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Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Letter from Iraq

Part 2

Two days after I sat behind those thick curtains in Baghdad, I found myself trudging through unending vistas of mud in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Warhorse. Situated on the outskirts of Baquba, it is clearly a camp in development with an eye to permanence—or, in Pentagon jargon, to an “enduring” presence. Abandoned trailers caked in dust littered with dismantled air-conditioning units extend into the cement landscape. Hulking tanks park by the wayside. Passing Humvees throw up clouds of dust on groups of joggers. Next to a small airfield used to launch remote-controlled, unmanned, intelligence-gathering drones, a group of soldiers plays golf, bouncing the ball off the armor of the massed tanks and Humvees.

Trudging through a sea of mud returning from a Catholic mass conducted in the chapel of an American military camp, it strikes me that this is not quite the experience I’d expected my Iraq embed to be when I signed up. Looking back, I realize that I’ve seen the inside of more chow-halls run by the prolific and well-connected Halliburton subsidiary, KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root) than of Humvees, the armored vehicles used by American soldiers on patrol. I’ve spent more time talking to regular infantrymen about their backgrounds, and the lives to which they’ll be returning after their tour of duty in Iraq, than about their feelings about actually being here. In fact, I come to the startling conclusion that I’ve spoken with more soldiers from Georgia during my two weeks with the US army than with ordinary Iraqis out in the street.

If my embed has taught me something about the insular and isolated military world spawned by the occupation of Iraq, it has also opened my eyes to the widening unpopularity of this war among ordinary soldiers, who can’t understand why they’ve been deployed here. Contrary to all the criticism directed at the embed experience, it is one of the more enlightened policies followed by any military. It offered me the kind of access to the everyday life of US troops that I could never have gotten otherwise. Whoever gripes about embedding as an implicit consent to censorship has clearly not been through the experience. You may sign away your right to sue the military in the event of fatal or disabling injury, but I felt no sense of being controlled in anything that I did or anywhere that I went.

The officers I was with always put their troops and interpreters at my disposal and went out of their way to aid my reporting. As for those scribes who wonder why they do not have more access to ordinary Iraqis while embedded, and interpret this as a form of control, they miss the crucial point: embedding is a perfect reflection of the sad truth that the vast majority of the American troops currently occupying Iraq hardly ever leave their bases to come into even minimal contact with Iraqis.

After living in the Arab world for four years, I felt it was more important to engage with the occupiers than the occupied, to learn first-hand exactly how ordinary Americans, the grunts sent out to do the heavy work of “pacifying” this country, saw their task. I sought to pull away the veil spun by other journalists in their coverage of Iraq and to come to my personal conclusion about the state of the American occupation. That I did my embed just a few days after the third anniversary of the invasion, and as the occupation dragged into its fourth year, felt all the more significant.

Baquba was the city to which I was dispatched. A violent sectarian town in Iraq’s second most violent province, it has an almost equal Sunni-Shi’a mix with a 10-percent Kurdish minority. These statistics have condemned Baquba to a regular slot on the news, as bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings rip through it on a daily basis. In the center of town, where I was billeted, a group of about 100 US military police are gradually handing over power to the recently reconstituted local authorities. In the absence of an effective governing mechanism, however, it is questionable to what extent their successors will succeed in preserving stability.

On patrol with the Iraqi police around Baquba, the local reception is mixed. While Arab culture frowns upon public displays of disfavor, the courtesies exchanged are formulaic and lack warmth. The Arabic graffiti on the walls tell another story, however, with praise for the resistance and a mixture of support and condemnation for the recently approved constitution. As for the self-censorship so much in evidence during the time of Saddam Hussein, it was creeping back. Speaking to a villager outside the city, I asked him about the sectarian situation. My interpreter modified my question, telling the villager, “He’s asking about the sectarian situation. Isn’t it true that you’re Sunni but are married to a Shi’a?” The peasant responded with an eager nod, and I was treated to an enthusiastic rehash of the fallacious notion that Iraqis cannot possibly be responsible for the sectarian violence now being continually perpetrated as they coexisted with each other under Saddam. And as with most other troubled Arab countries, the cure-all solution of blaming foreign forces is now invoked. A constellation of neighbors is blamed for Iraq’s troubles: from Syrian mujahideen to Saudi financiers and Iranian infiltrators.

Back at base, I spend most of my time sitting in the Joint Cooperation and Control room, an Iraqi-American-manned emergency call center that collects news of all the violence coursing through the province and sends it on to the analysts at FOB Warhorse. Phones ring every few minutes to report another abduction, drive-by shooting, suspected improvised explosive device (IED), or detonated car-bomb. Just on March 30, there were 25 incidents reported, including a bicycle bomb, several kidnappings and drive-by shootings, three IED explosions, and the discovery and defusing of several more. The next day, there were only 10 incidents, a low for the troubled area, but they included the potentially inflammatory killing of a Sunni sheikh and the abduction of another. A week before, double bombings had hit two Sunni mosques on Friday, the Muslim holy day. They were presumably a riposte for the bombing of a Shi’a mosque a day earlier.

For Specialist Boschert, a burly soldier who joined the army for the college money but ended up staying far longer than he’d bargained for due to the controversial stop-loss scheme (which arbitrarily extends the tours of National Guard and reserve troops), ribbing his willing but ineffectual Iraqi translator, Mehdi, has become a habit. Boschert jokes with Mehdi that when the latter is not in the office working, he’s giving his brother, Nassir, a hand in building IEDs to target US troops. And he doesn’t shy away from reminding him that he’ll be out of the army and Iraq soon but that Mehdi is stuck in his country forever. “Hey Mehdi!” quips Boschert. “Do you know what I’ll be doing while the Iranians are taking over your country? I’ll be out of the army and smoking a big fat cigar on a Mexican beach. But keep in touch, my man!”

It’s the “lighter” side of the US army’s continuing incapability to find credible Iraqi partners to which to hand over the swathes of civil-strife-wracked countryside, villages, and towns. In two weeks spent inside a network of US military bases—from the oil-rich, northern city of Kirkuk to the troubled capital and finally to Diyala, the second most violent province in Iraq—it became clear that the Pentagon is anxious to retreat inside several sprawling bases and away from the mounting chaos gripping the center of the country. Minimizing the number of dead US soldiers even as tens of thousands of troops are slated to be sent home in the run-up to midterm US elections later this year is similarly calculated to allay the domestic political pressure on the Bush administration to disengage from Iraq.

Mehdi works for the Americans because he needs to make enough money to marry his 25-year old fiancée. An economics graduate from Baghdad University in 1992, he says that he remained unemployed for 11 years because he was not a member of the Ba’ath party. But the danger of being killed by insurgents because of his affiliation with the Americans made him search out work in Baquba, a two-hour drive from his home in Baghdad. Once there, he stays for 48-hour periods and sleeps at the base. “It’s better to work here,” he says. “No one knows me. I don’t have relations with anyone. It’s safer this way.”

When he steps out for a cigarette, Boschert joins him and continues the teasing. “So this is your country, Mehdi! How do you feel about it?”

“I’m proud of it,” Mehdi says to a look of baffled disbelief by the American. “I’m not proud of what they [the insurgents] are doing to it, though,” he qualifies.

“Hey, I’ve got a solution for you to solve your country’s problems,” Boschert says. “Don’t reproduce. Things will be a lot better if there are fewer Iraqis around. If you really want to have a kid, why don’t you go pick one up off the street? Especially in Buhriz [a troubled neighboring town]. There are so many running around that you could take one and they wouldn’t even notice it’s gone.” Mehdi smiles accommodatingly, stubs out his cigarette, and goes back to logging the night’s violence.

Baghdad again
My assignment was over a few days later, and I returned to Baghdad. Flying over the capital in a Blackhawk helicopter piloted by a fervent Christian who’d graduated from West Point, I was shocked to see the state of the city. As the helicopter gunners scanned the rooftops for snipers and the co-pilot released flares to ward off heat-seeking missiles, the squalor of Baghdad unfolded below me: derelict cars rusted in ponds of open sewage; children running barefoot through mud-clogged streets; traffic jams seething nervously at intersections, the drivers constantly on the lookout for the next, unannounced, car-bomb.

The following morning, a friend picked me up in his car and we drove out of the Green Zone and into reality. My friend would be taking me on the 20-minute drive to the airport—possibly the most dangerous stretch of asphalt on the planet and so prone to attack that the Americans run just one, heavily-armed convoy on it every 24 hours. It was the same one I had taken into Baghdad, and it leaves at an unannounced time well after midnight and several hours after the curfew has kicked in.

Now, I was riding with Waleed in the front-seat of an ordinary Nissan, completely unarmored, and without so much as a bullet-proof vest on. Chatting in Arabic, we set off through Baghdad’s morning traffic, crossing a busy market area as I cast involuntary glances at the rearview mirror to check if we were being followed. When I made a move to put on my seatbelt, Waleed stopped me. “Don’t do that,” he said, “it’ll attract attention to us.”

Waleed only got nervous at one point, as we crossed the Yarmuk neighborhood that has “become the new center for the resistance,” as he said. In the hour-long ride to Baghdad Airport’s Babel Terminal, Waleed gave me a stronger sense of where Iraq really is today than the whole succession of American military officials I’d encountered over the previous week. Pointing at a small mosque in the distance, he told me that it had been Saddam’s private mosque, where he’d gather with his relatives and close friends on feast-days. To our left was one of his derelict palaces, building cranes still dangling above the collapsed roof and other damage inflicted by an American strike. “The Americans hit it during the war,” he said, “but they didn’t hit either the airport or the Republican Palace,” where the US embassy is now based. “They knew they were going to need them later.”

We reach the airport safely after negotiating a series of some 10 checkpoints that include baggage searches, a session with bomb-sniffing dogs, and several body searches. The Babel terminal merits its name. Several races jostle with each other, seething and heaving bad-temperedly against the check-in desks as they complain about their delayed or canceled flights. “We just don’t have enough airplanes,” one airport official cries out despairingly. Waleed tells me that flight-times are so unpredictable because airspace is controlled by the Americans, who refuse to notify Iraqi officials as to when permission will be given for flights to take off. All in the name of OpSec (operational security).

A strange atmosphere pervades the terminal: part high-living, Sixties cosmopolitanism, part Lebanese, civil-war-era fin-de-sièclism. Powdered ladies sporting dyed, coiffured hair hug faded, leather suitcases to their ample bosoms and jostle with US television news-crews carrying shockproof cases of equipment and still wearing their bullet-proof vests and US-issued press credentials. Iraqi employees wearing nametags emblazoned “OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM” check passports. Above, phalanxes of neon lamps rib the Babylonian arches forming the ceiling.

After a four-hour wait, endless haggling, and frequent explosions of anger by passengers who have risked their lives to arrive at the airport only to be told their flight has been rescheduled, a compromise is reached. All passengers flying on the separate domestic flights to the northern cities of Sulaimaniya and Erbil are crammed on the international flight to Damascus. The small number of mostly Iraqi passengers returning to their Syrian exile look on in horror as around a hundred mostly Iraqi Kurds and Western security contractors are directed to their gate.

An hour later we land in Erbil. As it is an internal flight, there is no passport check. But we are confronted with the red-white-and-green Kurdish flag upon arrival and no sign of the Iraqi federal flag. It is another reminder that things are never quite what they seem in Iraq.

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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