Scenes from a War
By Richard Miniter
BAGHDAD–The night after he was nearly killed in the parliament building, I met Mithal al-Alusi, a member of the Iraqi parliament, at the sandbagged checkpoint outside the gates of al-Rasheed hotel.
He is driving a bullet-proof BMW, smoking a cigarette and waving me into the car. He is in a hurry. Even at 10 PM, he has another meeting to go to before he could meet with me and New York Sun’s Eli Lake, a longtime friend of his and mine.
I moved the AK-47, with a folding stock, off the passenger seat and got in.
Lake piles in the back with a body guard.
Only Mithal al-Alusi’s precautions and his firearms connect him with other Iraqi politicians. In every other, he is unique, the kind of political hero that America was hoping to find on the ground here. He is a sunni liberal, I thought he probably would not like that label. He would prefer Iraqi liberal. His political party is non-sectarian; it includes sunnis, shias, Kurds, Turkomens and others. “Any Christians?” I ask.
“Yes, probably,” he says, steering over a crushed highway curb. “We don’t know for sure. We don’t ask” about religion.
Of course, most of the other Arab Iraqi parties do.
He holds other views that might shock the Near East Desk at the State Department. He wants Iraq to sign a peace treaty with Israel and to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, a free trade zone. He wants a “status of forces” agreement with the United States, akin to what the U.S. has signed with Germany, Japan and other hosting nations. Such an agreement would have two major implications: the U.S. could stay indefinitely under Iraqi law and U.S. persons who commit criminal acts would face trial in local courts. That would be quite a deterrent. Instead, due to legal ambiguities, a contractor who shot an unarmed taxi driver is being tried in Virginia, not Baghdad.
(Believe it or not, neither one of those implications are welcomed by the U.S. military. Over lunch in a mess hall near the embassy with a senior military officer, I asked him about a status of forces agreement. “We like the ambiguity,” he said. And, of course, the military does not want to stay for 50 years, a la Germany. The officer sees the war as bad for equipment, morale, recruitment and the army as an institution. This is a dodge. He and other senior officers simply don’t want to be cross-ways with Congress and the public. This is a healthy impulse in the military of democratic country like ours, but it does not make the Iraqis feel any safer.)
Like many Iraqi lawmakers, Mithal al-Alusi was offered money by the Iranians, but unlike the others he insisted on getting the offer in writing–and then turned the tables on Tehran by making the offer public.
Living in the green zone, one becomes a connoisseur of checkpoints.
The checkpoints that clog the Green Zone every quarter-mile or so are mostly manned by Peruvians, who speak neither English nor Arabic. Behind their backs, the Arabs call them “Incas.”
As we approach the checkpoint, Mithal turns off the headlights and switches on the interior light–the protocol for driving up to a checkpoint at night. His parliamentary rank does not win him any special treatment. All cell phones must be switched off and put on the dashboard.
You get out when you are told and open the hood and the trunk. A bomb-sniffing dog, usually a female German Shepherd, is walked around the vehicle, jumping into every door.
Meanwhile, you walk around the blast walls to be personally searched, carrying your guns. It makes them jumpy if you don’t carry the magazines and firearms in opposite hands. Mithal and his bodyguard put five pistols (mostly 9mm, the standard issue in the Green Zone) and the AK-47 on a table and raised their arms to be patted down. After that, a tattooed Peruvian ran his hands over me. I almost said, “If I had a gun, wouldn’t I have put it on the table like everyone else?”
But he wouldn’t understand and might misunderstand in a way that costs me time or more.
Once the car was cleared, Mithal and his bodyguard picked up their guns, got into the BMW and drove to the next check point.
The next night, Rocco DiPippo, a blogger and contractor building police stations in the Red Zone, is telling me about the time the Incas almost killed him and his friend. It happened only hours ago but it already feels like an old story to Rocco. Earlier that day, in his truck, on a line at the checkpoint near the traffic circle that leads to the July 14 Bridge, he is talking to another contractor. They are both from the New York area and naturally use “fucking” as a kind of comma. “And that fucking guy says…”
The Peruvian guard, wearing a Triple Canopy contractor uniform and carrying a fully loaded M-16, approaches their open window. “Fuck me? I say fuck you…”
He understands just enough English to misunderstand them. He is angry and armed.
Rocco sees the danger and begins to defuse it. As he tells me the story, he holds his forefinger and thumb about an inch apart. “We were this close to being killed.”
It could happen.
At “LZ Washington,” the landing zone near the walled-offed U.S. embassy in the Green Zone, under the camo netting that shades the concrete compound where soldiers smoke and wait, I re-light my Montecristo No. 2 and watch the arrivals. Three soldiers troop in, wearing full “battle rattle” (chest armor, two side armored plates, a back plate, a long “crotch protector”). One is named Sgt. Yang, according to her name tag. She is barely five feet tall and clearly struggling with her pack. She has put on some pounds since basic training. She puts her M-16, resting it on the barrel. She pulls at the straps on her back, adjusts her helmet, and loudly exhales.
If she notices me at all, she sees an overweight man pushing 40, smoking a cigar. We are too both ill-fit to here and yet here we are. It is a funny, post-modern war.
The camouflage netting strung from the 10-ft.-tall jersey barrier to the concrete wall of the defunct parking garage provides the only shade for the Smoking Lounge at the Combined Press Information Center, the military’s Green Zone holding pen for journalists. A podium-like object stands in the center; its dead-fish stink is designed to attract flies and kill them. Around this altar of insect death, is a motley collection of broken office chairs, plastic garden seats and two back-seat benches ripped from mini-vans and mounted on concrete blocks. One afternoon I find a Stars and Stripes corespondent, a Greek television producer, and Russian magazine photographer talking and smoking with a revolving array of U.S. Army privates and specialists. As I walk up, one specialist (what they used to call a corporal) is answering questions about the novel she is reading. “It is vampire porn,” she says.
“Lots of ravishing of tiny bodies,” helpfully explains her friend, a woman we will call Private Roberta Eagan.
Private Eagan cheerfully explains that she has been busted in rank three times, due to various infractions, including an affair with a married noncommissioned officer. “I don’t really belong in the army,” she says.
Three hundred yards or so behind her, lies the Red Zone and the war. But the Green Zone has a strange reality of its own.