BAGHDAD // Between two of Baghdad's vast monuments to Saddam's excess, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Hands of Victory, stood a band of uniformed bagpipers and another of flute players, an honour guard, two ceremonial tents and some decorative cannons. The defence minister, the youth and sports minister, a tribal sheikh and assorted dignitaries assembled in the hot sun, standing squint-eyed and stiff-necked, looking up.
In the sky appeared a dot, which resolved itself into the shape of a man, hurtling towards the ground before opening a scarlet parachute. The figure executed neat spiralling turns and landed with commendable accuracy in front of his audience. The man was Fareed Lafta, or, as his fans call him, Fareed al Afreed ? Fareed the genie. Billed that day as Iraq's answer to Superman, he is a record-breaker for his skydive over Mount Everest and the first Iraqi to be a qualified cosmonaut.
Invited back to Iraq by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Mr Lafta currently lives in Dubai, where his extreme sports exploits have been widely covered in the Arab media. He was summoned to return to his homeland for this June 9 stunt, which he called "a jump of peace", as he stood beaming and holding a medal the size of a soup plate. The youth and sports minister, Jasim Muhammad Jafar, said: "We called it the peace jump, because on June 30, the control of Iraqi airspace will return to Iraqis, and this is a message that we take control of the airspace and the handover was a peaceful handover," marked by a sporting endeavour.
The exchange of airspace is part of the Status of Forces Agreement agreed by the US and Iraqi governments last year. "I believe that when people see an Iraqi guy who was abroad come to Baghdad and jump in Baghdad it will be a message to Iraqis that the situation is stable," and Iraqis in exile should return, "and build their country". Abdel Qadir al Obaidi, the defence minister, used the occasion to announce a new aeronautics school as part of the armed forces. Mr Lafta was also telling reporters how he hoped his jump would inspire his countrymen, and embracing an elder of his tribe, his hi-tech flight suit contrasting with the old man's abaya, beard and kaffiyeh. Meeting with Mr Lafta two days earlier, in the luxurious Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's Green Zone, he cut a surprising figure among the business suits when he arrived in a royal blue flight suit, resplendent with badges of all kinds.
Declining tea, which he forswears as part of a healthy diet consisting mainly of fruit, vegetables and grilled fish, he drank some milk and told his story. "I may look like a quiet guy, but I like to do crazy stuff," he said. "When I was five years old, I jumped from a cabinet two metres high. I piled up chairs to climb up and put down bedding to land on. "My mother was upset because I made the room a mess," he said, although he said he sees it as an early sign of an appetite for the extreme which has taken him around the world and to the edges of the atmosphere.
Born in 1978, he lived in on Palestine Street in an elegant Baghdad neighbourhood until the invasion and fall of the Saddam regime in 2003. Amid the violence, he was shot in the leg, and his brother was kidnapped and held for ransom, so the family moved to Dubai, where he still lives and where a sporting aptitude - he was the Iraqi weightlifting champion from 1998 to 2002 - became a hunger for all extreme sports.
"Now," he said, "I will tell you my achievements: I did the first ever Everest skydive." Having recognised Mr Lafta as a special talent at Umm al Quwain Aeroclub in the UAE, his instructor invited him go to Russia for special skydiving training. "I trained for a month," he said, "jumping narrow areas with many obstacles, jumping with many people." Jumping up to 12 times a day, the focus, he said, was on bravery, speed of reaction, working at high altitudes and concentration. He then joined a team of international skydivers in Nepal last September, for a 21-day Himalayan climb, to be rewarded at last by a jump from 9,150 metres.
"We were in freefall for 70 seconds," he said, "I felt nirvana, absolute happiness." While the climb was a long, cold slog, and the air at that height was around minus 70C, the jump made him "want to take these moments in my heart. It was so beautiful ? it was too much feeling". His other achievements, and there are indeed many, were summarised in a guided tour around the badges on his flight suit. A Russian logo adorning his pectoral region was added when he trained in Russia to become the first Iraqi to qualify as a cosmonaut, flying in jets that took him 25km above sea level. Pin-badges marked his underwater cosmonaut training and centrifuge training.
A skydiving badge prompted him to tell how he became the first Arab ever to jump 25 times in one day. And, emblazoned on his arm, was the Allahu Akbar of the Iraqi flag, demonstrating his newly evident patriotism. "I can't say to people, 'don't fight'," he said. "But I want to declare peace for the people. I want to be an olive branch. "You can do great things by your profession. I can't fast like like [Mahatma] Ghandi ? but I can still do something great."
He may have been wearing his flag on his sleeve, but he had no plans to stay in Iraq. "I like to be back in my country, but I am used to civilisation. I need civilian life." Iraq, he said, was military life, "checkpoints, policemen, you don't feel comfortable or safe". He missed his girlfriend in Dubai, he said, and his Harley-Davidson. "I'm not an idol guy who can sacrifice everything for my country. I love my country, but I need ? freedom. I think everybody does. It's a right."
Does he want young Iraqis to see his skydive and emulate him? "I don't want them to copy me," he said. "I want them to be creative. I want them to think, not follow." * The National