A New Kid on the (Baghdad) Block

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Living through a ride on the Highway of Death turned out to be the least of my worries as I arrived in Iraq for the first time last week. I had landed at Baghdad International Airport on Tuesday after an early flight from Amman, Jordan, over Iraq's barren western expanses as they caught the day's sunrise. After some visa haggling and a luggage wait upon landing, I was on the road into Baghdad, rolling along the same littered stretch where a friend of mine, aid worker Marla Ruzicka, lost her life to a suicide car bomber in April of 2005. It was a tense 20 minutes or so, but I would later realize the moment offered only a sample of the kind of anxiety whenever you drive around Baghdad.

Later that day, I tried to go to the Green Zone to get my press credentials, but got stuck in a traffic jam caused by the U.S. snatch of Sheik Mazin al-Saedi — a top aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr detained on suspicion of involvement in sectarian killings by Shi'ite militia. Sitting in traffic in downtown Baghdad is far more nerve-wracking than rolling down even the most dangerous road in the area. You wonder if there are any car bombs amid the traffic around you as you eye the gridlock. You wonder if any of the people who've glanced at you on the street might suddenly whip out a cell phone, call someone interested in kidnapping a Westerner and organize snatch of their own. You wonder if your bodyguards could stop someone coming at you on foot through the tangle of cars in time. Could they stop someone on motorcycle or a scooter darting your way? You check to make sure the doors are locked every few minutes even though you know they are.

Eventually we started rolling again, but never made it to the Green Zone. The bridge was closed after the arrest of al-Saedi, who was only later released at the urging of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. When I finally made it to the Green Zone the following morning, I saw the otherworldly experience of those who live and work in a section of the city hermetically sealed off from the chaos outside. The air-conditioned offices of the press center were cool, efficient and orderly, making the noise, heat and acrid stench of car exhaust throughout Baghdad seem a thousand miles away. The officers on hand processed my credentials quickly and easily, and joked around with my bodyguard.

Returning to the Green Zone on Thursday, this time entering through checkpoints along the 14th of July Bridge, I found the sergeant in charge of the crossing in no laughing mood as he stood, tense, in the blazing heat wearing full body armor, overseeing the movement of people across a bridge that has drawn sniper fire in recent weeks. He checked my badge and my passport and asked to see another form of identification. I gave him my Washington, D.C., drivers license, which he said he needed to keep at the checkpoint while I was inside. I was assured, however, that my I.D. would remain in a safe place, away from anyone who might be interested in learning my U.S. address so they could blow up my house. I thought of telling the sergeant that the address on the license was for an old apartment, which, last I heard, was being turned into luxury condominiums I couldn't afford. What did I care if some rich Washington developer lost a condo unit under construction? But it was the wrong time for jokes. The day before, as we had goofed around in the Green Zone, 11 service members died violent deaths in Iraq. Six of the lost soldiers were killed in the Baghdad area. It was one of the highest daily body counts for U.S. forces since the start of the war.

I thanked the sergeant and moved on. He certainly meant well. But the truth is my new address is much more likely to be bombed. This morning as I woke up, the sound of an explosion reached my bedroom window, which is mostly covered by a stack of sandbags to guard against blasts. Then another. I'm told that's normal, just the sound of morning rush hour around here.