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Saturday, May 06, 2006


Letter from Iraq

Part 1

I had a remarkable experience in Iraq last month during my two-week embed with the US military. No, I didn’t get caught in the crossfire between American soldiers and battle-crazed Iraqi insurgents. None of the helicopters I was riding in got hit by ground fire and have to make an emergency landing in hostile territory. Nor did I come within a whisker’s breadth of getting abducted by Islamists with decapitating tendencies. No, none of that. Actually, I bought myself a brand-new Toshiba laptop.

Camp Warhorse
It was a classic stealth operation. On a rainy day, I took full advantage of the poor visibility to slip away from the gaze of the public-affairs officer charged with my welfare. Making my way across the mud-coated fields of Camp Warhorse—the largest military base in Diyala province—I skirted the vast hangar housing the “haji shops,” where off-duty American soldiers spend their salary on vastly overpriced, Chinese-manufactured carpets and trinkets flogged off as traditional Arab handiwork. I was not interested in any of this. With the base’s PX in my sights, I walked right in and up to the polite, baseball-hat-wearing Asian behind the counter.

“Good afternoon, sir,” he greeted me. “How may I help you?”

“Uh, I’d like the A105 S171 Satellite Toshiba notebook, please,” I said.

“Certainly, sir,” he replied. “That will be $1,034. Will you be paying with cash or credit card?”

I fished out eleven 100-dollar bills and passed them across the counter. He handed back the change and flashed me a made-to-order, customer-satisfaction smile along with the packaged computer. “Thanks for shopping with AAFES [Army and Air Force Exchange Service], sir,” he said. “Have a nice day.”

Our financial and social transactions dispensed with, I parked my brand-new, tax-free acquisition under my arm and headed outdoors, where the rain was sleeting diagonally into the muddy Mesopotamian cornucopia. Heading back to my trailer, I passed a Green Bean, a coffee-bar chain that employs Third World contract workers to serve US-priced coffee to American soldiers in locations as diverse as Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Uzbekistan, Germany, and other countries where the US army maintains a presence. As the rain intensified and I repeatedly got on the wrong side of passing Humvees, a kind contractor driving a minibus stopped and offered me a ride. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said with a Southern accent, “but I’m on the lunch-hall run for the laundry employees. I’ll drop you off after I’ve picked them up.”

We arrived at a dining facility far smaller than the huge food-hall serving the base’s First World residents, and a crowd of workers from the subcontinent piled on. Smiling cheekily, they told the driver that today they had been served the alternative food option: rice and chicken—as opposed to chicken with rice. Delicious it was, too, they grinned. Being a First Worlder, I didn’t have the opportunity to sample the kind of food they were served. But I did come in for some standard Third World treatment on those times when I visited the chow-hall without my US military escort. On those occasions, I’d be directed to the passageway shaped by aligned, concrete, suicide-blast barriers. Once separated from the American soldiers and contractors taking the express route to the lavishly stocked buffets inside, I was submerged in a sea of Asian and Arab base employees. We waited in line patiently for our turn to be body-searched. Following that, we could rejoin our First World brethren inside.

So, about those lavishly stocked buffets (and PXs)…
Entering the dining area in any of the half-dozen facilities I visited during my stay in the network of US military bases crisscrossing Iraq, I was transported from the grim reality outside into a culinary extravaganza the likes of which I had not witnessed in the Middle East beyond the walls of Western-owned, five-star hotels in Cairo, Dubai, or Beirut. Armed with a dinner tray and an all-disposable ensemble of plate, plastic cutlery, and Styrofoam cup, I gazed upon the steaming piles of food arrayed throughout the cavernous chow-hall. There was a choice of at least five main dishes, topped off with potatoes (wedges or mashed), boiled greens, onion rings, and corn. Beside them stood a hamburger-and-hot-dog stall. Across the hall was a well-stocked salad bar. Nachos, burritos, and fruit were also on offer.

After dinner, soldiers poured themselves coffee, chose from the mouthwatering selections of chocolate, fruit, carrot or cheese cakes, and smoked outside the facility while reading the day’s edition of Stars and Stripes or munching on white-chip chocolate cookies. On Sundays, the chefs rustled up Mongolian-wok feasts. After a few days of this diet, I eyed my expanding girth and started to wonder how I’d convince my admiring friends back home that I had been risking life and limb in a lethal war-zone.

Buying an off-the-shelf laptop (or perhaps a brand-new SUV with guaranteed Stateside delivery) is exactly the kind of thing that one can do in the new, democratic Iraq. When Saddam was in power and Iraq was a brutally stable (or stably brutal) dictatorship, purchasing a laptop took ages and involved piles of paperwork and vastly inflated prices. It was only after the US army invaded—sparking a civil war that could lead to the country’s final disintegration—that the Iraqi people were availed of such First World amenities as one-stop shopping and Pizza Hut Pepperoni Lovers’® pizza.

Well, not all of the Iraqi people, of course. Only a lucky few in US-exported baseball caps and baggy, low-slung, Tommy Hilfiger jeans who have the privilege of strutting around the bases I passed through. Over their extra-large basketball jerseys, they carry the identification cards that enable them to access the base. The soldiers call them “hajis” and are often brusque toward them. But the hajis invariably get the last laugh when they charge their American customers $300 for machine-made carpets in a century-old repeat of the standard East-West transaction. “Hell, if it’ll shut up the little lady back home, it sure as hell’s worth the three greens,” was all one American soldier had to say.

The US army in Iraq is not all about consumerism, of course. Strong faith characterizes many soldiers serving their second or even third tours of duty here. At every base, there is a chapel, usually behind blast-proof walls painted with stained-glass-window designs and offering a range of services for all denominations. Once soldiers reach Iraq, they often discover previously untapped reserves of faith. “Hey, man, when the mortars start raining down, you gotta get it straight with the Lord,” an African American church attendee quipped during a service.

For all the small-town-America atmosphere that often characterizes US bases in Iraq, the chaos ripping apart the rest of the country occasionally penetrates through. Even then, though, it somehow gets Americanized in the process. One night, I headed off to my trailer when my escort told me that the threat alert that night had been raised to high. The reason was unexpected: the final of the NCAA basketball championship was being broadcast and the intel guys were worried. They were afraid that some of those dastardly, American-attuned terrorists might take advantage to launch a few mortars into the base.

“Surely you’re crediting the insurgents with more cultural awareness than they deserve?” I protested.

“I don’t know about that,” the soldier replied. “They hit us pretty bad on the night of the Super Bowl….”

As it was, the time passed uneventfully, with the exception of two jet-black medevac helicopters landing next to my cabin in the middle of the night, loading wounded soldiers before flying off again. As I huddled against the concrete walls and watched an injured GI being hoisted onto a helicopter, I reflected that these are the kinds of images the Bush administration is most averse to: incapacitated soldiers being whisked away from the war-zone. But despite the US media largely refraining from showing such pictures, support for the war has waned in the American heartland and President George W. Bush now knows that he must pull back a sufficiently large number of troops from Iraq to avoid large midterm losses in November’s congressional elections.

A few days earlier, waiting to catch a military flight to Baghdad, I had seen some equally shocking images. After a one-night stay among the surreal combination of vehicle-mounted radars and well-tended trees in the sprawling Kirkuk base, I queued up at the US military passenger terminal, a folksy wooden shed decorated with twin Soviet missiles and stocked high with seemingly endless supplies of mineral water imported at great expense from Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It was populated by an exotic mix of handlebar-mustachioed contractors, chino-clad diplomats, and a truck filled with bound and blindfolded Iraqi prisoners sitting in rows under armed guard.

Glancing at the dejected prisoners waiting to be shepherded into a waiting Chinook, two US embassy employees standing by speculated about their fate. “They’re probably so quiet because they’ve been pacified,” said the one who I knew had spent three decades in the Middle East and was fluent in Arabic. “They’re likely to have been tranquilized.” And then, he added, almost as an afterthought, “Yeah, and probably flown to Cairo for ‘legal torture.’” He was, of course, referring to the notorious “rendition” process by which non-US terrorist suspects are flown to friendly Arab governments known to dabble in the occasional bout of unacknowledged anguish, all in the name of justice, freedom, and democracy. Once we touched down in Baghdad and I had the benefit of hindsight, the US base in Kirkuk—complete with its own Burger King and Pizza Hut, a cinema and swimming pool, SUV salesroom, mobile military radar, phalanxes of armored vehicles driving around, and much more weirdness besides—seemed a positive haven of normality.

A C-130 deposits us onto the tarmac of Baghdad International Airport after a hair-raising corkscrew landing intended to elude incoming small arms and rocket fire. As the rear opening slides down, Baghdad swims into view in a haze of heat and pollution. Plumes of smoke drift from two points in the built-up distance and helicopters whirr by above. Over the city, two blimps, bristling with the high-tech surveillance equipment similar to that carried by the airship that cruised above Athens during the 2004 Olympics, drift serenely. On the ground, alongside freshly arrived contractors, soldiers mill around with their backpacks, weapons, and travel documents. In the waiting area, soldiers lounge about reading Stars and Stripes, which keeps the troops up-to-date on the war against terrorism. Others sip frappes at the Green Bean.

While Baghdad is only a 20-minute drive from the airport, the hop is unthinkable under present security conditions. With the rest of the day’s helicopters cancelled, I make my way to nearby Camp Stryker, part of the massive military complex that has sprouted in a U-shape around the airport. Having signed up for the procession of armored buses heading into the center of Baghdad under heavy guard every night, I wander around the vast base, only stopping to sample a Hawaiian pizza at the local Pizza Hut.

Some time after midnight, the convoy rumbles off. A hyperactive, bulgingly muscled security adviser for the state department hops onto the bus to inform us that the only way we will abandon it “is if it’s non-operational and on fire.” In that case, he assures us, our baggage will be retrieved “should it not be too charred.” He adds, however, “It will probably be irretrievable.” Glancing down at the heavily armored window beside me, I notice a latch. “GUN PORT,” the signpost next to it says. “SLIDE FORWARD TO FIRE THROUGH PORT. BREAK GLASS SECURITY COVER INSIDE PORT WITH RIFLE BARREL BEFORE FIRING THROUGH GUN PORT.” Yessir.

An hour later, we pull into the Green Zone and trained dogs sniff at our luggage. A heavily armored, four-wheel drive delivers me to the reinforced, bulletproof Combined Press and Information Center. Four bunk beds pushed to one side of a spacious room with a widescreen television make for some of the most comfortable accommodations I’ve had in my time in Iraq. On the other side of the wall, Iraqi translators sit before a row of televisions, scanning the programs broadcast on terrestrial Iraqi channels. A whiteboard on the wall instructs them to “Monitor for inflammatory comments against the Iraqi government.” At that point, I’m gripped by paranoia and start to wonder whether billeting Western journalists in such proximity to a monitoring operation is intended as a warning or is mere carelessness. After all, several Iraqi newspapers have already been shuttered by the occupation authority and their offices ransacked. Western journalists would never be treated so harshly for unfavorable coverage, but they would almost certainly not be accepted back into the embed program either.

While waiting for my press accreditation and space on a helicopter to materialize, I look up an old friend from Cairo, an American journalist working for Agence France-Presse (AFP) with a Middle East habit he hasn’t been able to kick in over a decade in the region. He takes me on a brisk ride from the Green Zone to his heavily fortified hotel just outside it. “This is my life,” he says, as we reach the floor where the AFP bureau and his bedroom are located. “I leave here to go to press conferences and on embeds. Otherwise, it’s the few meters between the office and my room.”

Outside the heavy, air-raid curtains, the battered city of Baghdad disappears into the sunset. Within minutes, darkness has descended and the city melts from sight. No lights betray its presence, testament to the tragic lack of electricity. On the banks of the Tigris, three fires flicker forlornly on piles of rubbish. There is an eerie quiet to the evening that cannot be compared even to the eves of the 1991 and 2003 US invasions, when crowds still thronged the streets. Now, despite the absence of a curfew, few dare to brave the militias and criminals roaming the murky streets.

Soon, the thumps of explosions and small-arms fire begin to punctuate the night. It’s the time when the violence begins. Inside the brightly lit AFP office, a one-piece window sweeps across the breadth of the Tigris-facing building. The mostly Arab journalists look up from their workstations to scoff at the same rhetoric that Iraq’s political leaders have been mouthing for the past four months of political lethargy.

“Twelve bodies seems to be the daily average now,” one journalist comments.

“Thank God,” says another sarcastically while monitoring a press conference on television. “We’ve achieved constancy.”

Zub, zub, zub!” mutters the Tunisian bureau chief to himself as he messes up a sentence he is typing on the computer. Zub means “prick” in Arabic.

It is 2 AM and Baghdad is still beyond the curtain fluttering in the early morning breeze coming off the river. The only sounds come from the packs of dogs roaming the riverbanks and the occasional passing helicopter on patrol. Inside the poorer houses, the people of Baghdad have long ceased huddling to keep themselves warm from the wind whistling through the cracks and surrendered themselves to a nervous sleep.

The next morning, I wake up to a busy city shrouded in haze and disturbed by the sound of gunfire, car alarms, and police sirens. Cars are backed up on the bridge across the Tigris on one side while in the other lane pickups surge across laden with masked gunmen and mounted machine guns. The amplified sound of imams calling the faithful to the midday prayer is punctured by the sporadic firing of automatic weapons. I suppose that all this fades into the background after a few days, becoming the normal soundtrack of life. But it is all fresh and new to me now, as I sit in a darkened hotel room, behind thick curtains, listening to the everyday sounds of the most terrifying city on earth.

To be continued

Iason Athanasiadis is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer currently based in Tehran. He has worked for a range of media, including the Financial Times, the BBC, and al-Jazeera.
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