Baghdad, IraqOn Thursday, I decided that I would make the journey from my hotel to the U.S. controlled Green Zone, which is just across the Tigris River. This being my first full day in Baghdad, I began by getting my bearings. I knew from the map that there was a bridge to the Northwest of my hotel, and I began making my way there on foot.
The area immediately outside the Green Zone is crowded and chaotic. Shops are squeezed together tightly, and trash and debris litter the streets. Mix in random street crime, and Baghdad outside the Green Zone is basically New York City before Giuliani.
The streets near the hotels smell of oil and diesel used to fuel generators (while it appears that electricity is constant now, these generators were presumably used in the past as backup for the hotels, and are now used to provide electricity to outdoor checkpoints). Traffic is heavy. Cars do not readily stop for pedestrians (indeed, in taxis I have had the distinct impression that the drivers accelerate in the presence of pedestrians), and there are no pedestrian crosswalks.
I was a few blocks north when I hit a checkpoint. By now, I had grown accustomed to being stopped by men with automatic weapons, so I dutifully opened my bag and submitted to a pat down. The security guard asked me for a badge. When I could not produce one, he fetched what appeared to be an American name Tom to translate. Tom explained that this was a checkpoint to the hotel, and because it had been hit recently, they were not allowing any past who was not a guest. I explained that I was simply walking toward the bridge to cross over to the Green Zone. It was clear that this was not a good idea. The area just north of the hotel was a rough neighborhood, Tom explained. Better to get a cab and enter from the south. With the assistance of one of the officers, I hailed a taxi and was off to the July 14th bridge. The cab let me out about 50 meters from the Bridge, and traveled on. When I got to the bridge, the American officers standing behind the official decoration of Baghdad—razor wire—informed me that the bridge was closed. The next closest bridge was the Jadriya Bridge, a considerable distance away. I hailed another taxi, and managed despite the language barrier to get a ride to the Green Zone.
The difference between the Green Zone and the area outside the Green Zone is striking. The Green Zone housed numerous key facilities, so the buildings actually show more evidence of U.S. bombings than the area outside the Green Zone. That said, the streets appear wider, and the traffic is almost non-existent, differences which hits you immediately after the rush on the other side of the bridge. The other thing that hits you is the response of the children. It is hard to find a soldier walking down the street who is not accompanied by an Iraqi child. The children take to the soldiers easily, and the soldiers, bristling with armaments, respond graciously. Some of the children appear just to be tagging along, while others beg for candy or gum from the soldiers, who seem happy to oblige. The children also are everywhere selling things, most prominently DVDs—many of which are recent U.S. titles which have undoubtedly been bootlegged. It is clear that the proliferation of computers with DVD players and mini-DVD players has made movie sales big business for the young entrepreneurs.
While the streets are easier to traverse, as one might expect there are not many signs, such as the one I was interested in: “CPA HQ here.” That was where I was headed, in order to register as an American in Iraq and to get a CPA ID. I knew the CPA HQ was located at the palace, but having entered at a different bridge than I had intended, that did me little good. After asking a few people, I made my way to the security checkpoint at the palace. The army officer asked for my CPA ID. I explained that I was attempting to enter the CPA HQ to get an ID. “I can’t let you by without CPA ID,” he replied. To which I asked the pregnant question: “Is there any place outside the CPA HQ where I can get an ID?” Of course, the answer was, “No.” I then offered the most ironic look a man can give someone holding an automatic weapon. Understanding the look, he offered that I could get in with the authorization of Force Protection, or with an escort who had an ID. Unfortunately, my satellite phone proved to be out of power, and it was too late in the day to make either of these options viable. The ID would have to wait until Friday.
After dinner at the famous Green Zone café, I made my way back to the bridge. When I was just a few blocks away, I heard a loud boom coming from outside the Green Zone, followed by the wail of emergency sirens. When I arrived back at my hotel, the local news reported that there had been a rocket attack on three Iraqis traveling in a passenger car. The pictures betrayed that there would be no survivors.