In the coming days, Dimiter Kenarov will be blogging for us from Baghdad, sharing his thoughts and observations in the final run-up to the national elections and in their immediate wake. Kenarov traveled to Iraq on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Learn more about this project at pulitzercenter.org. —Ed.
The view from an American MRAP. (Dimiter Kenarov)
“Lock the back door.” The voice of our turret gunner is loud but calm, almost weary, like the voice of a steward on a commercial flight from New York to Paris. “Passenger weapon status is amber. Insert magazine, but do not load a round in the chamber. I repeat, do not load a round.”
It is early morning in Baghdad, cold and dark, the sun still hours and millions of miles away. I have booked a ride on the Rhino, the armored convoy that runs nightly from the Victory Base Complex (the headquarters of the United States Force–Iraq) in the western outskirts of the city to the International Zone (formerly known as the Green Zone) downtown, where I need to get my press credentials. Inside the MRAP, an ugly mine-resistant monster the size of a small bus, the civilian passengers are nervously eying each other. Hiding under expensive body armor and Kevlar helmets, we look like unborn turtles in the belly of a giant turtle.
The convoy jerks forward and soon we are moving down the notorious Baghdad Airport Road. There is a sense of safety here now, but that sense seems the result of tunnel vision: all that I can see behind my five-inch-thick ballistic glass are 12-foot-high concrete blast walls flanking the entire stretch of road. The US might as well have dug gopher networks, a new underground Baghdad.
The gunner swivels back and forth, his turret ratcheting. He is a key winding up a grandfather clock. If he goes on a bit more like this, the springs and cogs in my brain will probably snap. The man across from me has closed his eyes, his fingers tightly holding the straps of his backpack. The convoy is moving at full speed. “A moving target is harder to hit,” all the children know. Then, suddenly, we come to a stop. A minute later the voice of the gunner, his cool lost: “Back up, back up!” The whole convoy starts frantically moving backward. I can see a few cars on the left of us and two men in dishdashas and keffiyehs standing by, watching our desperate maneuvers with a sort of amused disdain. There are no shots fired, no explosions. False alarm. Slowly, with a tentative, embarrassed step, we press ahead.
This is my first time in Iraq, so I have no previous experience of the place. Perhaps there was a time, when the situation was much worse. I believe that. I know, however, that the little I am allowed to see does not look promising. The International Zone is still a mythical labyrinth of blast walls, check points, and armed guards from Uganda, Colombia, and El Salvador, hired by private contractors like Triple Canopy. The streets are strewn with trash. There are few pedestrians—mostly enthusiastic joggers from the State Department—and the mood is tense. With the national elections now just days away and US troops on the brink of withdrawal, nobody can afford another fiasco. Let the house of cards that is Iraq stand for just a few more months. We will be gone by then.
I arrive at the CPIC (Combined Press Information Center) to receive my credentials. The staff is courteous, chatty. A light at the end of the tunnel. There are a few glitches with the high-tech biometric software—for some reason it continually refuses to recognize my fingerprints—but the rest of the process—head shots from five different angles and iris scans—goes smooth. The government has me tagged, in case I turn terrorist.
Just as I am planning to go back to the Victory Complex with the Rhino, around noon, I get unexpected good news: I’ll fly back to the base with a helicopter. As an unknown freelancer, I am not sure how I have come to deserve this honor, but I don’t really care. Nothing beats the safety of air travel in Iraq. When the Black Hawk takes off with a roar, I can see the whole of the city spread out below me, the Tigris River quiet and shimmering. I am Daedalus rising over the labyrinth. Or I am Icarus. The sun over Baghdad is so beautiful.