BAGHDAD // It was a normal enough run into south Baghdad. I had squeezed myself in to a small Kia minivan and, as we came into the Za'faraniya area of the city, we ran into the inevitable checkpoint. Of late only Iraqi soldiers have been stationed there, peering in through windows and waving through traffic, stopping the occasional car or lorry that looks suspicious. All pretty casual and polite enough, not creating too much of a traffic jam.
But this time there were US troops as well and, under US observation, the Iraqi army was working harder. All the buses were being stopped, passengers made to get off and physically searched. As we came to a halt, there was the customary grumbling from the other people on board, vaguely irritated by the delay and the need to stand out in the afternoon heat. But there is a war on and most Iraqis see the need for security measures. The complaints were reflexive, without malice. That was to change, however, and by the time we left the checkpoint, there was malice aplenty.
The women were taken off to one side and an Iraqi soldier waved a wand-style metal detector over their loosefitting black robes, clothes designed to be modest but also excellent for concealing the vests worn by suicide bombers. There have been too many cases recently of women blowing themselves up, especially in Diyala province, and the security forces are making greater efforts to search them these days. Once upon a time, women were by and large left alone, seen as outside of the conflict when it came to these random body searches. But those times are past. Another small slice of whatever innocence Iraq had, gone.
I joined the men in a different line, waiting for a hands-on pat down by a US soldier. I could hear them talking, one tall, fat soldier complaining bitterly about the Iraq troops. "These people do nothing, they're lazy, they don't give a damn," he said, or something very similar - I could not write it down at the time, as you would normally do as a reporter, and had to commit it to memory. "They sit around and take their pay and don't search anything. Then as soon as they see us turn up, they jump around and pretend to be soldiers. It's stupid."
He swore with amazing frequency as he spoke, every other word a curse, warming to his theme. "Iraqis don't bother to do a thing. They don't care, why should I care? If they want to let bombers through, let them through, it's on them. Let them kill each other." He would occasionally shout at one of the Iraqi soldiers, in English, telling him to do this or that. The Iraqi, not understanding what he was being told, would carry on doing what he was doing. Another sign to the tall, fat American of Iraqis' stupidity.
"Look at these dumb *******, are they soldiers? They're not soldiers." This is the Iraqi army that, according to all the official progress reports and status evaluations and Washington press conferences, is standing up and ready to fight the insurgency. I am not sure the typical US combat soldier on the front line in Baghdad believes a word of it. When it was my turn to be searched, I spoke to the soldier who had been complaining. He was surprised to hear me speaking English, surprised that I had understood what he had been saying. I felt angry about his "Iraqi's don't bother" comment - this is our country, and it is innocent Iraqis who have been doing most of the dying - and I told him as much. He might have been right about the Iraqi army's ostensible professionalism and I have seen enough half-asleep IA soldiers to know he had a point.
And yet, these troops at least, were well mannered and were dealing properly with the public - saying hello, asking after peoples' health, wishing them a peaceful journey, smiling occasionally - something you cannot always say about the Americans, who, five years into this thing, still do not seem to have picked up enough Arabic to be civil. "You complain about these soldiers, but you're the ones who are training them," I said. "If you're saying the Iraqi army is no good, you're saying that you're failing in your mission."
I was not sure what his reaction would be. In the end he just shrugged and told me I could go. I left, feeling annoyed. Back on the bus, the engine labouring to take us away from the checkpoint, the passengers asked what the soldier had said. A young Iraqi lawyer who understood English was also on board and we told our fellow travellers what had happened. An old man with a white beard, dressed in a suit, listened, and then burst into an angry rant. "They're racists," he said, almost shouting. "We've seen the true face of the Americans. When they came here they were smiling and pretending to be friendly, but they never respected us. They are racists, they hate Arabs, they hate Iraqis.
"In their own country, they are racists. They make a big fuss because a black man is standing for president! Why is the colour of a man's skin even mentioned? Who cares what colour the president's skin is? Believe me, they will never vote for Barak Obama, they won't be able to, they'll think he's one of us, not one of them. "They'll vote for McCain; he's even worse than Bush!" He was also livid about the soldier swearing. Even Iraqis who do not speak English are, by now, familiar with the F-word. It is everywhere, used by all the US soldiers, and now by young Iraqis. I can imagine that will be one of the enduring legacies of this conflict: Iraqis swearing in American English.
"If a man says that in front of my wife, I'd have the right to kill him for the sake of our honour," the white bearded man said. "I should have killed him right there, where he stood! They have no respect for us, and for that reason I have no respect for them. "You can see from their movies, just violence and shouting and shooting. These are not people you can respect and they are not from a civilised culture. They've done the impossible. They've made Iraq worse than it was under Saddam. They've made it worse!"
Everyone had stayed silent but the old man seemed to have caught the mood. Someone in front of me agreed, "worse than Saddam", and everyone nodded or murmured their assent. We carried on into Baghdad without saying anymore. It was hot and no one felt like speaking. email@example.com