Bagh Blog
Monday, April 03, 2006
  I've created a new blog at www.charlescrain.com; I expect to be posting on it regularly. Right now I'm in Amman Jordan preparing for another trip to Iraq. The new site is still pretty basic, but I can post there and you can comment there. At some point I hope to transfer the Baghblog archives to charlescrain.com, so everything will be in one place.

Come over and check it out, and thanks for reading. 
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
  I had a melancholy dinner tonight with an old translator of mine, the guy I worked with back when I was using translators only when absolutely necessary and trying to bargain them down to 50 percent of their standard fee. He was always great to work with, even though I knew very little about being a journalist and even less about Iraq. Last spring I promised him that if I ever managed to sell the story we were working on I'd buy him dinner. I never did sell (or, uh, write) my big story on women's centers, but I figured I owed him dinner anyway.

I was in the Hamra internet cafe early this afternoon when he stopped by the front desk in the second building, and we arranged to get together tonight at 7. Our dining options were limited to restaurants inside the security perimeter. Our first stop was the Sumerland restaurant, but I figured that wouldn't work when I saw a couple of police SUVs out front and guys milling around with Kalashnikovs (I should say "more guys than usual milling around with Kalashnikovs"). Government guys occasionally go to the Sumerland and tonight it was rented out for a private party. We were going to try the Flowersland (where last spring I sang Metallica with security contractors) but my friend Tom from Knight Ridder said that when he and some other folks went there last week they walked out because the food was so terrible.

So we retreated back to the Hamra, where after ten minutes as absolutely the only people in the main restaurant we wandered into the kitchen to find that the place was closed. As a last resort we headed over to the "coffee shop," which is decorated like the cafeteria in a 1960s sci-fi movie: white circular and oval tables, white scoop-shaped chairs with garishly colored cushions, petroleum-based orange placemats, marble floors and a metallic ceiling. They were serving dinner.

It was my second meal of the day there--I'm still dealing with the consequences of getting fed up with chicken- and lamb-based meals and eating the "Delux beef burger with egg and cheese" for lunch. I had another "delux" meal for dinner, a faux Chinese noodle dish. My ex-translator had the pepper steak--I have distant memories of Hamra pepper steak tasting like old tires slathered in bad gravy.

A few minutes later our waiter came back to confess that he hadn't understood my order, and my former translator advised me to point to it on the menu. After the waiter left I was reminded, again, why I like my ex-translator so much:

Me: I really, really, need to learn some Arabic.

Ex-translator: There are foreigners, journalists, all over this hotel all the time--they need to learn some English!

He has kind of a wise-ass New Yorker way of speaking, and a sly smile, so when he says stuff like that it comes off as endearingly world-weary and not nasty. I asked about how things have been going, and it turns out he's looking to leave Iraq. He lives in a dodgy neighborhood, and said that every Friday the local mosque ends its sermon by wishing death on Americans and anyone who collaborates with them.

He said he's begun feeling like a stranger, like Iraq is no longer his country. He doesn't talk to his neighbors anymore, because he's afraid of having to lie to them about what he's now doing for a living. He stays away from people and from places that used to be safe. Before the war Fallujah was a punchline, known for its thick-headed bumpkins. He told me a joke about a Falluji who stirs his tea, finds that there's too much sugar in it, and decides to solve the problem by stirring the tea in the opposite direction. He said one of the problems that sent the situation there south was a rumor that American night-vision could see through women's clothing. He and I were in Fallujah together last March the day the Blackwater contractors were killed and mutilated and strung up on a bridge across the Euphrates.

He's an Arab Christian, and his church has been bombed. He said there was a car accident in front of the church a while back, and the sound made everyone jump. He doesn't think the election was a victory for democracy. When I asked him if he'd ever been to Iran he said, "Wait awhile--with this government Iran will come here." He expects things to move slowly--first a ban on liquor, then more and more impositions of Islamic law. For secular Iraqi Arabs with no ties to the old regime there are few options--the Assembly will be dominated by Kurds and religious Shi'ites, and the insurgency is largely dominated by jihadis and ex-Baathists.

One of his children has married a foreigner and left Iraq, and he's hoping to take the rest of his family to Scandanavia. I'm not sure how old he is--probably about 50, but Iraqis are often younger than they look. He has an engineering degree and fears that he'll have to drive a bus or run a kebab stand after he leaves Iraq.

I managed to talk to him about this without plunging into a suidical depression, mostly because he's not into self-pity and maybe also because I've been in Iraq too long. This is a strange way to live. My apartment in Beirut is maybe a kilometer or less from the bombing that killed the ex-prime minister. It has nice views out of big plate glass windows. I've expended more energy trying to find out if my windows are broken than worrying about whether the assassination could re-ignite sectarian strife in Lebanon. 
Monday, February 07, 2005
  I've had a few lazy days after working almost non-stop for several weeks. Saturday I dropped by my friend Tom's room at the Hamra and ended up sticking around for several hours, smoking flavored tobacco out of a water pipe and listening to country and assorted other American music. We sat on pillows on the floor, Iraqi-style, but, American-style, didn't worry about pointing our feet at each other. It was a cool and sunny day, the kind that reminds me of winter in southern California. At one point, while we were listening to Leonard Cohen or John Prine, the sliding glass door to the balcony rattled and I asked, "Did you kick the window, or was that something [as in, something exploding]?" Tom replied, "No, that was something." It didn't make me any less relaxed. I was especially happy to hear that, because of the transparent film coating the windows we wouldn't get seriously injured if a bomb blew out the glass--only "cut up."

The elections were good news, but probably not as good as I or other folks here originally thought. The bar was so low--my guess was that turnout would be below fifty percent and hundreds of people would die. I was embedded with an infantry platoon guarding one of the Mosul polling sites. I woke up on election day and reflected that it might be the only day of my life on which I'd be completely unsurprised to personally witness a suicide bombing. I credit the US military with keeping a lid on the violence. It was a great idea to ban driving in major cities, and limiting travel between cities made it very tough to import weapons and bombs. We'll see what happens this month, though--the military belives there are several dozen car bombs that were prepared for the election but weren't used, and there's a major Shi'ite religious festival at the end of the month.

The election isn't going to effect the insurgency much one way or the other. The actual day was a major security success, but the elections were only an unexpected political success if you thought Shi'ites and Kurds hate the occupation more than they love the idea of eventually controlling Iraq. Whatever its flaws, and however much it's been managed by the United States, I don't think the process is frustrating the will of Iraq's Shi'ites and Kurds all that much. The Kurds want independence and they won't get it. But they'll probably get so much autonomy that they'll be virtually independent in everything but name (that would just be political recognition of facts on the ground--there are virtually no Iraqi flags in Kurdistan, only Kurdish flags). Given that an independent Kurdistan unprotected by the American military would immediately be invaded by Turkey and subjected to a fairly horrifying military occupation, I think the US-backed Kurdish leadership has the right idea on this one.

The Shi'ites want to control the government and make sure they don't continue their decades-long tradition of getting shafted even though they're the majority. That's one reason democracy is such a compelling idea for Iraq's Shi'ites. They also, depending on who you ask, want either a lot or a little Islam with their government. They probably won't get Islam recognized as the only source of Iraqi law. But they'll probably get it recognized as one source, or an important source, of Iraqi law. In any case, they'll continue to run southern Iraq largely as they please.

The losers in a democracy are the Sunnis--they don't have the advantage of numbers, they don't have the advantage of geography (the oil is in Shi'ite areas and around Kirkuk, which the Kurds are slowly and unofficially de-Arabizing to redress a Saddam-era resettlement policy). What the Sunnis do have are quite a few well-trained, well-motivated and well-funded former members of the old Iraqi military, security and political apparatus. They have nothing to lose by fighting, since they are very likely to end up disenfranchised in an Iraqi democracy. On top of that, the insurgents aren't nice people--many were movers and shakers under one of the world's most ruthless regimes, and more than a few are happy to collaborate with transnational terrorists and common criminals. Many don't like or trust Shi'ites or Kurds, and their take on Saddam's crimes is that he dealt harshly with domestic enemies who were trying to help Iran win the Iran-Iraq war. Now a political party with ties to Iranian intelligence, whose leaders were exiles in Iran before the spring of 2003, is set to be the driving force in the new government. That's not a democracy with which your average Sunni is likely to be comfortable.

All that said, the election was a success in that it demonstrated that a majority of Shi'ites and Kurds support the political process and have not been cowed by violence into inaction. That means there may be enough motivated Iraqis out there to populate an effective Iraqi security force. Leaving aside whether we've brought democracy to Iraq, we can at least hope that there can be stability in Iraq and that American troops won't have to enforce that stability themselves. At this point a semi-independent Kurdistan, an Arab Iraq governed to some extent by Islamic law, and a Sunni minority kept in line through repression would be a positive outcome for the United States.

Speaking of positive outcomes, my deal with USA Today ended just in time for me to jump up to Mosul for Time Magazine. I spent three weeks embedded up there, and the magazine asked me to stick around for another month to help out with Baghdad politics. Mosul was a good time, but grueling. I was embedded the whole time with a light infantry platoon, and I lived on a base full of combat units. There are no women allowed in combat units, which meant that after a few days the mere sound of a female voice made me swivel by head involuntarily. It's good to be back in Baghdad and living like a civilian, even if I'm a civilian who never travels in the city without an armed escort. At the end of the month I'm going to find some tropical beach to lie on for a week or two and then spend some time in the States. 
Sunday, January 02, 2005
  Life is hard to predict in Iraq, and instead of being embedded with the 1st Infantry Division I'm still in Baghdad. That being the case, I'm making an effort to familiarize myself more fully with the issues and personalities involved in this month's elections.

One of the hardest parts of working in Iraq is conducting good interviews. For political reasons neither American nor Iraqi officials tend to give straight answers to basic questions about the nature of the insurgency, the prospect for a free and fair election, and so on. It is very difficult to verify the information you do get from these interviews, and talking with insurgents and their sympathizers is not only difficult but also dangerous. Even leaving the complex to talk to someone in the Green Zone is a calculated risk.

But this is my job, so this afternoon I decided to start by scheduling an interview with someone who usually at least considers tough questions without walking out or clamming up. I was pretty confident I'd at least get an overview of the key issues and dilemmas facing Iraq in the coming months. Since I don't think this is going to get published in the tradtional media I decided I'd post the transcript here. It has all the hallmarks of an interview with an Iraqi official (or an American military source, for that matter): evasive and sometimes cryptic answers, references to unnamed "individuals" or "sources" and the subject's unwillingness to betray too much of his own thinking while answering questions. Without further ado, here's my interview with the online Magic 8-ball:

Crain: With many Sunni areas overwhelmed by violence or still under de-facto insurgent control, is there a risk that the coming vote will under-represent Sunnis and make the insurgency worse?

Magic 8-ball: Outlook hazy, try again.

Crain: With many Sunni areas overwhelmed by violence or still under de-facto insurgent control, is there a risk that the coming vote will under-represent Sunnis and make the insurgency worse, Magic 8-ball?

Magic 8-ball: It is certain.

Crain: American officials have emphasized the role Iraqi security forces will play in protecting polling places and ballots from terrorist attacks, but many Iraqi units are still undertrained, ill-equipped and intimidated by insurgents. Can a safe vote be conducted with Iraqi government forces taking the security lead?

Magic 8-ball: Ask again later.

Crain: Okay, we'll come back to that. Should Iraqis worry about how much influence Iran will have in a government that will probably be dominated by Shi’ites, many of whom have contacts with Tehran?

Magic 8-ball: Reply hazy, try again.

Crain: Magic 8-ball, should Iraqis worry about how much influence Iran will have in a government that will probably be dominated by Shi'ites, many of whom have contacts with Tehran?

Magic 8-ball: Ask again later.

Crain: No problem, we'll leave that one for the end. Magic 8-ball, can elections confer legitimacy on an Iraqi government while 150,000 American troops are still present in the country?

Magic 8-ball: My sources say no.

Crain: Interesting. US officials say that Kurdish claims to land and oil around Kirkuk be dealt with through the political process. But will Kurdish militia take matters into their own hands?

Magic 8-ball: Outlook good.

Crain: American military officials say that Iraqis in Fallujah can be won over, despite destruction in the city, by American reconstruction efforts. But as civilians begin returning to the city will renewed infiltration by insurgents make large-scale reconstruction too dangerous?

Magic 8-ball: My sources say no.

Crain: The suicide bombing in a US Army mess hall in Mosul has heightened tensions between Americans and the Iraqis who work on their bases. Can there be effective security cooperation and training programs in this atmosphere of distrust, Magic 8-ball?

Magic 8-ball: My sources say no.

Crain: After the Fallujah offensive there has been an upswing in deadly attacks on Iraqi security forces. Will occupying insurgent strongholds simply prompt insurgents to relocate to other cities and continue their attacks?

Magic 8-ball: Very doubtful.

Crain: Abu Musaib al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian arch-terrorist operating in Iraq, claims ties to al-Qaeda and was recently embraced by Osama bin Laden. Is the fighting in Iraq a breeding ground for the next generation of pan-Arab holy warriors in the bin Laden mold?

Magic 8-ball: Yes, definitely.

Crain: America has warned Syria to prevent insurgents from crossing its border into Iraq, and has implied it might use military force to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. But with 150,000 troops tied down in Iraq, and no end to the fighting in sight, will American tough-talk deter its opponents in the Middle East?

Magic 8-ball: Outlook not so good.

Crain: If I could follow up on a couple things we went over earlier... American officials have emphasized the role Iraqi security forces will play in protecting polling places and ballots from terrorist attacks, but many Iraqi units are still undertrained, ill-equipped and intimidated by insurgents. Can a safe vote be conducted with Iraqi government forces taking the security lead?

Magic 8-ball: Yes, definitely.

Crain: Great. And lastly, should Iraqis worry about how much influence Iran will have in a government that will probably be dominated by Shi'ites, many of whom have contacts with Tehran?

Magic 8-ball: Signs point to yes.

Crain: Okay, great. Well, thank you very much for your time, this was very helpful for me. I hope I can call you if I have any follow-ups, and just to keep in touch as the election gets closer.

Magic 8-ball: It is certain.

Crain: Thanks very much.


The format of the interview made it tough to ask follow-up questions, but all in all I was pleased--this was my first interview with the Magic 8-ball and I expect it to open up as we get to know each other better and build some trust. I think, though, that the general picture the 8-ball paints is accurate--the US is making some progress on reconstruction and training Iraqi security forces, but the mere presence of US troops in the country may be harming the security situation here, inflaming jihadist passions, and emboldening America's regional enemies. The outlook is, indeed, hazy.
Thursday, December 30, 2004
  Tomorrow I'm embedding with the 1st Infantry Division, which means I'll be greeting the New Year in Tikrit. The Army, unlike the Marine Corps, does non-essential chopper flights during the day. That may be slightly less safe, but the alternative was probably ringing in the New Year either by myself in a hallway at the Baghdad Convention Center or out at a helicoptor landing area with a couple over-worked public affairs soldiers. Much better to spend it at 1st ID headquarters, which is apparently in one of Saddam's old palaces. In January I watched the Super Bowl in a room full of sober men, because the Army doesn't allow soldiers in places like Fallujah to drink. The same goes in Tikrit, so it'll be a dry night in the desert.

I haven't been turning out too many stories since I got back from Fallujah. I've mostly been doing marathon email sessions with public affairs officers in the hope of scraping together some embeds.

Time has a way of passing strangely over here. Monday--three days ago--a car bomber killed 15 people at SCIRI headquarters, a few kilometers from where I'm staying. Today I was sitting around with four other reporters who live nearby, and we all agreed it seems like that bombing was weeks ago. As we were discussing current events we had to distinguish between attacks:

"The SUV bombing."

"The SCIRI bombing was an SUV?"

"No, not SCIRI--the one from two days ago."

"The one by the bridge?"

"Which bridge?"

I was in my bed in the spare room of the Time house when the SCIRI bomb went off. The headquarters of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (which is mainstream, despite the name) is maybe a couple kilometers from the Hamra, in the shadow of a massive double-decker bridge across the south bend of the Tigris. My room at Time has no windows except one looking out onto an airshaft, but the sound of the blast was enough to roust me from my usual morning state of "should I get up or should I gently drift away and sleep for another hour and a half?" (I was going to say that's my usual early morning state, but alert readers of USA Today will note that the bomb detonated around quarter past nine).

I threw on some clothes and went out into the house, where Chris was already up and asking the staff what was going on. We walked out into the front yard and saw our friends from Knight-Ridder on one of the Hamra balconies. There was already talk it was a bomb at SCIRI. I went back inside, threw on some shoes, and went up to one of the KR rooms. From the balcony we could see black smoke rising to the south. We headed back to the house and quickly left again (along with the highly effective but necessarily mysterious Time security team) to see how close we could get to the scene.

The answer was, not that close. We sat in a massive traffic jam, first heading away from the bombing to get to a traffic circle where we could turn around and start heading back in the right direction. As we inched closer and closer to the big traffic circle near the bridge a line of Army Humvees raced through the intersection.

"Those are the guys who are going to keep us from seeing what's going on," I said.

When we were close enough to the US security perimeter we got out and asked if we could get closer to the bombing. The first group of US soldiers waved us through once they knew we were press. A second group, closer to the bridge, gave us a slightly harder time and suggested that we walk up onto the bridge for a bird's-eye view. We thanked them and then, none-too-subtly, just kept walking on ground-level towards the scene. Further on up the road we ran into more American soldiers, slightly more edgy, and were told to wait for word from their commander. We were under the bridge, on the main road. A group of reporters walking on a nearby sidewalk got screamed at by a big guy manning a .50 caliber machine gun.

After some fruitless, boring and fairly typical negotiations were were told we wouldn't be able to get any closer than we already were. A thin and bearded man in a cleric's robes and turban walked near us, past the checkpoints, followed by a couple bodyguards with Kalashnikovs. An Iraqi Police car pulled up and stopped so the Americans could search its trunk.

We walked away and headed down a sidestreet. The area immediately around the bridge is an overgrown an ugly wasteland, but the rest of the neigborhood is a pretty pleasant residential area--houses with walled yards and metal front gates. As we turned the corner to head down towards the bombing we ran into what was technically, I suppose, a SCIRI checkpoint. It was a couple older, ratty looking guys carrying Kalashnikovs and telling us we couldn't go any further.

As we negotiated a striking woman in a headscarf and long dress watched us from the shadows just inside her front gate. A bald man with a mostly toothless smile came out with a glass and a pitcher of water and offered us something to drink. As we reached the bottom of our bag of tricks, and still hadn't talked our way closer to the bombing, we chatted up a young boy who told us 35 people had been killed. Totally unreliable, but not necessarily less reliable than what anyone else says in the hours immediately following a bombing.

We debated trying another route to get closer, but there were American Humvees parked down in that direction. At some point the big pack of reporters split into a few smaller groups. Chris and I discussed heading to the hospitals to get a sense of the number of casualties. As we walked back past the bridge, towards our cars, I remembered what the soldier had said about getting a bird's-eye-view. There was some debate about how safe that was, but we figured we'd walk up with our press ID out and be ready to turn around if we were told to. It was me and Chris, Chris' translator and Iraqi photographer from Getty Images.

We started walking up the long incline, and saw figures coming towards us. In the morning glare they could've been anyone or anything--I couldn't tell if they were wearing body armor, or if one was toting a camera or an RPG. It turned out they were journalists. The photographer told us we could go up and look right down on the carnage. Everything was cool; just be prepared to do what you're told if someone decides you shouldn't be there.

As we climbed more the crest of the bridge came into view. There was some kind of American armored vehicle there--too small to be an Abrams, but it didn't look like a Bradley, either. Chris recognized it as a Stryker. Now we were walking on bits of broken glass. There were saucer-sized chunks of metal on the pavement, and a shard of metal the size and shape of a car's hood was wedged between the pedestrian walkway's guardrails.

We walked to the edge and looked down. After all that it looked like what most bombed areas look like--there were some blackened cars, a couple blackened buildings and lots of people with guns milling around amidst the emergency vehicles. I'd never been to that SCIRI office and had no point of reference. I had no sense, from 60 feet up, of the scale of destruction. In fairness to my powers of observation we couldn't have been standing there ten seconds when someone on the ground started shouting at us in Arabic. I quickly stepped away from the edge, and Chris followed suit almost immediately. He told me later that the SCIRI militiaman on the ground had aimed his Kalashnikov at him.

A day or so later another reporter, who'd been on the ground at the time, mentioned that there had been reporters up on the bridge who'd been told to stop and who ran away instead.

"I think that was us," I said. "But it was more like someone started screaming in Arabic and then pointed his gun at us."

We got off the guardrail and started walking back down the bridge. Even when we were on the ground we'd heard intermittent gunfire--AK's, American .50 cals. After a bombing security guards and private militias get edgy and throw a lot of lead around. We heard a shot come from down below. Remembering my Centurion training I hit the deck, but when I saw everyone in front of me hunched over and scuttling away like crabs I picked myself up and followed suit. We straightened up.

We hadn't made it too far down the bridge when three Iraqi Police SUV's screamed towards us and screeched to a halt. Out popped a bunch of gun-toting guys in plainclothes, who immediately started bellowing at us. One of the ways the US filled out the Iraqi Police was folding local militias onto the force--these guys were probably SCIRI militia working for the local precinct. They weren't there to fuck around. In particular, one big, bearded guy with a pistol was shouting at the top of his lungs and waving his gun around wildly.

A younger, calmer man approached and made as if to frisk me, and I obliged him. He pulled my sat phone out of my jacket pocket, took a look at it, and surprised me by giving it back. He patted my wallet and made me take it out of my pocket. Employing the cross-cultural skills that have made a star in Iraq, I said, "wallet," in English, and slowly put it back in my pocket. I was again surprised that he let me. While this was going on Chris' translator was convincing the guy in charge that we were journalists. We'd been waving our credentials and passports, but it's obviously better to have a local explain the situation in Arabic.

Everyone by now was calm except the big guy with the pistol, who was standing about five feet in front of me. He was mostly waving his gun below his waist, so it pointed at my feet, as he screamed. But it started inching up, pointing closer to areas that I'd prefer not to part with. I've had Kalashnikovs pointed square at my chest twice by Iraqi security forces--both times at checkpoints I stumbled across accidentally. This was dicier. If a calm man is pointing a gun right at you and hasn't shot you there's a good chance nothing bad will happen if you follow directions. When a hothead is getting careless with his weapon it's harder to predict.

My natural reaction was maybe not the most helpful--I hissed "Keep your fucking weapon down."

Chris' response to me was probably better; he hissed--not unkindly--something along the lines of "Shut the fuck up." I did, the guy seemed to chill out, and we were cleared to walk away. I didn't realize immediately that the Iraqi photographer had been detained by the police, who sped away in their SUVs. He'd been told to erase the phtos on his camera and hadn't. We found out later he'd been taken to the station and released.

We made our way back down to the street, passed through the American security perimeter, and decided to head to the hospital. At the hospital gate we were told we needed permission from the Minister of Health to enter. After Chris' fixer had a ten second chat with the guy in Arabic we were cleared to go in. I'd been to that hospital once before. Yarmuk is a bit dingy--there's a lot more beige and a lot less white than you see on the walls and floors of an American hospital. Doctors in the big emergency areas were treating a man with a big gash in his head. Others patients walked around with bandages wrapped around their heads. Police and SCIRI militiamen milled about with their weapons out.

There turned out to be little reason to be there--gawking at or interviewing survivors seemed rude, and we were getting what seemed to be hazy information about the number of casualties. We split and headed home. The whole thing had taken maybe three hours from the time of the explosion.

As is virtually always the case even when I do my own reporting on a bombing story, I got my most reliable information off the wires. Eyewitnesses see different things, and different officials say different things. One big virtue of Reuters, AP and AFP is that they have enough people reacting quickly enough and talking to the right sources--they can sift through a lot of contradictory information. They act as fact-checkers on each other, and you can use them to fact-check yourself. Eventually the death toll was put at 15. Zarqawi's group of Sunni fundamentalist terrorists claimed responsibility.

The bombers missed their presumptive target, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim. He heads SCIRI and is the top candidate for the Shi'ite dominated coalition expected to dominate next month's election. His brother--along with scores of others--was incinerated by a truck bomb in August '03 outside the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf. Occasionally the violence in Iraq is compared to criminal violence in the United States (e.g., "Well, X number of Iraqis got killed last month, but X number of Americans got killed in City Z last month). Putting aside that the Iraqi crime rate independent of the insurgency has sky-rocketed since the war and is probably astronomical, the analogy misses the specific nature of violence in Iraq. Individual criminal acts are terrible for the victims. But the violence in Iraq aims at destroying political and religious and cultural institutions.

This election is being organized, and will be conducted, in a climate of fear. Election workers have been shot dead in the street. Religious and political figures, and their followers, are targeted for murder. The police wear masks just as often, and maybe more often, than the insurgents--if they reveal their identities they risk endangering themselves and their families. This kind of violence erupts for a reason. Democracy is possible when competing groups agree on enough that they don't feel they need to kill each other over their differences. Clearly that's not the case in Iraq at the moment. If democracy truly does breed peace, stability and more democracy, maybe these elections have a chance of fundamentally changing the situation here. But I'm inclined to believe that democracy is the by-product and guarantor of consensus and tolerance, not the source.

The election is being covered as a big story, and rightfully so, but I think its outcome will probably be most important as a barometer of the size, power and organization of various competing factions in Iraq. It will provide the terrain for future battles, not end the ones raging now.
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
  I have learned my lesson, and will never again promise to post daily right before going to a place like Fallujah. I was embedded with a company of Marines in the city starting Saturday morning and ending this afternoon. The embed was quite an experience, and I'll be writing about it here soon, but it was a telecommunications clusterfuck. My sat phone indicated it was finding a signal, but I couldn't make calls. My satellite modem indicated it was finding a signal, but I couldn't open any web pages. That didn't make me much of a daily news reporter while I was out there and also, I'm sure, left a lot of people wondering where the hell I was (I'm on a very slow public affairs office internet connection at the moment, so I haven't checked my email or my blog comments yet). Anyway, the moral of this story is that I won't make any more promises, and everyone should understand that when I'm out of touch it's almost certainly a logistical nightmare and not anything more unsettling.

The guys I was with for the past few days are fighters--they're involved in sweeping the city and searching buildings for weapons and insurgents who weren't found or killed in the initial offensive last month. Very loud, fairly destructive, and actually kind of fun. I'm going to try, between now and the end of the weekend, to get back into the city with civil affairs to see what kind of progress, if any, is being made towards re-establishing an Iraqi government and civil administration in the city. After that I ought to be back in Baghdad for a few days.
Friday, December 10, 2004
  After about seven weeks in Beirut I'm back in Baghdad.

I arrived yesterday afternoon on the fear-inducingly-named Flying Carpet Airways. I stayed up all night packing and arrived at the airport before six in the morning. Eventually I stumbled across a bunch of other folks waiting to be herded to the charter terminal by a young Lebanese woman. There were several Iraqis, several non-Iraqi Arabs, and three Americans going to work in Iraq for a security contractor.

The ex-pat community I've fallen into in Lebanon has some Aussies and Brits but is pretty light on Americans. So it had been awhile since I stumbled across a group of guys acting like Americans. Americans, as it turns out, actually are kind of like the stereotype--at least if they're security contractors headed to Iraq. I homed in on these guys from yards away because they were wearing backwards baseball caps and concert t-shirts and conversing in loud baritones that have more in common with a network correspondent's broadcast voice than a European conversational tone.

That said, I still can't work up any ex-pat contempt for my fellow countrymen. They may have been loud and excessively-casually dressed, but these guys were also relaxed and in a good mood--despite the early hour and despite the hassles they were having getting their excess luggage through the checking process. The Arab world has its charms, but relaxed and happy aren't adjectives I often conjure while contemplating life here. Of course, civil strife may make people moody.

The flight was fine--after trips to and from Iraq on AirServ I was prepared for a tiny plane. I even got a plastic-packaged chocolate croissant and a juice box to tide me over on the flight. I did get a bit unsettled when I noticed that the little spherical air conditioning vent had frozen into place, but everything seemed okay from a safety standpoint. When bells and buzzers started going off as we made our spiral descent from 10,000 feet into the Baghdad airport I got a little more concerned (even though I know bells and buzzers go off for perfectly innocuous reasons). The AirServ pilots are South Africans, veterans of bush wars in which they flew small planes in and out of combat zones. That may make their military service morally dubious, but it gives me confidence in their piloting. Things were a bit more herky-jerky this time around, but we landed in one piece.

Getting through passport control was easier than I'd thought. To my surprise the Iraqis there only charged me the $40 I owed for a visa, instead of telling me the new price was, say, $200 (as it was for a colleague of mine who come through in September). But out in front of the terminal I was approached by taxi drivers offering me a ten dollar ride to the main gate. Usually there's a free shuttle. I asked the Gherka (literally) just inside the terminal if the shuttle was on its way. He said I'd just missed it. I asked when the next one would arrive. He said, "Maybe." I figured I had ten dollars to spare.

In the parking lot just inside the main airport gate I met up with some of Chris' Iraqi staff from Time magazine. These days it's wise to travel in small convoys, with a pistol-packing driver next to you and some couple armed men bringing up the rear. If you do it in regular cars and not big white SUVs, you still have (you hope) the benefit of anonymity.

As we sped down the airport road (which US and UK embassy staffers now avoid as a matter of policy) I found myself unexpectedly happy to be back. Not that I was expecting to be unhappy, but I was anticipating anxiety and general dreariness. Instead I got a kick of excitement--it's undeniably interesting to speed down a highway under the protection of armed men. I also, maybe disturbingly, reacted with some home-coming nostalgia: Look, it's the Hamra! Wow, it's the smoke pouring from the Doura refinery! Gee, I really missed seeing civilians toting Kalashnikovs!

From what little I saw of it the city doesn't look as bad as you'd think. There actually seem to be fewer American armored vehicles out on the streets, which is either a good thing or a harbinger of some kind of free-for-all. The traffic also seemed better--it was merely bad, not apocalyptic, yesterday afternoon and was very light today (though Friday always tended to be good traffic day).

Instead of checking back into the Hamra (where the USA Today room was apparently looted of all things of any value shortly after the correspondents there left in October) I spent the night in a spare room at the Time house. It's inside Hamra security but has much better food, thanks to a brilliant grillman. I can safely say I've never had better lamb chops than I've had in Baghdad.

Late this afternoon, after (mostly) getting the USAT satellite modem working and paring down my luggage I got a ride to the Green Zone. When I first came across it in January Checkpoint Three looked like a huge, gray, impenetrable fortress. Looking back it seems woefully unprotected. In the course of my first few trips the barbed wire that kept vistors in line was replaced by high earth-filled barriers. After a car-bomb attack high blast walls were erected to protect the pedestrian entrance. After a three-month absence I returned to find that the barriers and razor wire have crept a little further out onto the pavement, into what used to be a big four-way intersection and is now an L blocked on two sides by US barricades. I was joking last night that a good security strategy might be to simply move out the walls of all US bases five feet per day, until the whole country is inside the American military perimeter. Maybe someone in the Army has the same idea.

I'm now cooling my heels in the convention center's press room--my flight time was given as "night" and I wound up getting here about nine hours early. Better safe than sorry, I guess. I'm taking a chopper out to Fallujah and will spend a week or ten days with the Marines seeing how things are going in the aftermath of the offensive there. It's hard, if not impossible, to get the full story from an embed, but since going out to Fallujah on your own is still a hazardous proposition getting part of the story beats getting no story at all.

This will be my second trip on a Blackhawk--the first was in very early February when my brilliant skills as a roving foreign correspondent and people-person left me stranded on the Fallujah forward operating base with no taxi back to Baghdad. That was a little over ten months ago. It's amazing how much things have changed. Back then driving out to Fallujah with a driver who spoke almost no English seemed like an adventure, which says a little about how bad the situation got there and a lot about how foolish I used to be about working in Iraq. But I really do believe that back in January and February it was safe (in the grand scheme of things) for me to be an American walking around the streets of Baghdad. All I hoped for was the money to hire a driver and translator. Tonight a colleague expressed surprise that I don't have an armored car and my very own team of gunmen to protect me as I work. For the sake of my objectivity I'll try to remember not to think of the US Marine Corps as the team of gunmen that protects me.

I ought to be able to get online and blog from Fallujah and anywhere else I embed, so after a long absence I'm going to be posting here regularly again.
Taxis without seatbelts, AK's without permits, and commentary without edits. A freelancer's life in Baghdad, by Charlie Crain

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