The gang of lads asked my name, then dissolved in giggles, slapping each other's shoulders, when I told them mine and asked theirs. Overcoming their shyness, they asked where I was from, how old I was, what I thought of Baghdad, and we danced down the street together to the clatter of drums and hand clapping.
It was an anti-war march, organised by the students at the Non-Aligned Students and Youth Organisation (NASYO) conference. A Japanese group carried a banner saying “Japan - Iraq. Peace and Friendship” in both English and Japanese, chanting “No to war. Yes to Peace.” The Nigerians were in national costume. The Belgians were out in force. Australians, Estonians, Swedes, Turks, Mauritians and a plethora of others were there.
Conspicuous by their absence were the 27 US students who had registered to attend the conference but withdrew at the last minute, apparently under persuasion from the US State Department. It remains illegal under the US sanctions for its citizens to even travel to Iraq unless as journalists or UN personnel. Ah, the Land of the Free.
I marched with a group of young Iraqi women, clapping their hands and chanting. The students we met in the colleges were roughly half and half men and women. Probably around two thirds covered their hair, but many wore trousers and make-up. Like their male counterparts they were shy at first, then friendly and welcoming, keen to practise their English and eager to know what I thought of their city.
I bounced up and down clapping hands with a mixed group, to the bugling of an old man behind us, once we halted outside the United Nations Development Programme building, and a small boy dived into the middle of the melee and began break dancing.
Over the noise we exchanged names and favourite English football teams - mainly Liverpool and Manchester United for them; Brighton and Hove Albion for me. Julia Roberts is popular here, with both men and women, as are Westlife, N-Sync and the Backstreet Boys, but even so, there's no excuse for bombing these people.
Bunch of muppets
A tribe of young men were jumping up and down, going round and round in a circle, chanting, arms raised punching the air. The rage against Bush was tangible as they chanted “Down, Down Bush” and “Down, Down USA”. Their glee was genuine as I expressed my view that Tony Blair was a muppet.
Many of their chants and banners praised Saddam and there was a large banner saying “Saddam is our Choice”. Like the pictures in every shop and office, this is perhaps more a matter of expediency than political preference.
People talk when they know no one else can hear. The feeling is that they would prefer genuine democracy, greater freedom, but if the choice is Saddam or the USA, they will take Saddam. They do not believe, even when they speak freely, that the US and UK governments will be “liberating” them. Some are angry at the way weapons inspections have been carried out. They tease, says one. They tip out bins in colleges as if that is where the evidence of a weapons programme would be hidden. They are aggressive.
It was as intense an experience as any in my life, to march with the Iraqi students and to feel their anger and their powerful energy. During the march it started to rain, despite the bright sunshine. The sun was over the river Tigris, and I looked for a rainbow opposite. I couldn't see one. If it was there, it was hidden by the UN building.