I’ve had the chance this week to really get outside the wire, as we call it here. I had to accompany a convoy of vehicles which were returning to Kuwait in order to get cleaned and loaded on the transports back Stateside.
So, of course, I had the chance to see a good chunk of Iraq, and see for myself how much the country had changed.
For security reasons, we skipped going through Baghdad. We did go around the city, and skirted it, but we didn’t have the manpower to barrel through it like we did last April. It’s a good thing, because the insurgents there apparently have displayed a sobering level of organization (more on that later).
We left LSA Anaconda on Thursday, Feb. 12. We had expected to leave a bit later, likely the weekend, but our trip got pushed up a couple of days, in order to accommodate any delays further south that we might face.
The first couple of hours we were on the road were uneventful. There wasn’t much new to see, given that we were traveling in our area of responsibility. That, and we were whizzing along at a respectable 50 mph, courtesy of our military police escort.
Around 11 AM we entered the northern suburbs of Baghdad. You could feel the hostility spike noticeably. Iraqis either glared at us with outright hatred, or else ignored us. We were expecting this, but it was still a shock to encounter.
The other surprise that I received was how much more cleaned up Baghdad’s suburbs seemed. It took me a while to realize why that was: there weren’t as many people around. When I first drove through Baghdad in April 2003, the city seemed awash in people.
Not this time. Whether it’s job creation or the casualties of war (the dead, the injured, and the captive), you just didn’t get that sense of a country on its knees that I was feeling so acutely last year. Nearly a year after the war, slowly, ordinary Iraqis are beginning to move on.
Our trip continued. We were south of Baghdad when we made our first stop, for fuel. My driver parked our Humvee by the side of the road, and we were stretching our legs when we were overwhelmed by a wave of roadside vendors, selling everything from fake Rolexes to fake Olympus cameras. The sellers were accompanied by their children. These kids were tugging at our heartstrings (mine especially), and only made us easier targets for their fiercely hard sales pitches.
It was there that I had probably the weirdest experience in some time. I felt a hand tap me on my shoulder. I whirled around, only to come face to face with a young man, about 16 years old.
“Rolex? Do you want a Rolex?”
I waved him off, and shook my head.
“VCD? DVD?” He was now waving several porno DVDs at my face, presumably starring some luscious nymphets*. “Laa“, I said, Arabic for no, and again waved my hand to send him away.
He then got in my face, and as I began to forcefully push him away, he began saying, “Hash? You want hashish? I have good stuff!”
I was so stunned I had no choice but to start giggling. Yes, giggling. I couldn’t believe I was being offered hash by an Iraqi. I know they smoke the stuff, but this was a first–getting offered drugs in order to make a sale.
I turned to my driver, Andrew, and told him what just happened.
“What? WHAAAT? Hey, get that haji! I want some!”
“You want some?”
I told him to turn around and mind his business.
Southern Iraq: The Holy Cities
We kept on driving, eventually driving past Najaf and Karbala. The shock of seeing these cities nearly a year after the war’s beginning was stunning. Virtually every mural that once bore the despot’s hated and feared visage now was graced with one of three images: those of Hussein or Ali, the martyrs of Shi’a Islam, or that of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, who is widely revered in these parts.
Also adding to the astonishment, southern Iraq seems to be making better progress than the Sunni Triangle in reconstructing itself. Part of this is due to the fact that, if elections were held now, Shi’a Iraqis would almost certainly possess the reins of power. This sense gives Shi’ites an almost giddy sense of possibility. It’s something that I’ve sensed from my conversations with the Shi’ites in our town, and it was more than confirmed in my all-too-brief tour through this part of Iraq.
We had stopped at CSC Cedar around 5 PM, in order to fuel our vehicles and rest. The base is about 2 hours from the border, so we knew we’d be at our final location by afternoon the next day.
CSC Cedar serves as a replenishment point for all the traffic heading north on Highway 1. It’s ahuge base, a testament to the military’s amazing ability to build massive bases from scratch.
We continued our journey south in the morn. At about 12 noon, we reached the first town liberated by Coalition forces during the war: Safwan.
Sadly, it didn’t seem to have changed appreciably. The people of the town were living just as miserably as when we found them nearly a year ago. We pulled over to the side of the road right before crossing the border, in order to allow one of our trucks to change a tire.
I took the opportunity to toss MREs to the kids that were rushing our convoy. Just as when we first did it, this caused a near-riot among the kids who weren’t so lucky in getting one of the meals. I made sure that one of the shyer kids, who was standing off to one side, got a full meal, and watched her wolf it down.
I can’t make any general conclusions from such a short glimpse. One thing does come to mind: I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the civil war that daily seems more and more incipient, Iraq were to split into three countries. There was that stark a difference between the Triangle and southern Iraq. I’ve spent time in Kurdistan as well, and that area–thanks to the Northern No-Fly Zone, among other things–seems to be more developed than the Triangle as well.
So, assuming the worst happens and a civil war does break out, and Iraq splits into three, at least two of the three areas would have a decent chance at progress.
That’s my take, anyway.