Iraq on the Edge

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Sulaimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan, August 2, 2009


For the occasional visitor such as myself, various methods exist to measure America’s standing in Iraq, Iraqi suspicions and aspirations, and progress in the transfer of power, but none prove as illuminating as the checkpoints into and throughout Baghdad’s Green Zone, that diminishing symbol of the Bush administration’s ambitions.

Armed with two pieces of picture ID, but not with a US-issued badge, I entered the Green Zone several times during my late-September visit to what had become a relatively peaceful “red” zone, i.e., the rest of this vast city. The US badge, a word that has entered Iraq’s rich post-2003 lexicon as bahtch, exists in various colors, identifying the holder and denoting degrees of access. With the right color badge, you zip through checkpoints in your car; without it, you receive the same treatment accorded to many Iraqis who work in the Green Zone and daily make the crossing by foot or by car.

Dropped off at the gate by my driver, the upbeat Samir, I was accompanied by Daniel, an American friend with a press badge. We entered the gray concrete folds that mark the border between the red and green zones. First we removed the batteries from our cell phones, potential triggers for explosives we could have hidden in our clothes. A dizzying succession of ID checks, pat-downs, and bag searches followed, performed by Iraqi soldiers in the outer ring, then by Ugandan military contractors eager for friendly banter, by a sniffer dog, and at last, in the inner ring, close to the convention center housing the parliament, by Kurdish peshmerga guerrilla fighters, now enrolled in the regular army.

Security checks, I was told, became more severe following devastating suicide attacks—allegedly by al-Qaeda types linked to Baath elements operating from Syria—against the foreign and finance ministries on August 19 that killed and injured scores. Further into the zone, now passengers in an Iraqi politician’s car, we were submitted to a prolonged search by Peruvian military contractors who were unfailingly polite, if slightly put off when my cell phone rang in an embarrassing reminder that I had forgotten to remove the battery. The Iraqis subjected to the security check along with us sullenly deposited their phones, visibly cursed under their breaths, and milled around until we were permitted to proceed.

Iraqis prefer checkpoints manned by Iraqis—as I observed time and again, they have learned how to navigate them. They often appear to know one of the security men—perhaps a distant relation or a friend of a friend. They know how to butter up the checkpoint guards with a kind word or humorous turn of phrase, and get past them even if they lack official permission. By contrast, they find American (or Peruvian) checkpoints, with their large signs in hortatory…

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