Originally published by GQ Australia
We’re on the deadliest road in the world, or so it was known.
It’s a Thursday afternoon, nearly 10 years to the day the war began. Our black Chrysler is idling at a security checkpoint somewhere along “Route Irish” – the 12km road that bends from Baghdad International to the city’s Green Zone. Eight years ago, this stretch of tarmac commanded over $3000 for a security-accompanied, bulletproof one-way taxi. Here, diplomats and journalists and private security contractors were indiscriminately murdered. It’s quiet today.
The few trees that are dotted along the perimeter of the dirt highway are bowed; hunched over as though in mourning.
Outside the car, an Iraqi soldier stands rigid, jaw clenched, eyes tired. While his colleague traces a hand-held bomb detector from bumper to bumper, the tired soldier stays stoically at attention. The orange highlights of his AK47 are loud against the infinite arid backdrop.
In the back of the soldier’s mind, he knows he’s a sitting duck for insurgents. In a country where Improvised Explosive Devices [IED] have become the weapon of choice, such is the volume of men killed doing what he is doing today that his death would be invisible. Another life vanished into the anonymity of statistic.
The insurgents—terrorists masquerading as rebels—have no face. If they did, it wouldn’t be Iraqi. No, these are unfamiliar enemies, each engaged in an arm wrestle to mould Iraq for gain; a war-humbled pawn in the Gulf.
The modern-day insurgent is as ingenuous as he is brazen. A decade of fighting the world’s most sophisticated military has helped him adapt, the same way a bastard virus mutates. Now, he can hide his bomb in a microwave meal box or a can of Coke. He can detonate it with the swipe of an iPhone, the click of a TV remote. Explosives have been surgically embedded into love handles and breast implants, expertly hidden in animal carcasses. As one Iraqi tells me: “Arabs have incredibly creative ways to murder.”
Hence the soldier’s exhaustion. His enemy—the enemy of this country’s future—is hidden, unknowable. He has no pattern or logic or mercy. He’s calm and he’s devastating.
He’s invisible and he’s inches from your face.
A decade after operation “Shock and Awe” left smoke snaking from the heart of Baghdad, Iraq 2.0 remains divided between fragile progress and daily horrors.
In the autonomous Kurdish north, there’s some semblance of safety, even prosperity. This is the postcard of democracy that many would point to in justifying war. But for a country once positioned among the region’s most developed, large patches of Iraq have been reduced to third world levels of sectarian unrest, government instability and lethal terrorism.
Since coalition forces departed in 2010, the government of Nouri al-Maliki has fallen deeper into disorder and rumoured kleptocracy. Last year, Transparency International ranked Iraq in the world’s ten most corrupt countries—alongside North Korea and Sudan.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has infected the country. In a war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, its pulse grows stronger with every murder. It was the vacuum of war-divided Iraq that provided the ever-opportunistic jihadist group a new audience. Most Iraqi Sunnis—the minority, who enjoyed favour under the Saddam regime—do not support Al Qaeda. But the group zealously exploits and deepens tensions, working to undermine the already teetering Shiite-led government.
Car bombs kill on a weekly basis—the new normal. With nearly 400 civilians murdered this March alone, Iraqis remain under a cloud of terrorism.
“There’s an American saying: You don’t shit where you eat. No one would like to do this to their own neighbourhood,” says Doctor Amir, a 33-year-old Shiite orthodontist who wears a moustache.
We’re smoking shisha in a Baghdad back garden belonging to Amir’s neighbour, Saad. Most evenings, men from three neighbouring families sit around Saad’s plastic-topped dining table like it’s a war-room.
“Other countries are paying insurgents to enforce an agenda on us,” says the softly-spoken, sharply-groomed Hassan, a Sunni in his early thirties. Though he’s a qualified chemical engineer, Iraq’s debilitated private sector has forced him into a new career as an internet provider.
Work is over for the day; everyone is home safe. For now, tension has melted into restlessness—these comings together of the families are the lone highlight of most days. The men are a ragged band of brothers—electricians, club managers, WiFi entrepreneurs and teachers. While their wives and daughters sit inside, entranced by Turkish soapie Fatima (a strictly do-not-disturb affair) the men trade banter that, anywhere else in the city, would have them killed. (“I keep telling your wife, I’m going to convert to Islam so we can get married and run away together!”)
They’re a broad sampling of Iraq’s demographics: Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and Sabeans. Families in this neighbourhood have coexisted for over 50 years, generations growing up and growing old together.
Despite the government signing-off on a $130 billion budget, Iraqis only have around six hours of electricity a day. In the warmer months—when temperatures routinely hit 45 degrees—it can drop to as little as two. The solution for many is expensive and dodgy: private electricity generators that cloak neighbourhoods under nests of flimsy wire. One of the many men operating these machines is 51-year-old Saad, who favours fleece tracksuit pants and stovetop espressos. In a cage outside his home, a monstrous, diesel-powered generator provides power for around 50 families. An ear-crushing alarm goes off half a dozen times a day, signalling that, again, government electricity has failed, and that he needs to fire-up the generator once more.
The families spend so much time in Saad’s home because he can’t ever be far from the generator. Hundreds of residents count on him to provide day-to-day basics.
“Do you know Mishka? The singer?” Saad asks me in his kitchen as he lights a cigarette.
“Nope. Is she Russian?” I ask.
Saad chomps into some bread pulls up a YouTube clip. Turns out Mishka is a singing husky dog, her autotuned howls viewed by millions, somehow.
“I love Mishka,” says Saad.
Mishka’s singing sucks. But Saad’s eyes never leave the dog. He leans into the screen, tipping his glasses down his nose. He stares right at Mishka, the bundle of pixels.
“I wish I could get a fucking husky.”
Saad’s suburb is a rarity in central Baghdad. With no exceptions, everyone knows everyone by name. When he scoops up a bag of pickles from the local merchant, they exchange cocky insults instead of dinar. Saad and Hassan often refuse payment for their services, knowing when a family has hit a rough patch. In this war-scarred neighbourhood, emotional intelligence remains extremism’s most potent antidote.
“We eat together, we dance together, we do anything together,” Saad says, grinning. “Except sex, of course.”
“I can’t pretend all neighbourhoods are like this,” says Amir through a haze of grey shisha smoke (tonight, it’s a mélange of strawberry and mint: delicious enough to disregard the lung damage).
All of these families have been visited by death. Three weeks ago, after pulling over to greet a friend, Hassan flukily avoided a car bomb—which went off just 20 metres down the road. In 2006, when violence was bloodiest, they formed an armed neighbourhood watch. Government-mandated security cameras have been installed in their homes. They still send a group SMS whenever the security situation shifts.
“These are my brothers, this is the duty of friendship.”
Dinner with the Four Families is transcendent.
Do away with the shawarma stereotype – Iraq is an untapped gem of Middle Eastern cuisine. Every other night, a smorgasbord of delicate, meat pastries, texture-happy salads, punchy dips and always, always a guaranteed protein-coma. What some smug, blender-endorsing chef-du-jour wouldn’t give to infiltrate these parties, seize up the flavours, the techniques, and the soul, slap a $30 price tag on a mezze and be crowned the new king of fusion.
But here, these meals are an escape: a much-needed exhale after the day has grown dizzy with fear.
“Do you feel you’ve given up?” I ask the group, late into the night.
“We don’t have the stamina anymore. We’ve suffered too much,” says Hassan, almost to himself. “Here in Iraq, we are just killing our days.”
Those days are killed, at least, in good company. For the Four Families, it’s the breezy jokes that cut through stubborn fundamentalism. It’s the grins and ahhhs and knowing looks shared; the spontaneous bursts of song and dance that come deep into the night. It’s the satisfied march of a man, belly full of fish and tabouleh and a nip of cardamom-laced coffee, light-headed and primed for a deep sleep.
Saturday night in Baghdad: functional chaos. Post-Saddam Iraq boasts a swag of new toys. With the dictator hanged and his iron grip released, LSD and other recreational drugs arrived by the bucketload. They never really caught on, but if you wander bravely into the crime den of al-Bataween, you can still acquire a Technicolor trail mix of mind-altering substances.
Not far away, in al-Zawraa’ Park, there are more signs of strange new freedom. Teenagers lie in grass beds under Ferris wheels, ditching school, hanging out and hooking up. It’s a bizarre carte blanche where on-duty soldiers look the other way: blowjobs in broad daylight.
Administrative pandemonium after Saddam’s fall has resulted in free reign on the roads. Some estimate that 95 per cent of Baghdad’s drivers are unlicensed. Lane markers and turn indicators have been relegated to an afterthought. Under the glow of brake lights, cars dance and weave and beep yet miraculously never collide; like hundreds of one-tonne steel beasts gliding around each other in clumsy arabesque.
Dozens of buildings remain abandoned, mid-construction from the Hussein regime. One, an enormous mosque, is Coliseum-like—a monumental half-skeleton with his guts exposed to the neighbourhood. The blood may have clotted, but Baghdad is still wounded.
“This used to be called the street of massacres,” says Saad, in the precise tone a taxi driver might point out a landmark. Corpses were found every other day, many of them decapitated. The lucky ones would only be blemished by a bullet or two, “if mercy was exercised,” adds Hassan.
Tonight, we're en route to the upmarket suburb of Mansour. Once a haven for Iraq’s Sunni elite, it became a battleground in 2007. During the worst of the violence, a translator for TIME’s Baghdad bureau manager was gunned down on his way to work. The magazine reported that it was “routine to see men shouldering rocket launchers.”
Today, it’s something of a consumerist Mecca. We roll into a car park where a teenager with patchy facial hair and a Barcelona FC hoodie sweeps a mirror under the car, searching for explosives with a cursory glance.
Mobile vendors line the streets. Giant mosaics of flimsy Chinese-made knockoffs wait to be haggled over, bought, and cradled triumphantly. It’s a squint-and-you’re-in-Bali phenomenon. Dish out the dinar and score some Angry Birds sandals! A pair of Rey Bens Wayfarers!
Neon-hued fairy floss and popcorn are clutched by adorable brats who are quick to yank on their mother’s dishdasha when they pop their balloons on a stall. The ever-present Iraqi military laze on the back of utes, smoking, momentarily lost in bonhomie. Boyish dickheads with uneven haircuts crawl past in decommissioned taxis, offering up leers and a deafening soundtrack of Flo Rida, whose obnoxiousness drowns out the evening prayers ringing from a nearby mosque. In the smallest ways, all is well in Mansour.
This is Iraq: beautiful until it’s ugly again.
Wednesday morning. Right by the dusty, chaotic Shorja markets, past the exotic animals (pet eagle? $USD150!), the spice stalls and the beggars, you’ll find Iraq's best kebabs. We’ve been herded into a restaurant, after one, then two, then three tanks rolled into the markets, trailed by at least 100 foot soldiers. The message was clear: something horrible was about to happen—or maybe just has.
Earlier this month, in the nearby Kadhimiya markets, dozens were killed by car bombings. Animal carcasses littered the streets; children wandered in shock, stained with blood. The first strike, on the outskirts of the suburb, set-off the pandemonium. But it was the second, placed among the chaos of the markets, that struck hardest. It’s death as symmetry: in Iraq, there’s always a second bomb.
“You can go anywhere in the country but this kebab is the best,” says my translator-slash-muscle, Sameer, a middle-aged Iraqi whose hands are definitely large enough to kill a man. The restaurant is crowded at 8:45am, and no wonder why. The simple dish is a flame-kissed nirvana. Nothing is individually spectacular: fresh cut vegetables, punchy spices rained on top, a soda to gulp everything down. Never mind the bread, which while freshly baked, is nonchalantly lobbed on your table by the waiters then nonchalantly fingered by the generously-sized stranger squeezed next to you. But, with a bite, the fluorescent lights and the tanks fade away, and all that’s left is a shred of bliss. A warm, Arabic hug.
I’m poking at the meal, searching in vain for some flaw, when Sameer bursts into boisterous Arabic monologue. He drags our driver, a big-hearted lurch named Mohammed, into the scene. They begin filming with a compact camera, feigning immense interest in the minutiae of our plates. Then, as though an invisible dart of diazepam kicked in, Sameer is hushed. He bends over the table.
"We are being watched," he whispers.
I brush this off as military-grade paranoia. Sameer fought in both Gulf Wars, scouting Iranian borders and surviving on two hours of sleep a night, often with only a ration of bread—but when I glance over my shoulder, a bald man sat less than three metres away is staring through me. And I mean staring—morbidly transfixed as though determined to burn an image into his retina. In the restaurant, where every patron in view is inhaling the exact same plate of kebab, vegetable and pickle, this guy is clutching a microscopic 90-cent portion of soup. Is he the world’s most conspicuous intelligence officer? More pertinent: why the hell find out?
We ask a waiter to see the kitchen. When we emerge from a few minutes of small talk with the owner, the bald man has disappeared.
Camouflaged by the jungle of cars navigating a roundabout, the gold, unmarked Mitsubishi Pajero is parked precisely at the location the security team gave a half hour ago. Past a half-dozen checkpoints, through passport checks and bomb sweeps, under the towers housing sunglass-toting snipers, and finally over the blast barriers, we enter the Green Zone.
Within this heavily-fortified cocoon, Iraqi bureaucracy happens – government offices, high-ranking officials and foreign embassies. Somewhere in here, though we never see it, is Baghdad’s lone McDonald’s. It’s a fortress, where garden beds are immaculately groomed and sweat-drenched Chilean dignitaries jog by at a brisk pace. It takes setting foot in the Green Zone to realise that the rest of Iraq is, in fact, the Red Zone.
Behind closed doors, a senior foreign diplomat who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity describes the Iraqi prime minister as wily and cunning. Maliki, he says, is an anti-Saddam, proficient in nuance and hush-hush where his predecessor was brash and forthright. Iraq's new leader could charm new friends with political generosity, and then ruthlessly smear should their allegiance waver. The diplomat describes Maliki’s sad talent of knowing when to add fuel to the fire of sectarian unrest.
For many of the Iraqis I meet, it’s a strange, asterisk-heavy case of rose-tinted glasses. Though his crimes, his evil, and his ruthlessness were undeniable, this country was functional under Saddam. His totalitarian rule meant the roads were safe. People could travel freely, stay out late.
Despite the 130,000 civilians killed, a staggering $2 trillion spent, and a country in purgatory, fatigue has washed over: the Iraq War is stale, it’s tired, it’s done. Soon it will fade softly into history, like taillights growing dim in the distance. But for its citizens, problems remain cruelly fresh.
“I think there was net good achieved,” says Major General Jim Molan, the Australian who lead coalition operations in 2004.
When I speak with former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser—who remains on close terms with Bush Senior—he is explicit.
“The lesson from the Iraq war is that the intelligence wasn’t fragile, it was false. And knowingly false.”
It was a frigid Monday night in Ohio when George Bush made a case for war. “We cannot wait for the final proof,” he said. “The smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom crowd.”
We now know that vast portions of evidence presented by Bush and Colin Powell were eventually exposed as fictitious: the fantastical, second-hand assertions of an Iraqi defector, codenamed Curveball.
When Saddam fell, the real war began—the counterinsurgency. Those lost years of skirmishes with Al Qaeda, Molan explains, were a win: a rare chance to weaken a sworn enemy. But in 2013, Al Qaeda remains in Iraq, and the Coalition of the Willing have long-since departed.
“If you’re going to feel guilty every time you do something wrong in war or in politics, you’re going to get nowhere,” says Molan. He admits it was not a smart war, “but you can say that about Vietnam, you can say that about Afghanistan. And you can’t undo history.”
Fraser presided over much of the Vietnam War as Australia’s Minister of Defence.
“I’ve seen enough of the behaviour of great powers to know that we should be at arms length from them,” he says.
In this era of divisive, ideological wars—those waged, but not decisively won—uncertainties can echo for generations. On occasion, thoughts of Vietnam fold over in Fraser’s mind, an old film playing with no denouement.
“Why did we join a war that was being lost? I suspected America was not telling us the truth,” he says.
Fraser, a three-term Prime Minister, says Australians ought to feel ashamed about Iraq.
“We need, above all else, to behave as a nation of some sense of confidence. Some sense of pride, as Australians.”
Ten years on, Iraq is digesting—with enormous strain—a radical change of thinking. However ugly they are, these are the first, teetering steps of democracy. This is day dot.
Back in the Red Zone, we trace the Tigris, the river that snakes through the heart of the Iraqi capitol. From this side, the Green Zone is cold, impenetrable. Embedded in its concrete walls, you’d imagine, some indestructible armour: a last bastion of safety and in a city riddled with unknowns.
A week later, the strike comes. In the days of its aftermath, Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch will gleefully confirm responsibility, and call it a “first drop of rain.”
Within earshot of the Green Zone, a car bomb detonates next to the headquarters of the government’s private security contractors. Adjacent to this, Baghdad’s central bus station is on its knees, an instant disaster zone. But, as sirens squeal and police cruisers careen towards the scene, attackers have their eye trained on a bigger target. There is always a second bomb.
Around the corner, a car explodes outside the Justice Ministry. Metres away from the fireball, torso strapped with explosives, a man blows himself up in broad daylight. The ministry is disembowelled. A familiar plume of smoke rises to kiss the skies above central Baghdad.
Disguised in police uniform, six gunmen storm the ministry. They have clear orders: murder on sight. Room by room, floor by floor, they liquidate victims with unforgiving efficiency.
Amid chaos, blood and terrifying confusion, Iraqi security forces arrive to wrestle back control of the ministry from the insurgents. A firefight begins. Inside, 1000 high-profile hostages, including Busho Ibrahim, Iraq’s Deputy Justice Minister, can only cower in locked offices.
After about an hour, the intruders’ ground-level resistance begins to thin. Security forces can finally feel the momentum begin to shift—their enemies are short on ammunition and tiring fast. Both sides know how the siege will end. Police draw up plans to storm the building. The attackers wait, sensing the footsteps and hearing screams inching nearer.
With a decisive push, security forces finally rush the ministry. And as they do, the insurgents explode themselves into violent nothingness.
On my last night, the Four Families gather around a fire slow-cooking Iraq’s famed masgouf fish. Once the flames have tickled the fish for 90 minutes, its meat surrenders effortlessly from the bone.
Yesterday, in a miserable sign that the cloud of sectarian violence continues to close on the neighbourhood, a man was shot dead on the streets. Nobody mentions it while we eat.
After the masgouf has evaporated—Dr Amir has a wicked appetite for it—the topic of horoscopes comes up. Like every matter concerning fortune, it is of utmost importance that each member be scrutinised by the group. A few days earlier, the dregs of my coffee were tipped upside down, trickling down the cup into intricate patterns. Gahda, a tranquil Christian woman, then peered into the mug to read my java-kissed destiny.
Tonight, I meet Lulu, an undergraduate IT student—Gahda’s daughter. She has ink black hair that yawns down to her waist. Lulu is a Gemini, which, her mother informs, accounts for her fiery temperament. (A few days earlier, when Barcelona lost to Real Madrid, Lulu was enraged—it was even worse, she says, because it came at the boot of Christiano Ronaldo.)
“So you’re crazy, then?” I ask.
Lulu nods with a charming beat, “I’m crazy.”
Gahda backtracks. We’re being too hard on her daughter.
“Marja, helou, marja, helou,” she compromises. Crazy, beautiful, crazy, beautiful.
Of course they’re exhausted. Of course they’re pessimistic: they still have to text their wives and husbands and children and siblings each time they leave the neighbourhood. And of course, stretched across Baghdad, under this velvet night sky, there are many more than four families. But afternoon and night, they’ll sit under each other’s roofs, eating and laughing as though they have nothing to fear.