Into Iraq – A Traveler’s Journal – Part 2

Another day in Kirkuk. I go out in the morning to speak to people about their reactions to Saddam’s first television appearance since his dental exam. While watching the broadcast, there was no sense of celebration, but a silence that was hard to interpret. Saddam-era television was rife with controlled propaganda, using his image repeated ad infinitum. One man with a particularly good command of English tells me that, with the sound edited, it’s very much like that now, only from a different source. It’s better than Baathist propaganda, but most mention that the United States is, of course, pulling the strings.

Most of the people I speak to are Kurdish, and there is absolute unity on the issue of his guilt. Everybody says he should be either killed or thrown in prison for life. The gassing of Halabja is not forgotten, and Saddam’s response to this charge with, “I read about it in the newspaper.” brings unanimous bitterness. Five thousand Kurds died in eight minutes and many want him to suffer, for this and countless other things. Adnan, the owner of a restaurant, says that the trial is too good for him.

I plan to go to Baghdad today, but by the time I am ready to go, I realize that I don’t have time. It will be dark before I get there, and traveling at night is not a good idea on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, or anywhere in the country for that matter. Though it takes four hours to get to Baghdad by car, at least another hour must be allowed to get to the part of Baghdad I am staying in. One business that can be safely said to have boomed since the war, is the car industry. The number of vehicles on Baghdad’s streets has multiplied several times in the past year, and traffic can be excruciatingly slow. It would merely be a little inconvenient, except for the fact that one can’t speed away from gunmen or kidnappers in a traffic jam. This could end up being extremely inconvenient.
I find a driver to meet me early the next morning, and hope I can get him to accept the fare.

July 3rd 2004
En route to Baghdad, some cities are safer to drive through than others. While the driver seems carefree for much of the drive, at times he seems to be constantly looking around, and encourages me to wear my hat, so as not to be too obviously a foreigner. The violence these days isn’t directed only towards foreigners though; it is now often inflicted upon those who help them.

The scenery alternates from brown rock and dirt, to lush green palm trees and houses, and then back to brown rock and dirt. As we approach Baghdad, there is a more modern, yet unmistakably Middle-Eastern feel to everything. Minarets of Iraqi-style mosques shoot higher out of the ground and are more numerous than before. Roads are better made and have more lanes, but there are large holes to be swerved around from time to time. This is recent damage from mortars or roadside bombs.

Once in the city, traffic is slow, and routes circuitous, with so many streets closed or inaccessible. Though this is for security reasons, having to zigzag around blocks to get from point A to point B hardly feels secure. The only discernable rule of the road is ‘whoever gets there first, has the right of way’, except for when armed traffic guards yell and point.

I have trouble recognizing a hotel that I stayed at last time I was in the city, and after a while, I realize why: There are huge, grey cement barriers lined up in front of it and so the entire first floor isn’t visible from the street any more. After I get out of the cab (and actually pay for the ride) and enter, I find it’s different on the inside too. One year ago, the Hotel Burj Al-Hyaat was bustling with UN workers and folks working for Bremmer, but now they’re all gone. I don’t see another guest during my brief time there. However, there are many armed teenage guards to speak to every time I enter or leave the hotel, while I’m stepping through barriers, around razor wire, and over tire spikes. These are the new jobs for Iraqi youths, and they want me to take pictures of them posing with their guns whenever I pass; that’s one way I can say that Iraq is different from a year ago; security is higher than ever, yet it’s more chaotic.

I walk around the city for a few hours, down block after block, where cars are repaired and parts for them sold. Even in the shade, the temperature is almost unbearable. If there’s a breeze, it’s hot. Stacks of tires block the sidewalk and parts of the street, and everywhere are pools of oil and the smell of gasoline. Little girls, wearing rags, approach cars, which spew black exhaust into the air, and they beg for money. I speak to several men who are working, and they all say the same thing: Life in Baghdad is hard’ very, very hard.

July 4th 2004

In the late morning, I walk in a different direction. It’s so hot outside that my eyes hurt and I have to avoid rolls of rusty razor wire, which always seem to be underfoot. The constant, deafening roar of massive oily generators, attached to almost every building, sounds like helicopters, and then I see the real thing flying low overhead. When a convoy of US troops drives by, all traffic has to stop, and the huge gun barrels are often, insistently, pointed at them. Tension, fear and fatigue seem to be on both sides of the gun.

Though opinions about current events were somewhat predictable in most areas of northern Iraq, this is not true of Baghdad, and people don’t mince words. They question me, too.

“What do you think of Muqtada Al-Sadr?” asks Ahmed, a twenty-two year old Pharmacology student at Baghdad University. He is a bright, personable young man, who is immediately friendly toward me and has many hints for keeping myself safe.

He speaks of the fiery Shia cleric with pride. The first time most Americans heard Muqtada Al-Sadr’s name was this April, after the death of four American contractors, and the later uprising in Falluja, where pictures of Al-Sadr were held up by the crowds.
“He is our leader,” says Ahmed. “He was not chosen by the US to do what they want; he is for the people.”

Ahmed lives in Sadr City, which was known as Saddam City until after the war, when it was renamed after Muqtada’s father. It is a sprawling collection of slums; the worst in Baghdad.

“We don’t like the US Army in our city, and we make it difficult for them.”

This is true. Whenever US troops or foreign contractors go to Sadr City, they are almost invariably shot at by locals, and now seldom enter at all.

Ahmed is working outside a government office at a little desk, to which people bring papers for him to staple and notate. He stops often to make time to talk to me, and occasionally gets yelled at by his bosses.

“The Mahdi Army are good people and want peace. The Americans have killed many Iraqis and that is why they fight them.”

Though he is a Shia, he says that his allegiance to Al-Sadr is not for religious reasons. It is because Sadr has stood up against “the foreign occupiers”. He sees Saddam as a tyrant, and the US as the main force that put that tyrant into power. Then they turned against him, when he wouldn’t do as they told him to do. It’s a historic account, which is difficult to argue with.

“The United States didn’t care about all the people dying for years when they were friends with Saddam. Now they care so much that they want to liberate us. It is only so they can put someone in power, who they like”

“Do you want to go to Sadr City? He suddenly asks. I tell him that I do, and that I was there a year ago, but wonder if I’d survive it now. He talks with some friends about the possibility of me going there with him, but they conclude that I would be mistaken for an intelligence agent, and be killed. I ask him if bringing me in would be bad for him, as well.

“Yes, problems for me. I think maybe I would be killed, too.”

When I ask about the situation in Iraq now, as opposed to before the invasion, he laughs and gestures around us, implying that I simply look at my surroundings for the answer.

A middle-aged man who has been silently listening chimes in, “Saddam was bad for the people’s rights, but good for security; the United States is bad for the people’s rights, and bad for security.”

July 5th 2004

I am in a small section of Baghdad where most foreigners stay, and security is much higher than in the rest of the city. I’m feeling comfortable now. It’s hot and dangerous out on the street, but at least the taxi drivers can be trusted not to make me feel uncomfortable.

The majority of those staying at the Palestine Hotel, where I’ve just checked into, appear to be journalists and businessmen. I meet many of the latter, who are openly ecstatic about the amount of money to be made in Iraq. Some of the less talkative of these are employees of the Halliburton subsidiary, Kellog, Brown, and Root, or “KBR” as it is commonly referred to.

I immediately think of Mr. Abdula Ghalib Ali, who I met in the Kirkuk hospital. I decide to try to talk to someone here at the company’s Iraq headquarters to inquire into his well-being. After all, he was an employee of theirs, wounded on duty.

It is easy to find the floors reserved for KBR, because they have extra private guards blocking the hallway. When the elevator door opens on a KBR floor, it is their job to make sure that nobody, who isn’t an employee, gets off.

I ask to speak to someone who may be able to give me information about wounded employees, and compensation offered to them. The guard doesn’t seem to like me. He tells me there’s nobody to speak to, and to get back in the elevator. I ask if I could speak to someone concerning KBR’s policy, concerning medical treatment of wounded employees. For example, would a wounded American employee be sent to an Iraqi hospital for substandard treatment, or is that just for Iraqi employees? No answer.

I take a taxi to an infamous prison outside a town one hour west of Baghdad called Abu Ghraib. It used to be infamous as Saddam’s torture prison, but its reputation has been redefined recently.

By the side of the highway there are two entrances; one paved road that leads to heavily guarded gates, and one dirt road that leads to a makeshift earthen parking lot, for those who wish to visit their loved ones inside. The immense facility itself isn’t visible from the road; only barricades, sandbagged sniper towers, and walls of more razor wire. A US sergeant tells me that I can walk freely around the outside of the perimeter.

It is dry and windy, and dirt blows into my eyes. The temperature is 120 degrees, and since there are no structures outside the wire, there is no shade from the unrelenting sun. About forty people wait, crouching or standing. I’m told that family visitors have a minimum of a five-hour wait to get inside, if they get in at all. There are several children that are just simply hanging around, waiting for the guards to give them candy.

Two women with covered heads approach me, holding snapshots of their teenage sons. They want me to take photographs of the snapshots, and tell the government that their sons are innocent.

Four men, wearing white robes, then want me to look at notarized documents, written by the National Alliance of Iraqi Clans and Tribes, and addressed to ‘the American General in Abu Ghraib’. They state that the research by American forces about certain inmates is flawed, and that those inmates should be set free.

As I get closer to the visitor entry point, a tall, quiet, slightly disheveled man in his twenties, named Saddam Hussein (“Not that Saddam Hussein.”, he laughs) tells me he is there to visit his brother.

“Many Iraqis in Abu Ghraib are innocent, and shouldn’t be here. They were captured by Americans who can’t tell the difference between one Iraqi and another. A large percentage of them were just in the wrong place. I personally know examples of this.”

“What is your brother accused of?”, I ask, trying to be sensitive about the way I word the question.

He laughs again, “Oh him? He’s guilty. He was selling more guns than he was allowed to sell. When he gets out, I will make sure he won’t do it again.”

American soldiers permit me to get close to the building, as long as I’m accompanied by one of them. It is surprisingly calm on the inside of the wire. My escort tells me about how sad it is when masses of poor Iraqis show up every day to fight over garbage, when trucks bring it from inside the prison, and dump it on the ground outside.

After returning to the secured hotel area, a young national guardsman on duty strikes up a conversation with me. His name is Patrick, and he sits atop an armored vehicle behind a mounted gun. He’s bored, so as a joke, he has tree leaves attached to his helmet as extra camouflage. Most of the US soldiers I’ve met are understated, if not stoic, but Patrick is immediately talkative and somewhat manic.

“I joined up for the college money. I didn’t think I was going to see kids getting blown up!”

Patrick got married two days before he shipped out to Afghanistan for nine months. He’s been in Iraq for longer than that.

“When my mom calls and asks me how I’m doing, what the fuck am I going to say? You can’t tell your mom that you just saw women and children’s body parts scattered on the street; that you just found a hand still holding something in it. I say, ‘I’m fine, mom.’ My dad’s deployed too, and my sister just went to college, so she’s alone now. She’s been a stay-at-home mom for twenty years, and now she’s alone and has to work at a fuckin’ department store.”

He speaks about the difficulty many US solders have, re-acclimatizing to civilian life.

“They’re giving us antidepressants now, when we go on leave, so we don’t go into a deep depression. My brother-in-law is home for a while, but he calls me every day. It’s like he’s still here. He’s my wingman. On patrol, it’s his job to protect me. He has to call all the time to make sure I’m okay.”

He looks down, puts his hand on his wrist, and says,”Shit, my arm’s shaking again.” “When one of our guys, my friend, died, the chaplain put it to us in a really good way. He said, “you know, you’ll never be able to talk to anyone about this, when you get home. They just won’t understand.” That made a lot of sense. Now I know why my uncle never told me one single story about ‘Nam. He’ll probably be one of the only ones I can talk to, when I get back.”

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