This is Part 14 of the Return to Baghdad series.
When I left Baghdad 18 months ago, violence was down and security was improving, but our experiences this week defied my highest expectations. While there were at least three car bombings this past week, that itself is actually a great improvement. Security, however, has come at a price hundreds of checkpoints, blast walls and constant army and police patrols but the people, however frustrated, seem to prefer today's irritations to the bloody days of only three years ago.
It was easy to see a theme emerge: the Baghdad we once knew has been replaced by one that is still healing, but it is in perhaps the best shape either Bobby Ghosh or I have seen it in a long time. We barely stopped moving all week, traveling freely without incident.
So perhaps we were asking for it when we ventured out on our last day to meet an Iraqi army captain I trained and fought with in 2008. Less than an hour into lunch, our Iraqi manager, Ali al-Shaheen, announced it was time to go. As part of my introduction to the country, Bobby had told me that when Ali says to leave, consider it an order, so I gave my friend a quick hug and followed Ali out of the restaurant.
On the sidewalk, Bobby whispered to me, "We didn't want to tell you, but we've been made." Suspicious men had been watching us for some time, but Bobby and Ali wanted me to have as much time as possible with my old friend. This was new. In my previous career, when bullets and rockets went flying, the biggest questions were, Which weapon do we use first, and are all the civilians out of the way? Now, armed only with a ballpoint pen, all I could do was not panic, follow Ali and hustle to the car.
Our driver, Sami, roared into the street, and it appeared we had made our getaway until we hit stand-still traffic. I saw Bobby glancing in the sideview mirror, describing a car that was following us, and I allowed myself a peek out the back window. Of all the ways I thought I might die in Baghdad, I thought, who knew it would be weaponless in the slowest car chase in history?
But the traffic and the checkpoints would soon prove to be our saving grace. What our station wagon lacked in speed, it more than made up for in the ability to slip into lines of cars waiting to be searched. When Iraqi troops waved us through the first checkpoint, I figured we'd be O.K., but as we picked up speed, the taxi Bobby had been worried about pulled up beside us.
"What now, Ali? Do we look mean? Flip him off?" I asked. "You sit there and do nothing until I tell you," Ali scolded me. Armed with my marching orders, I stewed in the back seat, feeling as powerless as a kid on a long road trip who has asked to go to the bathroom. Now the grownup message was clear: Sit and be quiet, because I said so.
For Bobby, incidents like this were a dime a dozen back in the nasty years, but this was a first for me. People usually avoided soldiers, and if they sought them, it was in submission. Deference wasn't on the agenda today, and apparently neither was speed, as we hit another line at the next checkpoint.
Several army outposts later, Bobby announced that the car was gone. He explained that it was likely a snatch and grab, in which bands of hoodlums look for easy targets to kidnap. Given my size, I figured I wasn't an easy target for any kind of quick snatch, and perhaps that's what our pursuers figured too. Or maybe they're still stuck in Baghdad traffic, looking for us among the thousands of cars funneling through security points. The traffic may be annoying, but a little gridlock at times can sure be better than the alternative.