“Then the other night, as I’m walking back from the gym, a rocket explodes about 100m away, and all of a sudden you remember that you are in the middle of a war zone.”
Since the US toppled Saddam last April, and in response to the intensifying resistance attacks, the Americans have steadily increased their fortifications at all of their installations throughout Iraq.
In the centre of Baghdad they have erected a massive barricade of concrete and barbed wire to enclose a number of Saddam’s former palaces and office buildings covering several square kilometres. This self-contained complex has been dubbed the Green Zone by the occupation troops.
In addition to offices and barracks the zone also houses such amenities as a work-out facility and a sports bar.
“I had a terrific burrito the other night,” said one US specialist-driver, stationed inside the headquarter complex. “And we now have a really good Chinese restaurant.”
Over the past two months, there has been a significant reduction in the number of US vehicle patrols in the Iraqi capital. Many of these duties are now being performed by the newly organised Iraqi police and civil defence forces.
However, additional protective measures have been installed along Baghdad‘s highways for when the American soldiers do venture out of their protected bases.
As a result of the numerous casualties inflicted on US personnel by Iraqis simply dropping explosives on to American vehicles from overpasses, all such traffic ramps are now enclosed by 4m-high chain-link fences.
With the economic boom created by the billions of dollars available for re-construction projects, there has been a tremendous influx of foreigners into post-war Iraq.
A money changer counts US
Following 12 years of economic sanctions and a drought of outside visitors, there has been a tremendous boom in the construction and renovation of Baghdad‘s hotels. In some cases, even former hospitals have been hastily converted into more lucrative venues such as hotels.
The foreigners housed in these facilities – behind concrete barricades patrolled by private armed guards – are a prime target for the Iraqi resistance.
Ghurkas on guard
And providing security for them has created a unique new job market. Unemployed or retired Nepalese Ghurkas, who formerly served in the British Army, are in high demand as security specialists. Such personnel serve not only as private guards at hotels housing foreign media, but within the US Green Zone headquarters.
Also in abundance on Baghdad‘s streets are former US and British special forces soldiers who now earn up to $1,000 a day working as VIP bodyguards. Driving around in specially armoured SUVs with rear-facing seats and tinted windows, these heavily armed civilians are regarded as cowboys by many former Iraqi police.
“They don’t speak Arabic, have no understanding of the situation here, but are ready to shoot anyone they perceive to be a threat,” said Mohammad Al-Wali, a former Mukhabarat (secret service) agent who now runs a small chicken restaurant.
“No one understands what authority they have. Iraqi citizens are not allowed to carry guns for self-protection, but foreign mercenaries are authorised to use deadly force.”
Outside of the security barricades there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Iraq‘s shattered economy is starting to recover. While most of Iraq‘s war-damaged infrastructure – such as the power grid and highway bridges – has been only partially repaired, consumer goods are pouring into Iraq.
At shops all over Baghdad, previously unavailable items such as computers, appliances and satellite dishes are so overstocked that the items sit on the sidewalks.
Shoppers crowd the main drag
Daytime traffic in Baghdad has also become virtually unmanageable – not only due to the large number of major roadways that are blocked for security reasons but also because of the tremendous influx of used cars.
These tens of thousands of additional vehicles clog access routes to the point that frustrated drivers often abandon their vehicles in the gridlock. At one blocked traffic circle an old man was laughing and yelling at the frustrated motorists: “Bring back Saddam!”
The crowded daytime streets stand in stark contrast to Baghdad by night. While some residential areas can boast a relatively secure environment, the blacked out streets of the central commercial district are inhabited only by fleeting shadows and the occasional heavily armed police patrol.
Explosions, gunfire and rocket attacks are all part of the routine night noises in the Iraqi capital. Outside Baghdad, few motorists dare to venture on the highways within what is known as the Sunni Triangle after dark.
Not by choice, we had the opportunity to experience the eerie sensation of travelling along the completely empty and pitch black Baghdad-Kirkuk highway. At the numerous police and US Army checkpoints we stopped at, soldiers were eager to tell us that we must be crazy to drive this route at night.
However, we had been unavoidably delayed in Baghdad and my driver insisted that we could still make safe passage to the Turkish border in time for me to catch my flight the following day.
At the outskirts of Kirkuk, we were dismayed to learn that the local police had barred all vehicles from entering the city limits between 11pm and 6am.
After pleading my case to Ali Aziza, the detachment commander at the roadblock, he seemed amused. “OK, my men will escort you through the city,” he said. “It seems that you are anxious to leave Iraq – and I can’t say I blame you.”