Hard News by Russell Brown

"The worst people in the world"

My friend Claire tires quickly these days, so after ogling the cookware at Kirkcaldies, we decided a sit-down at Wellington's Belgian bar, Leuven, would be good. Not long after we arrived, a guy called Dave introduced himself and bought us both drinks, which was very decent of him.

Dave had a mate with him, who had just come back from Baghdad, where he had been in, shall we say, an official capacity. Naturally, we asked him about that. He spoke warmly of the Iraqis, and said he admired their attitude towards the rights of women. Most of the students in the country's universities, he said, were women.

So what about the WMDs? Were they going to find any? What did he reckon about the trailers?

"Nah," he said. "These people had 10 years of sanctions. They couldn't even keep their traffic lights working."

And the security situation? Did he feel in danger?

"The main danger to me was to my liver," he shrugged, then paused for a moment. "And the Americans. They're tragic … the worst people in the world."

No, I am not making this up. United Nations staff, who had been on the ground with the oil-for-food programme, were well-regarded, he said. The US troops were not.

In that light, it is clearly some mercy that the New Zealand Army engineers to be posted to Iraq on reconstruction duty will be attached to British, and not American, command. The British seem to have a much greater talent for establishing a rapport with the local people, and history suggests that the Kiwis will too.

But this is not the UN mission with which our government clearly hoped to associate any military personnel. And it is clear the US government didn't want to hear from New Zealand the words "it has to be the UN" again. (Apparently the angry drunks in the US administration have stopped trying to call us out and flopped back onto the couch to tell us they love us again. Careful they don't vomit on the carpet next, though …)

At the same time, this isn't the total flip-flop Bill English (what does he believe anyway?) was honking away about on the news last night. This mission was foreshadowed just over a month ago, before that idiotic business with the embassy, when Helen Clark visited Tony Blair. She was expected to brief the Cabinet on it then. Given that we are only sending engineers and not the peacekeepers (sorry, "stablisation forces") predicted in the Herald scoop, it actually seems a more cautious commitment than had been predicted. The deployment to Afghanistan - which will likely be the more dangerous mission - has, as John Armstrong notes today, been under preparation for months.

By the way, The Economist has published New Zealander Conrad Heine's interesting interview with Helen Clark, conducted during her British visit. She really is better value when she's not fire-fighting …

The Times' Bronwen Maddox - one of the brainier British commentators - dissects the potential problems with the wonky Blair government dossiers on Iraq's WMDs.

Salam Pax is pointing to another Baghdad blogger, who doesn't spell as well but has a lively story of house-to-house searches.

Very good news: most of the treasures of the National Museum of Baghdad were actually hidden before they could be looted, and almost all the most important pieces are safe. Not so good news: the ancient treasures of Afghanistan - the ones that weren't destroyed by the Taliban - continue to be systematically looted. Slightly better news - the embattled Afghani leadership has organised an antiques roadshow to try and buy some of the treasures back.

I feel like I undersold the latest Pew Global Attitudes Project report when I linked to news stories on it last week. The stories didn't tell the half of it, and the report is wide-ranging and fascinating. Particular points of interest: international opinions of the US have plummeted in the past year, as has international support for the war on terror, and the extreme suspicion of the US noted a year ago in the Middle East has spread to countries like Indonesia. Also, support for global trade, the WTO and the IMF is strongest amongst citizens of the developing countries that anti-globalisation protestors insist are hurt by them. And this ancillary report indicates that Americans have a fervour for religion only found elsewhere in failed economies and those struggling with modernity. (The new report suggests a similar pattern as regards acceptance of homosexuality and perceptions of morality in general.)

After I recommended Ha'aretz as a useful source of news on the Middle East peace proposals last week, Linda Shewan directed me to this very interesting story that indicates that the paper's Internet presence is spun towards Western liberal visitors - the print version for domestic consumption is rather a different beast.

And finally, a funny cartoon about weapons of mass destruction.