Print and Image by Dimiter Kenarov, for the Pulitzer Center
The sky over Baghdad is deep blue. Last night's rain has washed the air spick-and-span. The day billows with promise—all green palms and golden mosques. Even the Aerostats, the ominous zeppelin-shaped surveillance balloons floating on the outer perimeter of the city, look somehow festive, like balloons at a party, and the bombed-out dome of Saddam's Al Salam Palace perches atop downtown Baghdad like a birthday hat. Iraq's big bash, the parliamentary elections, is still days away, but preparations have long been in the works. Some are pasting election posters over the blast walls; others are putting up colorful election slogans on the barbed wire fences. IHEC (Independent High Electoral Commission) is trying to make sure there will be enough paper ballots for everyone involved. And those tough guys with the guns out there—they are the election's bouncers.
The International Zone, the seat of Iraq's government, has six major ECPs (Entry Control Points), all of them guarded by armed-to-the-teeth men and women from half the world's nations and races. The International Zone is like the sanctuary of the Holy Grail, and to gain unauthorized access is virtually impossible. There is the Iraqi Army, with its new Humvees and tanks and armored personnel vehicles, showing off their brass at every possible occasion. There are the courteous Kurdish Peshmergas, proud but highly disciplined soldiers, unwilling to associate with the rabble of the Iraqi Army. There are the Ugandan contractors, the most fearsome of the lot, dedicated to their job to the point of blind fanaticism: if you don't have your papers in order, there is no way on earth you are passing by the Ugandans. And finally, somewhere deep in the shadows, there lurks the US Army, its ranks silently dwindling, troops tiptoeing backward toward home. "Shock and awe" has been downgraded to "assist and advise"…