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Later, drunker, the conversation slipped into fucking jihadis and blood-preaching imams and those Go

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IRAQ, 2004
Issue of 2006-06-12
Posted 2006-06-05

The hotel’s elevator shaft was next to my room, and when the elevator hit the ground floor it made a muffled echo boom that sounded exactly like a bomb. The elevator sounded like a bomb; thunder sounded like a bomb; construction clangs sounded like a bomb; a door slam sounded like a bomb; bombs sounded like bombs. Firecrackers thrown by kids sounded like sharp, close Kalashnikov fire; a car backfiring sounded like a single shot, unanswered, and nothing to turn your head about.

I had been in Baghdad for six months straight. Every month, the situation got worse, but it crept worse, incrementally, so that it was hard to register, like boiling a lobster in tepid water. It produced not fear, exactly, but an ache, a deep fatigue. My friend Dan told me, “Jesus, you look like shit, get out to Amman for a week.” But the rest of the world seemed very far away—almost unimaginable. In any case, at the end of March four American contractors were hanged, burned, and dismembered, in Falluja, and, a few days later, the authorities announced their intention to arrest the Shiite “firebrand” Moqtada al-Sadr for the murder of a Shiite cleric in 2003. There were uprisings in Kufa and Kut, fighting in Sadr City, and more dead American soldiers overnight in Ramadi. Falluja was surrounded; apparently, the Marines were advancing in armor, getting rocketed, and withdrawing. There were gunfights on the road and the highway to Jordan was closed.

We journalists sat around the hotel coffee shop, swapping nasty stories. There was a rumor that the hotel was going to be attacked. “It’s like a whirlpool going down the plug hole,” one of them said. Then, “No, pretend I didn’t say that.” Discussions went back and forth with the whiskey bottle. The Spanish were pulling their troops out; translators were getting gunned down on the highway; there were death threats, gunmen on the roofs in Sadr City. An American soldier had shot over Molly’s and Steve’s heads in Adhamiya. Did you hear that Burns got detained by the Mahdi Army outside Kufa? Later, drunker, the conversation slipped into fucking jihadis and blood-preaching imams and those God-crazed idiots cutting people’s heads off. Did you see they’ve got beheadings as mobile-phone screens now? Stop: let’s talk about Coetzee and Orwell and V. S. Naipaul and why Chalabi is such a chump. A political discussion ensued, and it struck me that we foreigners understood very little.

The next day, I drove out to the western suburbs and saw a tank on fire under an underpass, two Black Hawk helicopters circling like flies after carrion. The day after that, I woke at five. It was a silvery opaque dawn, and I dreamed that an explosion had woken me up. The city was on a three-day holiday, but it was unclear to me why the streets were not just empty but deserted. It felt as if something were about to happen. I looked at the stretch of Karrada that I could see from my balcony, a main road toward the Al Jadriyah Bridge, and could see no flicker of life. It was so early that my mind was still fuzzy, full of night demons. I thought, The mujahideen are going to advance straight into the city and come down this road and storm the hotel. The thickset British security guys, who all claimed to be ex-S.A.S., with tattoos on their forearms and pistols in their fanny packs, and who guarded the American TV crews in the hotel, said they had it all figured out. They’d lock themselves behind the cages they’d installed at the entrance to each floor and throw hand grenades down the stairwell.

Was there a curfew? Why this preternatural calm? Sirens went off in the Green Zone; I could just hear them across the river. The dawn brightened like a pale wash and the birds in the tree next to my balcony went crazy with song. A column of American vehicles rumbled into view, two Bradleys, a Humvee, and a troop truck. Where the hell were they going? To defend the bridge? In my disoriented panic, I packed a grab bag. I thought I would have to run through the back streets toward the American checkpoint, where there were signs saying, “Do Not Stop. Vehicles Will Be Shot At.” After a few minutes, a foot patrol went past. This was something very unusual. I hadn’t seen an American foot patrol in Baghdad in months. But here it was, the soldiers fanned out in formation, advancing slowly up the main road, past the ice-cream parlor and the hedges clipped into elaborate topiary. They appeared to be walking normally, easily. They did not turn their heads and peer nervously into the side streets. They stared ahead and moved with a certain prowling, hip-laden grace. Quite alone, awake, and reasonably freaked out, all I had to make me feel better was their steady gait.