Monday morning at about 9:45, there was a big explosion. The windows rattled, and we went up on the roof to look
“Yeah, green zone. Look—” Across the river, the initial puff of mushrooming dust was floating above an expanding black smoke cloud of burning gasoline.
A car bomb—suicide, said the Americans—had gone off next to a line of cars waiting to go through the Harthiya checkpoint into the green zone. Black metal burnt into the sky, American soldiers fanned out on foot and pushed spectators back half a block, ambulances congregated, press cameramen shot zoom into the orange flames. It was like any other car bomb, except that the current head of the Governing Council, Ezzidin Salim, was killed—a VIP assassination. Residents came out of their houses to watch the scene.
“Did you see it?”
“No. I heard it and came out. I saw three burning bodies. One was crawling on the ground.”
“Unfortunately, no Americans were killed—”
“They were all Iraqis.”
“Why do they do these things?”
The green zone is the American compound in the middle of Baghdad. Spoils of war, the old Presidential Palace complex is now full of Army officers and Coalition Provisional Authority officials. They built a wall higher than Saddam’s, extended the perimeter to include the conference center, the building that now houses the Governing Council; the Al Rashid Hotel, now housing American officials and home to Baghdad’s only disco and sports bar; and the famous parade ground flanked with pairs of Saddam’s outstretched arms grasping sabers, where departing units like to get their “we were in Baghdad” souvenir photos taken. Inside, the roads are free of traffic. Signs posted in front of different buildings, some pancaked during Shock and Awe, read, “STOP: Deadly force is authorized against trespassers,” or “Entering the compound weapons status is green.” Elsewhere, the car parks are full of Suburban SUVs (ready targets for resistance rocket-propelled grenades if they were to leave the compound) and joggers along the riverbank. It is quiet, subdued; it feels normal and abnormal.
Sit in the Chinese restaurant any afternoon next to a table full of sun burnt, tooled-up contractors wearing T-shirts that proclaim “Triple Canopy: Special Defense Services.” Sheryl Crow plays on Radio Freedom, whose play list is approved by senior military personnel and isn’t allowed to include rap. A note on the menu reminds soldiers that they may not order beer. My Iraqi friends and I ordered a beer.
“Man, this doesn’t feel like Baghdad,” they said. “It feels so far away from the noise.”
In the corner, an American sergeant was being taught Arabic by a small local boy.
“I’m trying to get him to take some money for it,” he told me, “But he shakes his head. I told him that in America when someone does something for you, you should pay him. I don’t know if he understands that.” An officer came in and bought a case of Heineken and disguised it in a Pepsi carton and took it away.
The green zone is a surreal gated American community, but it is also full of Iraqi residents. Houses where the families of bodyguards and palace staff once lived are now occupied by those who lost their apartments to squatters or looting or bombs in the war. About 10,000 Iraqis live inside the green zone in apartment blocks next to villas with vast satellite dishes with the word “Halliburton” printed across them on the roofs. Some Iraqis work for the Americans, cleaning, translating, admin. Kids hover about selling pirate DVDs and porn out of plastic bags. There’s an enterprising shop full of Cuban cigars and a stretch of market stalls offering souvenirs: Iraqi flags gold-embroidered with the names of regiments and the words, sour and beyond irony elsewhere in the capital, “Operation Iraqi Freedom”; Republican Guard insignia; the ubiquitous Saddam lighters and watches and family portraits painted from photographs by artists who were endlessly reproducing Saddam’s image a year ago.
The stall owners say they see a completely different, relaxed face on Americans inside the green zone.
“But outside we can’t even stand next to them,” said Shirin, who sells ladies scarves. “We don’t tell people we have any dealings with the Americans.” She pointed out two small boys named Sijad and Karrar. Their mother was shot in the passenger seat of their car in Sadr City when the intifada began; her 10-month-old baby was killed with her. “She had a badge that said she lived inside the green zone. Maybe they thought she was a traitor.”
Ten days ago, there was a mirror car bomb explosion at the checkpoint on the July 14 Bridge on the other side of the green zone. It killed five Iraqis, who were lined up at the entrance to have their cars checked, and one American soldier. It’s one of those strange oddities of terrorized Baghdad life that those lining up there an hour after the morning car bomb were more angry about having to wait two hours than they were worried about being bombed. Life, it seems, is more irritated by inconvenience than by death. Dozens of roads are shut and blocked in Baghdad. Every time there is a bomb, more concrete blocks go up, more tank jacks and barbed wire and obstructions. The traffic is clogged and terrible.
“It’s a complete humiliation,” said Walad Al Askeri, a lawyer who has lived in the green zone for seven years. “These concrete blast walls are the same as the wall the Israelis are building.”
Before the bomb 10 days ago, the checkpoint was heavily sandbagged and flanked by concrete blast walls. Now the blast walls have extended across and beyond the adjacent traffic circle, cutting off traffic flow with red spray-painted warnings: “Do not enter or you will be shot.”
“Every day we have to do this,” said Omar, who has lived in an apartment in the green zone for 12 years. “It’s a nightmare. I wish Abu Odai [Saddam] would return. Are you writing this down?” He looked at me skeptically. “The people who have come after him are horses. They don’t understand us.”
One man in line had sent his three children—Qais,12, Shahb,10, and Umana, 8—off to school through the Harthiya checkpoint minutes before the bomb exploded.
“When I heard it, I started crying until I called and found that they were safe. The bomb had only missed them by seconds. The resistance think the people coming into the green zone at these checkpoints are traitors. They don’t differentiate between people working for the Americans and those living inside.”
The line was 30 cars long. The drivers waited in the heat and complained. The men in the lighting shop next to the queue complained that no one came to their shop because they could not park outside and were afraid of being targeted.
“These concrete blocks are useless. If you extend them, they will just blow the car up farther down.”
Just then a woman came up, distraught, holding a photograph of her son.
“He’s been missing for three months,” she explained in a tide of woe. “My husband is in Australia, and they robbed my bag yesterday. It had all my documents inside. How can I get a passport? They are not issuing any passports now. I am trying to see the Americans to find out about my son.” She began to cry and looked desperate, and the lighting shop man brought her a glass of water. “There are problems on top of problems.” We tried to tell her it would be all right, and she tried to smile at our efforts before walking up toward the checkpoint.
Ayad Jamil Petros, the lighting shop man, of Greek origin, with unfailing Baghdadi hospitality, invited me for a glass of Coke.
“In the beginning,” he said, “the Americans stopped and used to drink tea in the shop next door. They came and bought things. They would take their helmets off and put them on the table. But now there are explosions, we don’t see them any more.”
Whose fault is it? I asked.
His colleague had seen a friend killed by an American tank in his home in Baquba. After this incident, he started to hate the Americans. Ayad was less sure. “Why did the resistance kill the president of the Governing Council today? What has he done? If I am talking from my heart, I would say that we don’t want the Americans to leave.” He is afraid of what will come in the uncertainty of the handover. “We’re worried. We’ll be killed. In Saidiya [a middle class area of Baghdad] today someone threw a grenade into a police car. This is the reality, this is what’s happening.”
He was a Christian, and he gave me a small crucifix as a parting gift. “It will protect you,” he said.