Iraq: It's Not For Everyone

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 | Baghdad, Iraq

The Swords of Qadisiyah are just one of several garish monuments erected by Saddam Hussein in what is now the "Green Zone."
My trip to Iraq began with a 13-hour flight to Dubai. On that leg, my neighbor was one of many Americans on the flight who wore civilian clothes with military-issue desert boots. He was also heading to Iraq, he said, but I decided not to ask him what he was doing there. (Probing the Iraq- and Afghanistan-bound for further information these days usually ends in awkward silences, with smug grins that seem to say, "C'mon, if you knew a damn thing you'd know I ain't answering that.")

But my neighbor volunteered some information on his own. After connecting through Dubai and Baghdad, he said, it would take him four full days of further travel—on progressively smaller planes and ground transport—to reach his unnamed outpost somewhere deep in the deserts of southern Iraq.

"Wanna see a sandstorm?" Pulling a digital camera from his shirt pocket, he showed me a video he
had shot at the base before going on leave. The camera panned across a lone concrete bunker-like building in the midst of a vast wasteland. Then, zooming toward the horizon, the shaky image revealed a dark cloud brooding in the desert. The cloud swelled rapidly, and rushed at the camera. Within seconds, the scene fell dark as night.

* * *

When we landed at Baghdad International Airport, I and my two colleagues with whom I am working here located our security detail, led by a hulking former member of New Zealand's Special Forces, whose biceps were approximately as wide as my head. As I had been forewarned, the security briefing he offered us in the raucous arrivals terminal made frequent use of terms like "kill zone" and of many ominous acronyms. An excerpt: "Now listen up, mates, if we encounter contact, are struck by an IED or an EFP, or are engaged in an RTA, one of the other vehicles will drive up behind you and push your vehicle from the kill zone."

I suppose that meant "Welcome to Baghdad".

The guards dropped bulky bullet-proof vests over our shoulders, strapped helmets on our heads, and loaded us into armored trucks. Time to move out.

* * *

Today, everyone knows that Baghdad is still a war zone. Nonetheless, I was somehow unprepared for the sight of the place, perhaps because it is so completely different from anywhere else I have ever traveled in the Arab world or elsewhere.

It was a 30-minute drive from the airport to the compound where I'm staying these three weeks, and that drive occurred mostly within a series of narrow chutes formed by the high concrete T-walls that are Baghdad's most common architectural feature. Murals depicting ancient Babylon and the glory days of medieval Baghdad were painted on some of these blast walls, though they did little to dull the dreariness of our surroundings. Where the road was not flanked by T-walls, long coils of razor wire lined our route. Checkpoints were frequent, and marked by blaring signs in Arabic and English announcing "100% ID CHECK—STOP OR YOU WILL BE SHOT" and "USE OF DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORIZED".

* * *

For three weeks, this has been our world. Our trips from the company compound to the International Zone (formerly known as the "Green Zone") have occurred exclusively in these corridors, offering few glimpses of what the "real" Baghdad might look like.

Even within the IZ itself, the scenery is dismal. After reading the fascinating/horrifying Imperial Life in the Emerald City on my way here, I expected wide expanses of green, dotted with palaces, swimming pools, and government buildings. Instead I found myself again in the brown maze of blast walls. (Apparently much has changed since the early days of the US occupation—the period covered in the book. Now that the handover to Iraqi forces has begun, the UN agencies, foreign embassies, and even Iraqi government offices are bunkering down and erecting yet more walls.) Adding to the militarized ambience, Iraqi army tanks and humvees are parked every few hundred yards. Walking in the IZ is prohibited for security reasons, so convoys of armored cars are all that pass before the gun turrets perched periodically along the walls.

Every time we drive to lunch at one of the US military bases, to a meeting in the IZ, or to a flight at the airport, we maneuver through this same unreal landscape. From one checkpoint to the next, I sit in the back seat of my vehicle, my head bobbing under the weight of my combat helmet, and wonder: If this much security is necessary to keep us safe here, why are we even here?

Sometimes the answer to that question seems complicated. But other times it seems very simple.


Mike said...

So what's the simple answer?

Andrew G. Farrand said...

"We shouldn't be here at all."

But then I get to thinking about how challenging it will be to pull out, with all its foreseeable and unforeseeable implications... that's when things seem complicated. At this point, there are still no easy answers or easy outs for the US in Iraq.

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