Blast walls, as viewed through four inch thick glass, in Baghdad's International Zone. (photo by John Goodman)
The last day I was to spend in Baghdad dawned bright and clear. Many thoughts raced through my head: Had I seen enough people and asked enough questions? Would my convoy be attacked by anti-tank grenade-wielding insurgents?
I had talked to a dizzying number of people over the last month, but there are always more to be interviewed. None of the convoys I had traveled in had been attacked, but I was fully aware that this was a numbers game, and that mine hadn't come up ... yet. "Man, I hope we get hit with fuckin' RKG-3s and EFPs and small arms fire and all that shit!" the salty old master sergeant's voice cracked gleefully over the intercom as we traveled down the freeway in a convoy of MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles). His comment was met by nervous laughter from the gunner, who occupied the most exposed position, on the roof of the vehicle. "I know our reporters wanna see some shit. Hell, that's why they're here!" From the back of the MRAP, I couldn't tell if he was smiling, but the wrinkles creased into the side of his face indicated that he was. In a way, perhaps he was right, I thought to myself. Although thankful that neither I nor any of the soldiers I was traveling with had been hurt, I couldn't help thinking, what if? What would it have been like if our truck had been one of the ones rocked by explosions and small arms fire? That had certainly happened within miles of where we were operating.
Traffic was especially heavy on the highway that day as we were headed to an NGO conference at the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's International Zone. It was the anniversary of the death of the Fifth Imam - a major Shiite religious holiday - so the Iraqi Army and National Police were out in greater numbers than usual. Every 30 meters or so, Iraqi National Policeman stood on the side of the road, loaded AK-47s at the ready. Checkpoint guards seemed to be more vigilant than they normally were, causing the congestion. As always on the freeway, our convoy of MRAPs had the right of way, and along with a few other American and Iraqi military convoys, we had the left lane all to ourselves. Beat up 1980s Volkswagen Passats, Toyota Cressidas, and occasional BMWs sat in the plodding lanes of civilian traffic, filled with grim-faced people who looked like they wanted to be anywhere but sitting in traffic. As we cruised past, I saw a few of them glance up at us, expressions of mild annoyance flashing across their faces.
I recalled a story one of the soldiers had told of a man in a BMW who had raced past their convoy, refusing to stop when they put on their sirens and aimed the truck's machine gun turret at him. He came screeching to a halt when the gunner fired a burst from the machine gun in front of his car. They were afraid he was driving a vehicle-borne suicide bomb. He was annoyed by their presence. When the soldiers asked him why he hadn't stopped, he replied that they didn't belong in his country anymore. Considering this story and the pained expressions of the motorists we passed on the way to the International Zone highlighted the fact that regardless of whether or not the country of Iraq is ready for foreign military powers to be gone, many of its people want them to be gone. Security gains have been made, and things have been relatively quiet, so many people see that as an all clear. Then again, two Iraqi National Policemen were executed by an insurgent with a silenced pistol as they sat at their guard post one night a couple of weeks back, and explosions still just happen.
Once in the International Zone (or Green Zone, as it is often called), it is no longer considered necessary to travel in a convoy of heavily armored vehicles. Lieutenant Colonel Quincy Handy, commander of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, was headed to the conference at the Al Rasheed, so we shed the heavy trappings of MRAP convoy travel for a relatively less cumbersome light-armored suburban. It clanked and clunked its way over the potholed roads of once pristine downtown Baghdad, passing below Saddam's decaying swords of triumph, and an architectural abomination that serves as the Iraqi tomb of the unknown soldier, to the nicest hotel in the city. The 1970s must have been Iraq's golden years, because this hotel is an amazing example of perfectly preserved 1970s art and architecture. Buildings like it can be seen all over Baghdad, and whether or not you like the style, it is impressive, especially at the Al Rasheed. The faux marble floors, high ceilings, fake decorative plants, and light cigarette smell wafting throughout the building were mildly reminiscent of the indoor shopping malls in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that my mother brought me to as a child.
Halfway through the conference, as a speaker addressed a crowd of mildly interested NGO reps, government officials, and journalists, an explosion shook the walls of the banquet hall, causing the lights to flicker and go out. "Huh. That one was pretty close," said Handy. Several people snapped on flashlights, and after a moment's pause, the speaker continued her speech. While everyone went about their business unperturbed, the blast served as a reminder that the security situation isn't completely resolved. I later found out that an IED (improvised explosive device) had been detonated only a few blocks away.
Lt. Col. Handy spent the rest of the day talking with NGO representatives, hoping to find some that his civil affairs teams could work with. For a while he talked with a one-armed man standing before a poster filled with pictures of people dismembered by the war. Then, he was mobbed by a crowd of women who had various education and health-related NGOs. I wandered away from the group, finding, to my delight, an environmental NGO call Nature Iraq. On their table were images of some of the most beautiful places I had never seen, particularly not in Iraq. Aside from observing people's joy and enthusiasm during the provincial elections weeks earlier, seeing pictures of the country's green places gave me more hope for Iraq's future than anything else I'd been privy to. Another, smaller explosion caused the lights to go out for a few minutes again, but the well-dressed crowd was already on its way out into the lobby to enjoy a delicious feast of Iraqi food.