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?"
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.
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.
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.