Baghdad: The Palestine Hotel bombing

The bombing this week of the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels in Baghdad brought back memories. After initially arriving in Baghdad in April 2003 I resided in the Palestine on and off through much of the year. I only left and took my own apartment when it became obvious that efforts to enhance "security" at the hotels would actually endanger them.

The Palestine was built as part of the French Meridian chain. It was named the "Palestine" by Iraqi authorities after sanctions took hold and the hotel was abandoned. The Meridian and Sheraton and El Rashid were the three world class hotels in Baghdad. Peter Arnett had made the El Rashid famous during the 1991 war but it was damaged in 2003.

In April 2003 the Palestine and surrounding neighborhood became a worldwide kasbah, as foreigners streamed into Baghdad to assist in the recovery and reconstruction. There were doctors and nurses; there were salesmen. Black marketers. And of course journalists.

The roof of the Palestine offered a clear shot of Firdos Square, which was why that location was chosen to demolish Saddam Hussein’s statute when Baghdad fell. It was a pseudo-event staged for the convenience of the press across the street.

You approached the roof of the Palestine through what I called "generator city," endless lines of whirring generators powering the sat phones, uplinks, cameras and every sort of electronic contraption.

Stateside visitors poured through the Palestine and Sheraton on a daily basis. The area was generally peaceful and safe. While a few tanks had been deployed around the hotels, the perimeter was virtually open. Which was good because smugglers immediately began to hustle in the comforts of life from Jordan along the "Highway of Death," where, luckily, people had stopped dying.

As the months passed the hotels changed for the better, and worse. The summer was very hot, power was limited; still, the hotel’s generators keep a light in every room. The staff cared. Initially, we had carried in water and canned/boxed foods, because there was supposedly nothing to eat. But the hotel was serving boiled eggs and tea, and pita, and gradually expanded the menu. Then the kebab grills opened, then the pool was filled, then the garden was opened to diners, then the breakfast coffee shop. Normalcy was returning.

Yet there were also ominous signs. Having been in Viet-Nam in 1967, 68 and 70 I knew the profiteers and hucksters would soon arrive, and they did. There were "investors" and speculators (anybody want to buy an apartment?) and other forms of marketing magicians. And there were security guards.

I kept staying at the hotel until the fall, when I noticed Ghurkas were being deployed on some floors to guard contractors and others who did not trust the Iraqis. I knew that if Americans had been in Iraq for six months and still could not connect with the locals, danger lay ahead. A few days after I moved out the hotels were rocketed for the first time.

The more security that was deployed abound the hotels the more dangerous they became. The Tigris River had been open. Every night I would stroll along Au Nuwas Street, talk to locals in mixed English-Arabic, and look to see what was happening, and observe the gradual restoration of life. Then came the concrete barriers.

A U.S. Army brigade commander and I were friendly; he enjoyed my efforts to help his men and the tales that circulated about Andy’s trained dogs. I called them the "Royal Baghdad Canine Constabulary." Unfortunately a new brigade commander came along and ordered the dogs killed.

Once the wall was in place I could no longer walk along the street. It was too dangerous. Walls do that. Unfortunately, our military had never read Robert Frost’s poem "Mending Wall." And so I moved into a local apartment.

The Palestine/Sheraton complex was still a center of the city. The El Rashid opened briefly but it was part of the Green Zone (which I quickly labeled the "Emerald City"). After Paul Wolfowitz came to town and was rocketed, security at the El Rashid was increased. I stayed on my side of the river, avoiding the Emerald City and the bozos that were controlling our policies.

In June 2003 I began to criticize Paul Bremer; as his incompetence became more evident my columns became more strident. And more and more accurate in predicting events in Baghdad. The city was reviving; construction was beginning. Normal life was returning. I was able to buy a bathing suit and use the pool at the Palestine. And the insurgency was in its early stages.

Even now that I have left Baghdad physically the place continues to have a hold on me. Young Americans are in harm’s way. We cannot forget them even if we criticize the policies that sent them there and the leaders who have made an enormous disaster of our foreign policy. And the insurgency continues.

I am back in Chicago. Chi-town is safe. My only insurgency is a political one in the Republican Party.

Unfortunately, the Palestine/Sheraton area is an increasingly combustible zone. While published reports have focused on "hostages" (a discredited theory) and the desire for a big bang in front of the media as the basis for this week’s attack, I favor a theory no one has advanced: the real target of the bombers was the contractors, those who are guarded by Ghurkas and those who feel the need for special security.

Perhaps some media had no choice but to stay there; the security situation has become untenable in central Baghdad. Still, living in a mélange of media, contractors and other esoteric individuals who demand armed guards makes for a dangerous neighborhood once a location gets targeted.

I was always amused/amazed that Paul Wolfowitz was surprised he was rocketed when he visited Baghdad. Did he think local people were stupid? That employees don’t observe, gossip, report? That any city is a mixture of good guys and bad guys? It is hard to keep a secret in the middle of a war.

Unfortunately, two and a half years later, we still don’t trust the locals. And they no longer trust us. And that tells us everything we need to know about Baghdad, Iraq and our Middle East policies.

And so, as I reflect on the latest bombing in Baghdad, I just wish Americans loved poetry more, and power less. We might earn some wisdom from Edwin Markham’s "Outwitted:"

He drew a circle and shut me out, heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took him in.

How different America and the world would be if, after the misbegotten invasion, instead of fencing off the Palestine Hotel and in essence fencing off Iraq from the American presence, President Bush had had the "love and wit to win," and drawn a circle that had drawn the Iraqi people in. He didn’t, and young Americans and their families, and Iraqis, continue to pay the horrible price.