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The red zone
Every foreigner is in hiding, in disguise, as if embarrassed of their presence in Iraq

June 3, 2004

Dear All,

Another tiring checkpoint and traffic jam on the road between Najaf and Baghdad loom up ahead. I wait in the car, getting increasingly bored as the minutes tick away. No radio stations come in out here and I forgot to bring a book. Shamil, my translator, and I decide to get out of the car and walk to the front of the checkpoint, to see what's going on.

I've disguised myself as an Iraqi, grown a little beard and put on cheap sandals bought at the bazaar. The better to blend in with the locals and avoid the possibility of getting kidnapped or shot up on this rather dangerous stretch of road where journalists and contractors keep getting picked off.

A lot of commotion has erupted at the front of checkpoint. Some of the Iraqi drivers, most of them taxis who make their living ferrying passengers between the Shia shrine cities and the capital, are trying to cut to the front of the cue, and the American soldiers are ordering them to get back line. The soldiers are yelling and screaming. The Iraqis are honking their horns.

Suddenly, one of the soldiers holds up his M-16 and lunges toward the front windshield a taxi full of passengers; from my vantage point it looks like he's about to open fire, and I feel my heart drop through to my stomach. "No!" I yell.

The American soldier looks over at me, perhaps startled by my expression of unrestrained horror. "It's okay," he calls out to me. "It's okay. We're just trying to teach these people some manners." A farmboy from Arkansas using his machine gun to teach Iraqis manners, I think to myself as I walk back to the car.

Finally, the occupation is unmasked. The checkpoint is one of many meant to stanch the unstoppable flow of light weaponry, rocket launchers and various materials used to make roadside bombs and "vehicle-born incediary devices," the military's term for a car bomb. I'm not afraid of car bombs, at least when I sleep. My residence in Baghdad is a hotel inside a very well-guarded perimeter out in what the military calls the "red zone," which is basically the whole city. Other than the occupation authority's "green zone."

But like the green zone, our little patch of Baghdad is surrounded by checkpoints and armed guards searching bags and cars. The Australian embassy residence is nearby, and make no mistake, if someone could have, they would have long ago planted a car bomb here. Indeed, one went off just outside the perimeter the other morning, in front of a hotel not lucky enough to be surrounded by burly, armed guards with Kalashnikovs.

The explosion killed a kid who sold cigarettes on the streets and shattered windows of most nearby buildings, including my bedroom window. It was about eight in the morning. I threw on some clothes and ran out to the scene. A plume of black smoke rose from the car and flames licked the air.

Other journalists were also at the scene rolling film, snapping pictures and demanding accounts from witnesses. I swear I could see some of the journalists smiling. "Oh boy," the thinking goes. "This is great footage. I'll upload this stuff right away. My editors back in New York will be psyched. And I didn't even have to leave the hotel."

Of course, my microphone was outstretched, too. In the time of the unmasked occupation, the sights and sounds of Iraq's woes have become a budding industry. There's a gritty sense of pessimism throughout Baghdad. I did not pick up this feeling at all almost exactly a year ago when I first arrived in the city after spending the months leading up to and during the war in cheery Iraqi Kurdistan, which favors the occupation because it has no effect on it.

Every foreigner, it seems, is in hiding, in disguise, as if embarrassed of their presence here, as if they could obscure the occupation. The American soldiers or contractors dress up in street clothes and drive commercial vehicles when they haul military equipment in from Turkey. I keep an Arab kaffiya and my Iranian passport in my bag at all times.

The biggest fear is that one of the Iraqi soldiers manning a checkpoint will sell you to the resistance for a couple thousand bucks. "Fidget with your scarf as you approach the checkpoint," I tell a woman Western journalist, "just like the Iraqi women do."

Even Iraqis working with foreigners work hard to hide their affiliation. In Karbala, I saw Iraqi soldiers of the new army and civil defense corps wear ski masks on patrol, lest they be identified and later singled out for retribution.

My translator, who has become a good friend over past the year I've been working with him, drives the same rusting shit-box he drove 25 years ago, though he's admittedly made a killing over the last year working for foreign journalists. "Why should I spend money on a car when I could be robbed or killed for it?" he says.

Shamil is a meticulously honest, hard-working and intelligent man, a civil engineer with two bright daughters who speak perfect English. He's now trying his hardest to leave Iraq, emigrate to England where his brothers and sisters settled years ago. Iraq will surely miss people like Shamil.

Back in Baghdad, Radio Sawa -- the U.S.-financed pop music and newsbite station -- comes in. "It's all good girl, turn me on 'till the early morning," sings Sean Paul. "Let's get it on, let's get it on 'til the early morning. Girl, it's all good, just turn me on."



Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major newspapers, including
The New York Times. He sends out occasional letters like this one to friends and family. You can subscribe by sending a blank email to

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