The Quick and the Safe

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A MARINE BASE NEAR FALLUJAH -- When media describe Fallujah as "an insurgent stronghold outside Baghdad," they don't quite convey just how close the cities are. A fast car (if you don't have a fast car in Iraq, I recommend getting one) will bring you from one city to the other in considerably less than half an hour. The first time I made the trip, I was fiddling with my bags and hadn't even buckled my seat belt when we arrived on the edge of Fallujah, at a gas station full of men giving me icy stares.

During this latest period of transport, I have been sorely tempted to walk out to the road and grab a taxi. I started from the site of my last post, on Baghdad's rive gauche, and now, 31 hours later, I am here in Fallujah, at the end of a journey by truck, bus, helicopter, and armored convoy. A beat-up Corolla would have taken thirty minutes. This is like taking as much time to get from the White House to Washington-Dulles Airport as it takes to get from Dulles to Sydney, Australia. The glacial pace (I use the word advisedly; it is 120 degrees here) is largely due to security. No vehicle goes unarmed, and no passenger travels without logging onto a manifest, and declaring her vital information, not limited to name and blood type. Paperwork slows down movement.

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Days ago I marveled at how little gunfire and how few explosions I heard in Baghdad. The lengths to which the US has gone to harden its targets, and to insulate its personnel from harm, explain at least in part how that violence has begun to abate. In Baghdad's International ("Green") Zone, the labyrinth of concrete blast-barriers renders many insurgent tactics, such as lobbing in rockets and mortars, much less effective, since the kill radii of their weapons extends only as far as the nearest barrier. Armed Peruvian guards man checkpoints, and take pride in being sticklers. (One of them, from Trujillo, broke character briefly and told me he missed ceviche, and that the only fish available in Baghdad were ugly mudsuckers from the bottom of the Tigris.)

The general point is that the terms "safety" and "calm" cry out for nuance. Baghdad may be safer than I have ever known it, but it is a place where safety consists in knowing with a high degree of certainty that I will arrive alive, having traveled a minuscule distance in thickly plated vehicles escorted by heavily armed, highly trained men. Of course, many others -- Iraqi and foreign -- make these trips all the time, with little or no security and much less fear of harassment than they would have had three years ago. But the hyper-cautious, hilariously inefficient modes of movement I have endured over the last day show that the victory over violence in Iraq is hardly complete.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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