Hitchhiking in Anbar Province

I returned to Baghdad two days ago, with my nerves stretched thin and six days out of a shower--b ut no worse for the wear. Three weeks before, I'd officially unembedded with the U.S. military and taken a 'unilateral' trip up the Euphrates, deep into Anbar Province. Marine Corps Colonel Patrick Malay told me the man I was going to stay with--a mythical sheik named Mohammed Hussein Shaffir--was a cold-blooded killer. If I didn't lose my head, he told me, I was guaranteed one hell of a story (despite the tenor of his words, the Colonel has a tight bond with his counterpart).

And he was right--the trip was exceptional.

Shaffir (the Marines--fetishists for acronym--call him MHS) lives in the small town of Haditha, a three-hour drive from the capital. In addition to being a minor sheik in the Jughaifi tribe, he's a Colonel in the Provisional Security Force (PSF), a pseudo-Iraqi Army organization that guards areas outside populated centers (he has 700 men on his payroll). Numerous Hadithans have told me some of the Iraqis taking power in Anbar--men like Shaffir--are crooks and future warlords.

The Coalition hierarchy has a simple formula for Iraq and it's born remarkable results: security before everything. The Marine Corps brass tells me it has confidence in MHS (who is also a former soccer star and the survivor of a ten-year running gunfight with Saddam Hussein). The military has backed a horse in every town and region--players it believes are powerful enough to maintain control and able to kill terrorists; and which are amenable to U.S. cooperation. That cross-list of attributes is limiting and the pool of candidates hasn't exactly been swimming with Saints and Christ figures. The cast includes fake sheiks, former insurgents, brazen gunman (as one learns quickly, gunplay is a fundamental trait in the collective unconscious of Anbar), and some plain crazy motherfuckers.

Malay and Shaffir share a mutual respect I can't truly privy (I suspect it's based in the fact both are professional warriors and have killed other men in anger). Malay is no fool and acknowledges MHS's "warts." He's a pragmatist and knows the future of Iraq depends on men like the PSF leader. Shaffir, meanwhile, knows where his support has come from--if it weren't for the Marines, he would have likely been dead years ago at the hands of Al Quaeda in Iraq. Instead, with the backing of the Corps, he's become rich. And he's poised to become even more influential when the Americans leave.

The consternation of many is driven by the fact that in the absence of the mitigatory and ballasting influence of the U.S. presence, the central government in Baghdad may be powerless to stop men like Shaffir from turning their martial detachments into personal militias. And I think they're right. Those men may become an unchecked force in the impending U.S. power vacuum (though I don't think that vacuum will be as large as the Iraqis fear ... the U.S. will maintain some presence here). Regardless, the future of this place depends on the underlying motivations of a strange brood of cagey survivors--are they patriots interested in Iraq's future, or are they out to line their own pockets at the expense of their countrymen?

The quest to answer that question was delayed at the last minute. Shaffir got cold feet the day his PSF detachment was to fetch me in the capital. It was too dangerous to send a convoy of armed Sunni soldiers into Shia dominated Baghdad, he said. I think he was being paranoid. I also think it had more than a little to do with taking responsibility for the security of an American journalist, a high commodity target in a guerrilla war that's largely turned into a public relations conflict.

Everybody in Iraq is paranoid. And I can't blame them. I've only been here four months, during a drastic cooling in the violence, and I feel like a cop showing up late to a domestic disturbance; I haven't seen anybody being hit, but I understand why the battered-looking victims are acting skittish. It feels strange, almost guilt-provoking, pushing these people to open up and put their entrenched fears and prejudices aside. I'll never understand the hell they endured through almost five years of civil war; I hear the stories (and they're horrible) but I didn't suffer the blows and for that I know my enthusiasm must make me seem a bull in this Mesopotamian china shop.

But the bird is on the wing. Security's rapidly improved and I hope it's time for Westerners to start leaving the International Zone en masse; for Shias to roam out west and Sunnis to come again to Eastern and Southern Iraq. My Iraqi friends in Baghdad admonished me that the trip was a bad idea. They said they'd love to take me to Anbar themselves, but they'd be kidnapped at one of the military checkpoints and killed. I happen to know their fears are unfounded. In fact, they seem ridiculous to me--just as Shaffir's reluctance to send his soldiers into Shia-land was exaggerated.

The Iraqis I talk with tell me the sectarian violence that plagued the country from 2005 to 2008 was fomented and inflamed by outside forces (Iran and criminal networks with dark agendas) and that the two sects have lived together, in peace, for eons. There's simply no rift between them, they said. The violence was engendered by foreigners and later nurtured by the U.S. decision to avoid involvement. It's all been a fabrication.

"Okay, then you can take me to Fallujah," I'd say.

"Oh, I can't do that the Sunnis there will kill me," would be the inevitable reply.

Make up your fucking mind, I'd think, before reminding myself that multiple-perspective disorder is not only understandable but to be expected in a country that's survived nearly 30 years of repressive authoritarian rule (topped off with 12 years of punishing economic sanctions) only to live through the terror and international humiliation of shock and awe and then a horrible and internecine civil war in which every fuckhead in the world with a gun and a beef with the U.S. showed up to martyr himself on Iraqi streets. This country's been through hell (actually, it's been living in hell so long Mephistopheles has become like a trusted neighbor) and it should be afforded whatever psychic foibles it's living out.

Ultimately, I coerced a man who was presented to me as the Minister of Health to get me to Fallujah. From there I knew I could convince MHS to send his soldiers for me. My friends Ammar and Ma'jida--Iraqi journalists I was fortunate enough to meet at CPIC headquarters (Combined Press Information Center)--were priceless. They're English speaking, Arabic-minded individuals with inexhaustible fountains of determination and that scrappy sense of creativity bred in war zones and the Third World (Baghdad is both) by hard circumstances and limited resources.

Though they're university-educated, working journalists (with their own press/public relations firm) they would be the first to admit their English isn't perfect, and because of that communications between us have sometimes been humorously strained. I still don't know what the fuck Mr. Adel Muhssin (the Ammar-brokered contact) is the Minister of--it has something to do with anti-corruption--but I know I was desperate when MHS flaked on me, and I was determined to make it to Fallujah. When Ammar and Ma'jida told me they were to meet a man at the Al Rasheed Hotel--and that I could interview him, too--I had no idea I was about to meet my ticket to ride. Truth be known, I basically punked the man in the hotel lobby, that clear January night.

Muhssin spoke nearly perfect English, with a clear British accent, he was open and amicable, and before I knew it, I was taking him to task on what's widely viewed as overwhelming corruption in Baghdad's government (after talking to Muhssin and a lot of other smart people, I think that while corruption is undeniably a major problem, it's but a another in a laundry list of them ... even if there was no corruption in Iraq, the country would still be facing monumental, maybe insurmountable fiscal, cultural and structural challenges). A doctor in private practice in England until 2003, Muhssin was seemingly forthright, with easy, Brit-polished Arabic manners. At the end of our conversation, he told me if there was anything he could do, not to hesitate to call on him (he also asked Ammar--a man who's bitched endlessly to me about governmental graft, greed and fatbacks--"Why do you think the American was so focused on corruption?"). Two days after our meeting, I called in on Muhssin's offer. To his credit, he didn't balk. The man's trying to rebuild a partly destroyed country while fearing for his life on a daily basis (security for men like him is heavy)--while the people he's working for roundly call him a crook--and yet he didn't hesitate when I told him that I (to whom he didn't owe a scrap) needed something nobody else wanted to even think about: secure passage to what's widely perceived as the Wild Western town of Fallujah. A day later Muhssin gave me the number for another doctor, a man he said was in the Ministry of Health (MOH). Meanwhile, I was vetting both names with the small list of contacts I have in Baghdad--and the results weren't encouraging.

Two Iraqi journalists assured me Adel Muhssin wasn't the Minister of Health, as I was given to believe. In fact, the men told me they'd never heard Muhssin's name; nor that of the man he was putting me into contact with. The crisis had finally reached its moment and I was dealing with wildly conflicting factors. My gut told me Muhssin was legit, that I could trust him, but basic safety precautions said otherwise. Then finally, one of my journalist friends came through.

Muhssin wasn't the Minister of Health, he told me, but he was a legit Baghdad official. That night I crept out into the Red Zone with Ammar and Maj'ida and we had a nice fish dinner on the Euphrates. Ammar slept at CPIC headquarters (in a journalist bunk room that doubles as cafeteria and triples as work space). We rose early the next morning to make it to the MOH before the place was overwhelmed with people (we also had to deal with traffic, which is horrible in Baghdad ... street lights don't work, many throughways are shut down, and hundreds of others are blocked off with checkpoints ... the place reminds me a lot of Tijuana).

Looking back on it, Ammar was my first peak into the bottomless well of generosity and hospitality of the Arabic people. The week before I left, he and Maj'ida carried me all over Baghdad. Despite my protestations, I couldn't pay for a thing. That trait (the refusal to let a guest touch his wallet) is a common denominator here, and it's been particularly difficult in a country where the people picking up my tabs labor under such weighty needs.

Ammar, for instance, is the only person in his household of ten with a job (his mother's a housewife, his father's disabled, and his siblings--engineers and teachers--are all unemployed). He pays the rent and the bills. After a while I realized he has only several pairs of clothes (though you wouldn't know it from looking at him; he's always clean, spruce and professional, the picture of a business-minded university student). I know his obligation to support his family is overwhelming--he's the only breadwinner, in a country where unemployment might be as high as 70-percent--and keeping it afloat takes every penny he makes. Yet, he wouldn't hear of it when I wanted to pay for any part of the pricey fish dinner we had.

The morning of the Fallujah adventure Ammar got us a taxi when we crossed the last checkpoint, out of the Green Zone (now called the International Zone). MHS had agreed to pick me up, two hours west of Baghdad, though I had no clear idea how that transfer would unfold. I was told there was a bridge where I could be handed off, though my contact with the Marines, Captain Lawton King, wrote to me saying the image of four dead and immolated American contractors--swinging from that same bridge--was still in his head; I might want to rethink my plans.

The taxi snaked through traffic and by about nine o'clock we were climbing four flights of stairs at the MOH. Security was tight there, as it is everywhere, and after standing around for half-an-hour--never feeling sure we'd talked to the right security official or that the man we were there to see even knew of our presence--we were ushered down another hall and told to sit outside a large office door. Another bodyguard patted us down and searched us a third time. Then he let us into the office of Dr. Hamis--where things got a little strange.

Dr. Hamis stood about five-foot-nine and had medium-tinted Arabic skin with dark black hair and the bushy black mustache that's ubiquitous in this country. He greeted us with a handshake, from behind a palatial desk, and we sat. His English wasn't stellar, which was okay with me as Ammar had convinced me to pass myself off as a Spaniard--thinking most Iraqis would be less hostile to their Iberian neighbors (albeit very removed neighbors) than they would to a pale-faced conqueror. Ammar and the doctor fell into a conversation I followed intermittently--my mind was flitting about that bridge in Fallujah and those swinging bodies--and at some point I developed the notion that instead of concretizing plans, they were negotiating.

That was alarming for several reasons. To start, I'm a beat-up, broke-down independent journalist--so poor that after San Diego Magazine pays me for the articles I'll be sending them (a contract that was cut in half because of the recession--after I got here), I'll have -$100 to show for my five-month commitment. The great windfall in landing the favor from Muhssin was that I didn't have to pay. Unlike the landed gentry of journalism I've encountered in Baghdad (the likes of Fox News, the New York Times, and Time), I had no budget for armored cars and multiple-man security detachments (more on those worthless fucks later ... what I can say is that for about $300 I achieved an intimate three-week encounter with the people of Anbar Province that none of those queer, sniveling shills has come close to).

Fuck, I was thinking, I can't be paying for a ride, Ammar.

Maybe ... maybe ... I could squeeze a hundred bucks out of one of my decrepit checking accounts--but that would be it for the trip. I'd have just a couple hundred left in the emergency kitty (my oh shit bag, as the Marines would call it). As I was thinking about how to communicate that to Ammar (something that would be difficult for us, in the best of conditions) without tipping off Mr. Hamis--who'd started the conversation looking like Don Juan, but was slowly morphing into something more like Tony Montaña--the doctor stopped talking and looked at me.

"Where are you from," he asked.

Secretly I was cursing Ammar for putting me in this situation. I hate fucking lying. Then again, I hate being decapitated too--in fact, I hate the idea of that more than lying. And, more importantly, I was bound and determined to get my ride to Fallujah.

"Soy de Madrid, cerca de la parada de Concha Espina," I said after a pause.

A large Arabic man in a black leather jacket and sunglasses entered the room. He walked purposefully to the doctor, bent to whisper something in his ear and stood silently. The doctor said nothing. He merely stared at me and twiddled his thumb and forefinger (a gesture I didn't yet realize was carried out in the absence of his Rosary Beads ... another ubiquitous accoutrement in this Muslim land). At that point, the bodyguard--a guy who had the weathered and weary expression of a David Caruso character--pulled a gun from a holster under his jacket.

Dr. Hamis said some words to him in Arabic and then they went back and forth, with the triggerman looking me over the whole time.

Fucking brilliant, I thought, this is how it's gonna happen--whacked in a doctor's office ... I didn't even make it out of Baghdad.

"I doo note speak Spahneesh," the doctor said.

"I can speak English," I rejoined.

Jeeeesus Christ, I thought, this is some amateur shit. Piss-poor planning.

"Why do you want to go to Fallujah?" he asked.

"I'm meeting a man there--a sheik from Anbar."

"Do you think this is safe?"

"Do I think what's safe?"

How in the hell do you fake a Spanish accent in English without feeling completely cliché? I thought. Would he even notice?

"To drive to Anbar," he said coolly.

"As safe as it can be," I rejoined.

He said nothing for several moments.

"Well, I wish you luck in Iraq," he said suddenly. "If there's anything else I can do for you, let me know."

And that was it. The goon behind him, who turned out to be a hell of a nice guy--and the doppelganger of Formula One driver Michael Schumacher, behind the wheel--was the head of Hamis's security detachment. Along with a second bodyguard, he drove me to Fallujah in a black BMW. The men didn't ask for money, even my name; we merely smoked a few cigarettes and I enjoyed the view. Our side of the highway, a modern, three-lane job, was intermittently closed on the way to Anbar and we passed from one side to the other, at high speeds, for about two hours. Then we hit the outskirts of Fallujah.

Like all the towns I've seen here, it looked small and dirty from the distance. The sun sat low in the hazy sky and the stone buildings protruded slowly out of the flat plain (it wouldn't be till the ride back I saw the side of town still lying in rubble--a monument to the area's own holocaust, in 2004). David Caruso had been in cell phone touch with my contact from MHS's team--Captain Daham, Shaffir's 21-year-old son--and in the midst of one of those stretches of high-speed-oncoming traffic, we passed their convoy and flagged them down. I was to be handed off on the side of the freeway.

I felt as if we were feeling the other out the whole time, each of us secretly wondering if the other wasn't actively leading us to our deaths. Getting out of the car, on the freeway, the strangeness piqued. These armed men were going to make contact with a set of other heavily armed men, and they still weren't sure I wasn't setting them up (this is the kind of paranoid thinking born of a war in which young girls walked into mosques strapped with C4 and whispering their death prayers). At the same time, they knew that even likelier than harming them, I was possibly handing myself off to terrorists that would have my head on a platter in time for the six o'clock news.

I looked across three lanes of highway to Captain Daham, a familiar face, and I smiled. The tension born and fostered through the morning broke and I felt a sense of relief. At that point I knew I was going to make it to Haditha--and if I got to MHS's place, I knew I was as safe as I was going to be anywhere in Anbar (outside of a Marine base). What's more, in the time I'd spent at Shaffir's house, on trips with the Marines, I'd come to know those young and humorous soldiers manning his inner guard--it was damned good to see them again (I didn't even know, at that point, just how much fun we were to have through the week I would be there). For the next eight days we laughed riotously together (though we didn't understand about 95-percent of what the other was saying), we shared a lot of meaningful silence, and we communicated swimmingly despite the limitations of our languages.

I looked at Daham, across three lanes of buzzing traffic, and held up my thumb. I'm almost certain the hitchhiking sign isn't the same in Iraq, but Daham smiled. He came across the road, talked briefly with David Caruso, and we were off. I climbed into one of the three giant pick-ups in the convoy (which had a gunman in the back, reclined in a car seat that had been welded into place behind a monstrous anti-aircraft gun). I climbed over an AK-47, adjusted to the smoky pen, and smiled as the three men with me (none of them older than 21 and all of them having lost brothers, cousins, uncles and fathers to the insurgency) began rocking out to classic Arabic music with giant woofers and high reverb.

For more observations from Iraq, go to http://sdliddick1.shutterfly.com/