Return to Baghdad: Suddenly, Danger on the Last Day

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Sabah Arar / AFP / Getty Images

Checkpoint in Baghdad, August 2010

This is Part 13 of the Return to Baghdad series.

In retrospect, we were probably tempting the Fates with our constant refrain of how safe Baghdad had become. Today, Oct. 11, the Fates delivered a reality check — a warning, thankfully small, that we take Iraq for granted at our peril.

We were meeting with an Iraqi army captain, a former trainee of Nate's, at a kebab restaurant in the busy Karrada area. The place was full when we arrived, and it was 11 a.m., so not quite lunchtime. I thought it was a good thing we were so early, because it would surely be hard to get in at noon.

As we settled in and began to chat with the captain, however, our translator, Ali al-Shaheen, and I began to notice that people at nearby tables were staring, some with open hostility. We'd seen these expressions countless times, especially during the sectarian war of 2006-07. Having encountered mostly friendly faces on this trip, we found these angry ones to be a shock. Ali and I exchanged a look but decided not to alarm Nate just yet.

Just when the restaurant should have been hitting its peak lunchtime hours, it began to empty — not a good sign. Ali, who was facing the door, noticed a couple of men repeatedly peering in. They didn't look friendly either. As he has done many times before, Ali steered the conversation to a swift end. "Time to go," he said, quietly but firmly.

It was only when we got back into the car that we told Nate. We knew from experience what to expect next, and sure enough, we spotted two cars tailing us. When one of them, a yellow taxi, drew alongside, Ali and I recognized the driver as one of our wrathful fellow diners from the kebab place. He drove past, then cut in front. Our driver, Sami, and I started looking in the sideview mirrors for the second car to box us in — the classic snatch maneuver.

I silently cursed myself for breaking a golden rule I'd observed for seven years: when on assignment in a war zone, never, but never, take any risks on the last day. I always told myself, "You'd feel like a complete fool if you'd survived the whole trip only to get into trouble hours before getting on the plane home." I was right: I did feel pretty foolish.

When Ali and I had been targeted for kidnapping before, we could always rely on our "chase car" — with two armed guards following at a discreet distance behind — to come to the rescue. We would radio them, and they would draw level with one of our pursuers and display their weapons. Most times, that was enough to deter potential kidnappers; they didn't want a firefight.<


But there were no armed guards to call upon on this occasion: the Iraqi government has decreed it illegal for citizens to travel with their guns, and the hundreds of checkpoints across the city make sure folks don't break the rule.

Ironically, however, it was those very checkpoints that saved us. There are just so many of them, it's hard to go more than a quarter-mile without being slowed and often stopped by police or soldiers. Most kidnappers need longer stretches of unguarded road to pull off a snatch. Also, because of the checkpoints, traffic moves very slowly, which prevents a quick getaway.

As we slowed for the next checkpoint, I noticed that the driver of the car ahead of us was repeatedly checking us out in his mirror. So I fished out the only weapon we had: my point-and-shoot camera. I held it up in an exaggerated fashion, making sure he saw me take a picture of his car — number plate and all.

He got the message: he had been made. He swiftly changed lanes and accelerated away. The car behind continued to tail us for a while, but the men in it must have figured they didn't stand a chance against four grown men, armed or not. Also, if they'd gotten a close look at Nate in the restaurant, they'd have known he's no easy snatch. They slowed and melted into the traffic behind us.

This was hardly the scariest experience Nate had in Iraq. It didn't compare to being shot at, mortared or rammed with a car bomb. But there was some danger nonetheless. You'll have to read his account of what he calls the "the world's slowest car chase" to know how he felt being in that situation without armor or his trusty M-16. Myself, I've promised the Fates not to mess with them again.