Gunfire at Midnight

BAGHDAD—Gunfire went off at midnight, loud and cracking, close to the hotel. A burst rang out in the direction of the river on the street that goes around the back of the hotel, by the empty building site. A crack and then a reply, two shots, back-ack-ack, another burst.

Two or three Hamra Hotel guards jogged up to the concrete-slab blast wall below our window, closed the barred gate, and crept to the edge of the low wall, resting their guns in firing positions along a low fence next to the apartment building opposite. They looked out at a piece of wasteland that has a path on one side lined with modest neighborhood houses and a shanty shack where they keep some goats that graze the garbage drifts. Up the path, located on a road long cordoned with concrete barriers and concertina razor wire and manned barriers, is an Interior Ministry office heavily fortified and graced with an extensive underground bunker. Men came from this direction carrying guns. They fanned out, guns up, listening to the cracking stray shots after the initial fusillade.

The guards from the Hamra whispered to each other.

“Did you see?”

“There were three of them.”

Another Hamra guard came up to the other two and called to the men with guns a hundred feet down the path.

“Who are you? Stay in your place. Stay there!”

“Special forces. Police.” The police kept moving. Two of them walked on, silhouetted under the orange street light. They peered around the corner of a small cross street in the direction of the bullets.

More Hamra security—roused from dreary night duty, in sweatpants and sweaters, one in shorts—gathered by the concrete blast wall and looked around its edge over the fence. The gunfire had stopped. Things seemed all right.

“The gunfire is OK,” said one. “It’s the car bombs I’m scared of.”

“How can they hurt us with these big walls?”

One of them was watching the three policemen walk back up a residential street a little way and then reappear back at its entrance. He and his comrades remained agitated.

“Look, they are trying to get in from that street.”

“They are police.”

“If he comes close to you, I will shoot him.”

“He’s a policeman.”

“But how will I know?”

“It’s not about the hotel. It’s about our lives.”

The woman who lives on the fourth floor of the building opposite came out on her balcony and stood there, a black abaya shadow watching the scene below. We watched from a narrow bedroom window, tucked in and shielded by a corner wall. It was quiet again. It seemed as if the violence had sparked and not found anything to ignite. The guards were all relieved and discussed the incident as their adrenaline ebbed.

“Alawi, how’s your brother?”

“I don’t know. It’s the first time I have come to see him for a month.”

“What a misfortune you have.”

“What if there’s a sniper? I can’t move from my place now.”

“I was going to shoot but something stopped me.”

“No, don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.”

“Don’t shoot until you see them clearly.”

“Alawi, how can you see them in this dark?”

A guard came walking over from another part of the perimeter.

“It was the policemen. It was the police who fired!”

“How do you know he was a policeman?”

“I don’t know, but someone fired, so I started firing at him.”

A helicopter arrived to ruffle the night sky.

“Oh, you know, this is a hotel where they hear one bullet and they all complain.”

We went back to bed, spent fear draining, suddenly tired.