The Lows And Highs of Iraq
All being well, we shall be in Baghdad by tonight. And for some romantic reason that thought makes me smile. I think it’s the prospect of seeing for real the city at the heart of so many stories. On the way, though, we shall be stopping at a place with more sinister connotations. Tikrit. Another city as ancient as Baghdad but tarred by its association with Saddam Hussein, who was born there and who, following the US-led invasion to topple him, was discovered by the Americans in December 2003 hiding in a hole underground at a village nine miles away.
There is a slight jumpiness in the air as we load the vehicles this morning. Our route will take us through the Makhoul mountains, known to be one of the hideouts of the remaining ISIS/Daesh resistance. Just this week the Iraqi army began an offensive to try and flush them out. So, we’re told, be prepared.
The first problem we encounter is of our own making. Travelling in convoy is not something our drivers take to. Iraqi men don’t like to follow anyone else. Everyone wants to be the leader. This makes for some early confusion, and more time is spent trying to locate the other vehicles, which all sped off on their own, than actually making progress.
Once we’re finally together we encounter the first checkpoint. Hand over passport, wait by the side of the road, no photographs. Then on to a wide, ten-lane highway. However, our hopes that we will now make good progress are abruptly dashed a few miles later when it squeezes down to two. Another checkpoint. Passport. Wait in side lane. No photographs.
Then on through a flat dusty landscape which bears the scars of war. The road surface is scored by deep grooves, which we’re told were made by tanks and military vehicles for whom this was a very
At the fourth checkpoint, with two still to go before Tikrit, something remarkable happens. They’re pleased to see us. Ammar always spins some story as he negotiates with the guards at these places. He points me out and I can usually tell by their generally sceptical glances that they don’t buy the ‘big star visiting Iraq to tell the world what a wonderful place it is’ story one bit. This time, however, something has gone very right, and we are not only welcomed with bonhomie, laughter and requests for selfies, we are actually given permission to film the process.
Such cooperation does come at a price. There appear to be some very senior people in the huts by the side of the road this morning. One of them is a general and he wants us all to take tea with him. As we saw yesterday in the offices of North Oil, taking tea is a delaying tactic, much appreciated in the Middle East, but deeply abhorrent to work-obsessed Westerners with a TV series to complete. So we have to apologise and settle for chummy photos and shoulder clasps with colonels and generals and all those who have made our day at what, to us, will be for even known as Checkpoint Cheerful.
Once we’re in Tikrit the smiles fade. We had hoped to be allowed to film some of Saddam’s wrecked palaces by the Tigris, but the area is under the control of an Iranian-backed Shia militia who have other ideas. They want us to film the site of what is called the Camp Speicher Massacre, which took place in the city in June 2014 when fighters from ISIL – the Sunni jihadist group Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant – took 1,700 Shia and non-Muslim cadets from the nearby Speicher Camp and murdered all but one of them, throwing many of the bodies into the river. They claimed it was revenge for the death of Saddam Hussein.
The militia have created a display of photos of the victims of this dreadful event. Most of them are faded now, stuck haphazardly to walls leading down to the Tigris. Young, expectant faces, shot in the back of the head when their lives had barely begun. Telling this story is for me the lowest point of the journey so far. The place, what happened here, the drab commemorative display, the forbidding presence of the unsmiling militiamen preserving their distance but keeping a constant eye on us, all combine to bring home to me the nightmare of Iraq’s recent history.
We are still denied permission to film Saddam’s palaces. Looking at them through fences and barbed wire one can see interiors blown apart, but many walls still standing – balustraded, columned, pedimented – breath-taking both for the opulence of their construction and the thoroughness of their shattering.
What on earth are they going to do with these shells of Saddam’s vanity? From what I’ve seen of Iraq so far, I think not a lot.
We leave the city, eating takeaway falafel wraps as we go. No one wants to hang around here.
By mid-afternoon my spirits have risen again as we follow the Tigris to the city of Samarra. Here, at last, is evidence of that continuity of ground, I can’t back out. I haul myself up the last few steps and out on to the four-foot-wide, totally unprotected concrete platform, with only the sky above me. At first, my worst fears are confirmed. It is a long way down, and a gusty wind and continued shouts of ‘Where are you from?’ make my first piece to camera sound like someone admitting to a ghastly crime. But then, quite suddenly, and to my intense relief, I feel secure and can experience the incomparable satisfaction of fear conquered. Not to mention the spectacular view out over the great plain of the Tigris, with the river we’ve followed for so long winding silvery-white in the late-afternoon sunshine.
If Tikrit was a low point on my journey, the ascent of the minaret at Samarra is, in every sense of the word, a high.
Elation severely tested on the grinding journey to the capital. Our security minders want us there before nightfall, but it’s seventy-five miles from Samarra and checkpoints delay us as usual. The pressure tells on all of us. Waiting for the umpteenth time for passports to be returned I notice our driver telling a string of beads and moving his mouth almost imperceptibly. Two heavily armed guards greet each other with a light kiss. No one is in a hurry to clear us through.
The last few miles into the city destroy any romantic notions the name Baghdad might conjure up. Rutted and ripped roadway, no lane markings, cars and trucks swinging all over the place trying to pick out the least bad surface. Complete anarchy, but I see not a single collision.
Finally we turn in to our last checkpoint, at the gate of our hotel. A detection dog sniffs around us, names are checked and the bar slowly raised. High up on the wall ahead of us, picked out in bright red neon, are the best words in the world, ‘Baghdad Hotel’. This long, long day is almost over.
But it still has a few surprises. My room, 332, has someone in it. The staff at reception are apologetic. They meant to give me 323, which they assure me is a suite. Technically, they’re right. Aesthetically, it’s a horror. A big empty room lit like an interrogation cell with a bedroom attached. I’m too tired to change it now and head downstairs. Arab guests sit together in a brightly lit lounge. Western NGOs, businessmen and tired film crews sit around at low tables near a dimly lit bar, one of the very few places in the Iraqi capital where alcohol is served.
Halfway through our meal there is a fierce crack, like an explosion. Heads flick round. Everyone stops eating. Then there’s the sound of hissing and rattling of windows. A storm, I assume, much needed by the look of things. It’s still blowing hard when I gratefully lie back in my bed in 323 and sink to sleep.