With nervous steps I left the flat this morning. My fixer and I were headed to the Palestine Hotel, where a massive bomb attack involving three suicide bombers destroyed property all around Firdos Square, shattering windows for blocks around the area. Unfortunately we both had to go to complete an errand there so we decided to make the trip as swift as possible.
Firdos Square is the site of the infamous propaganda event where the US toppled Saddam’s statue. It is easy to determine where the hotel compound is, from the massive concrete blast walls surrounding the area. However, it is nearly impossible to determine the entrance, and it still escapes me how anyone who hasn’t been there before is expected to find it.
Luckily Omar has been there many times working for others. The entrance is about ten feet wide and covered with a dark canvas roof, but open to the air. There were several Iraqi young men with kalashnikovs milling about at the entrance. They agreed to look at our two forms of ID after much insistence-we realized later it appeared they were prepared to let us just walk right in. After the ID check we were both frisked and proceeded down the street to the next checkpoint.
At the second checkpoint we had our IDs again checked-I’m not sure what cause we would have to fake them or change our identity once we were already mostly in the compound-and were searched once more. Just beyond the second checkpoint were two American soldiers relaxing in the shade, with some kind of military vehicle nearby-perhaps a Bradley?
Beyond the final checkpoint there is still a maze of razor-wire, concrete blast walls, and winding walkways to navigate before you reach the Palestine Hotel. At the entrance to the Palestine Hotel we were greeted by massive piles of broken glass and trash all over the terrace in front of the building. One week later, yet the area was still covered in debris and the various post-attack detritus that litters much of Baghdad.
It was simultaneously disorienting and comforting to see that even in the relative security of the Palestine compound, there still wasn’t anymore speed at reconstruction than elsewhere in Baghdad. Many of the front windowpanes were still empty or bearing the jagged edges of partial panes. Despite the devastation, many journalists passed us without a second look to the rubble strewn about. It was quite a shock to see the havoc played out in front of the hotel, one week later, and just a short way from the hotel, towards the blast walls and the Square, an American tank and several troops were stationed.
Many of the journalists covering the on-going situation in Iraq stay in the Palestine Hotel. When the same hotel is one of the few locations outside of the Green Zone protected by a rotating Army unit, its easy to see how these same journalists are being increasing equated with the Occupation forces in the minds of Iraqis.
On our way out of the hotel I said hello to one of the American Army troops out front. He had a strange look on his face at first, as though he couldn’t fathom why I was trying to speak to him. I guess he must have assumed I was a local, because after I spoke and said I was from Boston he brightened up. His unit had just moved to the Palestine Hotel, only a few days prior. He missed the bombings but appeared to think it was just as possible there could be another soon. I didn’t get his unit for certain, but I think it may have been the 315th. If anyone out there knows Chad from Columbus Ohio whose stationed in Baghdad, he’s doing fine and should have regular internet access at the DynCorp building.
[Due to the security situation there, we were only able to obtain one photo from the Palestine Hotel, from our taxi as we left. It shows the new blast walls in place outside the compound.]