I drove more than 500 miles on Friday. It started with a call on Thursday to someone I needed to interview, a sheikh and a newly-minted member of parliament from Falluja, about an hour west of Baghdad. He asked if I wanted to join him for a conference he had to attend on Friday. I happily agreed—the chance to see him in action was better than a simple interview. But over a fuzzy cell phone line, I misunderstood. I thought he said the conference was in Hit, about 70 miles from Falluja. He actually said “Nakhib,” a village three times as far, near the Saudi border.
In the sheikh’s convoy, we cruised in luxury cars at more than 100 miles an hour, with a heavy security detail. “Regular” Iraqis were forced off the road to make way, the soldiers and police at the dozens of checkpoints along the route stood at attention or waved rather than stopping us. We stopped twice for gas we didn’t pay for. When we reached Nakhib, we stayed for about half an hour—long enough for the sheikh to make an appearance and return to Falluja. The conference included hundreds of sheikhs from Anbar province and a handful of representatives from the central government and the prime minister’s cabinet. The sheikh didn’t think it was a very safe place to be, especially with an American journalist tagging along.
Iraq often feels like one long road trip for a few minutes of work, the desert flying by. Sometimes the scenery is almost stereotypical—Bedouin villages and camel herds, women tending fields in black abayas that cover all but their faces. In the north, at least, it is a little greener, but the travel-to-work ratio is often the same. It took me three days of back and forth on dirt tracks in Qandil to conduct a single interview with a leader from PJAK, a group of Iranian Kurds fighting the Iranian government from northern Iraq. The first day I was stopped at a checkpoint run by Iraq’s Kurdish security forces and sent back to Ranya, in the foothills. The second day I hiked around the checkpoint and caught a ride on the other side, but when we reached the PJAK camp, they told us the commander had left because we hadn’t shown up the day before. A few days later, I hiked round the checkpoint again, and was able to do the interview.
Yesterday I drove south, planning to visit the marshes and then go on to Basra, where I had a meeting scheduled. Along the way I hoped to shoot a bit of b-roll—withdrawing American convoys and Iraqis traveling in groups to Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Near Nasiriyah, about 220 miles south of Baghdad, we got ahead of a long US convoy, and I asked Ahmed, who was driving, to stop so I could film. Ahmed told me to be careful and stopped the car.
I looked around to see if anyone was paying attention to me and waved at a solider on top of one of the of MRAPs—the giant armored mine-resistant vehicles that speak to the intensity with which Iraqis have resisted the occupation. The soldier waved back.
I unfortunately failed to notice the unmarked police car that pulled up behind me as I filmed. A police captain got out to see to see what I was doing, and I began to explain myself. As I was speaking with the police, a pair of MRAPs pulled off the road, also to see who I was and just what I was doing. A pair of American soldiers got out, and I stood there deferentially as a sergeant berated me for filming without permission, an expletive-laced tirade during which I was asked questions I wasn’t supposed to answer.
I was hoping that was the end of it, but the police told the Americans they wanted to arrest us. They even asked the American sergeant to give them the tape he had taken, as that was their “evidence.” The sergeant shared a few more expletives, this time for the police, before getting back in his MRAP. The police then took my camera and passport and asked us to follow them to their station, where we were detained for about three hours.
I had a similar—actually worse—experience on the same road in 2008, which involved being detained by the police in the same area, then “rescued” at gunpoint by the Iraqi Army, who suspected all the police around Nasiriyah of being linked to anti-occupation Shiite militias. The Iraqi Army turned me over to the American military in Amarra, who simply wondered what I was doing there without a weapon in the first place. I went back to Baghdad the next day and few days later made my way to Basra, this time without being stopped.
All of which made yesterday seem oddly familiar, and nothing to get excited about. Upon our release, the police told us heartily we could continue on our way, but Ahmed demurred. The police in Nasiriyah are still suspected of having ties to those same militias, and Ahmed figured that once it had gone out over the radio that there was an American on the road with no protection, it was best to turn back.
“Are you happy?” Ahmed asked as he punched the accelerator above 100. We both knew I should have known better than trying to film on the highway. A blown day, two blown meetings, nearly 500 miles for 30-seconds of crummy b-roll. I usually build a week into my schedule for each month I spend in Iraq, expecting days like this, but usually I’m a little better at avoiding them.
On the right, another unique aspect of Iraqi road trips came into evidence—the remains of an ancient civilization, in this case, the Sumerian ziggurat at Ur. The only response I could muster was to point it out as it flew by, and Ahmed laughed before hitting the brakes to avoid a camel crossing the road.