Friday, August 13, 2004

From Basrah to Baghdad

Wednesday morning, and despite pleading calls of friends and colleagues
to stay until the situation was clear, I decided to leave Basrah for
Baghdad. I argued that the situation has never been clear for months
now (and probably never will be), that one should might as well get
used to it and learn to live through it. I also feared that the
situation in Basrah would deteriorate to the extent that I would be
trapped there for another week or two, something which I did not
consider an attractive prospect.

There were a couple of British checkpoints downtown with tanks which I
thought was out of the ordinary. I have never seen a British tank for
the whole 8 months that I have been in Basrah. The garage at Sa'ad
square was almost empty from travellers. I should have taken that as a
bad omen, but I didn't. I shortly hooked up with two passengers also
heading to Baghdad and we rented a taxi. Our driver looked like a witty
and resourceful young fellow which are important traits to look for in
a driver at such a time. You need someone who can easily dodge bandits
and bullets. I asked him half-heartedly if he had heard about any
trouble on the road, not that it would have affected my decision if he
had, but he said there was nothing to worry about.

IP and ING checkpoints were still at place north of Basrah, but they
did not seem as active as before. There are at least 10 of these
between Basrah and Al-Qurnah. At the Qurnah checkpoint we heard that
armed Al-Mahdi and Sadr supporters took to the streets and tried to
take over police stations. A force of local tribesmen from the area
immediately intervened and tribal leaders offered the troublemakers two
options, either to leave town or to deal with the heavily armed tribes.
They said the militiamen chose the first option and left the area.

Afterwards we entered 'bandit territory' north of Al-Qurnah, but for
some reason, the possibility of a carjacking wasn't as threatening for
us than the unexpected surprises that might be waiting up north. The
road looked desolate, and with the exception of trucks and cargo
trailers, we are almost alone. We refueled at Qal'at Salih and learned
that the town was quiet, mostly SCIRI supporters over here. Nervous
looking IP at checkpoints kept asking us about the situation in Basrah.
Our luggage was searched at one of them, much to the dismay of our
driver. He told them that he carried a weapon and asked what were they
going to do about it. "Err.. nothing." they said. "Why do you have to
search us then?" our driver asked impatiently. We advised our driver to
quit being a smart aleck after we moved on.

The countryside looked quiet enough and as we approached the outskirts
of Ammara we grew a bit apprehensive. The Ammara checkpoint was
deserted. We entered town and stopped for cigarettes at a street
vendor. The driver asked him what was going on downtown and he said
that there were clashes just an hour ago between Al-Mahdi and British
troops. He also asked him if he was with the army of Al-Mahdi, the
vendor strangely replied that they were all with Al-Mahdi. Our driver
(being a smart aleck again) started to fool with him and said that
personally he was with the army of Al-Wardi (the pink army). A
middle-aged man in traditional tribal dress sitting nearby roared in
laughter at our driver's comment and said that he should better be
careful, "They are everywhere."

We saw plenty of British vehicles and tanks at the main intersection. I
actually saw a British Challenger for the first time. The soldiers
looked on the alert. No IP presence at all. A recently refurbished
building which belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture looked as if it
had been attacked and looted. Grafitti in support of Sadr was all over
the place. New posters of Muqtada were pasted over traffic signs and
buildings. A police station nearby had tens of police vehicles parked
in front of it and policemen were all huddled behind them. There were
remnants of burnt tires on the streets, bricks and barbed wire. As soon
as we were crossing the bridge over the Tigris we heard AK-47 fire
behind us, our driver had to speed up while we lowered ourselves in our

We reached a road block at Ali Al-Sharqi. IP were preventing vehicles
from going any further north. It seemed that clashes were ongoing at
Kut. A huge crowd of drivers and passengers were surrounding the IP
lieutenant in charge pleading with him to let them pass. A few jumpy
policemen were running back and forth trying to control the vehicles
and one threatened to shoot anyone trying to pass. I feared trouble
because the mob was growing restless and violent. The problem was that,
at this point, there was no other road to take except through Kut. We
were definitely not prepared to go back through Ammara. We tried to
convince the lieutenant to let us pass to Ali Al-Gharbi where we would
stop and wait. He was trying to tell us that this was for our own
safety and that he had orders but I think he was also wary of enraging
the crowd. He stood there with a distant look in his eyes holding a
radio in his hand that was spattering incomprehensible messages from
his superiors. Several cigarettes later, he allowed everyone to pass.

We stopped at Sheikh Sa'ad, as usual, for lunch. Drivers coming from
Kut were divided over whether it was dangerous or not to continue. We
decided to continue. The checkpoint at Kut was also abandoned and the
streets were empty. We noticed plumes of smoke from the governorate
building. Didn't look good but we passed through without trouble. No IP
presence here either. The rest of the road between Kut and Baghdad was
'normal'. We heard about fighting in Al-Aziziya. After an 8 hour
journey we reached Baghdad to find the Diyalah bridge blocked due to an
attack. We took a roundabout road to Za'faraniya and found the main
street leading to the bridge there blocked as well, we had to take a
bumpy side road which filled the car and our clothes with dust, but
that was a minor discomfort since we had reached home safely.