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500 Miles to Babylon
by David Martinez
Friday Feb 6th, 2004 1:13 AM
Local independent reporter David Martinez reports from Iraq. This is the first installment of a series of report-backs from Iraq.
500 miles to Babylon

We leave Amman at 3 AM, with a half-dead moon hanging over the cold
city. As per custom , we have hired a white GMC SUV, and a driver, who keeps up a steady 100
mph from the word go. When the sun finally rises we see the desolate desert of
eastern Jordan, which makes West Texas look like Guatemala, stretching out all
around. Miles of flat, rocky sand, as far as the eye can see, with cargo trucks
speeding empty back from Iraq, and others broken down by the side of the road,
their drivers in red-checked khaffiyas, peering under the hoods.

We stop at a roadside cafe for coffee and breakfast, and there we meet Contractor, an Iraqi American who has been back in country doing business for some nine months. He claims he can get us contacts with all the companies we
want to report on, as he has worked with them all. He, like everyone else we
will meet, is elated that Saddam is gone, and furious at the Americans for
making a mess of his country. "They hire the biggest crooks and gangsters, like
Chalabi, and they are all making millions! Millions!" He laughs at the "mass
graves" that have been reported. "There was a war for ten years with Iran! Of
course there are graves!" He tells us how the Americans moved bodies from one
gravesite to another, to make for better press, and the TV showed corpses with
ID tags around their necks. "Saddam would put ID's on his victims? Absurd!" He
howls with laughter and lights another cigarette. He is currently in the
cigarette-importing business, and he has a new brand, called Freeway, with a
picture of a classic American highway and a flashy sports car on the pack. They
are made in Pakistan.

The stories that Contractor regales us with, and there are many, illustrate the day-to-day, ground-level corruption that the ill-planned occupation has
allowed. Everyone knows about the lucrative contracts that were awarded to
Bechtel and Halliburton, but he tells us stories of people with envelopes full
of money, paid by the Occupation, who turn around and sub-contract to someone
else for peanuts, pocketing the difference for themselves. "I know a young man
of 26 years who has 16 millions of dollars, I swear to you. He doesn't know
what to do with it all! They are all harami, all of them. Paid by the
Americans!" Harami means thief, but it translates literally as "fucker".
According to Contractor, Iraq is now full of harami, all of them looking for a piece of the $87 billion dollar pie.

"I know contracts by Halliburton where they were paid to rebuild a school, and only they slapped some new paint on the walls and left, with million dollars in
their pocket. One day American media will report on all these harami, and they
will all go to prison!"

Somehow, we are skeptical.

The Jordanian exit-border is passed through easily if slowly. There
are hundreds of vehicles going both ways, trucks, vans, cars, and of course many, many white
GMC's carrying reporters or NGO-types. Oh yeah, and the occasional creepy
militaristic-looking Brit or South African, up to no fucking good, I am sure of

We get our passports stamped, and then proceed to the "American" side of the Iraqi border. Our vehicle parks behind several others, under a cement arch that
covers a checkpoint. The drivers mill about smoking, unsure of what to do next,
as there doesn't appear to be anyone checking at the moment.

Then a Humvee drives up, belching diesel fumes. I think it is the first time I have seen one of these that is not being driven by a musclehead with forty grand worth of spare change to throw around. Out jumps an American from the
82nd Airborne, red-faced under his helmet. He immediately begins yelling at
THE VEHICLE!" He points to a spot about twenty feet forward of the first car in

At this point, myself and my compatriot decide to intervene, seeing as how the soldier is screaming at everyone in the lingua franca of a country six thousand
miles away. We step out and immediately meet two underlings, younger grunts
from the 3rd Armored Cavalry. We start talking with them, and this seems to
calm their superior down a little. Also, Contractor has arrived, and he speaks
English, and he begins translating to the drivers, who start moving their

The two grunts seem grateful to talk to Americans. One is Mexican, speaking with
a heavy accent through a toothy smile. He can't believe we're from California."
I'm from Oakland!" he says," My brother lives in San Francisco!" They tell us
about their stint in Fallujah. "That was rough," they say. "We lost people
there." It's kind of bizarre to talk so casually with them about war. It feels
like we are meeting some kids on a beach, swapping a quart of beer. Only
instead, they're wearing fatigues and toting beat-up M-16's.

Meanwhile, the line of cars is finally moving, and Contractor comes up to tell us it's time to go. He introduces himself to the grunts, and gives them sample
packs of his new Freeway cigarettes.

We say goodbye and roll out of the checkpoint after being waved through by another soldier. The Mexican kid grins and flashes us a peace sign as we roll away. It has been our first glimpse of the Occupation, and it says a world
about what we will find in Baghdad: soldiers stationed at a very important
spot, who don't speak the language, and have no idea how to tackle such a job
anyway. So they do what Americans all over the world do when they can't
communicate with foreigners-they yell at them in English. But it's hard not to
feel sorry for the troops, after all, they weren't trained to be border guards,
were they? Isn't the 82nd Airborne trained to jump out of airplanes and shoot
people? So why do they have this guy working border patrol?
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