At Large

Fear Among Friends

Our man in Baghdad reports from the Iraqi heat.

By 7.11.05

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BAGHDAD -- The big story in our section of Baghdad since I last wrote was the attack by a suicide bomber on a popular kebob restaurant very close to where we are located. Once again it was a place frequented by police and army recruits. As usual, they were packed in like sardines and made an excellent target for one of the bombers, since there was no attempt at all to screen the people coming into the restaurant. Twenty-three of them were killed.

In spite of all the bombers, both human and automotive, things continue to get better in the everyday lives of Baghdadians. The city continues to be slowly cleaned up. Electric service is gradually improving. The regular blackouts, which seemed to be of perpetual duration not long ago, are now a bit more manageable. The other night at a dinner I attended with about a dozen U.S. Army officers, I learned that the Iraqis, on their own, have totally repaired the significant damage to the Baghdad water supply inflicted four days earlier.

Along with these important developments in Iraq, I have had time to continue observing some of the little things that one can't help noticing here.

For instance, Iraq does not have a domestically made staple remover that works! I am not carping, but it's from the ability to produce such humble objects that great industrial powers are born.

Thank God I brought one with me from the States. I was just admiring its sleek lines and saw that the damn thing was made in China!

Every day at noon the electric generator at our headquarters is turned off for an hour. It saves $10 a day and wear and tear on the machine! When the temperature at noontime is, on average, up around 125, it seems that a second look should be taken at some of the other costs involved in our sitting in pools of sweat.

One of those costs is apparent today. We are crashing ahead on a proposal for an $800,000 project. I have asked our secretary to work through lunch to get it ready. In fact, I have bribed her with a Snickers bar to which I know she is addicted. A short while ago she left. I asked her where she was going... "To lunch," she replied. "The power is off and my computer doesn't work without it."

I don't know where the generator switch is. We are losing an hour. Meanwhile, the Internet invariably goes down from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. The proposal is due by 7:00 p.m. and I am having apoplexy! But we are saving $10 -- and possibly missing a deadline on an $800,000 project.

I think W.S. said it best: "For want of a nail the kingdom was lost!"

NOW FOR AN ADDENDUM to my earlier report about $100 bills in Iraq. They are not quite as universally accepted as I had thought. I just gave one to my driver/aide Osama to take to the bank to change for smaller bills. He came back with it and said it's not acceptable at the bank because it is a pre-2003 bill! I guess they must have added some anti-counterfeiting feature that year. I did notice that the date is on the front of the bill just as it is on the back of a coin.

A few evenings ago, one of our people went to help a neighbor transport more than $250,000 in cash to the bank! Almost all business transactions between individuals, and between local companies, are carried out in cash, so the existence of absolutely astounding hoards of cash is not at all unusual. When my friend got to the bank, the tellers counted all the bills by hand (that is, 2500 bills), and rejected every single one that was not post-2003!

All of you should check your wallets and dump the older C-notes if you are headed this way.

FOR ABOUT A MONTH AND A HALF I have been hearing a report about how the Iraqi Army is dealing with insurgents. I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA if it's true, but the story persists. The people I hear it from are Iraqis living in the general Baghdad area, not in the Green Zone or other sheltered places. I consider most of the people from whom I have heard it to be reliable individuals not given to making up wild stories. That doesn't, however, insure it is true.

A few days ago I read a report from one of the major reporting agencies that, indirectly at least, bolsters the possibility that what I have been hearing has a whiff of truth to it. That story, from a major news source, said that the new Iraqi Army has reverted to some practices of the old Hussein days and engaged in the torture and, in some cases, execution of those swept up by anti-terrorist patrols.

A few months ago, there were several reports that said terrorists had kidnapped and executed a number of police conscripts and dumped their bodies in a landfill. A few weeks later the same happened with some army recruits.

The persistent report I hear is that the "police conscripts" and the "army recruits" were actually terrorists who had been arrested, dressed in the appropriate uniform and taken to the landfill. Once there, they were summarily shot.

I asked the guys in our office what they think of this if it's true. To a man they are absolutely ecstatic! The "first good thing the government has done" is their unanimous opinion. Personally, and after having walked by the spot where 23 innocent Iraqis were killed on Sunday by a suicide bomber, I find it very hard to disagree with them.

FEAR IS A UNIVERSAL commodity in Iraq. Recently I witnessed two episodes that illustrate how pervasive and paralyzing that fear can be in Baghdad.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced some solicitations for very large electrical contracts. One involves a well-known company. Our general manager knows the president of its Iraqi subsidiary and called to advise him we want to involve his company in a contract that could be as large as $50 million.

It turns out the fellow is on a business trip in Europe so our man spoke to his wife who is here in Baghdad. He tried to get her to tell us his cell phone number so he could call him on the road. She refused to do so. She said we might be terrorists who have booby-trapped his phone so that when he answers it will explode! We have urged her to have him call us and thus avoid the need to answer his phone. No luck. Now she won't even answer her phone. So we are not going to contact his company.

The second episode once again involves Osama. I had to ask him to get a message to someone at the airport when he goes there a bit later. I found him in the kitchen talking with someone on his cell phone. I walked up to him with my index finger raised and saying to him: "I need a second!" I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He slammed his phone shut, a look of terror crossed his face, and he fled from the kitchen.

When I finally caught up with him he said: "I was speaking with a good friend -- he doesn't know where I work. He heard your voice and now he can have me killed!" With a little exasperation I asked him if he thought the friend would recognize my voice. It turns out that was not the problem. The problem is that Osama is in an environment where someone is speaking English. That is a giveaway that Osama works for a U.S. company!

The end of the story is that Osama was speaking with a very good friend. That friend might be kidnapped and tortured for any information he has about anybody or anything. Osama is terrified the friend will blurt out: "My friend Osama works for an American company!"

This is life in Iraq.

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