I was standing on my balcony in the darkness, puffing on a fine Havana – I had just filed my day’s report to The Independent’s foreign desk – when I saw the soldiers of the 1st Armoured Division padding down the road outside.
The guys at the rear were walking backwards, two officers in the centre, all moving purposefully towards the hotel entrance. By the time I got downstairs, Mohamed, the receptionist, was incurring the wrath of Iraq’s occupying army.
“Show me the hotel register, please, Sir,” the officer was saying. “It’s in the other building,” Mohamed replied innocently. “Don’t play games with me, Sir,” snapped the soldier. “I want the hotel register.”
I’ve often wondered why American soldiers do this sort of thing – insult a guy and then add “Sir” so they can claim they have been polite. “Mohamed is not playing games,” I said. The register is always kept in the other part of the hotel.
The officer – his name was Scheetz – turned back to Mohamed. “Who’s in Room 106?” Mohamed looked at me. I looked at Scheetz. Room 106 is the hotel suite occupied by The Independent . I gave Mr Scheetz my card. What on earth did he want, I asked?
Another soldier turned to me. “I guess we don’t want any more hotels blowing up,” he said. Of course. And so say all of us. But what has Room 106 got to do with it? “Security,” another American said. Which, of course, is the excuse for any raid, any military operation, any body search, any decision taken by anyone – even President Bush – if they don’t choose to explain their behaviour.
I walked up to my room. There were three more US soldiers outside and three Iraqi paramilitaries of the so-called Iraqi Civil Defence Corps. The soldier nearest my door seemed as mystified as I was, a friendly, intelligent young man called Matt Meyers who had been in Iraq for a year, loved soldiering, was prepared to stay longer and planned to vote – hold your breath – for George Bush in November.
He is the first American soldier I’ve come across in Iraq who wants to vote for the man who sent him to this hell-hole. He came from Seattle. Perhaps that had something to do with it.
Meyers’ agile brain was absorbing Arabic like a sponge – he even had an Iraqi accent – and rather disconcertingly called his Iraqi paramilitary sidekicks by nicknames. A big, paunchy man with an Iraqi flash on his sleeve was dub kbir, “big bear”, but the paramilitary didn’t smile when he was told to go downstairs.
The 1st Armoured had even created a special logo for the “Iraqi Civil Defence Corps”, the letters ICDC in Gothic letters with half an SS lightning flash in between. I didn’t dare question the symbolism of this. The same American unit also incorporates a death’s head skull in its various symbols, though this is a reference to the destruction of an SS unit by the 1st Armoured Division in Normandy in 1944.
More soldiers came into the hotel. Three plain-clothes Western men wearing “Coalition Provisional Authority” badges ran up the stairs, one of them with a South African flag on his sleeve. Meyers didn’t want to come into my room. Scheetz was told that The Independent had been here for a year, that I was the senior correspondent and that we weren’t planning to blow up any Baghdad hotels, least of all our own. I offered to give Meyers a copy of my book on the Lebanon war and he gave me his address in Germany so I could send it to him when he goes home – very reluctantly, no doubt – in May.
And that should have been that. Scheetz went off to search Room 106 in the hotel’s second building – it is an empty office – and I started chatting to the hotel staff. In front of these Iraqis, Sunnis, Shias and Christians, I have a firm policy. Don’t appear – ever – to be fraternising with the occupying power. It’s more than my life is worth. That’s when the waiter arrived with a tray covered in a white cloth and – standing upon it – a can of Amstel beer. “It’s compliments of Mr Sheetz,” he said.
O Lordy, Lordy. The Iraqis looked on in silence. The waiter looked at me sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders. What was this for, the Iraqis were asking themselves? So was I. Mohamed, the receptionist who had been told not to “play games”, was watching me like the proverbial hawk. I told the waiter to take the beer back and he did.
So I was left with a couple of questions. What nincompoop sent these young Americans onto the dangerous streets of night-time Baghdad to examine a hotel register which could be looked at quietly by any discreet visitor during the day, and to demand the identity of a guest who’s been staying here on and off for the past year? Secondly – and much more seriously – if I could be angry when Mohamed was insulted by the American, what were the Iraqis thinking? Another minuscule thread, I suppose, in the tapestry called the War on Terror.