Leaving Iraq

From Dahr’s weblog

Abu Talat picks me up at my hotel and we’re off through the uncharacteristically empty streets of central Baghdad en route to the airport. It’s early enough that we drive with the windows down rather than running the air conditioner, and the warm breeze carries the sounds of shop owners sweeping the sidewalks in front of their stores, palm fronds rustling in the wind and growling treads of Bradley fighting vehicles as they rumble past.

Neither of us speaks much, as we said most of our goodbyes yesterday. When you spend three months with someone under the constant threat of a random death, you grow pretty attached to him. Greater than this, however, is the fact that this man I’ve worked with so closely as my interpreter/driver/fixer has become one of my best friends.

We’ve cried and laughed together, been shot at by U.S. soldiers, interviewed mujahideen and exchanged knowing glances when members of various ministries have lied to us. Most of all, we’ve worked hard on reporting the situation on the ground in Iraq. “You are my brother, Dahr,” he has told me so many times. “I work with you because I know you are here to tell the truth.”

He could have taken better paying jobs with other news outlets. Like many of the other Iraqis who have chosen to work with me and my colleagues, he is extremely overqualified. Yet this work for him is his passion.

We pass U.S. military patrols and helicopters as if the increase in their presence will somehow bring more security here as the temperatures rise by the day.

Three checkpoints later we arrive at the final drop-off area for the airport. See, Abu Talat is not allowed to go to the airport. His airport. I can, but even though he is Iraqi, he is not allowed to take his car past the final checkpoint.

“You can’t go further,” a gruff soldier says in a thick, southern accent to Abu Talat after glancing at my passport. “Pull the car over there and drop off Mr. Jamail.” We slowly pull onto the gravel and reluctantly get out of the car together.

“We will stay in touch,” Abut Talat says to me as we hug goodbye. “Insh’allah, we will stay in touch until you return. You are a friend of the Iraqi people.” I’m tongue tied and feel awkwardly full of emotions for my dear friend. “Take good care of yourself and your family, habibi. I’ll see you in September, insh’allah.”

I slowly walk up to the road to get into another car that will take me the rest of the way to the airport.

I look back and see Abu Talat standing by his car watching me, dedicated to the end. I wave and smile, as does he, before getting inside the car. I look out the back window and see him watching me drive away.

How does one reconcile being able to leave here? We all know it’s going to get so much worse; so much worse even than days where over 100 Iraqis are killed by car bombs, contractors kidnapped and beheaded, prison scandals, soldiers dying, infrastructure in shambles, and a new prime minister who is poised to become the next strong man of the “New Iraq.”

And I get to leave, while my dear friend must stay and do his best to get by day after day.

I am driven the rest of the way to the airport by two Iraqi policemen. We drive by a huge row of concrete suicide barriers topped with razor wire – the once finely landscaped area is brown with dead vegetation, strewn with garbage. “This used to be green and beautiful,” said the police captain as he drove, waving his hand across the area, “but now it is all dead.” After pausing, he adds, “Our situation is like this now.”

All I can do is nod.

Pulling into the parking area we pass several mercenaries near the Baghdad Airport sign; one of them – a fat, pale younger western man wearing a red bandana over his head, poses with his small automatic weapon under the sign. He forms an awkwardly manufactured smile as his acquaintance holds a camera.

Inside the airport there are large crowds of people waiting to get out. Royal Jordanian has added an extra flight—there are three today, all of them fully booked. Folks aren’t sticking around for the “celebrations” of the “handover.”

After a while I board the NGO Air-serve plane, and after a short ways to the runway I am pressed back in my seat as the engines of the 14-seat turbo-prop whine with power. We race down the runway for a quick take-off which then has us buzzing along just 20 meters (66 ft.) above the runway to gain speed.

Just as we approach the end of the runway my gut slides back to my lower spine as the plane promptly jerks upwards into what feels like a 50 degree climb, shortly thereafter banking hard to the right. We climb in a corkscrew up to where war-torn, occupation-riddled Baghdad below takes on the appearance of the sprawling, proud capital it once was. The green waters surrounding Saddam Hussein’s old palace near the airport sparkle in the sun.

Once the altitude is attained to put us out of the range of rockets, we finally straighten out and head toward Jordan. After Baghdad fades out of sight, I drift into a deep sleep. Later I read that a transport plane which departed Baghdad 6 hours after mine was shot with small arms fire, killing one of the passengers. Nevertheless, flying remains safer than driving out of Iraq.

The culture shock is already apparent in Jordan – cars drive within the lanes, there are no military vehicles rolling through the streets with their guns pointed at everyone, no worries about roadside bombs, no morning mortars at the CPA, constant electricity at the hotel where I stay … the differences are ubiquitous.

The next day I watch the news of the U.S.-led coalition granting full “sovereignty” to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi interim government two days earlier than everyone expected in an effort to avoid the large-scale attacks that are assured for June 30. I note how the insurgency is now referenced by mainstream media as an entity to be dealt with. Indeed, they’ve effectively derailed the previously laid plans of the occupation forces to “handover” power to the new government.

Of note as well is that Prime Minister Allawi has said that his first move will be to take actions to ensure the security of the Iraqi people by looking into imposing some form of martial law.

Not only are the occupation forces and new interim government of Iraq inhabiting the old palaces and military bases of Saddam Hussein, they are now fully engaged in threats and heavy-handed tactics reminiscent of the old regime, that the Iraqi people know all too well.

Author: Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail has reported from inside Iraq and is the author of Beyond the Green Zone.