AP Blog: Fourth of July Iraqi style

By The Associated Press
Tue Jul 4, 7:05 PM ET

AP Correspondent Kim Gamel covers Iraq events from Baghdad for The Associated Press and attended the Fourth of July celebration held by the U.S. Embassy.


Tuesday, July 4, 2006, 2 p.m. local time

BAGHDAD, Iraq — It's not easy to get to a party at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. We had to inch our way through traffic jams and undergo stepped up security checks. Cars were backed up even more than usual near the Green Zone as security details carrying Iraqi dignitaries burst through with sirens blaring and young men in camouflage waving their weapons dangerously from the backs of pickup trucks.

After being frisked and going through a metal detector, we boarded buses to the embassy annex in Saddam Hussein's former Republic Palace. I was dressed in jeans and a light shirt in expectation of a downhome Fourth of July barbecue and chuckled a bit when three Iraqi men boarded my bus wearing suits and ties — that is until we arrived at the palace and I discovered that everybody was decked out in business attire. Apparently I missed the memo that this was a formal affair, but there was nowhere to hide so I trudged in and hoped nobody would notice.

A few hundred people — Iraqi dignitaries, as well as American diplomats and generals in their best camouflage — gathered in a marble ballroom where red, white and blue balloons hung from a chandelier and beads decorated tables. Arabic rugs and inscriptions also lined the walls, a reminder of the palace's former occupant.

With the Iraqi prime minister out of town seeking regional support for his national reconciliation plan, the Kurdish President Jalal Talabani took the stage with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Two American flags and two Iraqi flags stood on the stage and the anthems of both countries were played by a U.S. and British band. The formal ceremonies began with the presentation of the flag by U.S. Marines who marched in front of the stage.

The Iraqi president gave the first address, followed by a musical break of "By Land and In Sea" and "God Bless America."

The U.S. ambassador, wearing a dark suit and red tie, compared America's struggle for freedom with the current problems faced by Iraqis and promised them continued support.

Then we got a taste of pop culture as the winner of the U.S. Embassy's version of "American Idol" sang "God Bless the U.S.A."

Finally, it was time to eat, with a buffet of hamburgers, shish kebabs and of course hot dogs mingling with more local fare of tabouli and hummus. The dessert selection ranged from brownies to cake decorated with an American flag and an ice cream bar that included chocolate sauce. Being a coffee addict, I headed straight for the espresso cafe set up for the occasion.

While I missed the smell of the coals from the grill that I usually associate with Independence Day, I must admit it was a welcome change from my usual menu of chicken and vegetables back at the office.

As we left, guests were given free copies of de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" — in Arabic of course.

• Kim Gamel


THURSDAY, June 22, 2006, 11:30 a.m. local time


The hot air hits my face like a blow dryer, but I'm mesmerized by the vast desert landscape below during a 25-minute helicopter ride over a section of predominantly Shiite southern Iraq in a peaceful province that's about to become the first to give Iraqis a shot at handling their own security. Still, the U.S. soldiers escorting us aren't taking any chances and scrutinize the ground below with guns ready. Herds of camels and sheep scatter at the sound of our helicopter.

Bedouin camps covered by tarpaulins with a truck parked nearby, and a circle of soil where the livestock must be penned up at night, are spread out on the sand below. We're later told that 15,000 bedouins wander the desert in the West Virginia-sized Muthanna province, as they have for centuries.

The only color comes from shrubs along irrigation canals channeling water from the Euphrates river, the occasional white dishdashas of men and two women wearing red headscarves. The towns are small but distinguished by date palm trees that apparently used to be more plentiful before Saddam Hussein had them chopped down as the area was punished for joining in the 1991 Shiite uprising against him following the Gulf War.

Otherwise, the tallest structures in sight are several smoke stacks at a brick factory that spit out plumes of dark smoke while the bricks are carried on horse-drawn carts. The temperature is about 125 degrees at the British/Australian base known as Camp Smitty, just a few miles from the provincial capital of Samawah and less than 100 miles from Ur, believed to be the birthplace of biblical patriarch Abraham.

We then board a convoy and head into Samawah, where half of the impoverished province's 550,000 people live. I feel a sense of freedom as we're allowed to leave our body armor in the vehicles and wander the sidewalks a bit before meetings with local leaders. It's a sharp contrast to life in Baghdad, where everybody's in a constant state of heightened alert, but the police forces wearing black ski masks to hide their identities are a reminder that no place in Iraq is 100 percent secure.

I take in the signs of normal life: A giant water tower rises above a busy traffic circle. A couple of cars drive by with coffins on their roofs, apparently headed to the nearby Shiite holy city of Najaf for burial. A woman shrouded in a black robe known as an abaya and wearing high heels gets out of a car and hurries to work. We visit the new justice building with tile floors and offices painted blue and white. Then it's on to the older, more neglected provincial government offices.

A 22-year-old policeman who has been on the job for just six months says he's excited about the upcoming opportunity for Iraqi forces to take full control of security of the province from coalition forces.

"We are fully prepared," he says, standing with his arms resting on an AK-47 slung across his chest and his black ski mask pulled up to show his face.

Soon, it's back to the other side of life in Iraq. The helicopters are delayed by some two hours, so we get back to the Baghdad too late for me to return to the office — nobody goes out on the streets here after dark. The Iraqi journalists are anxious and rush off to try to beat the 8:30 p.m. curfew that has been imposed as part of a new security plan for the capital of 6 million people.

I end up spending the night in the pantry of a facility in the Green Zone, where they have set aside a bed for "female media." Fortunately there's a stack of boxes of peanut butter cookies and cereal, so I can grab a bite since no other food is available. Unfortunately, it's also the storage room for Gatorade, so I'm awaked by a few knocks on the door from people seeking some energy drink. The computers run on generators, but the press room uses the city's electricity grid, so there are no lights and I have to file my story by the light of the computer screen.

The next morning, as my ride arrives to pick me up, we hear the sound of mortar rounds. It turns out to be fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces and insurgents on nearby Haifa Street. Another day begins in Baghdad.


FRIDAY, June 9, 10:30 p.m. local

BAGHDAD, Iraq — I often feel a sense of deja vu here in Iraq as it reminds me of time spent in Moscow and Kiev in the years before and after the Soviet Union fell apart.

One of the first things I see from my seat on the plane as it spirals into Baghdad is the white roof of Abu Ghraib, the prison notorious as one of Saddam Hussein's torture centers and now infamous for photos of U.S. soldiers humiliating Iraqi detainees. I don't find the corkscrew landing so hard to take, certainly not worse than the steep descent of planes favored by Soviet pilots when I was an exchange student in Kiev more than 15 years ago.

"Welcome to Baghdad International Airport" the sign on the side of the terminal reads as I climb down the stairs onto the tarmac and into the dry heat. I don a flak jacket, put on my head scarf that a lady at the duty free store in Amman taught me how to wear and hop into an armored car. We ride down the dangerous airport road over speed bumps the size of logs and past checkpoints where soldiers eye us warily.

The driver keeps it slow so there's plenty of time to enjoy the view of concrete barriers, demolished buildings, barbed wire strewn with garbage and every now and then a glimpse of domes from former palaces now occupied by Western forces. The scene changes as we enter Baghdad proper to busy sidewalks lined with stalls that sell everything from clothes to electronics to kuba, a traditional dish that's basically a rice ball filled with meat.

I flash back to newly independent Russia, when babushky and war veterans took to the streets to sell their pots and pans and medals to earn some money as the former Soviet Union plunged into capitalism.

Traffic is nasty here with cars lined up at checkpoints as women shrouded in black robes called abayas and head scarves fan themselves in the 100-plus degree heat with children on their laps as they wait in cars as beat-up as ours. Even if they could afford it, nobody wants to call attention to themselves in this city, where a bakery was blown up the other day while people were buying warm bread for dinner, killing nine. Iraqi forces in green helmets and what looks like awfully thin body armor wave us on through.

I hope my assignment allows me to meet an Iraqi family and join them for dinner one night in the crammed low-rise buildings to see if it's really true that life does go on despite the chaos below.

Air conditioners dot the windows, despite the fact that even the capital of 6 million people is down to four hours a day of electricity due to severe shortages. But I remain in my car with tinted windows and armored doors. We cross the Tigris River, with weeds growing out of the concrete embankment. I wish this wasn't my first visit so I'd know what it was like before the war, though I know life wasn't easy then either with rampant unemployment and economic hardships at a time of U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The Palestine Hotel — a 19-story tower that overlooks the Tigris River and is currently the AP's headquarters in Baghdad — is a shabby shell of the luxury accommodation it once was and I have a feeling the main thing I'll remember about it is the cockroaches swarming over the countertop as I wash my dishes in the bathroom sink.

That also takes me back to 1989, when I was an exchange student in Kiev and had to take my own light bulbs into the dorm's bathroom because otherwise people would steal them. Times were hard for Soviet university students just a few years after Gorbachev launched perestroika. The cockroaches scatter as the light comes on.

My room at the Palestine is comfortable enough and truth be told, not much smaller than my closet of an apartment in Manhattan. The water isn't potable so I brush my teeth with bottled water and keep my mouth and eyes shut tight while taking a shower. There's even a phone, but I've only used it for room-to-room calls. Perhaps in an effort to maintain the trappings of an actual hotel, a list on the phone provides numbers for room service, reception and a concierge, but we're largely left to our own devices here. The toilets don't always flush and when they do, they often continue running.

But it's hard to complain. At least we have electricity for the most part thanks to generators. One of our Iraqi staffers tells me his children are out of school for the summer and I ask him if they're happy to be done. He says not really because it's so hot and their generator isn't working well. The city has some pools, but they're afraid to go to them because of the rampant violence. So he says they play at home and he and his wife try to keep them cool as best they can, waving his hand as if they fan the young ones themselves.