By Kim SenguptaIndependent
November 12, 2000
It appeared a rather unlikely flight to cause so much consternation to the British and American governments. An hereditary peer, an MP, a Catholic priest, a charity worker and two industrialists, among others, took off from a Kent airport aboard a chartered plane on their way to a religious conference in Bulgaria. Nine hours later, however, that flight had landed in Baghdad with a grinning George Galloway, the Labour backbencher and campaigner opposing sanctions against Iraq, stepping on to the tarmac. And with that, the policy of Washington and London for an air embargo against Iraq had been blown wide open.
This was the latest hole in the campaign to isolate Saddam Hussein through an international boycott. Those arriving on the plane found Baghdad hosting an international trade fair attended by ministers and business executives from 45 countries, eager to get a slice of the billions of pounds in contracts being handed out to rebuild the country after the Gulf War. Among those present were representatives from France, China and Russia as well as other European Union countries, including Germany and Belgium. The only ones missing were the US and Britain, unbending in their hostility.
That is why the flight from Britain was seen as of enormous symbolic significance by both sides in the sanctions dispute. It was the only time so far that a plane had managed to make the unauthorised journey. And it turned into a major victory for the opponents of sanctions after the Foreign Office in London, who have always said flights of this kind were illegal, conceded that the authorities were powerless to act because the plane had originally left for Bulgaria. It had blocked every previous attempt at such a journey, however, and Peter Hain, the Foreign Officer minister responsible for the Middle East, described the more liberal French position on air embargoes as "pretty contemptible".
So flight L2-011 was organised in great secrecy. Those on board, apart from Mr Galloway, were the Labour peer Baron Rea of Eskerdale; Father Noel Barry, a former press officer for Cardinal Thomas Winning; Andy Darmoo, an Iraqi-born British businessman; Fawaz Zureikat, a Jordanian businessman; Stuart Halford, of the Mariam Appeal, which raises funds for Iraq; a reporter from The Independent on Sunday and a photographer. There was trepidation, though, at the possibility that the British government would find out and the flight would not be allowed to take off. But take off it did, arriving at the Bulgarian resort of Plovdiv, for a fuel stop, three hours later.
The Bulgarian foreign minister, Nikolai Milkov, was a party to the subterfuge, promising that the onward journey would not be stopped, and Mr Galloway declared: "The air embargo no longer exists."
Yesterday morning Konrad Hauser, a German businessman, in Baghdad for the trade fair, said he found the British attitude amusing. "They are simply losing out by blindly following the Americans," he said. "With the price of oil as it is there are millions to be made here. I wonder how British businessmen feel about that?"
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