After several days at Camp Anaconda (that absurd name still sticks in my craw) we flew back to Baghdad. At this point I was getting pretty good at hustling the right people to get where I wanted in the military transport system; it was all a matter of talking to the right folks and sometimes using the old trick of waiting until a different person was at the desk and asking again until you got space on the helicopter or airplane or bus or whatever. Journalists are almost at the bottom of the priority list, so it takes some work but eventually I get in a helicopter at the Baghdad Airport and flew over the city at night and got dropped off at the International Zone. Mind you it took me ten hours of asking and grabbing naps on benches and in the shade of blast walls and asking again until I succeeded. Ten hours to get across town. Way to go, big bad U.S. military.
We had been in contact with a fixer who I’ll call Kasim. He arranged to meet us outside the gates of the Zone and so the morning after we landed back in Baghdad we walked past the five checkpoints guarded by Peruvians working for Triple Canopy and out into the street. Harun was waiting for us with a driver, and we loaded into his car and entered the Real Baghdad. Needless to say I was nervous as hell but after we started driving I relaxed, and damn it was good to be back after four years, I have to say.
There were even more concrete blast walls than before, dividing streets and closing off alleys. We passed our old hotel, The Agadir, where I’d lived with every foreign headcase in Baghdad back in 2004. It was now empty and broken, boarded up and closed. Harun explained that it was too close to a main thoroughfare to be safe from bomb attacks.
The biggest difference was how afraid people were to talk with us on camera …. they said repeatedly that they feared if we filmed them someone might see the footage and they would be killed. We managed to get a few “person on the street” interviews, but shortly afterwards we would have to move on as it wasn’t safe to stay in any one place for too long. At one point we went to a pizza restaurant that we had eaten at back in 2004 and made reservations to come back for dinner, but our guide said it wouldn’t be wise to return to any one place more than once every two days.
We did visit the offices of the Iraqi Red Crescent, who had recently been attacked by a car bomb, and the burned up shell of the car was still piled up near the entrance. Luckily no one had been hurt, but the director explained that people in Baghdad couldn’t understand that just because there was an office with supplies and guards didn’t mean they were allied with a political party. Iraqis were so used to a society where every institution was an arm of the state that they could not accept the idea of an nonaligned N.G.O. like Red Crescent, and hence they were a target.
Outside the Red Crescent office they were unloading a truck of medical supplies to get them out of the hot sun. They had tried repeatedly to deliver the boxes to Sadr City, where fighting still raged between The Mehdi Army and the U.S., but each time they were turned back by the Americans.
Harun himself is middle aged, warm and smiling. He assured us repeatedly that our (and his) safety were of top concern for him, and it helped that he used a driver that had contacts with Iraqi police, were anything to go awry.
He told us his opinion of the situation in the capital now. It was, he said, much better than the days of brutal sectarian fighting in 2005-6. The neighborhoods of Baghdad were now “cleansed”: Shia and Sunna did not live alongside each other anymore. After years of internal relocation and millions of refugees fleeing to Syrian and Jordan, a sort of stasis had been reached, aided by the U.S. “surge” and paying off the Sunna militias. The end result is better than it was two years before but it could hardly be called “peace”, and it came at a terrible price. So when people ask, “Is the surge working?” I don’t really know what to say. Does the U.S. electoral system “work”? It gets people elected, sometimes the wrong people, and it counts votes, often with gross inaccuracies. Does that constitute “working”?
The question should be: are Iraqis’ lives any better? And that answer is: compared to what? Compared to the troops who live in bases and eat all they want and have electricity 24 hours a day and have suffered around 4000 casualties as compared to the Iraqis’ hundreds of thousands? Compared to before Saddam Hussein fell, when they lived under the crippling U.N. and U.S. sanctions? There is no excuse for the trauma exerted on Iraqi society, now, then, or in the future.
We had wanted to spend more time moving around Baghdad, but our trip was cut short by the time it took to catch the military flights and the fact that the U.S. called a curfew in response to Al Sadr’s call for a demonstration, which meant that no cars were allowed on the streets. So in the end we only spent a couple of days in the capital, but it wet our feet to go back. As I mentioned, the story there keeps getting interesting, it is just insanely difficult for anyone but well-funded journalists to report in Iraq.