Into Iraq – A Traveler’s Journal – Part 3

Sabotaged oil pipelines have been burning for a few days, so there’s a brownish-grey haze over the horizon. South of Baghdad, on the way to Kufa, cars are stopped on one side of the highway. My cab driver, following many other cars, crosses the median and drives on the other side, against oncoming traffic. This slows down both sides, so he turns into the town of Mohomedia, to bypass the highway.

We drive through small city streets, past a donkey cart with three-foot long blocks of ice gleaming in the scorching sun. Two young men kick what looks like a propane tank down the road. We then drive through a huge field of smoldering trash, breathing in fumes from burning plastic all the way, and finally turn back onto the highway and speed off down the road.

Twisted, lifeless Iraqi tanks line the side of the road. Between the two lanes there is an oil truck, which has flipped upside down and burnt. There is a hole blown in the side of it, probably from a roadside bomb.

When we reach Kufa, posters of Muqtada al-Sadr are plastered on walls, trees and road signs. This is his territory.

I want to take some photos of the city and it’s people, so I get out of the car, tell my cab driver to wait a few minutes, and start walking. Across the street from a market is a big blue and green mosque. I walk near the entrance and take off my lens cap. Almost immediately, a young man of about twenty is at my side asking my name. Two more men walk up and stand close to me. The one who spoke holds my arm and, with the other two, firmly leads me into the entrance. There are many men, of all ages, around me now and though they do not act aggressively, it is clear that I have no choice whether to stay or not. I am calmly told what to do.

They lead me to a small dark room, where all my belongings are taken and closely scrutinized, and I am questioned in detail. It is clear that I am thought to be a possible CIA agent, and all electronic devices are opened, down to my watch and a small flashlight.

They then move me to another room, this one a little bigger. I sit on the rug with six men while they continue to search and question me. I am made to pull the film out of my camera and empty a roll full of photos, ruining everything in the process. Several people look at all of the two hundred or so pictures I have stored in a small digital camera that was in my pocket.

Photos of people outside Abu Ghraib prison and of wounded Iraqis in the Kirkuk hospital seem to work in my favor, but when they get to pictures of the US Army patrol, I am treated with skepticism. Pictures of buildings and destroyed military vehicles have the same effect. I am not allowed to let my taxi driver know where I am and, in any case, the men around me say that they told him to leave.

They ask me what I think of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army. I tell them that I have come to learn, and am looking for information about both. It’s obvious to me now that they’ve caught me about to take pictures of a mosque that is a Mahdi Army base or office.

After about forty-five minutes, a man walks into the room and whispers something in Arabic to the man sitting across from me, then leaves. I am told, “You are now going to the office of Muqtada al-Sadr.”

Three men surround me. One of them wearing a beard and a baseball cap says, “Don’t be scared.” They walk with me to the street and there is my taxi driver, still waiting. He looks concerned, and when the three men tell him that we are all getting in the car, he co-operates.

The men in the back seat point the way, and we drive out of Kufa. With a nod from my new friends in the back seat, we don’t have to stop at police checkpoints on the way into the next city, Najef.

Once inside the main security gate, it is clear that Najef is an ancient city, and has not been modernized. Brittle looking sun-bleached buildings stand at odd angles over people in flowing robes.

I am ordered to sit down with my back facing an entrance to a cavernous alley. After about ten minutes, a man with a white Shia turban comes out and motions to those with me. I am brought around to meet Muqtada al-Sadr. I follow him and several other men into the alley, up some winding stairs, and into a small, carpeted room with a single table and computer. We sit down on the floor, Muqtada to my right.

He is a soft-spoken, gentle seeming man, and his eyes are piercing. We exchange pleasantries, and he asks to see my pictures in the digital camera. I go through them yet again, and he comments on them as I click through. He asks me if I’m from the CIA, and when I reply that I’m not, he says, “Good.” and laughs.

Since this resembles an interview, I begin to ask questions, almost all of which he decides not to answer. He tells me that, although the American government and military are his enemies until they leave Iraq, he wants to extend peace to the American people. He also warns me to be careful in Iraq. The more questions I ask, the fewer answers I get, until I am asked to stop asking them, at which point we talk about the American people being his friends and my being careful again.

Since he is one of the biggest figures in world news at this time, I hope for a news story of some kind, but not only do I get no new information, I’m also not allowed to take any pictures, nor record anything. Instead, what I have is a pleasant social visit with Muqtada al-Sadr; nice, to be sure, but rather surreal.

I ask for some of the al-Sadr posters that I’ve seen people holding at demonstrations, and that are hung up around the country. He seems flattered and sends one of the men to retrieve some. After asking for the digital camera again, he takes a photo of the front page of a pamphlet in the office. Even if I didn’t get a new photo of Muqtada al-Sadr, I do have the only photo I am aware of by Muqtada al-Sadr.

The man returns with the posters and Muqtada rolls them up, ties them together, and writes a small dedication to me in Arabic. He tells me that he considers me a friend; I shake hands with everybody, and am led out to my relieved taxi driver.

On the way back to Baghdad, there is a machine-gun firefight between bandits and the police in the city of Al-Haswa. Suddenly, loud cracks ring out from all directions, and there is a mad scramble for all of us on the road to get out of the line of fire. We do, and continue on.

July 7th 2004

Today, there were several attacks between insurgents of some kind or another and either US or Iraqi forces. It’s a confusing time in a confusing country.

I’ve checked into a smaller and cheaper hotel, and I sit, enjoying a cold Diet Coke, while young soldiers in US helicopters fire missiles into two buildings in downtown Baghdad. I overhear an American businessman telling an Italian photojournalist that he just found out that caviar is on the list of foods to request for an employee of Kellogg, Brown, and Root. I imagine Abdula Ghalib Ali still lies on his hospital bed in Kirkuk, a lesser employee of KBR.

If and when Patrick the National Guardsman returns home, he’ll have a hard time trying to figure out how to function in civilian life, and may have to take the antidepressants that are so kindly handed out.

Who knows what will become of millions of Iraqi youth when all the soldiers, businessmen, journalists and others have gone home, or to some other unfortunate country?

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