Bulletproof vests, concrete blocks and armed guards: life for foreigners in Iraq

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The Independent Online

"For Rent" signs in English seeking foreign tenants which were a common sight last year in the plusher Baghdad neighbourhoods are no more. "Even being seen talking to a foreigner is dangerous for me," said an Iraqi businessman. The only advertising addressed to foreigners in Baghdad these days is in the form of discreet notices pinned to the wall in hotels, offering bulletproof vests for sale.

"For Rent" signs in English seeking foreign tenants which were a common sight last year in the plusher Baghdad neighbourhoods are no more. "Even being seen talking to a foreigner is dangerous for me," said an Iraqi businessman. The only advertising addressed to foreigners in Baghdad these days is in the form of discreet notices pinned to the wall in hotels, offering bulletproof vests for sale.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein last year, foreigners poured into Baghdad. The hotels filled up with mercenaries working for security companies, businessmen looking for contracts to reconstruct Iraq, aid workers, freelance journalists and people whose purpose in Iraq, if they had any at all, remained mysterious.

Most of them have gone. What may have seemed to be a period of unrest turned out to be the prologue to even greater violence.

Nothing will make Baghdad safe for a foreigner at the moment, but the threat can be diminished. The risks are high in hard-core Sunni districts of Baghdad such as Haifa Street or Adhamiyah, or in the western suburbs on the road to Abu Ghraib and Fallujuah. It is also dangerous around the entrances and exits to the Green Zone, the heavily guarded seat of the interim government and the coalition authorities.

Foreigners not in uniforms, or hunched over machine-guns in armoured vehicles, are becoming an increasingly rare sight in Baghdad, and Iraqis look very surprised to see one. The kidnappers have a much smaller pool of victims on which to draw.

Signs of what was to come were there from early on in the occupation. The US army was always largely interested in its own security, and looked on the safety of Iraqis and other foreigners with detachment. The great highway linking Baghdad to Amman was never free of bandits. US patrols took no action as pick-ups piled high with loot from Iraqi ministries and public buildings drove past them.

For all the attempts of the newly installed Coalition Provisional Authority to give the impression last year that normality was returning, Baghdad remained violent. One day I went to the Iraqi Natural History Museum just a few days before a British freelance film producer wasshot through the head there by a man who stepped out of the crowd.

Still, at that time many foreigners took houses and were not an unusual sight in Baghdad's better restaurants.

From the beginning, though, there was a division between the foreigners in Baghdad who lived in the Green Zone and those outside. American and British officials seldom left the strange forbidden city centred on Saddam Hussein's old Republican Palace, where security measures were elaborate. Its inhabitants sneered at the pessimistic assessment of the foreign press.

A turning point was probably the destruction by a car bomb of the UN headquarters, killing the UN envoy, in Canal Street in August last year. It showed that nobody was safe. Soon afterwards the Red Cross headquarters was blown up, and many of the remaining aid workers departed.

April saw a further watershed for foreigners, when the US siege of Fallujah provoked an uprising of Sunni Muslims, and the American campaign against the maverick Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, led to a rebellion throughout the south. Any foreigner was fair game.

I was picked up at a Mehdi army checkpoint and spent a nervous couple of hours, persuading them that I was a journalist. During that time, the checkpoint was caught in an ambush by insurgents.

Previously, when travelling to a district where there had been fighting, I would go to the house of an important local tribal leader and ask for a guide to show us around and vouch for us. But after April, tribal sheikhs would admit they no longer had the power to give safe conducts. The ritual beheading of Nicholas Berg, an American, grimly underlined what could happen.

The kidnapping of two French journalists on 19 August showed hostage takers would seize nationals of countries hostile to the invasion of Iraq. Nor were women safe. On 7 September two Italian women aid workers were kidnapped in daylight in the capital. Their fate, and that of the Frenchmen, remains uncertain. Since the beginning of summer, many of the dwindling number of foreigners in Iraq have now left. Those who had rented houses moved back to well-guarded hotels. Few travelled out of Baghdad, and when they did it was huddled in the back of a car.

Astonishingly, through all this Kenneth Bigley and his two American colleagues were living quietly without guards. They were a very soft target.

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