Letter From Baghdad

Life in the wilds of a city without trust

By William Langewiesche

Now that the roads into Iraq have effectively been closed to Westerners by banditry and insurgent attacks, the best way into Baghdad for ordinary civilians is by air from Jordan, aboard a decrepit airliner, an old Fokker that shuttles two or three times a day between Amman and Baghdad—that is, as long as the airport is open. The airplane is operated by Royal Jordanian, and is flown by a South African crew—people who for whatever reasons are willing day in and day out to risk ground fire and surface-to-air missiles in a thin-skinned machine with limited maneuverability and no active defenses. For passengers willing to share briefly in the same risk, the ticket price is stiff—about $1,500 round-trip, for a one-hour flight each way. Nonetheless, dozens of takers show up at Amman's airport every day, many lugging duffels heavy with booze and body armor. They filter silently through the dim, dingy terminal, and collect at the gate in an elongated waiting room that seems to have been chosen for its isolation. There they eye one another with a single paradoxical question in mind: What sort of fool would travel voluntarily to Iraq these days?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Iraq's Walled City" (October 13, 2004)
William Langewiesche, the author of "The Green Zone," on the dangerous and ever-increasing isolation of the American presence in Baghdad.

The answer varies. A few are elite Iraqis, heavyset men in old three-piece suits, sometimes with their wives, returning home as people strangely insist on doing, out of habit or perceived necessity, and quite possibly to die. Some are Western war correspondents, the real thing, young-looking and scruffy in their street beards and their rumpled shirts without epaulets, who are less concerned about missiles than about the daily challenge that awaits on the far side, of doing their work while somehow preserving their necks. Others seem to be engineers or technical consultants, and first-timers in war; they are middle-aged men with wedding rings, carrying briefcases and appearing unsure, as if they took a wrong turn somewhere and are surprised. Still others are returning Green Zone hands, trading certainties among themselves with a familiarity bred in the relative safety and isolation of their fortress lives within the sprawling American compound at the center of Baghdad. But most of the passengers on most of the flights are different again, visibly tough and muscular men, British, South African, and American, often tattooed and clean-shaven, with close-cropped hair—contract warriors among the thousands who have signed on to ride shotgun for the Iraqi infrastructure projects where so much American and Iraqi money has been ploughed into the ground. All these people are acutely aware of their destination. The trip lies ahead with the inevitability of a sentence that has been pronounced on them. The mood in the waiting room is not fearful, but it is decidedly fatalistic.

During the short bus ride across the tarmac the passengers stand for the most part silent. But then there is the flight itself, at the start of which a couple of pretty South African attendants maintain the pretense of normalcy, performing an ordinary airline welcome ("Thank you for flying Royal Jordanian") and advising the passengers on the standard safety rules—to fasten their seat belts, for instance, despite a sentiment in the cabin of "Why bother?" and the unavoidable contemplation of the effect of a missile strike. In a war like this one the battlefield takes so many innocent-looking forms. The airplane climbs over Amman and heads east at high altitude across a desert of tans and blacks. The desert is scarred by military works. At some point it becomes Iraq. The attendants serve coffee with smiles. There is a boxed snack that it is wise to avoid. The captain comes on with the weather ahead, which for most of the year is simply hot. Then the Euphrates appears below, and the irrigated fields of Mesopotamia, and finally the Tigris, and Baghdad itself—a sprawl of a city, hazy with dust. The airplane holds overhead the Baghdad airport at 15,000 feet, above the range of the insurgency. When cleared for the approach it descends rapidly, with the landing gear and spoilers out, in an aggressive left spiral that is intended to reduce exposure to ground fire but, given the proximity of insurgents, offers no guarantees. After a final left turn it immediately touches down. During the taxi to the terminal a flight attendant says, "Welcome to Baghdad," but has the grace at least not to wish the passengers a pleasant stay.

It is a strange sensation to be delivered alone and so quickly into the radical world of a shapeless war. The Baghdad terminal is a grandiose, nearly deserted edifice, roamed by heavily armed guards, and sometimes shaken by the distant thumps of outgoing artillery or incoming mortars—at first it is hard to tell which. The new Iraqi government provides a visa on the spot, and stamps the passengers through amid confusion and delay. They get their bags and go to the curbside, where U.S. government employees and contractors are picked up in armored convoys for the drive to the Green Zone. Those who do not qualify for such treatment—which now means mostly Iraqis and Western journalists—catch a minibus that takes them several miles to a heavily defended checkpoint at the airport perimeter, where presumably they have arranged for someone trusted to pick them up. If that person does not appear (a common problem in a place where telephone communication is inadequate at best), there is no choice but to return to the terminal and try somehow to get a message through from there. The alternative of taking a taxi, of which there are many in Baghdad, has become impossibly dangerous as criminality and the insurgency have intertwined and spread, and the street price for a captive American has risen to $25,000, or so it is said.

Beyond the checkpoint the war is immediately all around. Indeed, the divided highway into town, though merely five miles long, is notorious for the frequency of lethal attacks. Western journalists generally negotiate it in ordinary Iraqi sedans, which are less likely than the American-style armored SUVs to draw the insurgents' fire, but by the same token cannot easily be distinguished as innocuous by the U.S. troops who have been given the tricky job of patrolling the road in their Bradley fighting vehicles and armored Humvees. It is prudent for people in the sedans, including the drivers, to raise their hands when passing one of those patrols, to show that they are empty. Of course the floors of the sedans these days are probably littered with loaded weapons—Kalashnikovs, pistols, and even grenades at the ready—and the soldiers know that, too. The soldiers are increasingly nervous and ready to fire. Almost imperceptibly their discipline is fraying. One of the ironies for Westerners trying to reduce the dangers in Iraq by blending in, however partially, is that as the war worsens, they run an increased risk of attack from both sides. This is the danger that Iraqis face as well. If there is any relief in leaving the airport road and entering the deadly slow-moving traffic within the city, it is that at least the American patrols are less present.

Several days before the U.S. elections in November, American officials revised their count of hard-core insurgents upward to as many as 12,000—or 20,000 if active sympathizers were included. Leaving aside the question of how isolated bureaucracies can derive such numbers in the midst of a genuine and popular insurrection, the cap at 20,000 elicited grim disbelief among ordinary Iraqis, frontline soldiers, and others with a sense of a struggle on the streets that has spun out of control. There are six million people in Baghdad alone, and another 10 million in the angriest areas of central Iraq, and many are young men with a taste for war. Meanwhile, foreign fighters continue to arrive from throughout the Middle East, across borders that are unpoliceable not merely because they are long and wild but, more significant, because of the support these travelers receive once they cross the line and mix into the local populations. Moreover, though they probably number a few thousand, the foreign fighters constitute only a small fraction of the forces now arrayed against the United States. As for the tactics involved, some are indeed crudely terroristic—the ongoing assassination of university professors, for instance, and the occasional car bombings of innocent market crowds in the cities. For the most part, however, the insurgents' attacks are less nihilistic than they are logical and precisely focused, whether against the American coalition and its camp followers or their Iraqi agents and collaborators. The truth is that however vicious or even sadistic the insurgents may be, they are acutely aware of their popular base, and are responsible for fewer unintentional "collateral" casualties than are the clumsy and overarmed American forces. Rhetoric aside, this is not a war on terror but a running fight with a large part of the Iraqi people. It is a classic struggle between the legions of a great power and the resistance of a native population. It is infinitely wider and deeper than officials can admit. And the United States is on the way to losing it.

Tragically, this was not the necessary outcome of the American invasion. After Baghdad fell, in the spring of 2003, the mood of the people was cautious but glad for the demise of Saddam Hussein, and open to the possibility that an American occupation would be a change for the better. By most measures it has not worked out that way. Though some of the blame lies with the immaturity and opportunism of the Iraqi people, these were factors that needed to be handled, and were not. The Iraqi people are far from stupid or unaware. But in the isolation and arrogance that have characterized the American occupation, never have we addressed them directly, explained ourselves honestly, humbly sought their support, respected their views of solutions, of political power, of American motivations, or of the history and future of Iraq. Even short of the killing we have done, we have broken down their doors, run them off the roads, swiveled our guns at them, shouted profanities at them, and disrespected their women—all this hundreds or thousands of times every day. We have dishonored them publicly, and within a society that places public honor above life itself. These are the roots of the fight we are in. Now Saddam himself is re-emerging as a symbol of national potency.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "In the Line of Fire" (June 15, 2004)
Journalist Robert D. Kaplan joined U.S. Marines as they stormed Fallujah, and returned to share his impressions .

There is more: faced with resistance, we have failed with both the carrot and the stick. Take the stick first. The mere presence of American troops may help prevent the outbreak of factional fighting, but the U.S. military is not a police force, and at no level of strength can it serve as one on Iraqi soil. The soldiers don't know the language, the culture, or the people, and they don't know who does know, or whom to trust. As measured by the personal risks they take they stay in the country too long, but in terms of understanding the human terrain they rotate out far too soon. Their mission amounts to driving around in armored vehicles from which visibility is poor, trying to protect themselves, and occasionally engaging in politically disastrous assaults on neighborhoods and towns. The American success in Fallujah amounts to little more than a measure of American frustration. Across large swaths of central Iraq the insurgents exploit the troops adroitly. They fire on passing patrols from ordinary houses and slip away, counting on the Americans perhaps to pull back at first, but then to return in force to shoot, make arrests, and generally retaliate. The residents of the targeted neighborhoods understand the insurgents' trick, but it is the Americans they blame, as they blame them for drawing the insurgents' fire in the first place. Similarly, the insurgents get the Americans to deliver their smart bombs to the wrong addresses—making a mockery of the conceit, already seen on Iraqi streets as a sign of American cowardice, that this war can be fought at standoff distances from the comfort of a combat jet. Then, of course, there are all the collateral dead: officially their numbers are not known, but they amount to a lot nonetheless, every one with family and friends.

On the carrot side of the American intervention are the infrastructure projects—fixing the electrical grid, for instance, and providing for clean water and sewage treatment, and upgrading the hospitals (into which the growing numbers of casualties are now carried). These projects were supposed to promote stability and provide Iraqis with better lives. Billions of dollars have been poured into them through the device of open-ended "cost plus" contracts, by which companies (almost all of them large and American) are reimbursed for the cost of the work, however they define that work, with an additional fee on top. There is no incentive to run efficient or discreet operations—to tread lightly on Iraqi soil. Indeed, quite the opposite. The main contractors base themselves in the Green Zone in grandly redundant style, with an abundance of people, equipment, and backup. Because of the danger that exists on the outside, they have retreated from many of the reconstruction projects, but they remain in the country fully staffed, and continue to drink from public funds. Day to day much of their attention is taken up by complying with the arcane accounting requirements of the U.S. Federal Acquisition Regulations—a thicket of rules that do not limit the cost-plus profits so long as the columns are kept straight, and whose mandates serve, however unintentionally, to exclude potential low-cost competitors, particularly the Iraqis. In truth, the fact that the large contractors are sitting inefficiently in the Green Zone is of little direct consequence to the war outside. What is of consequence, paradoxically, is that they are not entirely inactive: despite the hazards, they continue to pursue some reconstruction projects in the city and beyond, and these projects—intermittent, inconclusive, and unconvincing to the intended beneficiaries, ordinary Iraqis overwhelmed by anarchy—require visits by the contractors' expatriate technicians and construction managers. The visits, in turn, require the expatriates to travel to and from the sites, and this is done in the heaviest possible manner (where again one can see the cost-plus dynamic at play), in convoys of aggressively driven armored SUVs, typically three, with a team of as many as ten ostentatiously armed drivers and bodyguards. These are the personal-security details, made up of the private contract warriors who have been such a visible part of the American presence, and who operate outside any effective control, often in a hostile and undisciplined manner, sowing hatred wherever they move. With every trip to or from a reconstruction site they threaten and anger untold numbers of Iraqis on the streets. If the purpose of the infrastructure projects was to win the sympathy of Iraq, then this is one important reason why we have sunk into war instead.

In any case, the war has degenerated to the extent that the construction sites have become nothing more than symbols of the despised American presence. For the resistance they also serve as convenient collection points for identifiable collaborators—usually laborers—who can easily be hunted down and killed as a lesson for others. There is a lot of that sort of teaching going on these days. At just one sewage project in Baghdad, for example, as many as thirty Iraqi workers were shot in only three months late last year. It is an unusual record only because someone kept count. The assassination campaign is systematic. It is decimating American projects throughout central Iraq, and has taken a particularly heavy toll among Green Zone workers. So pervasive is the threat that Iraqis still working with the occupation do not dare speak English on the phone, even at home in front of only their children, lest word leak out. When I call the Iraqis who work for me, a driver and a guard, my first question is whether they can talk. As often as not they answer by hanging up. This is new. It has gotten to the point where collaborators feel lucky if they are not killed at once but instead given a chance to mend their ways. That chance comes in the form of one of several standard letters.

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!
To the brothers of the monkey and pig. Show your regret, or your destiny will be like that of your brother spies. You shall follow your brothers. You will not succeed before God's anger, and our own. You are the enemy of God and Country.
Signed,
Self-Sacrificers

Or

BY GOD MOST GRACIOUS, MOST MERCIFUL.
You, the Afterbirth, DO NOT sell your soul to the enemy. Because you are our brother in religion, we give you this one last warning before death.

Whichever note he receives, a collaborator generally has forty-eight hours to stop working with the occupation, and somehow to make this very clear. If he does not stop, he will certainly die. As a result, almost everyone hastens to comply. A few of the most stubborn do not. They move with their families to new neighborhoods and houses. They change their names, and grow beards or shave beards off. They come up with new fictions to explain their days. They avoid at any cost traveling directly from home to work, and especially traveling directly back. For all this, though, they cannot escape an aura of doom; they are people who at best seem to have slowed the clock. Outside the Green Zone there is really no hiding from the insurgency anymore.

Nonetheless, some Westerners still live in the wilds of the city. They are reduced now mostly to a few journalists and the best of the contract warriors—people whose work requires them to maintain some sort of connection to the realities of the Iraqi street. This is difficult, because the realities are lethal quite particularly to them: they are being stalked, captured, tortured, and killed. The armed forces who sometimes pass by, whether Iraqi or American, will not or cannot protect them, and indeed pose significant threats of their own. Furthermore, there are no safe refuges in which to hunker down. Out of inertia the network-television crews, clumsy with bodyguards and equipment, remain nearly prisoners in the large hotels at the center of the city. The hotels have become famous even beyond Iraq—the Palestine, the Sheraton, and across the Tigris the Mansour. They are grim concrete structures—stale with tobacco smoke, bad food, and dust—that, though heavily protected and surrounded by blast walls and concertina wire, present obvious targets for the insurgents' attacks. They have been rocketed already, and it seems just a matter of time until one or another gets badly bombed. The television crews know it, too. They rotate through a few months at a time, and send out their Iraqi stringers to gather stories and video footage on the streets (a bomb here or there, the wounded and the crying), and do their "standups" with live backdrops of the city, and for their personal safety trust in luck.

Most of the print reporters rotate through as well. During the golden times of the summer and fall of 2003, before the insurgency gathered force, those who worked for the large newspapers and wire services left the big establishments and installed their "bureaus" in private houses, which were both more comfortable and less obvious than the hotels. Some had gardens and pools. Gradually, then, as the war deepened, they fortified those places with higher walls, steel doors, sandbags, iron grilles, wire mesh, and even safe rooms into which, in theory (if they moved impossibly fast), they could escape in the event of an assault. They hired guards with AK-47s, and then hired more. They hooked up TV cameras to watch the roofs, and the streets outside. They put a halt to the sort of partying that had gone on in the early days, after Baghdad's fall. And they tried very hard to maintain low profiles. There were scares now and then, when one group or another would flee a house believed to have come under surveillance, but the security seemed to work fairly well—until the insurgents simply ignored it and began to invade houses, last fall.

It became clear then that the defenses had been an illusion all along. And so the reporters migrated again, or most of them did, this time into some of the small hotels, where they remain today, on the theory of the middle ground—the idea that such establishments may offer stiffer resistance to incursions than can private households, but nonetheless may appear too insignificant to waste rockets and car bombs on. These are wishful thoughts, of course, and they have already been proved wrong, but what else are people to do? The reporters spend much of their time now in earnest conversation over such fine-tunings, knowing full well, as they readily admit, that by any normal standards, even those of an ordinary war zone, in Baghdad there are no acceptable solutions.

The greater danger anyway is in driving through the city or beyond. The basics are clear. Discreet sedans, again, are the vehicles of choice. The armored versions of them, which some news organizations now have, might get you through a short gunfight, but they can kill you, too, particularly through the overpressure that results from the explosion of a rocket-propelled grenade that penetrates to the inside. A thin-skinned car won't stop rifle rounds, but it may allow a rocket grenade to pass right through. So pick your poison. It may help to wear body armor if it does not have a visible neck guard and can be hidden under a loose shirt. Conversely, helmets and ballistic sunglasses are far too showy. Of course, the goal is to avoid being attacked in the first place. There is no sure way to do this and still get around. If you are staying in a hotel, you have to assume that you are being watched on the street both coming and going, and probably by the desk clerks as well. It is essential therefore to avoid set schedules and routines, to vary routes, and if possible occasionally to change cars. It is also important to have a skillful driver, who knows when to move fast and when not to, and who is aware of what is happening around him on the streets. The same goes for the guard, who needs to be good with a gun but, more important, to be smart. And, of course, it is important to have people you can trust.

Sadly, as the insurgency grows, trust is fading away. This is one of the most sensitive and dangerous aspects of life for reporters in Baghdad today: nearly every news organization is facing troubles with its Iraqi staff, and to various but increasing degrees is being held in some way hostage, out of fear of the consequences of disagreement or disciplinary action. You don't just go around laying off people in Iraq these days. Indeed, the very air of Baghdad seems thick with suspicions of betrayal. Even within the Green Zone, which is largely self-sufficient, many Americans now automatically distrust any Iraqi employee who has been there for longer than about two months. Why has this person not been assassinated, people wonder—or at least frightened off with a letter? The question is legitimate. Americans have awakened and found that the enemy is closer even than dreamed of before.

It is a new day in Iraq, yes. In the space of just a few months the interim government of Ayad Allawi has gutted many of the earlier reforms and has lost any hope of legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people, who see it as a flimsy construct propped up by the United States, and powerless in the face of their own disdain. Corruption is rife on every level, and with it cynicism. The courts are bowing to political pressure. The Iraqi security forces are riddled with insurgents, not because the vetting is poor, or because agents have been planted, but because hatred of America has grown within the ranks just as it has in Iraqi society at large. There is still some hope attached to the coming elections—if only because most Shiites have so far stayed out of the fray. People have different thresholds for crossing over into the resistance, and different capacities for violent action, but even some of my old friends, once so welcoming to me as an American, are telling me that they are approaching those lines. The question is no longer who is against the United States in Iraq but who is not.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/01/letter-from-baghdad/303663/