01 January 2004
"Watch out for the donkey!" we cried yesterday near the town hall. I like donkeys. The Arabs despise the hamar but I have always loved the grey-haired wisdom of the beast, those big, affectionate eyes, its soft fur and slavish love. Poor old "donks", we said sadly when the insurgents used donkey carts to fire rockets at the Palestine and Sheraton hotels in Baghdad. One of the animals - badly singed on its rear by a missile - upset the rest of the armoury on to the road and may have saved lives. But when a donkey came clopping up to an American checkpoint on Tuesday, all animal love was set aside.
A roadside bomb had just exploded. The US troops in Karradah were ready to fire at anything and anyone. Then came the donkey. It shuffled up the street, pulling a blue cart of rusting gas canisters and its owner, who was sitting on the cart. Turn the donkey round, we muttered under our breath. "Turn that donkey round," shouted an American. "Turn the fucking donkey round," announced an Iraqi militiaman.
The donkey clopped to a standstill and turned its head toward us. I looked at its eyes. It looked at me. Please turn round, I mouthed. And the bearded man yanked the reins and the beast backed up and turned left and wearily retraced its path.
Even cats have the same effect these days. American soldiers returning home to the US are giving ambush lessons to incoming members of the 82nd Airborne and the Marines. The "terrorists" or "rebels" or "insurgents" are using the hollowed out carcasses of cats and dogs to hide explosives. On the left, the explosives are hidden inside the concrete median. On the right - well, take your local moggie, slit him or her in half, insert three mortar shells and leave it by the side of the road. So off we go each day from Baghdad, The Independent and its trusty driver Mohamed, ever watchful for run-over, well-fed quadrupeds.
"Watch out for that cat," I shouted yesterday at a traffic roundabout in Mansur, and Mohamed veered to avoid a large and very dead black and white puss. On the motorway to al-Doura an old dog was spread-eagled by the verge. "First lane," I yelled, and Mohamed wrenched the steering wheel left. Mohamed thinks I am a soft Westerner, uneasy at running over long-dead animals. It has taken days to educate him. Why does he think the American convoys are now driving in the centre lane of motorways? "Mr Robert, I know the answer," he said. "The left side explodes in concrete and the dogs and cats explode on the right of the road."
It is strange how quickly we become accustomed here to the rules of life and death and discomfort. Never eat, for example, at the restaurant of my hotel, a great white building where The Independent maintains its dodgy offices. Just one shrimp cocktail will have you driving the big white bus all night. The menu boasts "Shredded chicken w/ Bamboo Shoot" and "Tornedo w/ Mushrooms" and I dare any bon vivant to sample the "Deluxe Beef Burger w/ egg and cheese" and try sleeping soundly for eight hours.
Even the laundry has its excitements. Every evening, Hassan will call on the house phone and scream, "Laundry!" - to make sure I am at home and ready to tip him for my cleaned clothes. A few minutes later Hassan is at the door. "Laundry!" he bawls, as if the mere production of my tired old shirts and socks is a political victory to rival the invasion of his country. I know the routine well. I smile like a newly freed prisoner. I express the thanks of the doomed that my clothes have been returned on their dirty red hangers. I hand over 3,000 Iraqi dinars. Then I smell the petrol. My shirts and pants and socks smell of benzene. Only yesterday did I dare to ask why. I padded down to the receptionist, who explained the problem to me very gently. "Mr Robert, if there is some spot on your shirt, something they can't clean with soap and water, they use the benzene." Understood! No problem then. My shirts smell of petrol because they are so clean.
You get used to it, of course. The fish, the laundry, the cats and dogs in New Iraq. Don't overtake American convoys. And above all, stay away from donkeys.
* At least five Iraqis were killed and more than 20 wounded yesterday when shots were firedduring a demonstration in Kirkuk, where Kurds are vying for more control of the oil-rich city.
Thousands of Arab and Turkoman protesters marched on the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish factions, and chanted: "No to federalism, Kirkuk is Iraqi". Kirkuk's chief of police said two people were killed in the gunfire. Doctors said three more people died later at a nearby hospital.