Baghdad’s Potemkin Village

A guided tour of the Iraqi capital's elaborate artifice, in all its absurd finery, as the Arab League summit rolled into town.


BAGHDAD – Whenever I hear a boom in Baghdad, it’s hard to tell: bombs or construction? On the afternoon of March 29, I was eating lunch in the office, watching the Arab League summit live on Iraqi state TV, when the air concussed with a muffled THOOMP, as though a backhoe had dropped a boulder a couple blocks away — or an explosive had detonated somewhere across town.

My Iraqi colleagues always know which sound is which, but I haven’t yet developed the ear. Unfortunately, none of them were at work, because the city had been choked to a halt by the 100,000 soldiers providing security for the summit. Nor could I call anyone to find out what had happened, because the cell towers had been switched off — presumably to thwart phone-activated IEDs. I jogged up to the roof and surveyed the horizon, but couldn’t see any smoke. The Internet was still working, though, and I soon found my answer on Twitter: Mortars had hit near the Iranian embassy, close to the Green Zone where the summit was being held. No casualties reported.

The attack was the only stain on what was otherwise a banner day for Iraq. All diplomacy is infused with an element of performance, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki succeeded at enlisting his colleagues in the Arab League to participate in an elaborate spectacle. The government spent more than half a billion dollars on security and luxury accommodations, Maliki later confirmed, and the result was an alternate version of Baghdad — a zone of safety and comfort that a foreign dignitary would be willing to inhabit, and could credibly praise. The triumph was a feat of stagecraft.

"It was an impossible dream to meet you here in Baghdad," Maliki told the assembled leaders. "Until three years ago, Baghdad was a city of ghosts, its neighborhoods isolated, its universities closed, its streets empty, and its hospitals filled with martyrs and the wounded."

"The Impossible Dream" would have been an apt motto for the summit. Just by putting on the event, Iraq has demonstrated some organizational and diplomatic chops that were unimaginable a few years ago. In all, 10 heads of state arrived, out of 20 countries represented at the summit — their presence signaled Iraq’s reemergence as a sovereign nation with regional clout. Finally, Iraqi leaders could proclaim an end to the days when their country was little more than a chaotic theater for proxy battles among its neighbors.

My own journey into the summit’s unreality began on Monday evening, as I began my quest to pick up press credentials. I had submitted accreditation paperwork weeks before, but, like most of my fellow journalists, my badge was nowhere to be found. This was a source of some distress: Ask any journalist in Iraq, and they’ll tell you there’s nothing like a good badge. At the city’s ubiquitous checkpoints, you flash the right badge and Iraqi soldiers wave you through; without one, maybe you get hassled or turned around. Badges mean access.

A friendly contact in the government assigned two men to help me get my summit badge. One was a mid-level Foreign Ministry official; the other was "from Maliki’s office," which I understood to mean he was an intelligence officer. They led me to a black Hyundai sedan, and the Foreign Ministry guy got behind the wheel.

"Do you like speed?" he said.

"Why, do you drive fast?" I said.

"This is why they call me the Pilot!" he said, and with that he stomped the accelerator to the floor. We hit 50 miles per hour in half a block, then he immediately slammed on the brakes to stop for a checkpoint. Our evening drive across the capital’s nearly empty streets turned into a series of drag races against nobody. Ten minutes into the trip, the car reeked of burning brake pads.

To guard Baghdad during the summit, the government temporarily redeployed thousands of soldiers from other parts of the country. The capital’s streets are usually punctuated every few blocks by checkpoints manned by a handful of soldiers. This week, though, these same checkpoints were staffed by a dozen men apiece — the usual soldiers, plus plainclothes officers wearing designer jeans and plaid shirts and intelligence agents with gold Interior Ministry badges hooked over the lapel pockets of their suits. Instead of waving cars by with a glance at the driver’s badge, they stopped and searched every vehicle — even police cars.

My government escorts were friendly and curious. They asked me about my life in New York and reporting on Iraq’s oil sector, and they told me about their children. But I felt uneasy with them. They wore their authority with a reckless bravado. As I was thrown into my seatbelt at yet another checkpoint — this one at the entrance to a bridge over the Tigris River — the Pilot swerved onto the opposite side of the road to bypass a queue of 15 cars waiting to be searched. The Maliki agent hopped out of the car and jogged up to the chief of the checkpoint and explained that we needed to cut the line. Moments later, we were speeding over the river toward the Mansour Hotel.

This was the third hotel I had visited on my badge quest, which was now turning into an impromptu tour of Iraq’s opulent summit preparations. Over the past two years, the government has built luxury villas inside the Green Zone; renovated Saddam’s old Republican Palace, which the United States made its headquarters after the 2003 invasion; and enlisted the Turkish company Rixos to bring a few hotels up to VIP standards, all in preparation for the summit.

The Mansour’s lobby was gleaming with polished marble and brass. Men huddled in conversation around clusters of velvet-upholstered armchairs, and tables of refreshments were continuously replenished by some of the 2,500 Turkish staff that Rixos had flown in for the occasion. I had made it to an inner circle of the VIP bubble. Having spent the better part of two days questing after my summit credentials, I was shocked when — within 5 minutes of my arrival — a man appeared and presented me with my badge. I swelled with a guilty thrill of access and privilege. The Pilot gave me a high five.

My last trip into such a zone of safety and entitlement in Iraq was last December, when I visited the prime minister’s compound in a section of the Green Zone called Little Venice. Walking through the gates and past the protection of 18-foot-tall concrete blast walls, I entered an urban oasis — a square mile of tree-lined streets, grassy lawns, meandering walkways, and goldfish ponds — where Maliki and his closest confidantes live in villas that would not look out of place in a vineyard in the Italian countryside. The air in the rest of Baghdad is choked with the exhaust of 5,000 diesel generators — here, however, it was fragrant with the scent of gardens.

But the extent of Iraq’s reconstruction quickly wanes the further one travels from the locus of power. The poorer neighborhoods of Baghdad enjoy electricity for only four hours per day. The unemployment rate is difficult to calculate with precision, but informed estimates put it at well over 20 percent. Roads are pocked with potholes, and traffic patterns are so haphazard that highway off-ramps are often used as on-ramps – gridlock can be so dismal that drivers prefer to risk steering into oncoming traffic.

The people we had passed at the checkpoint by the Tigris — the taxi driver, the twenty-somethings listening to thumping house music, the family of six crammed into a five-seat car — were residents of this Iraqi reality, and there is no badge that will allow them to escape. They experienced the summit most directly as an extreme inconvenience. Shops closed, produce stands went unstocked, cabbies searched in vain for fares. At midday on Tuesday, I sat down for lunch at a restaurant facing an empty Kahramanna Square, which is usually chaotic with traffic, and listened to a few Baghdadis opine about the summit. They understood that this was an event of some abstract importance and perhaps a reason for national pride. But when you have been conditioned to recognize the difference between the sound of an IED and a mortar from a mile away, regional prestige is less of a concern than basic safety. They pointed out that the government allocated a level of attention and resources to protecting foreign dignitaries that it has not given to its citizens.

The summit appeared to be not only designed to signal Baghdad’s revival for visiting foreign dignitaries, but to provide Iraqis with a glimpse of their new ruler’s authority. At the first event of the summit, 100 intelligence agents in matching black suits and purple ties lined either side of the driveway of the Sheraton Hotel, where various Arab League economic ministers were meeting. Maliki was coming. There was no discernible threat within the fortified compound — the phalanx of agents were presumably there for the photo op. Iraqi television stations fawned over the scene of these powerful men, standing in rigid fealty as a half dozen black armored pickup trucks with machine gun turrets rumbled in, followed by Maliki’s sedan. The prime minister swept into the hotel’s conference room for perhaps a half hour, and then left.

The meaning of the summit was largely contained in these carefully staged moments. Nobody expected the meetings themselves to produce much new policy. Indeed, the biggest substance of the summit was the Arab League’s agreement that the United Nations should take the lead in dealing with the crisis in Syria. "We have tried to find the Arab solution through collaborative efforts but we failed," said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "The situation has gone out of the Arab framework."

Still, the public spectacles are fraught with significance. On the morning of the summit, news cameras showed Maliki greeting the emir of Kuwait at the airport, kissing his cheek to mark his first visit to Iraq since Saddam’s 1990 invasion. It was an image repeated again and again, a none too subtle message from Maliki to his Arab neighbors and Iraqi citizens that his leadership had brought Iraq this proud moment of regional reintegration. By this measure, the summit was indeed a success. But it was tangible only within a realm that remains inaccessible to anyone without the proper badge.

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