Cabin pressure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am

AS A PRESIDENTIAL pilot for Iraq's deposed leader Saddam Hussein, Ali Al-Wahabi had many reasons for recording his memoirs. But perhaps it was the question from an American lawyer in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that tipped the balance. He had sought the lawyer's help to remove his name from the Department of Homeland Security's No Fly List after it had been mistakenly added. Sitting in his office the man asked: '...can you tell me why Muslims in general and Arabs in particular hate Americans?'

Al-Wahabi was one of a small band of Iraqi Airways aircrew selected to ferry high-ranking government and party officials (plus their wives, girlfriends and children) around the globe in a Boeing 747 SP at short notice. During his time as first co-pilot then presidential pilot from 1980 until his defection to the west six years later, he flew some of the regime's most feared individuals to all four corners of the globe under the watchful eye of the dreaded intelligence service the Mukhabarat.

Having been knocked back by the large publishing houses and believing now was the right time to tell his story, Al-Wahabi and two business partners (one a former colleague from his time at Hong Kong Dragon Airways in the early 1990s) established Babylon Publishing. Pushed by friends and colleagues to speak out and frustrated by what he saw as a biased western news media, his self-published book Farewell Brave Babylon is the story of Iraq under Hussein, told by an Iraqi on the edge of the inner circle.

The book features tales of blackmail plots involving beautiful women, run-ins with the secret police and Ali Hassan Al-Majid, aka Chemical Ali, combined with historical and factual information about Iraq and what prompted the actions of its former dictator.

In writing it, Al-Wahabi hopes to entertain, but also fill in the gaps for those who rely on the western media for their information.

Although he believes the removal of Hussein by coalition forces was the best thing for the country he loves, his own career was aided by his membership to the ruling Ba'ath Party and family connections (his aunt went to school with Sajedah, Hussein's wife). He maintains many in the west are woefully misinformed of the history to the current conflict that goes back many years and the hypocrisy of western powers, in particular the US.

'I'm not after gaining any status out of this as much as I want to show the world the Iraqi perspective. What Iraqis really think other than what they hear from the media outside Iraq. Everybody is writing about it and none of them are Iraqis,' says the 52-year-old father of two as we sit in the Foreign Correspondent's Club.

'So it's down to me and other Iraqis to voice our opinions. I'm not claiming I'm special, but I think there is a need for the world to know the history of why things are the way they are. I'm not defending Saddam. If you read the book you'll know what I thought of him.'

He illustrates the courting of Hussein's regime by the US administration during the Iran/Iraq war with the story of an unplanned late-night hop from Rio de Janeiro to Santiago in nearby Chile. Having been told to turn off their navigation lights and not look out the window by the ever-present Mukhabarat, the aircrew were told they were taking on 2.5 tonnes of army rations. It wasn't until they struggled to make the aircraft airborne the next day as they left Rio with a full complement of passengers and luggage that they discovered the 2.5 tonnes of freeze-dried food was in fact 25 tonnes of munitions - courtesy of the American government.

Al-Wahabi, who works for an Asia-based airline (he asks not to name them) and lives in Australia, seems a far cry from the shy, introverted teenager initially turned away from the Iraqi Airways Cadet Pilot scheme because his nose was too big and his face too thin. He was told he would give a bad impression of Iraqis at cadet school in England. He finally gained entry to the cadetship thanks to the intervention of Hussein himself, a man he describes as polite and courteous, although it wasn't until a few years later, on the day of his 27th birthday, that they would finally meet face to face. It was 1982 and Al-Wahabi was part of the crew that had taken delivery of the new 747 SP - the sports car of jumbos, being able to fly faster, higher and further than anything in its class. Standing on the upper-deck with his fellow crew, Al-Wahabi was totally unprepared for the figure that emerged from the spiral stairwell.

'What should have been his face shifted out of phase, transforming into a triangular shape of gnarled time-worn features, so ancient it had lived across time. I became transfixed by the completely terrifying vision before me,' he writes.

Asked to interpret what he saw that day Al-Wahabi responds: 'I don't know what you would call what I saw. It lasted for about four seconds and I saw a demon. He was old and I was shocked, frozen to my core. It was the very face I saw 20 years later, when they dug him out the hole [he was hiding in after the fall of Baghdad], a bearded man, haggard. I'm not a spiritual man, but it really shook me.'

He hopes readers will come away with a better idea of why Iraq is now in the mess it is. Part mismanagement by an oppressive and brutal regime, but also part years of meddling in regional conflicts by foreign powers.

Despite his reservations over the reasons for toppling Hussein, Al-Wahabi says he and many fellow Iraqis are glad to see the demise of the country's first family, their henchmen and the fear they instilled in ordinary citizens.

'I was flying Qusay [Hussein's youngest son] from Baghdad to the US. He said: 'So you're a pilot huh, what is the most beautiful city you have seen?' I told him Rio de Janeiro,' recounts Al-Wahabi.

'He said: 'No, it's New Mexico'. I asked if he'd been to Rio and he said no 'but it's New Mexico'. I said: 'OK fine, it's New Mexico then'. He was about 18.'