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Inside Iraq with Lucas Menget

Latest update : 2008-04-01

In January 2008, FRANCE 24's Lucas Menget spent a month in Iraq reporting on the tense peace that prevails five years after the US invasion. Watch his 26-minute report and read his reporter's notebook.

 Baghdad, Jan. 28



America



In Iraq, too, people talk about politics. Every day, with gusto. Here too, the televisions transmit the endless debates in Parliament. The ministers’ speeches, the press conferences. Today, it’s about the budget. Nobody is in agreement, and there is little chance that the motion will be passed. The parliamentary holiday is approaching. Nobody knows how long it will be.



Two weeks ago, the Iraqi and international media was in rapture over the passing of the new “Accountability and Justice Law” in Iraq, designed to authorize the return of former members of the Baath party to public life. “As long as they don’t have any blood on their hands.” This allows former leaders of Saddam Hussein’s regime access to their pensions. Washington dearly wanted this law, and put pressure on the Iraqi Parliament to adopt it as fast as possible. But hang on a minute... does anybody remember Paul Bremer? In May 2003, this colonial administrator of Iraq outlawed the Baath party and the Iraqi army. It took five years to realize his mistake…



Today, I learn that this law hasn’t, in fact, been passed after all. And it won’t be implemented until… nobody knows, in fact. For the law to be implemented, it needs to be signed by the President, his vice-presidents, the Prime Minister, and his vice-prime ministers; you could say the subject has been dropped from the discussion table.



“The Accountability and Justice Law has been a great success.” This will be in George Bush’s speech, tonight, while the Iraqis are sleeping. That must be the reason why his State of the Union Address is so late. In order not to disturb the sleeping Iraqis. Without a doubt he will mention the drop in violence. The diminishing number of attacks. The Sunnis who have rallied to his cause.



A short while ago, five American soldiers hit a mine in Mosul. All of them died. They were on patrol in a quiet street. Last week, the chief of police of Mosul was murdered. The chief of police – the most protected man in town. Yesterday, five female students were forcefully removed from inside the University of Baghdad. “Probably because they were talking a bit too loudly and acting too proud,” I am told.


Last August, George Bush came to Iraq to shake the hand of Abu Richa, the founder of the Al Sahwa militia near Fallujah. These valiant warriers passed over to the American side “for the love of democracy”. Will he remember that Abu Richa was killed five years after this celebrated accolade? He died when a member of his own family detonated a booby-trapped vest as he leaned over to kiss him. As for the Iraqis, they remember. The 80,000 Al Sahwa militiamen are waiting. But not for much longer. They want their share of power. Yesterday, the Fallujah chief of police, installed by the Americans, remembered: “the day of the fall of Saddam was the worst day of my life.”



So these are the new friends of America who George Bush will thank tonight. George Bush will speak. America listens. The Iraqis sleep. Tomorrow, they might smile a little bit.



Good night, Good day
Lucas



Fallujah, Jan. 26, 27



Two brothers



Karim Ismael Hussein was an insurgent. Fayçal Ismael Hussein was one as well. A year ago, they attacked American tanks with rocket fire and sent their men to put mines on the roads. They were killers, hunted by the marines of Camp Fallujah.


We are going to see them. In the car, there is a little tension. It’s raining, and it’s very early. Signs reading “Fallujah” are visible. No western journalist has been here for two years without an American escort. It’s a symbolic city, symbolic of everything: war against the Americans, civil war, terrorist attacks, destruction, refugees. Of danger, in all its forms, visible and invisible. We pass in front of the Abu Ghraib prison. The rain and the men make the place look more sinister than ordinary. What is ordinary?


Roadblocks become rare. The Shiites who hold Baghdad’s exits no longer show themselves. And the Sunnis dare not come so close to the capital. We travel several kilometers at high speed, almost alone on the road. We arrive at a barrier. Someone signals us; we are expected. Men with their faces completely hidden behind keffiyehs surround us. Weapons, so many weapons. They escort us on a country road. We arrive at the entrance of a farm. Several seconds of hesitation and the atmosphere relaxes: Welcome to my home, says Karim Ismael Hussein. His guards smile. Someone brings us tea. Everything is ok. Under his orders, 13,000 fighters – all, like him, former insurgents. “Yes, of course we were close to Al-Qaeda.” I ask him to repeat himself to be sure. He repeats it, and takes responsibility for it. “We want to hunt the Americans, that’s all. But we found that Al-Qaeda did too much damage. And the population couldn’t take it anymore.” So one day, he changed allegiances, going from being an enemy to becoming a friend of the Americans. He is the key man of Al-Sahwa, the new Sunni militia so dear to George Bush.


He takes us to his headquarters, several kilometers into the palm tree-filled countryside. A convoy of black BMWs and old pickups. He is a man who changes cars for each trip. The main building leads one to think that it’s better to be invited here than something else. The rooms are cold, the rain penetrating them. The guards smile little. He tells the story. The day he changed allegiances, his younger brother was decapitated, “with a razorblade.” And his change of heart isn’t necessarily forever: “If in three months, the Americans haven’t convinced the Shiites to share some of the power… I will ask my men to let Al-Qaeda continue its work.” Even if it's they who killed his brother and 450 members of his tribe? “Of course. This is war. The Americans are naive. They know that we ended the civil war in the region, but they believe that it's forever. They should know that the future could be worse.” In that case, he will again take up his nom de guerre, Abu Maarof.




Several minutes later, he disappears, offering us an escort to go into the city. The line of cars waiting at the American checkpoint is interminable. There are 27 roadblocks to get into Fallujah. We pass to the side of them. Incredulous looks by the Americans aimed at us. Discussion with the chiefs by radio. “If you can hold on...” We are let into Fallujah. A police escort replaces the one from the militia. Fayçal Ismael Hussein welcomes us, impeccably dressed in a suit. He has been named a colonel, commander of the Fallujah police. “My little brother told me you were coming. But I’m the older one. Make yourself at home.” Clearly, we are always well-received. It’s quite pleasant. Less so, obviously, for a line of 100 prisoners arriving at the station. Their eyes covered, their two hands on the prisoner in front of them, headed toward the prison and interrogation. “These are terrorists, all Al-Qaeda,” the colonel explains. And you, what were you doing before you got this job?” I was in the commandos under Saddam, then in the insurrection against the Americans. And then, chief of police.” He explodes in laughter. He chose the official path. And he does not agree with his younger brother. "I think that you have to respect the law. My brother, he arrests and judges without a judge…but we do have the same goal.” And the same demands. The Sunnis must be compensated by the Americans and the government. Otherwise... “I’m not going to arrest my brother and his men if I agree with them.”


We take a walk in the city. The industrial area, where buildings have been flattened by bombs. Waves of concrete rippling the ground. The city’s old bridge. I remember having spent long hours here two years ago, with a Marine unit. The building that they attacked hasn’t been reconstructed yet. A fruit vendor complains: there still isn’t electricity or water in Fallujah. Patrick, untiring and wonderful surveyor of Middle East wars leans on his cane. I had asked him to come along with us. He closes his notebook. “Really interesting. Thank you.”
A cold and unpleasant fog envelopes the bridge’s pylons. The flabby reeds no longer have the strength to stand up in the river. Nothing has a reflection in the Euphrates anymore.




Good night, Good day.


Lucas

 


Baghdad, Jan.24


 
Ruins


It’s not far away from the centre. Ten minutes on the motorway.  An access road and a barricade. And then another. And yet another.  There’s police everywhere. American armoured cars drive by with all their lights on in broad daylight. There are very few cars and only some pedestrians. I am in Al Dora, a suburb of southern Baghdad. It’s a semi-belt surrounding the capital. It has Shiite, Sunni and Christian areas and bears witness to some recent battles.


 
Ruins. Low ravaged buildings are reflected in muddy puddles. It has been raining for two days in Baghdad.  Al Dora is all muddy. The police coronel accompanies us. He is in charge of the entire zone. He has asked for an escort: 50 top police officers follow us throughout the “walk”, with their fingers on the trigger, standing on car roofs.


 
We advance into “death avenue”. On either side, the houses are empty. The impact of shots and rockets leave visible holes on the road. Here, you can see Shiite and Sunni snipers flying around. “Today, everything is calm. Look, life is back to normal”. Colonel Mohammed’s enthusiasm is false. A foot away from a house, two adolescents warm up by a wood fire. Opposite, police surround a house. “Everyone has left. Well, the ones who were not killed, but they’ll be back soon because we have defeated al Qaeda.”
 


The police officer is Shiite. He doesn’t stop glorifying the government’s merits and its successes. In front of the camera he says the nicest things about the Sunnis of Al Sahwa. He introduces us to “two” of his friends, two rather lost young men who emerge from a blown-apart building. “You see, together we beat al Qaeda”. We get back into his car.  He lights up a Davidoff: “I don’t have a choice. I was asked to work with the killers. They are my enemies but it’s the price I must pay.” At the end of the avenue, two American armoured vehicles monitor our advance from a distance.


 
Every night since January 8,  B1 bombers and F18 fighter planes pass right over Al Dora. A little bit to the south, they drop their bombs. Nearly 50 tons in two weeks. It’s one of the biggest bombardments since March 2003. The U.S. Army neither confirms nor denies. They have no comment at all. The colonel, however, confirms and approves: on his map he points out the old industrial buildings, Saddam’s old police barracks. “I know this well, I was a policeman under Saddam,” he says. Every night, according to him, the planes hit precise targets: “For the moment, there are practically no injured civilians.” Hidden stockpiles of munitions, training centers, disused factories where the next day’s attacks are planned.


 
We ask if we can go. Impossible. “Even us, we don’t have the right to go there. The Americans have locked up the area,” he says. Fifty tons of bombs in two weeks. These bombs which we hear from the balcony, bombs whose explosions we see. But not the results. Nor the ruins.
 


Colonel Mohammed gets on the highway. Ahead of us and behind us, his guardsmen point their guns towards possible assailants. On either side of the road, walls as far as the eye can see. Concrete walls that separate two neighborhoods of Al Dora: Shia Tourra and Sunni Assi. “Now they can’t come and put bombs on the road anymore.” Sad gray walls surround the ruins. Ruins that shelter ghosts of Baghdad’s civil war.


 
We say goodbye. The colonel remembers his visit to the Parisian police last year. “Behind the big police station, what is the name of your big cathedral? She’s old but she’s still very beautiful.” As a gift, he gives us a little lapel pin. An Iraqi flag.


 
Good night, good morning.

Lucas

 


 
Camp Taji and Mushada. Jan. 20, 21, 22

 

Let’s Rock ‘n Roll

 

The Iron Horse Express must be late. The helicopter is to make two stops: LZ (landing zone) Liberty - the American airport in Baghdad – and the LZ Taji, in the camp of the same name, 30 km north of Baghdad.

 

We can’t afford to miss our LZ – there’s no communication inside a Blackhawk.

 

Christina Batthi, formal and stern, but warm, awaits. This under-officer of Pakistani origin looks at the departing helicopters and notes, “ You’re late, but it’s ok; I’ve been here for 15 months.” The Second Brigade of the 25ths division of the Infantry has just arrived; they agree to allow us to “embed” there for a few days. 

 

We quickly go to an outpost. We’re heading North, on the road of Tikrit, Sunni territory, as well as al Qaeda territory. The lieutenant in command gives us a briefing: “Yesterday, we found two IEDs (long range bombs) at kilometre mark 04. We’ll have to serve as reinforcements if there’s a problem.  Not to worry. We’ll take care of our two civilian guests."

 

The Strykers take off.  As we leave the camp, the pilot says over the radio, “Let’s Rock ‘n Roll!”

 

Nightfall. The group is ready, night vision goggles around their helmets. Fifteen minutes pass/ No IED in sight.  The sergeant speaks into his radio: “Nothing here. Give us a laser guide.” Cutting the night sky, a blazing line. They try to find a mine.  But it’s not a mine.  Just a post tied to a rope to prevent goats from crossing.  The Charlie company tries to sleep. They turn on their computers; some watch DVDs; others, family photos.

 

The next morning, the Strykers strike on. Camp Taji. Among the five most important American camps in Iraq. 12,000 soldiers and officers.  A Burger King, a Pizza Hut, a Taco Bell.  A car salesman, bearing the sign: “Today the best prices are waiting for you.”

 

Lunch. The dining hall is secured by Ugandans.  No badge, no dinner.  No socks, no dinner.  No approved arms, no dinner. One can watch telly news, sport, sport, sport, and sport.

 

Tuck in for the night. One young soldier says, “A serious injury is worse than death.” One night, we’ll tag along with them to take a helicopter at around 1 am. “You know, you’re our first journalists. It’s nice that you’re here.” The pleasure is all ours.

 

Good night, good day.

Lucas

 


Baghdad, 19 January 2008

 

Gracias

 

 

Getting into the green zone can take half a day. Rendezvous this afternoon to finalize our “embed” and get Guillaume’s accreditation. Armed with all the necessary phone numbers (American ones), I tell myself that things should go fairly quickly. Reaching the bridge, I call the escort. A car is meant to be picking us up to take us the four kilometers which separate us from the press centre.


A women at the other end of the line: “I have absolutely no idea when we’ll be able to come to pick you up. We’re on maximum alert; we’re not allowed to budge.” Okay then. Sitting on a block of concrete, we watch the river Tigris flowing past. The whole of the green zone is walled up. Only the helicopters can make it past these kilometer-long stretches of concrete panels.


Whistling. Then a violent explosion. The alert was real. A mortar shell. The response is immediate: American fire springs up from behind a palm grove. The wait goes on and on. Vehicles are few and far between. I call again: «The alert’s over now, thank you for waiting. A red Ford Explorer is coming to pick you up.” We start walking. A bus stop, unlikely. But true. A few minutes later, a bus stops next to us and the Pakistani driver tells us to get in. Realizing that we are not “residents”, he drives off.


“Sorry for the wait,” says the sergeant from Maine, harnessed into a helmet and jacket. Driving is not an easy task, but he seems used to it. The green zone is littered with checkpoints, held by private security firms. Intractable, they ask everybody for their IDs. Two firms seem to be sharing this market: a Ugandan one and a Peruvian one.
Today, it’s these people who felt the heat; the shell fell 15 metres behind their wall of protection. “Everybody ok in the team?” asks the American. “Yeah, ok,” the Peruvian replies, rather tersely. “Gracias”, he mutters through a forced smile as the Ford drives away.


Two hours later, we have the badge and the directions: rendezvous Sunday morning at LZ Washington to go to LZ Taji. To put it more clearly, the helicopter will take us from the green zone to the base of Camp Taji, between Baghdad and Baquba.


Return to the exit. The same road blocks. The Peruvians. Badges, passports. There are twenty of them. Huddled in their parkas. Behind them, a wall. Behind the wall, the imprint from the shell. Laughter underneath the cagoules. In front of them, the river. And the Ford Explorers who pass by and then pass by again. “Gracias”.

Good night, good day

Lucas

 


Baghdad, Jan. 18, 2008 
 
 
Penitence


 
In Baghdad, pedestrians are rare, yet for the spectacle of Ashura, everyone is on foot. Police, military, commandos: all available security resources are at work. Some are hooded, for fear that Sunni passersby may take them for over-zealous Shiites. Filming their faces is prohibited.


We leave for the largest Shiite quarter in the capital. “Are we to march all day?”, complain the guards.


At the checkpoints, traffic monitors are busy at work. A young cop on a flamboyant Suzuki motorbike gives traffic signals to herds of pedestrians just as he would for cars. The pedestrians smile.


We come upon Khadamiyah, the heart of Shiite territory. Its dwellers return home at dawn. Some of them have a wide black scarf tied round their foreheads, whereupon, written in gold letters, is the name of the Imam Hussein. On the side of the road, small whips with metal tails are on sale for flogging one’s own back. The adult version costs a little over a dollar, the children’s version a bargain rate.


The first procession comes in, the drums of Ashura resonating between the buildings of the narrow paths. Men in front, boys behind. The head of the procession sets the rhythm for the self-flagellation. Our guide Mohammed, a Shiite, explains the technique for avoiding pain: the wrists hit the top of the chest, thereby stopping the movement of the tails before they touch the back.


There is a barrage on each road, where full body searches are performed: one line for men, one for boys. The children pass through. “Our fear is of a female suicide bomber; that happens more and more these days,” says the captain of the commandos of the Interior Ministry. He accepts our request for an interview, on condition that he may put on his smart red beret and his bullet proof vest for the camera.


All weapons are forbidden – except for sabres. “But they’re not sharp,” he says. In front of the mosque, a group of pilgrims begin to dance. This time it’s bloodless: penitence has its limits.


In the year 680 CE, Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed and the sonof Ali, was left alone as he faced the Sunnis of Damascus. He died near Kerbala. His companions were not terribly brave back then. In 2008, however, even the US army protects the pilgrims. The Imam Hussein is now well-guarded.
 

Good night, good day
 
Lucas 
 
 
 
Baghdad, Jan. 17, 2008 

 
 
Curfew for the Ashura festival
 

 
As the day draws to a close, cars on the road are driving a little faster than usual. In a few hours, a curfew begins for the Shiite festival Ashura. Everyone hurries to get home, to run their last errands, to shut themselves away as securely as possible with their families. Checkpoints have been set up all over the place. For 48 hours, day and night, in pretty much all of Southern Iraq, only the military and the police will be allowed on the roads.


The fear : booby-trapped cars driven by suicide bombers. Every year since April 2003, during the Ashura festival, the blood doesn’t only flow from the backs of Shiites who whip themselves with chains. Every year, religious extremists kill each other.


The first attack is at 3 pm: a man approaches a procession. He is Sunni, they are Shiite. Eight dead plus the bomber. Two million pilgrims are expected at Kerbala. There are 25,000 police deployed in the town.


Guillaume, a cameraman for FRANCE 24, arrives but his plane is late. Too late to take the Kerbala road safely. It’s only 110 kilometres from Baghdad to Kerbala but about five hours by road, a hundred roadblocks, and unsecured areas, impossible to cross at night.


The sun warms up and I try, without success, to count the number of Blackwater convoys: more than 20 in two hours. Armoured jeeps, equipped with heavy machine-guns pointing towards the pavement, just in case. I film. Two rifles with telescopic sights are immediately trained on me. With a violent gesture, they order me to stop. It is forbidden to film those who protect the U.S. military. Despite the fact that these convoys are actually forbidden, since last Sept. 20, on Iraqi soil. Everyone hates them. They hate everyone.


At 8 pm, calm descends. More cars are rolling through the night, not stopping at either lights or crossroads. A stray dog, happy for the sudden silence, barks. Others respond. War dogs.
 
 
Good night, good day
 
Lucas


 
 
 
Jan. 16, 2008


 
Yesterday, I spent a part of my afternoon with an Iraqi intellectual – an very agreeable person, and multilingual as well. We had an interesting discussion, and then he left with his chauffeur.


This morning at nine, he calls me: “Things aren’t all right. I just received a death threat. I took too many risks in meeting you. Someone denounced me to the militants in my area."


The limits of a journalist’s job are the risks that you expose others to. Iraqis do not want us to talk about Iraq. They’re better off amongst themselves.

10 am. A female kamikaze explodes herself at Khani Bani Saad, a Shiite village in a Sunni area near Baqouba in north-eastern Baghdad. Eight dead and a dozen injured. It is here that the Americans and the Iraqis had launched Operation Phantom Phoenix to delocalise Al Qaeda militants.


This afternoon, 3pm. Two deafening shots, a few minutes apart. Police sirens follow, then ambulances. Two IED’s in Karrada (IED: Improvised Explosive Devices, artisanal mines that are activated by distance). Two dead.


Karrada is a market area, one which people was talking about recently: “Here, everything is calm again”, people were saying. “everyone can go buy their groceries without fear.”


This evening, a little after 7 pm. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. I feel like the window panes of my room will explode. But they resist. Immediately, the electricity goes off. BOOM. BOOM. Two more. Someone’s been dropping mortar shells in the green zone. Helicopters take off in the dark, shooting light flares in order to see the attackers, but they’re far away now. Later on, the sky flares up. It’s not a thunderstorm but an American plane bombing a southern Baghdad suburb. The evening news on Iraqi TV announces a 48-hour curfew from Thursday to “prevent violence”. This just before the Ashura festival that starts Friday in Kerbala. Ordinary in Irak.
 
 
Good night, good day


Lucas 
 


 
Baghdad, Jan. 15, 2008 
 


 
The lady is in town

 
 
Left early this morning. We had a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And here, like elsewhere, people don’t joke around. No fooling with office hours, meetings, appointment, badges… Not like the militiamen, right.


We hit a first traffic-jam in Karrada. We got through but were blocked on arriving in Saadoun. A full quarter of an hour. We grind to a full halt. And being stuck in a Baghdadi bottleneck is not a great idea. One out of two cars emits a suspicious black smoke. No need to light up a fag. Around me, drivers honked their horns, in that distinctive Middle Eastern fashion – in long, loud and uninterrupted blasts. For a whole hour.


And nobody understood why. “It’s strange, nobody heard any explosions or sirens.” Our driver said there hadn’t been a bomb attack or “or not yet.” We made a few phone calls to apologise for being late. But our contact, a civil servant, was also blocked at the other end of town and didn’t know why.


My chief editor soon shed some light on the situation. “Hi Lucas, can you do a live as quickly as possible? Condi Rice is on her way to Baghdad!” Damn. Stuck in central Baghdad with a live stand-up scheduled. As soon as the White House announced Condi’s departure, the Iraqi radio announced she was already here.


At least then we knew why we were stuck. Within minutes, Blackwater helicopters were flying overhead. These small nervous devices buzz around like big wasps. Mercenaries kept watch with machine guns in their hands. They worked for the army, making sure the traffic jam was efficient and that no one approached the green zone. I told the team the bad news: A live in 25 minutes. We made an about-turn. “Inch’Allah,” said Ali and he drove the Chevrolet on the pavement.

Boldly, we drove in front of an Iraqi armed vehicle. With his hand, he asked a relaxing policeman in a pick-up truck to give way. He complied, gruffly, with more expressive sign-language. Over the last few days, it had been rumoured that Bush was coming to Baghdad. The US press was prepared. You never know. “Anyway we’ll probably find out once he has left,” said Mark. Instead, he sent his secretary of state. The lady is in town. Almost. In the green zone for an hour or two.


The cars were still blocked – queues and traffic lights didn’t exist anymore. Drivers stamp their feet, hurl insults one another, dive out of their cars to shout louder, and offend the policemen. Condoleezza Rice was here to “encourage the prime minister to push for national reconciliation.” Today, in Baghdad, it all seemed a long way off. But then, maybe not… maybe a traffic jam was a strong sign of reunification…


We were on time for the live.
 
 
Goodnight, good day
 
 
Lucas 
 


 
 
Baghdad, Jan. 14, 2008

 

Dark nights, white nights

 

Baghdad is always in darkness. When the sun sets behind the palm trees lining the Tigris River, darkness reigns. Progressively. But it’s there, a dense blackness. That’s when the hum of the generators mounts: on every street, residents try to get a few minutes of electricity with the help of these handy and ubiquitous gas-run machines.


My generator is enormous, but it often breaks down. For ten minutes, one hour, one night. The one from a nearby newspaper office makes a lot of noise, 24 hours a day. It’s never silent in Baghdad. At times, it’s the light from explosions which indicates that the American bomber jets are in action: the power generating units shutdown with the sound of the explosives.


From my window, behind a house, a main street. I know there’s a convoy arriving because I see the lights. The ultra-powerful headlights of the first armored tanks sweep the street. Followed by trucks, and jeeps equipped with machine-guns. They only move at night. Supplying joint US-Iraqi posts in the heart of Baghdad: food, weapons, ammunition, money. And raise the hopes of the troops. I try to penetrate the mysteries of the night, but I can’t – at least not all of it.

From my window, I see the shadow of a guard. An old man, always with a broom in his hand. He sweeps, without stopping, the dust forms a pattern around him. He’s a small man, with a large scarf around the neck. In the glare of the headlights, his shadow is immense, projected on a building. A giant in the night. With a broom in his hand.
 

From my window, a little further, houses in the dark. My own light, when it functions, gets annoying. An insult, almost. A provocation. To extinguish it would enable me to be like the others: to listen to the breakdowns of generators, to watch the headlights. To listen to the darkness.
 
 
Good night, good day
 
 
Lucas
 


 
 
Jan. 13, 2008 
 
 
The northern neighbourhoods

 
 
Three days of work and preparation. Obviously everyone is a bit tense in the car. This has to work. Heading north to a neighborhood no one dares enter. And they’re right to do so. Over the course of the last four years, it has been the staging ground of the most violent confrontations in Baghdad. Sunni militias, those of al Qaeda, have fought everyone: the Shias, the Sunni, and of course the Americans.


Low sky. Grey and flat. On the shoulder of the highway we’re taking towards the roadblock that marks the entry to the area, I see roofs, and armed men. The buildings carry the traces of combat: they’re disemboweled, pock-marked, collapsed. No windows remain in the large buildings. Even the pavement hasn’t been repaired after the impact of mortar shells.


At the first checkpoint, the fighters are skeptical: there’s nothing to do here. Three brand new Kalashnikov barrels are jammed into our faces. But we have the right phone numbers. After all our identities are verified, the solemn face of the chief transforms into a welcoming smile. It’s almost always like this here. You need the codes, the numbers, and what ever you do, don’t flinch.


100 meters further on, they’re waiting for us. Five armed men, members of the famous “Al Sahwa,” who have retaken control of the zone. On November 10th, clearly weary of the bloodshed, a good number of these fighters chose to accept the American offer: arms and money in exchange for a pledge to hunt down al Qaeda. For many of them, it was simply a question of changing sides. Mathematically, the al Qaeda forces have diminished in proportion to the growth of Al Sahwa.
 

Despite the uniform change, the message has stayed the same: the Americans have to get out. “We can take care of housekeeping ourselves. There’s no need for them,” says a young fighter, with a Palestinian keffieh around his neck and an assault rifle in his hands. In any case, the Americans don’t come around here anymore. It’s been more than a year. Mirroring the fighters, they watch from the other side of the bridge, in a Shia neighbourhood. And even there, they’ve taken a bit of fire.


The streets are calm. A bit too much so. Life doesn’t return too easily. Here, every family, they say, has lost someone in the fighting. And all families anticipate a resurgence in the coming weeks. Not many believe in “the strange defeat” of al Qaeda.


We have an appointment with someone. But the fighters won’t leave our sides. I ring the doorbell. Alarmed eyes greet me: “I can’t talk to you in front of them. Get out of here.” Fear. That which, despite the smiles and the hospitality, never leaves the eyes of Baghdadis.
 
 
Good night, good day
 
 
Lucas
 
 


Jan. 11, 2008 
 
 
It’s snowing!
 
 
Boom. Boom. Boom. A half hour of explosions. At the very moment when I head to bed last night, and only 5km from my bedroom. American bombers carry out their operations against the Al Queda strongholds in Arab Jabour. The electicity has been cut. Just the sound of explosions behind the row of palm trees the other side of the Tigris. And the roar of the engines of the fighter-bombers. Nothing else in the Baghdad night.


6 am. I open my eyes. I hadn’t closed the curtains in order to follow the airborne ballet. A strange ambiance. A muffled silence. Even the hotel’s generator is on strike. I get up, a bit worried. I open the window. It’s snowing.


After the bombs, Baghdad is covered in snow. This isn't France. Snow in the Middle East wouldn't dare. It’s not invited. The snow won’t last. Too risky. It’s just here in passing. They say it’s been 10, 20, 100 years since it’s been seen here. The hotel waiters say nothing. They watch, and polish their shoes.


15 minutes later, nothing’s left but a frigid rain. I head out for the green zone. Rendez-vous at the end of a bridge. The drivers leave us at a check point – a secret entrance into the green zone. We can barely make out the arches of the bridge. A quarter of an hour. Identity checks, scanners, more identity checks.


The escort arrives. An American has us climb into his 4x4. We drive to the deserted bridge. Reserved for the green zone. The Tigris is still. White sky. White river. “My god, its nice to be cold. It reminds me of home, in Massachusetts.”


We drive along the deserted streets of the green zone. It’s Friday, the Iraqis are taking the day off. The Americans fill the gap. Strange world: those who live here never leave. The other side is the red zone. The rest of the country.


In their offices, soldiers hold their coffee mugs like in any other office in the Midwest when it’s cold. On the walls, children’s drawings. “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”


We talk about the weather. Yes, it’s snowing. All the helicopter flights are cancelled this morning. Very polite, the press spokespeople are bored. No journalists, no work. There isn't any media left in Baghdad. “Always the same story,” says a young army major. “And it’s going to last.”


Confirmation: there were 21 tons of bombs in the last 12 hours. Bush arrives in Kuwait. It’s not good timing. And Iraq is relatively calm.


Coffee, cigarettes. But outside. Here too, you smoke in the rain. Return to the hotel.
 

I call the professor who I had the appointment with. “I can’t talk to you in French. I’m in front of the mosque. It’s dangerous.”

I call him back half an hour later. “I’ve been arrested. We’ll have to do this another time.”


Night falls. Boom. Boom. Boom. The raid isn’t over.


It’s snowing in Baghdad.
 
 
Good night, good day
 
 
Lucas
 

 

Jan. 10, 2008 


 
Three months back, going to Adamiyah was impossible. Too dangerous. Too uncontrolled; run by al Qaeda. Another Baghdad neighbourhood where each morning the night’s dead were swept away as waste in another city.
But today, the trip can be made.


It took us two hours. Coming up to the July 14 bridge we find ourselves behind three “Strykers”, the new US infantry combat vehicles, or ICV. Massive steel-grilled, armoured brutes. 12 soldiers in each vehicle – no windows. Inside, the infantry watch the outside world on flat screens. Iraq on TV, complete with A/C. Lashed to the roof, a stretcher.


Something must be happening, somewhere. Apprehension sets in. The Strykers lumber along at 10km/h. Protruding from the front are hinge-jointed arms, draped with chains. The chains plough the ground ahead to unearth hidden mines.


We trail them, 150 metres back, as instructed on a sign fixed to the ICV bringing up the rear. Traffic starts to bank up, so we sit back. It’s gonna be a long one.


Helicopters buzz back and forth. Nothing on the radio. Nothing on the telephone. All the same, something must be going on. The Palms on the banks of the Tiger are still, frozen in the rare 6° chill of the Iraqi capital.


We finally arrive in Adamiyah, after numerous twists and turns and checkpoints set up by the anti-al Qaeda militia, the “Awakening”. “One day they are for, and the next against,” laughs the driver. “The problem is that they never give warning…” His fatalism bespeaks the fragility of December’s calm.


A quick interview – the police are on their way. Foreigners aren’t permitted around here. It’s forbidden.


So going to Adamiyah is possible.


On the way back, the radio informs us that US bombers just dumped 18 tonnes of explosives on al Qaeda positions, 7 kms from Baghdad.


In the city centre, the car windows rattle. An explosion. Cars stop and a traffic jam develops. Nobody is allowed to move. A second explosion – a twin blast in Saadoun Street, Baghdad’s biggest trade district.


An air raid, two explosions. Just another morning in Baghdad.


The calm, shattered, just like the windows of Saadoun Street.
 
 
Good night, good day 


 
Lucas
 


 
 
Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008 
 
 
Welcome back, brother 


 
The airplane’s called Lynne. She’s even more ancient than trusty old Jessica. Ducking my head between my shoulder blades, I try to make my way to seat 15F - the worst seat on the plane in the last row. My ear is right next to the rickety reactor – I’ll be deaf by the time we land, for sure! At the Babylon terminal, new forms to fill – one yellow, one blue. We fill them up on a steel table, just like at JFK airport. “Don’t forget to give back the blue form when leaving. Or you won’t be able to return,” explains the customs officer with his rubber stamp. “Welcome back, brother,” says a huge African-American contractor as he picks his bag from the conveyor belt. My short hair seems to be popular here.


I switch on my cell phone. Thirteen missed calls from Muthanna. I call him back. He’s worried - the plane was more than three hours late, and its pitch dark outside. Muthanna’s waiting for me about 8 kilometres away.


I find a taxi to take me to him. Spotlights glare along the airport wall as I open the window to light a cigarette – the chilly wind steals half my desire to smoke.


Muthanna, wrapped up in a parka, is standing next to the car parked beside a watchtower. “You took your time, didn’t you!”
The taxi pulls away and heads back for the airport – it isn’t safe to hang out with these back-slapping foreigners who kiss each other on the cheeks.


We set off toward Baghdad. The first checkpoint is manned by Shiite commandos from the Interior Ministry. We turn the headlights off and switch on the lamp inside the car. The commandos check our papers. They wear hoods to shield themselves from the cold – not a very warm welcome, to be sure.


Deep inside Baghdad. There is no municipal electricity, only the whirring of generators. Shadows hover near street crossings: Iraqi tanks have replaced the US Humwee armoured vehicles. But at night, all tanks look grey.
 
 
Good night, good day

Lucas

Date created : 2008-01-30

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