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An insider's guide to Iraq

By Anderson Cooper

Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," which airs weeknights at 10 p.m. ET. He also is a regular contributor for Details Magazine. This article was published in the September 2004 issue.

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Anderson Cooper

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS

Iraq
Baghdad
Anderson Cooper

In Baghdad today, as an American, the list of what you can't do is a lot longer than the list of what you can.

You can't: eat in a restaurant; see a movie; hail a taxi; go out at night; stroll down the street; stand in a crowd; stay in one spot too long; use the same route twice; get stuck in traffic; forget to barricade your hotel-room door at night; neglect to speak in code when using walkie-talkies; go anywhere without armed guards, communication devices, IDs, a Kevlar vest, and a multi-vehicle convoy.

You can't forget you're a target. Other than that, it's not so bad.

On the morning flight from Amman to Baghdad you'll find the desperate, the downtrodden, the curious, the convinced; you'll find true believers, truth-seekers, patriots, and parasites. They come looking for money or meaning, or something in between.

"Welcome to Free Iraq."

That's what it says on the T-shirts they sell at Baghdad International Airport.

Freedom's great, but so is security, and right now many Iraqis would trade a lot of the first for even some of the second.

A Filipino clutching a machine gun shouts instructions in Tagalog to a gaggle of Halliburton workers fresh off the plane from Manila.

Printed on the back of his baseball hat is the name of the security company he works for: CusterBattles. It doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Armor-plated cars with a team of Kevlar-vested guards, employed by CNN, meet me at the airport. I'll rarely be without them for the next several weeks.

They are former British Special Forces soldiers. Tough, professional men who've done things you can't imagine in places you've never heard of. They don't talk much about where they've been, but one thing they'll tell you right away: Baghdad's the worst they've seen.

Without enough soldiers on the ground, the United States has relied on a ghost army of around 20,000 private guards. Critics call them mercenaries, but here "private contractors" is the preferred term.

"Look at that G.I. Joe," says one of my guards, pointing to a security contractor manning a roadblock. "Isn't he all decked out."

You see all kinds. Some are former Navy SEALs who know what they're doing and keep a low profile; others are weekend warriors you don't want to get anywhere near.

They swagger around the city, tricked out in B-movie ninja gear: commando vests, knee pads, pistols on hips, knives in boots, machine guns at the ready.

A little overweight, a little down on their luck -- for them this s--- came along at just the right time. A year here and they can earn $200,000. A good chunk of it tax-free.

War is hell, but it's also an opportunity.

There are true believers to be sure, holed up behind high walls and concertina, camped out in the Green Zone, the most protected spot in town. Civilians and soldiers, planners and plotters, trying to respond to events on the ground.

The rest of us make do in seedy hotels with bedspreads that look like velvet Persian carpets and windows covered in blast protection.

In the snail-slow hotel elevator, a South Korean woman with Birkenstocks and a DV camera exchanges death tolls with an aging Palm Beach playboy. His silver pompadour, double-breasted suit, suede shoes, and paisley pocket square seem very out of place.

"Did you hear? Three Iraqis were killed, IED," she says, giving the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.

"Yeah, two policemen got shot in Mosul," he responds.

In the office, the numbers come across your computer screen, an endless string of press releases that will never make it on air. Three Turks kidnapped. One soldier killed. Two thousand flak jackets sent to the police. A grenade tossed into a liquor store. A surgeon shot to death outside his home.

No names, just bodies. So many small acts of terror; after a while you lose track of them all.

From the headlines and pictures you'd think it's complete chaos, but the truth is much more complicated than that. The terror is targeted. Some parts of the country appear peaceful. Other parts, anything but.

"It's nowhere near as bad as you see on TV," a young soldier says to me. "Sure, you get shot at sometimes, but most of the time it's real boring."

During World War II, British troops in Iraq used to say about the town in southern Iraq they were based in, "Basra is the a--hole of the world, but Baghdad's a couple hundred miles up it." Most American soldiers in Baghdad today would likely agree.

On patrol with the 1st Cavalry, the hours trickle by. At noon it's 110 degrees, and sweat comes out of body parts that you didn't know could sweat.

The soldiers are drenched, their skin slick behind camouflage vests and wraparound sunglasses. You can't see anyone's eyes.

"I'm sweating more than an E-6 trying to read," Ryan Peterson jokes, his hands never far from the machine gun perched on the back of his Humvee.

Peterson, an Illinois reservist, was ambushed in April. He's not sure how things here are going to turn out. "Frankly, it could go either way," he says. Though he's proud of what he's done, he can't wait to get home.

Back at base, a camp called Victory, there's row after row of air-conditioned trailers, a Burger King, and a giant PX.

You can buy "Who's your Baghdaddy?" T-shirts, electronics and potato chips or simply stand in the aisle and close your eyes, feel the cool air on your face.

It feels like America, and though it doesn't last long, I'd be lying if I said it doesn't feel good.

"It's tough being here, with all these lonely, horny soldiers around," a female friend of mine jokes. She's a civilian working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was running the show here for more than a year.

She hates it at times, but she can't imagine being anywhere else.

A week before he hands over power to the new Iraqi government, I accompany the top U.S. official, Ambassador Paul Bremer, on a farewell tour of northern Iraq.

The handover is happening earlier than the United States had originally planned, but little here has happened as originally planned.

Bremer's worked 18-hour days, seven days a week. In the air he travels in a convoy of Black Hawk and Apache helicopters; on the ground he is surrounded by dozens of gun-toting guards.

On the Black Hawk he largely ignores me, reading over papers and signing official documents. Bored, I examine his well-pressed shirt, his cuff links, and combat boots.

His bodyguard reads a paperback copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.

Winning friends and influencing people has been Bremer's job here for more than a year. But on this, his farewell tour, his security seems to be pissing off an awful lot of Iraqis. In one town his detail gets into an argument with local Kurdish journalists.

Insulted, they storm out, refusing to cover his press conference. The problem makes winning hearts and minds a difficult thing to do.

Riding in a Black Hawk ... the heavy rotors slicing the air, your body shakes so much your skin starts to itch. Feet dangle from the open doors, blast-furnace heat bakes your face, sucking the moisture from your lips.

You fly low, 50 feet off the ground, too close for an RPG to be effective. You pitch up over power lines, then plunge back down. The door gunner stays alert. It's hard not to be impressed by the high-tech horsepower of American might.

Of course, Bremer's not the only one trapped in a security bubble. We all are, and breaking out is hard to do. You speed along in convoys, surrounded by barrel-chested guys with ceramic plates hidden underneath their shirts, machine guns in hand. Their eyes dart and bodies shift as a car swings out of nowhere alongside you.

You stay tense, expecting an attack, but nothing happens, and after a while you stop noticing the weight of your flak jacket, stop feeling your heart beat against the heavy ceramic plate on your chest.

I try to spend a couple of hours talking to Iraqis on the street, but the head security guy shows me a note warning of terrorists driving around looking to kidnap foreigners. We go out anyway, but only for a short time.

The days blur. Night here is morning in New York, so you work around the clock. At first I sleep only a few hours each day, wake up stunned, my hotel blinds drawn against the heat, not sure where I am.

Everything else falls away. Family, friends, bills, mortgages. You talk to people back home on the phone, and it's nice to hear from them, but then you've got to go, happily distanced from the drudgery of that life.

It's like being high and not wanting to leave the club. You keep thinking you're going to miss something. One more pill, one more song, one more hour. The key, of course, is to leave before it gets really bad, but in the end, what fun is that?

The truth is, it feels good; even amid destruction, you feel alive. It's not just some story you watch on TV -- pixelated people in a faraway land -- it's living, breathing, it fills your nostrils.

In a rundown hospital, a young man lies on a plastic sheet, his body burned. A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of men waiting to join the new Iraqi army. Thirty-six were killed; this young man survived.

"When you get out, do you still plan to join the army?" I ask.

"Of course," he says. "It's an honor."

Despite all the bombs and bullets, the bloodshed and fear, it's impossible not to notice the hope.

The morning I leave, terrorists hit the hotels with rockets --not exactly the wake-up call I was expecting.

Three Iraqi guards are injured. Thankfully no one is killed.

Later, at the airport, when I'm standing on the tarmac and waiting to identify my luggage before boarding the plane, a mortar lands a few hundred meters away.

The impact, crushingly loud, shakes the ground. A black plume of smoke rises high into the air. The other passengers look around to see where the shell has landed; a nervous tremor moves through the crowd.

"It's all right," says a teenage Iraqi baggage handler, laughing. "It's all right."

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