NEXT MONTH, THE month after that - anytime it suits his interests, Saddam Hussein will again create a crisis that will bring the world press to Baghdad by the hundreds.
In preparation for that call, correspondents, editors and TV producers can help themselves and their audiences by studying United Nations Document E/CN.4/1998/67. Particular attention should be paid to the sections where Saddam executes Iraqis who annoy him, or at least has their legs or arms chopped off.Right away would be a good time to start studying. Richard Butler, the director of U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq, has prepared a report critical of Iraq's failures to abide by its latest promises to get out of the way of the inspections. Saddam could call the Western press to Baghdad to witness his wrath.
Saddam has learned that the best way to make an impression on Western public and diplomatic opinion is to collect the press in Baghdad, in and out, a yo-yo.
The journalists know Saddam is manipulating them. But they believe the story is what counts and that it is their job to cover it as best they can.
Right, but best means preparation. For the technology of coverage, the press is fully prepared by now - what kind of equipment and crews, how many reporters in what mix of experience and talents.
But on the heart of the story the press too often is not prepared to be much more than Saddam's banjo - he plucks, we twang.
How is Saddam regarded by the Iraqi people, and are they really stupid enough not to blame him for any of their sufferings and shortages?
The visiting press gets access to officials selected by the Saddam government. But the press is also allowed to interview men and women in the street. Some are deposited where the cameras will be sure to find them, but sometimes they are Iraqis the journalists and their camera crews choose as they and their Iraqi monitors travel the city.
The Iraqis being questioned have never seen Document E/CN.4/1998/67. But they know the gist in their blood and terrors: the price of dissent, or insulting Saddam in any way he decides is insult, is immediate execution, or long jail sentences that could end suddenly, by unannounced execution - free except for the bullet bill to the families.
The report is by Max van der Stoel, former foreign minister of The Netherlands and, since 1995, the United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in Iraq. He has never been allowed into the country. But through information from breathtakingly brave Iraqis he reports to the U.N. General Assembly that 1,500 people were executed just last year, mostly for political reasons.
In Iraq that can mean belonging to one of the banned parties, or insulting the president - or one army officer raising a skeptical eyebrow to another.
Lesser punishments do exist - like public amputation and private torture, plus mass deportation of Iraqi minorities from their homes, at a few hours' notice, or none.
If they did not know it before, the document is a teacher to the foreign press: A flick of the Saddam finger, and the man in the street who allows his mouth or facial expression to give the wrong answer becomes dead.
Iraqis did speak out under Saddam, once. That was immediately after his defeat by the United States in the gulf war. Who ever thought the United States would be so suicidal as to let him live and rule? They spat on his picture. Then they learned better.
So of course the visiting reporters get only answers that will keep the head on the neck of the man in the street: The United States forces Iraqi children to die of illness; the United States is guilty of making adults go in want; Saddam is our hero, and savior. Their answers go right out to the world; what contempt Iraqis must have for Western journalists as they recite to them.
There's no "solution" as long as Saddam rules. But until then, foreign correspondents in Baghdad might remind viewers and readers of what faces Iraqis who tell the truth about Saddam's guilt. If reporters don't do it, their editors or producers should insist, not as an occasional afterthought but as a regular part of the reporting process.
Otherwise, we stand guilty of mocking and humiliating that man in the street, by asking questions he cannot answer and expect to go home to his family.