My secret flights to Baghdad with maverick MP
By Kim Sengupta in Baghdad, The Independent, UK, 23 April 2003
George Galloway brought a number of "delegations" from the West to Iraq in his anti-sanctions campaign. They normally included a cross-section of those who were interested - priests, politicians, social workers and the media. I went on two such visits.
For journalists, the lure was that being a member of these particular groups gave one access to senior figures in the ruling elite, and the opportunity to make contacts for future visits, independent of Mr Galloway.
The members of the media he brought were not just organisations opposed to the stance of the United States and Britain on Iraq. Among those who used Galloway Travel at various times were The Sunday Telegraph and Daily Mail.
The trips were not free of charge for the news organisations involved. But Mr Galloway's campaign, did help people to obtain visas. We did not see him much during the visits, apart from the occasional dinner. He would be off giving speeches or meeting contacts in the government. We were not privy, of course, to what, if any, financial arrangements he might be making.
Mr Galloway undoubtedly had influence with Iraqi officials. He was even recognised, on occasions, by people in the street. He enjoyed the attention and would claim that he regularly received offers of marriage from Iraqi women. My first trip was on the first so-called sanction busting flight three years ago. The visit was meant to be hush hush. We travelled from an airport in Kent on a private aircraft, purportedly as a religious delegation on our way to Bulgaria.
When we arrived at Baghdad airport, there was a welcoming party in the deserted VIP lounge of what was then Saddam International airport. Mr Galloway was delighted.
Whatever financial arrangements he may have had, one always had the feeling his views about the sanctions, and on a broader basis the actions of the US in the Middle East, were passionately held. He would say that although he was a supporter of Iraq, he was not a supporter of Saddam.
Mr Galloway was not universally popular with Iraqi officials. But the criticism appeared to be that he was too full of himself, rather than claims of financial irregularities.
My second "delegation" trip was last September. By then, there was the definite prospect of an US-led invasion. Mr Galloway was in a sombre mood as were the Iraqi officials we met, including Tariq Aziz. In one moment of jocularity he said the mukhabarat - the secret police - probably had a file on him. He did not elaborate on what it might contain.