The view from the ground.

Jet-Skiing in the Triangle of Death

A former advisor to the U.S. commanding general in Iraq returns to Baghdad as a tourist and eats, chats, and listens to locals cover the Bee Gees, while pondering the country's future.

Emma Sky
Emma Sky
Emma Sky

The taxi driver to the Beirut airport tells me that yom al-qiyama (the day of judgment) is approaching. There will be a big explosion soon -- a very big explosion. The revolutions sweeping the Arab world are not good. Islamic parties will come to power everywhere. There will be no more Christians left in the Middle East. Believe me, believe me, he insists. In anticipation, he will make the hajj to Mecca this year, inshallah. I tell him that I am traveling to Iraq as a tourist. The look he gives me in the rearview mirror says it all: He thinks I am crazy.

The taxi driver to the Beirut airport tells me that yom al-qiyama (the day of judgment) is approaching. There will be a big explosion soon — a very big explosion. The revolutions sweeping the Arab world are not good. Islamic parties will come to power everywhere. There will be no more Christians left in the Middle East. Believe me, believe me, he insists. In anticipation, he will make the hajj to Mecca this year, inshallah. I tell him that I am traveling to Iraq as a tourist. The look he gives me in the rearview mirror says it all: He thinks I am crazy.

I am heading back to Iraq nine months after I left my job as political advisor to the commanding general of U.S. Forces-Iraq. Earlier this year, a sheikh emailed me from his iPad, "Miss Emma we miss you. You must come visit us as a guest. You will stay with me. And you will have no power!" I am excited and nervous. The plane is about a third full. I am the only foreigner. I look around at my fellow passengers. I wonder who they are and whether they bear a grudge for something we might have done.

The flight is one and a half hours long. I read and doze. As we approach Iraq, I look out the window. The sky is full of sand, and visibility is poor. But I can make out the Euphrates below. Land of the two rivers, I am coming back.

I do not have an Iraqi visa. Visas issued in Iraqi embassies abroad are not recognized by the Baghdad airport. I have a letter from an Iraqi general in the Interior Ministry, complete with a signature and stamp. In the airport, I present my passport and letter, fill out a form, pay $80, and receive a visa within 15 minutes. I collect my bag. I am through. I want to reach down and touch the ground, this land that has soaked up so much blood over the years — ours and theirs.

I spot the Fixer. We grin at each other as we shake hands. Soon we are in his car speeding down the airport road — that we called Route Irish — toward the Green Zone. I can’t see any Americans. Not on the roads, not at the checkpoints. Iraq looks normal — for Iraq. What is new? What has changed? The situation is not good, he tells me. The government is bad. Too many assassinations. We laugh and chat like old friends. The Fixer, who used to "smuggle" me out of the Green Zone is now "smuggling" me back in. Leave it to me, he says, smiling and patting his chest with his hand.

Before long, I am sitting with my Iraqi hosts in their home, catching up with their news. I take a dip in their pool. It is 46 degrees Celsius. The brown of the sand-filled sky is broken by flashes of gray, white, and yellow lightening. Later in the evening, the rolls of thunder are replaced by the thuds of mortars targeting the U.S. Embassy.

Sitting in the back of the car wearing abaya and hijab, I drive south toward Karbala with two young Iraqi Army guys, both from Baghdad and Shiite. In the national elections last year, one voted for Nouri al-Maliki to be prime minister; the other voted for Ayad Allawi as he wanted a secular man to lead Iraq. They both agree that life was better under Saddam Hussein — that there was more security before, people could travel anywhere safely, gas was cheaper, salaries went further, there was no "Sunni-Shiite." They tell me that people are very upset with public services, especially electricity, but are too scared to demonstrate. No one likes living under occupation, but people are also worried that the situation might deteriorate if the Americans leave. They both stress that Jaish al-Mahdi is not the right way.

We drive for an hour southward. We pass numerous checkpoints. No one checks my papers. I am the invisible woman in Islamic dress. It is late, so the roads are not busy. Finally, we turn off the main road, down a track, through an orchard, and arrive at a house on the banks of the Euphrates where I meet up with my Iraqi friend, and he introduces me to his companions, male and female. Tables are arranged, and big trays of food emerge from the house. Fatoush salad. Maqluba — chicken and rice. We stuff our faces. I sit in a swing chair, chatting with my friend, who talks about his experiences of working with the U.S. military. They have big hearts he tells me, but they are naive. They don’t know how to do contracting. They spent lots of money, but so much was wasted. They did not know who was good and who was bad. Many projects were not implemented well. Others were not sustainable. The Brits last century left us with railways, roads, and bridges. What have the Americans left us? My friend tells me about his companions, what they do and how he knows them. When I ask them where they are from, I discover that one woman is a Kurd who was born and bred in Baghdad, two are Sunnis, and the others are Shiite; and all have relatives of different sects. We are Iraqis, they tell me. 

It is midnight. I lie back on the swing chair, wrap myself up in a blanket, and fall asleep on the banks of the river. My peace is rudely interrupted at 2 a.m. by a massive explosion that shakes the ground. For a moment I wonder whether we are being attacked. Then I speculate that perhaps there are still some Americans on a nearby base. I don’t move and quickly fall back to sleep.

I awake at 5 a.m. when the sun rises, and I see a fisherman pass in a small boat. I doze back to sleep until I awake again from the heat of the sun. The caretaker has also slept outside. He brings me tea. He tells me he has been guarding me through the night, making sure I am safe and keeping the dogs — which look like wolves — away from me. I thank him. He chats about the river. The Americans had bases here. Our people attacked them. Gangs. The Americans did not know who was good and who bad. One time, he was up a palm tree picking dates when Americans shot at him. He giggles as he recounts how he fell out of the tree. Another time, he approached an U.S. checkpoint, and they demanded he take off his top, then his pants, then his underwear. They made him walk stark naked. Another time, he thought gangs were breaking into the plantation so he opened fire. In fact, it was American soldiers and he wounded one. The Americans arrested him and sent him to Bucca prison near Basra. The caretaker tells me about his life today. At home he only has a few hours of electricity a day. The electricity comes on for one hour and then goes off for four hours. During the hour that it is on, he makes his room as cold as possible. It is very difficult for people. They sleep out on the roofs. He talks about the "time of the British" and the "time of Saddam." He has already consigned the American period to history.

I climb up on the jet ski and speed up the Euphrates. The dust of the previous day has cleared and the sky is brilliant blue. I wave to people on the banks and they wave back. I pass the Iskandariyah power station that once served as a U.S. base. Further up to the left is Jurf as-Sakhr. The Americans used to call this area the "Triangle of Death" due to the levels of violence. I remember landing by helicopter on numerous occasions on visits to the troops, receiving briefings of insurgents moving down the river. Now it is me on the river, and the U.S. bases have gone. I jump off the jet ski into the water and swim back down the river, floating with the current.

Out the back of the house, surrounded by sheep and chickens, the caretaker is busy barbequing a fish that the fisherman brought us. My friend gutted it earlier, washing it in the river and then opening it up in half to put under the grill. One of the women places the masgouf on a tray and brings it out to the table on the river bank. We stand around, eating the fish with our fingers and dipping freshly baked bread into the salads. It is delicious.

I am invited to an Armenian family’s home for lunch. They live in a part of Baghdad that used to be a Jewish area. Before the founding of the state of Israel, over 130,000 Jews lived in Iraq. In fact, the 1917 census put the Jewish population of Baghdad at 40 percent. The Armenian family bought the house in 1954. On the walls are hung rifles, handguns, tapestries. Against a long wall, shelves are crammed with books. My friend lives here with his wife and son, and his parents. His mother, an elegant well-dressed woman, tells me of how the Armenians escaped to Iraq as refugees from the genocide in Turkey. Many Armenians were taken in by Arab tribes. The Arabs were so kind and generous to us, bringing up orphans as their own children. We will always remember how good they were to us. We will never forgive Turkey. The number of Armenians in Iraq has halved since 2003 and is now down to around 10,000. She believes this is the end of Christians in Iraq. She laments that so many are leaving for the United States. What will they find there? Life may be easier, but here in Iraq is where we have our families, our history, our culture. She sighs that everyone had such high hopes after the fall of the regime. No one expected it to turn out how it has. But even in her most depressed moments, she never wishes Saddam back. My friend’s wife has cooked a feast of Armenian foods, and I sample every plate. When I leave, she gives me a doggy bag that will feed the Arab family that I am staying with for days.

As I drive with my Armenian friend back across town, we hear news of a complex attack on the provincial council in Diyala that has left eight killed and over 20 wounded; and of the assassination of an Iraqi general in Baghdad.

I catch up with some Turkish friends and feast on food prepared by their Turkish cook. They tell me that Iraqis are blaming Turkey for their water shortage and are demanding that Turkey let more water flow into Iraq’s rivers. But relations between Turkey and Iraq — particularly with the Kurdistan region — are good, largely due to the vision of the Turkish ambassador and the investment of the Turkish private sector. Turkish companies are operating from north to south in Iraq and have developed a good reputation for getting things done. It is largely Turkish companies that have beautified the Green Zone, renovating the Republican Palace, laying down roads, and building a guest house for the Arab summit that never happened. Today in Iraq, Turkey is seen as the main competitor to and balancer of Iranian influence.

I take a tour of Baghdad with a senior Iraqi official. He is an old friend from whom I have learned so much about this country over the years. We visit old haunts. I can clearly observe the changes that have taken place in the last nine months. The local economy has improved. The private sector is certainly taking off. More shops are open. New cars are on the roads. People are busy going about their everyday affairs. Many concrete T-walls have gone. Security forces are less visible.

As we drive along I ask him about his main concerns. He responds: the direction of the political process, corruption, and assassinations. We discuss the different paths Iraq might head along and indicators of each:

Dictatorship: Will Prime Minister Maliki and the Dawa Party be able to sink their tentacles deep enough to exert control over the organs of state and the unofficial shadow state — the old culture of Iraq re-exerting itself, but with different beneficiaries? Maliki now serves as the minister of defense, interior, and national security. There is no longer a selection committee for promotions within the military. So those seeking promotion, pensions, and protection cozy up to political leaders as they have no confidence that the system itself will recognize their merits or provide for them. Maliki has placed his people as deputies and advisors through all the ministries. But power is too diffused in Iraq these days, making it hard for anyone to assume total control. And this goes against the Arab Spring trend influencing the region.

Oligarchy: Will the political elites maintain the current political paralysis but create an oligarchy, as in Russia? Iraq’s political elites live in big houses, receive good salaries and pensions, can afford private generators for their electricity consumption, and are well guarded. They have their noses in the trough and access to large contracts. But are the elites competent enough to capture the state? Will the level of corruption and absence of the rule of law make this path unlikely?

Haves vs. have-nots: Will armed groups fight the state for a share of the country’s oil resources, as in Nigeria? Rumors abound that militias are raising their heads once more, and the power of the Sadrists in the south continues to increase through coercion and intimidation.

Democracy: The parliament is growing in capacity, with members drafting laws and debating issues. Meetings of the cabinet and sessions of parliament — albeit edited — are shown on TV. The media is flourishing, though there are attempts to control journalists. But the sectarian construct of the political system and corruption hinder the movement in this path. Perhaps in a decade or so, once the current political class has been replaced, there will be more hope.

Civil war: Will Iraq plunge once more into sectarian conflict? While this is always a risk, Iraq’s political leaders, institutions, and security forces are stronger than they were in 2005, and all wish to avoid this direction.

We conclude that Iraq might follow a mixture of these paths. It seems unlikely that Iraq will avoid the "resource curse," the paradox whereby a country with oil wealth has less economic growth and worse development outcomes than a country with fewer natural resources.

I watch the Iraqi national tennis team practice. They are excellent players. What impresses me most is how they interact with each other, offering words of congratulation or commiseration on particular shots. I speak to them during the interval. They are from different parts of Baghdad, are of different sects, were inspired by their fathers to play, and are proud to represent Iraq on the international stage.

I sit with a good friend, a female member of parliament, in a cafe in Baghdad. We reminisce about 2007 and how we worked together closely to help bring down the violence that ravaged the country. It seems such a long time ago. We discuss the problems facing the country today. How much longer will the patience of Iraqis continue, I ask her? She tells me that the people are tired. They want electricity and jobs. They want to eat and sleep. They want normal lives. There is injustice. The country is rich, but the people do not see the benefits. The Iraqi people have been so oppressed for years that we are like sheep. Iraq today is so far away from the vision that people had after the fall of Saddam. I describe to her my trips to Egypt and Tunisia and how people feel empowered because they removed their regimes themselves, with little bloodshed, are debating their constitutions, and have new politicians coming to the fore. She tells me that in Iraq people do not feel that same sense of empowerment. They did not remove Saddam themselves; many of the politicians who were put in power were Islamist exiles returning from abroad; there was little public debate over the Constitution; and elections did not bring about change, but kept the same dysfunctional arrangement in place.

New narratives are being created about life before the fall of the regime and life under occupation. People have started to claim there was no "Sunni-Shiite" before 2003. Many blame the Americans for introducing sectarian and ethnic quotas in the way the Governing Council was established and for excluding key segments of the population. But it was the exiled Iraqi elites who advised them along this path. And though political parties claim to not want quotas, they all fight to maintain them. And during elections, Iraqis mostly voted along sectarian and ethnic lines. And though Iraqis criticize corruption, they pay the bribes. The gap between the political elites and the Iraqi people seems to be growing even wider. Safe in the Green Zone, I hear some elites talk about "Shiite power," while others now discuss creating a Sunni federal region. The elites have not developed a consensus on the nature of the state, nor moved toward building a more just society, focusing too often on revenge and accumulating power rather than on national reconciliation. And so the political elites squabble among themselves over the spoils of the country’s wealth. Each group watches the TV channel that aligns with their bloc. The government channel portrays the cabinet members discussing progress in their ministries over the 100-day period, development projects across the country, beautiful scenery, happy members of the public out shopping. In sharp contrast, Al Sharqiya TV constantly criticizes the government for lack of progress, highlights electricity shortages across the country and how many hours a day are received from the national grid, and shows brutality of the state security forces. While the politics are so polarized, there will inevitably be levels of violence aimed at achieving political outcomes, the institutions of state will remain weak, and economic development will be hampered by the absence of the rule of law.

I lunch at the home of another female MP who is active in promoting human rights in Iraq. I ask her what is the way to make politicians hear the voices of the Iraqi people. She says it is very difficult. Iraqis still do not have their basic needs. Electricity is the most important thing for them. It is hard for them to access the Internet, to create networks on Facebook, when they have so little access to electricity. The society needs to become less militarized. Space needs to be made for the voices of youth, women, and minorities. This is very hard in Iraq. The Americans did not invest enough in promoting democracy, she laments. People are too scared to demonstrate — scared of the government and the terrorists.

On Friday, people gather in Tahrir Square to demonstrate. I watch for a bit on TV. I am initially confused as the demonstrations look nothing like what I have seen elsewhere in the region. Sheikhs are shown demanding the death penalty for terrorists. I discover that these are the "pro-government" supporters bused in from Karbala and other provinces and security guards from inside the Green Zone who have been told to go out and demonstrate in support of Maliki. They carry placards with a red X through a photo of Allawi. The smaller number of "pro-democracy" supporters are a mixed bunch of youth, communists, and others, inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia to seek more freedoms. Government officials accuse them of being Baathists and terrorists. I later hear from Western journalists on the scene that some "pro-democracy" demonstrators were beaten up by plainclothes men with batons — while the security forces stood by watching — and two, including a woman, were stabbed.

In response to the demonstration, Iraqiyya leader Allawi delivers a harsh speech criticizing Maliki and the Dawa Party. Allawi is regarded as the main loser from government formation, unable to capitalize on his election victory. Earlier in the month, there were rumors that he would agree to head the National Council on Higher Policies (though disagreements remain over the title of the post and whether it would receive approval of the Council of Representatives) and that agreement was on appointing the security ministers was close. But discussions have broken off again, and relations have deteriorated even further. With the two main blocs of State of Law and Iraqiyya unable to reach agreement and with their leaders apparently irreconcilable, the Kurds and Sadrists play the kingmakers.

Into this toxic mix comes the issue of whether U.S. forces should remain in Iraq post-2011. The Sadrists are adamant that all U.S. forces should leave by the end of the year. They continue to attack U.S. troops so that they can claim that they have driven them out. They threaten to protest against the government if services do not improve by August and to revert back to violence if U.S. forces remain beyond the end of the year. The rest of the political elites say in private that they wish that some U.S. forces will remain to help the Air Force protect the airspace and the Navy to protect the oil platforms, and to assist with training the army and providing intelligence. However, only the Kurds seem willing to lead the debate in public. Maliki’s Dawa Party has put out a statement in which Dawa "reiterated its firm stands toward the withdrawal of all the U.S. forces from the Iraqi land, waters, and airspace on the set time, which is the end of this year." To gain Iranian and Sadrist support for a second term as prime minister, Maliki had to promise them that there would be no extension of U.S. forces after 2011. Maliki is probably hoping that the parliament will vote to approve some U.S. military presence remaining in Iraq post-2011, so that he will have to go along with their decision. In this way, he will continue to balance both the United States and Iran. Events in Syria are also troubling the elites in Iraq. If the Allawite regime falls and is replaced by a Sunni one, then Iraq will become even more important to Iran and its buffer against the Sunni world. This may also serve to push the trend in Iraq toward Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite regions, all heavily influenced by different neighboring countries.

I go over to the complex we called "Freedom Towers," where U.S. soldiers once used to enjoy a few days of respite away from the battlefield during their long tours. Today, it is the headquarters of Saleh Mutlak. I say to him: It is amazing to see you here. The last time I saw you was 18 months ago in the Rashid Hotel just before you fled the country. He laughs as he puffs on his cigarette. He makes me tell the story to his guests — all of whom of course know it. One of the most popular Sunni leaders in the country and joint head of Iraqiyya, Mutlak was barred by the de-Baathification committee from running in the national elections. Through a deal worked in the government-formation negotiations at the end of last year, Mutlak is now the deputy prime minister of Iraq. The head of the de-Baathification committee is dead, assassinated last month. How can anyone predict how things may turn out in Iraq? 

Sitting in a restaurant in Karrada, downtown Baghdad, eating pizza and drinking wine with journalist friends, I listen to an Iraqi sing Bee Gee songs. The singer moves me to tears. He sings with such passion, making the songs his own. I invite him over to join us at our table. He sits down with us, and as he talks the talented, confident Singer, transforms into a fragile, damaged man. What horrors have those eyes seen, I wonder? What is the trauma he is struggling with? He tells us that he went to the United States for a short period in the 1970s when he was a young boy, accompanying his father who had been wounded fighting on the Syria-Israel border and needed plastic surgery. In 2003, he had come forward to work with the U.S. military, but quit after three months when he had been blown up by an improvised explosive device. I remember the wonderful Iraqis who had come forward to work with the coalition back in 2003, dreaming of building a new democratic society — many were killed by insurgents for collaborating with the occupying authorities, and many others fled the country. "I dip," the singer tells me, bringing out his pouch of tobacco. "Disgusting habit to pick up from American soldiers!" I scold him. He laughs. Things are slowly getting better in Iraq, he assures me. Iraqis just want to live. It is going to take a long time — a very long time.

Emma Sky is traveling the Middle East exploring the Arab Spring. She was a spring 2011 fellow at the Institute of Politics of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and served as political advisor to U.S. Gen. Ray Odierno in Iraq from 2007 to 2010. 
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