Yesterday was supposed to be a day off, but instead Colin Powell ruined it by making a surprise trip to Baghdad and holding a press conference. I was in the conference room with the rest of the media by 1:45, but for security reasons the main event didn't start for a couple hours after that. The delay was expected, so I'd brought a book of magazine articles and short fiction by James Ellroy. Even better, my friend Dave Enders had episodes of the Simpsons on his laptop. We watched one of the Halloween specials while we waited:
"So, everything turned out for the best."
"What do you mean? Bart's dead!
"Well, me saying sorry won't bring him back."
"The gypsy said it would."
"She's not the boss of me."
This was much more amusing with Bob Callahan, Negroponte's PR guy at the embassy, sitting six inches from the speakers. A soldier walked over, and I expected we'd be told to turn it off. Instead he said that next time we should figure out how to project the Simpsons onto the big plasma screens that flank the podiums in the conference room. Apparently soldiers treat themselves to movie nights every once in a while.
Movie night is a better use of the space than press conferences. Earlier this week I went to one announcing this weekend's National Conference, which by tomorrow night will have selected 100 people to act as an interim Iraqi legislature. Why haven't you been reading about and watching TV coverage of the National Conference? Because Thursday afternoon (after saying Tuesday that delaying the Conference would be both illegal and a blow to Iraqis' confidence in the political process) they held another press conference announcing they'd bumped the thing back two weeks. There are minor details to work out with that extra time--like fraud and intimidation in the caucusing process, and objections that smaller parties are being frozen out in favor of the groups that dominated the Governing Council and already dominate the interim government. Thursday's press conference--which included castigations of "the media" (the Iraqi media, I inferred) for not doing a good enough job of informing the Iraqi public about the National Conference--ended with the conference organizer walking out of the room while the Iraqi media desperately shouted questions at his back.
I went to the Powell presser mostly because I'd be shirking my obligations to USA Today if I skipped it, and partially because sometimes you go to this sort of thing because you'd have a hard time explaining to your friends why you missed a chance to see Colin Powell in person ("I just felt like lying around my hotel room reading..."). I basically knew what I was in store for--a well-respected public figure who was much more influential a few years ago putting on an act that's technically proficient, but no longer quite convincing. It's the geo-political equivalent of a Rolling Stones concert, and I accept free tickets to those, too.
Before Powell arrived the traveling press arrived--State Department beat reporters who go on trips with the Secretary of State. They seemed to be in a better mood than their Iraq-bound counterparts. They were also marginally better dressed. A few of them, in their Mid-Atlantic yuppie summerwear, looked like they'd been kidnapped from an East Hampton lawn party.
As for Powell's actual remarks: John Burns struggled
heroically to make it seem like news that the Secretary of State re-emphasized America's commitment to a free and democratic Iraq, its opposition to the insurgency, and its sincere desire to get reconstruction money pumped into the Iraqi economy. For me the press conference was notable mostly for the chance it gave me to confirm, in person, that Powell wears a suit better than any other member of the Bush cabinet.
This was in stark contrast to the Iraqi politician I interviewed Thursday in a hotel restaurant. He walked in with his coat jacket over his arm, his thin white cotton dress shirt undone to reveal his tank top undershirt, his tie flapping free, and a pistol jammed into the waistband of his pants. As he complained about the disorganized and exclusionary nature of the conference he perched his stocking feet on the corner of the table and looked at me, exhausted, over the lenses of his glasses. He's a better visual indicator of the state of the political process here than Secretary Powell.
I've been running around with my translator for the past several days for a story on the insurgency. Sabbah is trying to arrange an interview with some accused terrorists now in Baghdad jails, but I'm eager to avoid an encounter with free-range insurgents.
Sabbah is a master of talking himself past the various functionaries that bar our way most times we want to get to someone of even minor importance. It's a very valuable skill in a fixer, but it's also exhausting--his strategy is to simply talk and talk to the gatekeepers until they give him what he wants. When he's not talking, he's standing expectantly, waiting for helpful action to be taken. Or walking back and forth between various buildings, I think in order to prove to our tormentors that he's willing to bull through their roadblocks until they get tired of setting them up. Today we were offered seats while we waited--I took mine, Sabbah refused his.
"If I sit," he explained, "I lose my leverage."
Occasionally voices are raised, and when I ask after the fact what was said, a typical recap might be, "He said the man was in a meeting; I said, "You are a big liar!" Yesterday we went to the Ministry of the Interior and Sabbah alerted me to the presence of an unhelpful desk jockey by exlaiming under his breath, "Oh fuck--this idiot."
We've seen a couple of disquieting public spaces. We were at the Interior Ministry yesterday--some kind of neo-Babylonian modernist monstrosity that looks like a top-heavy cardboard art project. It's long, narrow, and the only high building in the area. There is no vegetation inside the security perimeter. You park your car in a gravel lot and trudge to a black metal gate. After Sabbah did his thing yesterday we walked to the building, past a huge, smashed metal statue of Saddam on horseback which once adorned a war emorial. The hulking fragments were a bit hard to sort out, but I clearly identified a Volkswagen-sized horse's ass, business-end pointing my way. The open shell of another giant shard had been turned into a trash bin. Inside the building is a standard Iraqi bureaucratic maze, with dubious elevators, shaky air conditioning and unmentionable toilets. On our way out after an interview today Sabbah mentioned that the building was a subject of Iraqi nightmares. Even he, full of bravado most times and not at all faint of heart, had been nervous about entering it in the war's immediate aftermath. The old regime used to interrogate and torture people on the premises.
Yesterday we were also at a criminal court very close to the Green Zone. After passing through the usual razor wire and Hesco
barrier security perimeter and sharing some water with a cop in a small guard house, we passed out of Iraq and into some kind of dead zone. Brittle yellow grass had overgrown what were once, I suppose, neatly manicured lawns and public gardens. Mid-afternoon, outside a functioning courthouse, the plaza stood empty under a white sun. The parkway that dead-ended into the court building was without vehicles. The strip of greenery between asphalt lanes was studded with stunted bushes. The courthouse used to be the museum where Saddam displayed gifts from foreign dignitaries, and had once been topped by a modernist clock tower. The clock is stopped, smashed atop its stalk and spilling out its metal guts.
The vast spaces drowned out the usual sounds of the city, and I didn't even hear the buzz of American helicopters. If humanity, and not just Saddam's regime, had perished last April this space would have looked just about the same. The inside was similarly apocalyptic. Furniture was limited to a few chairs in the reception area, the rest presumably having been carried off by looters. But there at least were a handful of people wandering around. Sabbah and I cooled our heels under high ceilings in the lobby, a hot wind blowing in through broken windows. The glass-walled room across the smooth stone floor was labeled, "Lawyers room" with black letters on a white sheet of paper. We waited ten, twenty, thirty minutes. A Kurdish guard with a Kalashnikov promised we'd see the judge soon. I fell asleep and woke up again. A Kurdhish guard with a Kalashnikov promised we'd see the judge soon.
Finally we were told the judge would see us, and we walked through a grand, empty main hall with wide staircases heading skyward and guards lounging and joking where, I suppose, vistors once admired symbols of their tyrant's international prestige. Some of the guards had rounded up chairs to sit in. We passed a room labeled "Internal Affairs" and entered a wide, long ante chamber. It, too, was mostly empty, but there were about twenty men and women clustered together in one corner, standing around or sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall. We spoke with an attorney who specializes in defending accused insurgents. He told us things were moving slowly today. We found out that our meeting with the judge was five hearings away, not five minutes away. We turned around and walked back into what passes for normalcy in Baghdad.
I've been buried by work the past few days, and I hope the result will be in Monday's paper. In the meantime I don't have much time for blogging. I'll try to write a long post Sunday or Monday to make up for it.
Yesterday I spent most of the day around the hotel before heading out late in the afternoon to the police station that got truck bombed. I'm not a photographer and I don't write for a wire service, so I think there's limited usefulness in my getting to bombings as soon as they happen. It's an opportunity to get lots of detail about the blood and the carnage (the most graphic of which might be edited out of your copy anyway), but in some ways it's better to be ten hours late than 20 minutes late--once a perimeter is set up it's tough to get close enough to do very good eyewitness reporting. All that's left is to talk to witnesses, many of whom will spin familiar tales of American rockets and so on.
By the time my translator and I arrived the scene was very quiet. We were able to walk right into the police station--the bomb had exploded in the street in front of a courtyard adjacent to the station, leveling a lot of nearby businesses and killing quite a few civilians, but not doing horrendous damage to the station or its officers. We crunched our way through the hallways, which were littered with glass from blown out windows. In the office where we interviewed a police honcho I gazed out broken windows onto the scene of the bombing--twisted and demolished buildings, water spraying up from a broken pipe, and American soldiers operating heavy demolition equipment while Iraqis looked on.
After interviewing the honcho I spoke with a 19 year old officer who said he's now been close to three bombings and a mortar attack, including one that left him with a thick shrapnel scar on his neck. He professed not to be scared anymore after having lived through so much violence. Then he said he could handle everything except mortar attacks and explosions, and said he hoped someone would be able to make it stop. He had a cheerful attitude, but it was a sad admission of helplessness coming from a cop.
Later that night I went to a going-away party for a Getty photographer up in their penthouse at the Hamra. A photographer from another agency was reminiscing about his arrival in Baghdad as it was falling to the Americans last spring. He'd been wearing the same clothes for three weeks, and had lost so much weight he had to keep his pants up by wrapping tape around the pant legs. I can safely say it's the only story I've ever heard that ends with the storyteller looting a pair of trousers.
After taking care of some busywork this morning I went out with my translator to chase down a rumor that might turn into an interesting story. (By the way, I tend not to refer to my translators by name out of concern that they wouldn't want their names publicized. Since I'm going to be working with the same guy for the next several weeks I'll probably ask him if it's okay to use his first name.) We drove around asking police, shop owners and average employees what they could tell us about intimidation from conservative Muslim groups (gangs? militia?). Most just repeated rumors--either because the story itself is just a rumor, or because they're too intimidated to be open with a reporter.
The story about liquor store bombings has already been done, but we were in that neck of the woods and paused to check out one of the gutted stores. Actually my translator did, while I waited in the car. Then I got out and we went next door to talk to a barber. He said the store had been hit with an RPG, then shot up with automatic weapons.
The attackers' aim hadn't been precise. The barber pointed out the small, jagged punctures in the metal window frame and the rough patches on the walls where bullet holes had been plastered over. Following the holes and the scars in the plaster we traced the trajectory of one bullet as it entered the barber shop, ricocheted off of the wall and the ceiling, and lodged in the back wall.
We talked about whether other businesses were getting threats, and he was reluctant to talk. I'd grown my beard out again, but decided a few days ago it was time to get a more professional look. I asked for a shave, and the barber called in another man who squeezed some kind of thick shaving cream onto my beard from a tube and worked it into a lather with an old-style brush. I talked to him through my translator while he shaved me with a straight razor, leaving my moustache. In the spirit of Iraqi hospitality I was given a ginger ale to drink, which was an interesting logistical challenge.
The barber said that he'd been advised by certain people not to shave beards, since it goes against Islam. After the shave I talked for a few more minutes and got a tip about where to go to keep tracking down the story. I was making small talk and getting ready to leave when a black Mercedes pulled up with several young men in the back. Several of them got out of the car and seemed to loiter, and I told my translator that maybe we'd been in one place for too long, and should get going. He agreed and we drove off. As we left I saw some of the men talking with the barbers.
My translator said he'd seen the car make several passes while I was in the barber's chair. We drove back towards the Hamra, instead of deeper into the neighborhoods where my story may or may not be--my translator said those guys would follow us in their neighborhood, but wouldn't tail us back into ours (I don't know if that's true, but it's comforting to think it is). He said we weren't the targets of the intimidation--the goal was to make sure the locals know that their chats with outsiders are being monitored. Tomorrow we'll head back out in a different car and see what we can find. If things aren't panning out by Thursday--either because the story isn't true or because no one will talk--I'll bag it.
Last Thursday I headed over to the Green Zone for a press conference given by Iyad Allawi and a couple of his deputies. The press conference itself was mostly a bust--the hope was he'd be announcing something about amnesty for insurgents but instead he talked vaguely about a new security agency (or was it a new bureaucracy to oversee existing security agencies?) a council that will meet soon as part of the run-up to (inshallah) elections, and his travel plans.
The best part of the press conference was when Christopher Dickey of Newsweek
asked Allawi if there was any truth to the rumors that he's personally tortured and executed suspected insurgents. Allawi denied the rumors strongly, but grinned and chuckled in a way that seemed to say, "But I'm probably lying... or am I?" I give the guy credit for knowing how to play to two audiences at once--Americans who hope Iraq is on the road to democracy, and Iraqis like the guy I interviewed a few weeks ago who wanted to see thieves strung up from lamp posts.
It's not a bad thing that he's trying to have it both ways. Certainly a whole-hearted embrace of authoritarianism would be bad for Iraq and for America. On the other hand, rushing full-steam ahead towards elections without getting very, very, serious about the security situation would be disastrous, too. Back in January I asked an American working on the caucus system (which was scrapped shortly thereafter when Sistani's displeasure sparked mass protests) why the country wasn't ready for elections. His response was, "car bombs would kill hundreds of people." I think that's still true today.
Other people have said Allawi seems like a thug, but to me he looks like a slightly bemused grandfather. (Actually, maybe there's a happy medium--one of my colleagues said Allawi is "the scariest man ever to wear grandfather glasses"). The two men flanking Allawi seemed more intimidating--they were representatives of the ministries of defense and interior (which oversees the police), but they looked like they were there to manhandle journalists who got fed up with evasive answers and tried to rush the podium.
It never would have come to hand-to-hand combat, though, because the small-ish auditorium was chock full of the American and British special forces guys who provide Allawi's security. The backdrop was a hideous, bruise-colored poster with multiple Iraqs stamped all over it. In front of that were Iraqi flags, which had been arranged by Americans in desert camouflage uniforms while other American soldiers tinkered with the lighting and the sound system. The assembled press corps (which had run the gauntlet of Green Zone security, hopped onto a couple of mini-busses, and then been frisked and searched by Anglo-American security at the site of the press conference) had ample time to observe the American stage-managing, since we'd been brought in a few hours early.
Under the circumstances it would be easy to be cynical about the exact extent of the Iraqi government's independence. And I am cynical about it. But at the same time there are positive signs around Baghad. Despite the Humvees, the roadblocks, the Green Zone and the Blackhawks, I no longer feel like I'm living in a city under massive military occupation--the way I felt here in January, and the way I felt even more strongly in April. My first night in Baghdad, over six months ago, I rushed to the window several times when I heard armored vehicles prowling up and down Abu Nuas and choppers cruising overhead. It was a sound I got used to. A couple APC's used to park in front of the Diana Hotel just to make their presence known. In April, with fighting raging in parts of the city, I remember being stuck in traffic on Karrada-Out while trucks full of US soldiers cruised past, and sitting in the Sarwan Grill while a column of Abrams tanks rolled down Sadoun street.
Now the Iraqi police are the dominant security presence in the city. They're setting up checkpoints, patrolling the streets in their blue and white SUV's and Nissan pick-ups, and directing traffic much more effectively than they used to (traffic is still awful, but I think it's a bit more orderly). They're not just showing off--they've been rounding up insurgents and criminal suspects in huge sweeps through Baghdad slums. Of course, this is all very fragile progress--if bombings continue unabated support for the police will fade, and if there's another round of militia violence US troops will be back with a vengeance. But the mood in the city seems lighter than it was at the tail end of my last trip, and the replacement of occupying troops with local cops has something to do with it.
Not that these guys aren't knuckleheads sometimes. Thursday night, on the way back from a party at the Palestine, we accidentally ran an Iraqi Police checkpoint because it had been so badly set up as to be invisible until you were driving past it. I'm not quite sure what tipped everyone off that something was amiss, but all of a sudden there was consternation in the car; we came to a halt and were approached by a cop with an assault rifle. I was listening, uncomprehending, to the driver's debate with the cop when I saw the man in charge walk past my window, pistol-in-hand One of my colleagues suggested continued argument about the IP's competence. I suggested saying "yes, sir." Things were resolved amicably.
The technical competence of the police and security forces aside, there are big questions about how much freedom the government actually has. A good barometer of that may be the amnesty, which is apparently held up while Americans try to convince Iraqis that insurgents who killed American troops can't be covered. Allawi would like to forgive nationalist insurgents, co-opt them, and then "annihilate" ex-Baathists and jihadis (Allawi loves to talk about "annihilating" terrorists). My guess is that the wording of the amnesty will be deliberately vague, and that there may be disagreement about what, exactly, it means. To the extent that the Iraqis are aggressive in pursuing their own security policy, it means their semantic independence carries some weight in the real world.
On a different note...
I owe a thanks to The Black Table
and Aileen Gallagher for taking an interest in the blog and my goofy life in Iraq. You can read the interview here
. It was the lead item on Romenesko
for about fifteen minutes. If I'd known how they were going to headline it I might have called myself the next P.J. O'Rourke instead of calling myself a big nerd.
Thanks as well to Daniel Pepper
--a great photographer, a fellow freelancer and another product of the University of Chicago. I went from Iraq to Chicago; Dan went from Iraq to Sudan (I disclose this out of admiration, and also to distract my mother). Once he made it back to the States he put in more than one good word for me with USA Today, which is why I'm writing this from USA Today's suite at the Hamra, instead of enraging Abu Mohammad by overstaying my welcome at the Musafir internet cafe. Next year in Cape Town, habibi.
Yesterday morning I'd been having some uneasy dreams and woke up earlier than I'd planned. I was trying to get back to sleep when I heard what sounded like a bomb going off very close by. I jumped up—this is the first time in Baghdad I've ever been startled in my room by the sound of an explosion—and looked out the window.
In my adrenalized but groggy state I had it in my head that I'd see some kind of carnage out my window. When I didn't I figured it had been my air conditioner backfiring or something going on at the construction site which has sprouted up on a lot next to my hotel. I went back to bed, and slept through the aftermath of the Green Zone checkpoint bombing that killed around ten Iraqis Wednesday. (I didn't feel too much like a slacker, since without a translator on call and quick transportation I wouldn't have been able to cover the bombing well anyway).
In the afternoon I went over to the Palestine to pick up a copy of the Blackwater tape for the News & Observer. Perhaps I'm the world's biggest idiot, but I took a cab off the street. I strolled a ways up from the Hamra before hailing one, and leaned in to get a good look at the driver before getting in. He seemed less than likely to be a Zarqawi acolyte, and also seemed like someone I could beat up, so I hopped in and told him I was Irish.
To get to the Palestine Hotel you stop on Sadoun street, just past the square where Saddam's statue was toppled last April. You dodge traffic to get across the street, pass a group of street vendors selling DVDs and watches, and then pass through an Iraqi security checkpoint (frisking, bag check, ID check).
Then you walk down what was once, I guess, a side street, but is now the world's least appealing pedestrian walkway. To the left the Palestine and the Sheraton rise above walls spiked with razor wire. On the right a narrow stream of sewage runs languidly next to the curb. The power was out, so several diesel-fueled generators were letting off grating mechanical whines and shooting black streams of toxic exhaust sideways into the street.
It was the same over the winter and into the spring. It was annoying then, but now there's also the heat. I've stopped wondering what the exact temperature is. Having read and written a lot of Baghdad copy I've also given up thinking of synonyms for searing, scorching, punishing, unforgiving, and so on. But it's the kind of heat that makes me feel like Ernest Hemingway if I successfully drag my ass from Sadoun street into the Palestine lobby.
At the end of the side street you head through another layer of security (today the American soldiers there were kidding around with a couple Iraqi kids). Then you turn left and follow the high concrete blast walls that separate the Palestine and the Sheraton from Abu Nuas (which is closed anyway). The Bradley that sat poised to annihilate foolish trespassers has been reassigned since my last stay in Iraq. You hang a left onto what, at one point, may have been a busy street running between the Palestine and the Sheraton. Now it's a desolate stretch of pavement that accentuates the feeling that you're walking around in a kiln.
Getting the tape was painless—more painless than I had any right to expect, considering I dropped in on the Baghdad bureau of a busy news organization the day of a suicide bombing. I successfully made it back to the street, hailed a cab, reassured myself that the cabbie was far too old to successfully kidnap me, and hopped in.
On the ride back to the hotel the guy complimented me on my Arabic—he'd mistook me for an Iranian until I identified myself as an Irishman (I don't know if my Arabic sounded good, or if it sounded good coming from a Farsi-speaker).
Back at the Hamra, tape in hand, I prepared to FedEx the thing back to North Carolina. There was nobody at the FedEx desk, so I asked the front desk if FedEx was around today. I was told it was an Iraqi holiday—Independence Day. On July 14, 1958, a nationalist coup bumped off King Faisil II and scrapped the monarchy. A large bridge over the Tigris is named in honor of the day. It'd be my quick route into central Baghdad if it weren't an entrance to the Green Zone and therefore under heavy American guard.
Afraid I might be insulting the desk clerk's national pride I explained that I knew July 14 was important, but had forgotten today's date.
"Iraq has too many independences," the clerk said with a smile and a shake of the head.
"Which one do you celebrate?"
"None of them."
Paul, USA Today's man in Baghdad, asked if I'd go out and get some reaction on the street to the bombing, and introduced me to the paper's translator. This week I got a gig covering for USA Today for a while, which means I'll be leaving the Dulaimi and taking up residence at the USA Today room at the Hamra. I'll always have a place in my heart for the Dulaimi, but I'm not going to shed any tears about moving. Last time around I used to fantasize about being a big-time reporter and staying in the Hamra. I'll settle for being a small-time freelancer staying in the Hamra—it has consistent air conditioning and mostly consistent elevators, which beats climbing five flights of stairs at the Dulaimi and heading into a room that only seems to be air conditioned half the time. The Dulaimi also lacks draft beer and a swimming pool.
The translator and I went to the site of the bombing, a checkpoint I've probably walked through scores of times since the beginning of the year. By this time it was seven, and whatever chaos and media frenzy had enveloped the scene in the morning had dissipated.
Now the area was deserted—the intersection was cordoned off with barbed wire and a few American armored vehicles. The translator and I sauntered towards the intersection slowly, and a portly Iraqi man strode ahead of us. The translator and I stopped to look at some graffiti—one scrawl translated as, "The interim government is illegitimate." Apparently the Turkmen are also very, very upset.
While we were contemplating this, a shouting match was developing between the Iraqi, who wanted to get into the Green Zone, and the American, who wanted the Iraqi to go away. After the voices raised to a new level of emotion I turned around to see the Iraqi stalking back towards his car and the American soldier walking back towards his armored vehicle, pistol in hand.
"Did he just pull a gun on that guy?" I asked my translator.
He had, but my translator seemed to think the Iraqi had been asking for it.
Between the heat and the relative calm it's starting to seem downright sleepy in Baghdad. It's not actually that calm--American soldiers, Iraqi police and soldiers, and Iraqi civilians are still getting killed with some regularity. Yesterday four Marines died in a vehicle accident out west of Baghdad and today a soldier was killed by an IED south of Mosul. But I'd been bracing for huge bombings in the city to mark the official transfer of sovereignty, and it didn't happen.
It's hard to know what to make of the lull. It could just mean that something very awful is in store, and the terrorists are too busy planning it to perpetrate smaller attacks. It could also mean, as the New York Times
reported today, that there are rifts within the insurgency that are hampering its effectiveness. There's a macabre calculus going on here, but I'm not sure it's a good sign that huge attacks are on the decline and the non-terrorist insurgency (attacks against US troops and their uniformed Iraqi allies) continue. Israel, Britain, the US, Turkey, Egypt and many other countries have shown that isolated acts of terrorism are a bad way to alter a government's policies or bring it down (the Madrid bombing would be an exception to that rule).
But if the insurgency continues apace it does
represent a threat to the government's survival. A geurilla campaign, unlike isolated bomb attacks, requires quite a bit of community support. Iraqis might unite against the bombings, which they see, rightly or wrongly, as the work of foreigners (sometimes as the work of the United States). But they're more reluctant to condemn the insurgency, which many see as legitimate resistance to occupation. If the Iraqi government can establish it's actual--not its legal--independence and continue gaining the trust of the people, the insurgency may fade. The alternatives will be ugly.
The Blackwater video (with the exception of one brief bit) wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it might be. The video Reuters shot that I saw the day it happened was actually worse. This was my first exposure to mujahadeen propaganda, though, and it was cheesy and horrifying. There was a lot of religious music, and a lot of white Arabic script superimposed on a black screen quoting poetry and the Koran. A black-masked insurgent who claimed to have been part of the ambush described what happened, his voice artificially lowered like some two-bit whistle-blower on A Current Affair
The video itself was mostly mundane, shot entirely after the ambush was over. Celebratory fire, cars honking in the midst of the inevitable traffic jam, a lot of excited yelling and running around. The more grisly stuff is what it is; I'm sure I know people who've seen a lot worse in person. The creepiest part was a bit before the video of the attack where the camera pans over some of the guys' personal items--guns and ammunition and a walkie-talkie, but also date and address books, an email on company letterhead, and an unused plane ticket.
I got word from Steve and Jay, my contacts with the RNO, that Michael Ware of Time magazine got his hands on an insurgent video of the ambush and mutilation of four Blackwater security contractors on March 31. The News & Observer is doing an in-depth piece on those guys, so tomorrow I'm going to the AP bureau in the Palestine hotel to watch and take notes on the video. Not exactly the ideal way to spend the morning, but having seen some of the aftermath in person and having watched Reuters video of some of the mutilations, I hope I won't be too put off by it.
I'm somewhat in awe of reporters who've seen really horrific things, yet still seem pretty much like normal guys. A Canadian friend of mine here was in Rwanda during the genocide, but remains cheerful and mild-mannered. I may be a bit too moody to make a habit out of this kind of journalism.
The only rumor I've heard about those masked anti-Zarqawi Iraqis is that it was orchestrated by Allawi. The same guy who told me that said that American officials he's talked to say Iraqi security forces have been getting better intelligence on the insurgency since the handover than the Americans were getting before. There was some fighting near the Green Zone today, but apparently it started when US and Iraqi soldiers quickly found and attacked insurgents who'd fired rockets or mortars into the Green Zone. In the grand scheme of things, that's good news. This is all rumors so far, but it's nice to hear some positive rumors for a change--as opposed to the latest mutation of the "Hamra in peril" rumor. When I got to Iraq in January I was informed solemnly that journalists weren't hanging out at the Hamra bar anymore because there was a credible threat that it was going to be car bombed. I was concerned. A while later I was informed that the Hamra was going to be rocketed. By April the Hamra was going to be stormed by the Mehdi Army. I think we're back to a car bombing threat this time, or maybe an attack by Sunni insurgents.
In other news, as part of a business story I'm working on I read Order 17
. Bremer signed it day before the formal handover of sovereignty. It exemplifies some of the contradictions inherent in the work the United States is trying to do in Iraq. It grants immunity from Iraqi law, not just to US soldiers, but to security contractors and the employees of companies participating in the reconstruction. That's not necessarily imprudent, given the instability of the political situation, the lack of a strong tradition of respect for the rule of law, and the possibility that contractors might be coerced or killed by freelance criminals with government security jobs. At the same time, though, it sends quite a signal to Iraqis--that we trust their new government to responsibly impose martial law on them
, but not to enforce even run-of-the-mill laws on us
. The order only applies to actions taken while doing work connected to a contract, so it's not as if Halliburton truck drivers can murder people with impunity for fun. But the order applies to security contractors, which means these heavily armed private citizens, who are at constant risk of attack and use their weapons with some regularity, will be judged by Americans and not Iraqis if they kill Iraqi civilians.
The order also exempts contractors from Iraqi sales taxes, income taxes, customs duties and inspections, which may be a useful way of enticing businesses to operate in a very risky environment but, again, does little to show Iraqis that we're willing to play by the rules we've largely set up for them. After I do the shorter piece on businesses reacting to the handover I may try to write something a bit more in-depth about what this immunity means for the business and political climate.
I've been in a slightly more optimistic mood lately. Part of that may have to do with the lack of big attacks in Baghdad on or since June 28. That could change at any moment. But Iraqis I talk to--despite thinking that the US is still behind the scenes pulling the strings--seem to genuinely believe that the handover has provided them with their first measure of real autonomy. There are more police on the street behaving more like real police and less like traffic cops, and the public seems eager for a crackdown on terrorist violence. Today I read a report that a group of masked Iraqis has gone on TV to warn Zarqawi to get out of Iraq or face death.
All this may indicate that the handover was, at least, a psychological turning point, and that the security situation may be coming under control. It's obviously too early to say that for sure, and there are still plenty of serious political, economic and social problems to deal with. But the mood among Iraqis is cynical but optimistic. I've chronicled the Iraqi penchant for conspiracy theories, but that shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of political savvy. If they're feeling better about their prospects it may mean there's a genuine opportunity to get things moving in the right direction.
I'm still a little worn out from Saturday night's Fourth-of-July-eve pool party at the Hamra. Water polo is surprisingly exhausting, especially when you're weighed down with beer and grilled chicken drumsticks.
Yesterday I ate lunch at the Sumerland, used the Musafir internet cafe more than once and got back some laundry--all on credit, since no one in the hotel complex seems to be able to break a $50. After I get change (maybe at the Bank of Baghdad branch in the Hamra) I'm going to continue my negotiations with the guys who do my laundry at the hotel--for no apparent reason they're trying to charge me about twice what I usually pay.
This week is going to be busy; I have a couple business stories to report and write by Thursday and a final story to write for Cox by tomorrow night. After that, though, I'll have some money to play with and a bit of flexibility to write some features.
Sometimes the news is better than it first seems. I had a very slow day today. I was up past three last night working and waiting for editing, and didn't leave my room until after one this afternoon. In the lobby my ex-translator and another translator/fixer told me that the Sheraton had been rocketed, there was a bomb at the Baghdad Hotel, and there'd been a car bomb at the Palestine.
It turns out this was actually the bumbling of the insurgent B team--they shot off one rocket that hit the Sheraton (injuring no-one), then another rocket went off-course and landed in front of the Baghdad Hotel. What was reported initially as a car bomb was actually the truck from which the rockets were fired tipping over and going up in flames.
Maybe I've spent too much time here, but I think that's pretty funny.
Yesterday I hung out at a transportation company (a place that organizes rides from Baghdad to Amman), a realtor's office, a grocery store and a barber shop asking people what they think of the Saddam trial. Few people have much love for the guy, but there's also a kind of sympathy for him; they think the court is an American tool and don't like seeing one of their own ensnared in what they view as an unjust process. Even people who want their former tyrant executed also want to make sure he has a lawyer.
My translator wants to move to America and join the American military; he worked with the First Armored Division as a translator until threats against his family forced him to quit. He loves heavy metal and knows more about it than I do; yesterday he lamented that the new Metallica album is terrible, and doesn't even sound like Metallica. As we were walking out of the transportation company he said, in a slightly defensive but disarmingly casual way, "You know, Charlie, I liked Saddam. I wish he were still the president."
Last night after one in the morning I was up on the roof of the Dulaimi having a beer with my friend James. We'd been up there a while and, at about the same time, we both became aware that we hadn't heard one gunshot or one explosion. It was a littl unsettling. It's about 2 in the afternoon now, and I just heard from my ex-translator that a couple bombs have gone off in Baghdad. Mitch from UPI said there'd been one in Mosul, too.
If so it marks the end of a strangely calm period here that began right before the early handover. I think we're in for it--I can't imagine that terrorists and insurgents didn't have something in store for June 30, and they'll be unleashing it anyway, regardless of our tricky early "exit."
I was up on the roof early yesterday evening and was surprised at how nice the city can look from above. It was dusk, and golden light was hitting some of the buildings. To the north you can see the July 14 bridge (barricaded heavily after a fatal car bomb at the US checkpoint a few weeks ago). The Green Zone lies across the river, but there aren't many buildings to be seen--Baghdad doesn't have much of a skyline. The tallest buildings, out to the northeast around the bend in the Tigris, are the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels.
There are a lot of palm trees in Baghdad--the area south of the hotel looks almost like a grove. As James said, "You look over there and it just looks like a sea of palm trees. And then if you walk over that way you think, 'Where did the fucking forest go?'"
I've been working pretty hard (for me, at least) the past few days--reporting most of the day, then staying up well past midnight writing stories and getting them edited by people in DC. I got to sleep in today, since Larry is covering the Saddam circus for Cox. Since no print journalist except the pool reporter (John Burns from the New York Times) will actually be seeing Saddam, I'm happy to skip it. After watching reporters from two newspapers you've probably heard of make like the Jets and the Sharks yesterday while bickering over how the Saddam coverage would be organized, I realized once again that I have neither the stomach nor the chops to really excel at daily journalism.
I'm off to see if something really did explode. Failing that, I'm going to interview some SUV dealers to see if the big bullseye those vehicles have on them these days is hurting sales.