraq's title to Kuwait and so on.

The tension eased; we chatted carefully and I left. As I did so, I glanced through the archway. There was one of the mystery men, but now in the military uniform of a full colonel. Dujaily's minder.

The United Nations debated the invasion and swiftly declared it illegal. At this point things became serious. Hussein rounded up his 3,000 foreign "guests" shunting them around various hotels where they were held "for their safety". A colleague, Nino Nicotra, head of peach research at the Italian institute near Rome, joined me in Baghdad from the northern mountains.

We used to crouch on the rooftop below the parapet at night with our shortwave radios, listening intently to Margaret Thatcher "vomiting poison like a spotted serpent", as Hussein put it. We spent our days training local UN staff, designing a peach database which may still be in use in Rome, and practising take-offs from Saddam International airport using Microsoft Flight Simulator 4.

As things worsened, the UN decided to get us out. We got clearance to cross the desert to Jordan in one of their Land Rovers, leaving Baghdad at 9am on 6 August. However, the driver protracted our departure for 10 hours, so we arrived at the frontier post at 2am. I was mentally rehearsing my interview for the BBC when our driver came up with a broad smile. "We go back to Baghdad," he said. The border had been closed at midnight.

My escape plans foiled, I continued working in the ministry. The database I was working on looked very relevant to the UN sanctions and my thoughts turned to espionage. There were times I would think through the dangers that spying posed to me and the team. Skulking along the corridors slipping spreadsheets on to diskettes would undoubtedly be a beheading offence even for a Brit. I eventually decided to do no more about the database.

Only gradually over the years have I come to realise quite how vicious was the blood-drenched regime, and the risks Dujaily took, affecting not only him but his wife and family. For example, a night with one of Hussein's henchmen was often required of the wives of senior officials. He helped my two attempts to escape. Later Nicotra and I had a miserable evening at Dujaily's house discussing his new proposal, to shunt us off for our safety to a special drylands rehabilitation project in the western desert as "essential specialists". Neither of us had any knowledge in that field. The temperature there in mid-summer is 47¡C. Breathe in fast through your mouth and you blister your gullet.

However, I decided to withhold my labour under Resolution 665, against the ambassador's advice, and take refuge in the colossal UN headquarters Middle East research and conference centre. There we had only a coffee percolator to cook in; we lived on spaghetti, tomatoes, Oxo and frozen strawberries left by the departed UN staff.

Three weeks later Koffi Annan, then deputy secretary general at the UN, arrived to winkle us two remaining UN consultants out of the country. Dujaily committed perjury to enable me to depart. I met the team in their safe new offices tucked away in the old city. It was a jubilant reunion. Dujaily looked at me, grinned and held his pen poised as he was signing my release to travel.

"For sure of course, Graham, you have failed in your duty to complete our project."

"For sure of course, Majeed, you have failed in your duty to supply me the equipment." Our Novell networking boards had been rapidly commandeered by the military.

Back in the UK I had a de-briefing visit from Special Branch. I told them about Dujaily. I hope he has survived and is in the forefront in the reconstruction of his nation.

Iraq and IT today: what part can UK IT play in the rebuilding of Iraq?   

As the Iraqis emerge from their 30-year nightmare, how might the UK IT community join in the reconstruction of the country? Let us assume that finance and resources are keenly channelled to support an attempt by the Iraqis to "westernise" their country and to continue the process of secularisation.  

Companies entering the field will do well to take on Iraqis in their UK operations and to contemplate joint ventures with firms in Iraq. In contrast with some Middle Eastern countries, Iraqis I worked with in Baghdad, and the Iraqi IT firms I contacted were intensely committed and able - though often combative and stubborn. They are very alive to the latest fashions in technology, the minutiae of the latest release of this or that package. 

Rehabilitating and modernising the oil industry is obviously a major target and $3bn-$5bn (£1.8bn-£3bn) is expected to be spent over the next three years. But for IT firms it seems likely that specialist systems, for example for exploration or processing have already been developed for other oil producing countries in the area, so entry from cold might be difficult. However, there will be a secondary layer of standard ancilliaries needed - stock control, process control, corporate planning, marketing - where new suppliers might succeed.    

Potential obstacles 

The first obstacle is a need to support Arabic, which for packages written to object-oriented standards is not formidable - it took two weeks at ICL to convert an entire mainframe operating system to Russian Cyrillic.  

The second obstacle is defence against the problem that has bedevilled the development of systems designed for the third world, that of copyright protection. Without it you sell just one copy of a package, which is then pirated without recompense.  

India is full of small software outfits re-inventing wheels such as stock control because few package suppliers will risk their products.   The area of government systems and non-governmental organisations is particularly challenging. Might one, for example, lift existing UK systems and install them in Iraq? The questions arising are legion.    

False perceptions 

The cost of processing a single application for job seekers' allowance in the UK probably equates to a week's wages in Iraq for instance - this example underlines how inappropriate many of the perceptions of westerners are when applied to third world situations. But the potential benefits of transplanting a fully developed and appropriate UK system are equally striking - policing systems such as the national management information system, or voter registration systems for example. 

Health, education and training will be vitally important and some UK systems may well be immediately suitable. Multimedia education services are in use in inner city areas in the UK to provide a wide range of facilities for running schools in multi-ethnic communities and can handle Arabic.  

There will also be a market, as in India, for a host of smaller scale facilities, for example for consultant surgeons to organise, schedule and charge for their services, and to maintain patient records. Most major UK systems are networked but the Iraqi telecoms infrastructure is damaged and primitive. WiFi technology is likely therefore to be widely installed in place of traditional telecoms cabling. 

The construction industry and the major utilities such as water and electricity are vital, and Powergen is already involved. To bring the utilities back on stream and develop them fast would be immensely beneficial; and installing IT systems from private corporations such as Severn Trent would be less politically sensitive than bringing in governmental systems. 

 The agriculture sector is immensely significant in Iraq. The direction in which the sector develops and the success it achieves will be crucial. To look at parallels, third world success stories are founded on providing an adequate and satisfying livelihood for the rural population.   

Cash-strapped backers 

The IT systems which support these activities usually owe much to western consultancies via the World Bank, UN, Department for International Development, USAid or the European Development Fund. In Iraq high value crops such as peaches and dates exist and access to European supermarkets will be possible. In this case the modern demand for quality, uniformity and "traceability" will be irresistible.  

To give an example from the West Indies, banana cultivation is high tech, with high-yield varieties of great uniformity, fed with irrigated water and nutrients, cropped and processed to fine schedules, shipped and marketed with rigid quality assurance at every stage. This system was designed jointly with the European Union, and similar IT systems are likely to be needed in Iraq.

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