Reality Check from Baghdad

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I was intrigued by John McCain’s assertion on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” show that “there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods today.”

As it happens, Brian Bennett, the TIME correspondent who normally sits in the office next to mine, is in Baghdad at the moment. In my continuing effort to get my fellow TIME correspondents to do all my work for me, I e-mailed him and asked him how it looks on that end. Here’s his reply:

I just spoke with XXXXXX, our Iraqi bureau manager, about where in Baghdad I could go for a walk. He said there was one neighborhood (I’m not telling — why make it a target?). He said I could get out of the car with him and a couple of our Iraqi bodyguards and walk for about three blocks – -then we’d have to get back in the car before the cell phone calls to kidnappers caught up with us.

In other words, McCain is right. It’s safe for a stroll — if you take two bodyguards and wear your running shoes.

UPDATE: Brian (no relation to Bill, that I know of) adds:

Please, Senator, take me to these neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and Bill Bennett can walk around.

I would love to be able to walk the streets here, even in one neighborhood. I would love to chat with old men in coffee shops like reporters did three and four years ago: talk with barbers, rug sellers, fish mongers. Take the temperature of the real people who live in Baghdad. But I can’t do it this way. I have to meet with ordinary Iraqis in secret, in living rooms with the shades drawn, in courtyards with high walls, out of sight from suspicious eyes. When I am walking on the streets of a neighborhood, it is for a few minutes before ducking into a house or behind a security cordon.

You see, as a foreign face, I am immediately a target. Not only by insurgents and militias looking to make a high publicity hit, but by kidnapping gangs that run a lucrative ransom business in Baghdad. This is why when I do go into a neighborhood, I don‚t stay there long enough for a chain of cell phone calls to bring in the local thugs.

Even in the Green Zone that is guarded by high cement walls and layers upon layers of security check points, I doubt Senator McCain’s security detail would allow him to walk very far on his own. Many U.S. soldiers in the Green Zone aren’t allowed to move around by themselves for fear of kidnapping. And rocket and mortars land daily inside the four-square mile secured area. Last night a rocket killed a government contractor near the U.S. embassy compound.

I have been in neighborhoods where U.S. soldiers, armed with M-16s and backed up by Bradley Fighting Vehicles, have walked on the streets and greeted smiling children and families. But they are backed up by massive firepower that creates a mirage of peace, and all it takes is a crack of a sniper rifle or the boom of a road-side bomb for reality to come crashing back.

Unfortunately that reality is never far away here. McCain needs a reality check.

Stay safe, Brian.