Originally published on the website of The Virginia Quarterly Review.
Reporting supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
Three days after Iraqis voted amid a barrage of bombs and Hollywood awarded Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker six Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), I’m at Baghdad’s General Counter Explosive Directorate, the center of Iraq’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal programs. It is here that Iraq’s government, with the help of American advisors, trains the EOD specialists who eventually will replace the kinds of teams featured in Bigelow’s film. In one of the classrooms, decorated with bombs of various shapes and sizes, lined up like snakes in jars of formaldehyde, thirty-six students are quietly sitting behind their desks, listening to the instructor. “You must apply yourself. You will not cut corners. If you don’t pass, you’ll not stay in the class. Study hard, you must do well. I will say this one time and one time only: Think Safety. Welcome aboard one of the hardest courses in the world: EOD.” There’s no pep rally response. The Iraqis sit in respectful silence. The only sound is the faint ticking of wristwatches.
General Fares Hatem Abdel Hamid, the commander of the Federal Police EOD program, takes me on a tour around the complex. He proudly shows me the new bomb-disposal suit propped up like a museum piece in the hallway, more a status symbol than anything the Iraqis would ever use. The suit is so large and bulky that it looks as if two of his men could fit inside. Next, we pass by the “wheelbarrows,” the remote-controlled robots on tracks, the latest in bomb-disabling technology. The EOD team seems especially fond of these. “When we gave them the robots,” a major from the US Army tells me, “the Iraqis sacrificed a lamb on the occasion and consecrated them with the blood. I can show you the gory pictures.” Robots smeared with sacrificial blood—this must be the modern parable of Iraq.
At the end of the tour I visit the recreation room, where the Iraqi soldiers relax after a day of cheating death. There is a pool table, a ping-pong table, a foosball table, some dartboards, a mini-bar. Posters of soccer clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona give the room extra color. The general’s son, a boy of about twelve, is playing a soccer videogame in the corner. He is a miniature replica of his father, dressed in child-sized army fatigues, complete with an EOD patch and a general’s three-star epaulets. “He is very good with guns,” his proud father tells me and takes out his cell phone to show me a clip of the young lad shooting a rifle. He is good with guns. Somewhere in the background another TV set is playing a music video by the popular Iraqi singer Hasan Al Rasam. “Don’t leave bombs in the streets, leave roses,” he blares over documentary scenes of carnage and bomb explosions.
“We are people of peace,” the general tells me, “but the situation has forced us to do this job.” Then he launches into a harangue about the terrible things Saddam did. To illustrate his point he takes out his cell phone again and makes me watch the graphic beheading of two men by Saddam’s police. “You see? That’s why we hate the man. He killed so many Shi’a. The US should have invaded in 1991, but instead they let Saddam go scot-free.”
“My idol is Henry Kissinger,” one of the officers, Jamal Hamit Farkan, jumps in. In his fifties, a small but spirited man, Farkan used to be a truck driver before he joined the Federal Police’s EOD team. Now his dream is to visit the US. He wants to have a car, he tells me, and drink scotch. He takes my hand in his and begins to recite the names of American cities, using my fingers as an improvised abacus: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Dallas. “I thought we’d be the fifty-first state,” he says, “and look what happened. We became the zero state.”
Then the general: “I want the Americans to stay. I want them to stay. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Iraqis cannot control their own land, but if there’s a riot, there’d be nobody to say ‘Don’t shoot at the people.’ Also, when the Americans leave, I fear that the militias will take over the Iraqi Security Forces. You see those guys with the black turbans on TV. They are the problem. I really hope the US will not leave us high and dry.”
“Aren’t we the fifty-first state?” Farkan keeps asking, again and again, still holding my hand. “Why do we need visas to the US? Texas, California, Michigan, Ohio. I’d give one of my kidneys for a visa.”