Iraq’s Truckers

03.17.13

Iraq War 10th Anniversary: The Teamster

When State Department officer John Kael Weston arrived in Iraq in 2003 he found himself negotiating with the head of the country’s truckers. The first in Weston’s series exploring the lives of Iraqis he encountered during his time.
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Helicopters transport Ambassador John D. Negroponte to the Green Zone from Camp Fallujah in November 2004. (John Kael Weston)

A lot of articles will be written this week about our experience in the Iraq war from primarily a U.S.-centric point of view. My goal is different: to help convey the stories of ordinary Iraqis and how our voluntary war affected them, and still does, even as Washington and the American public have largely moved on. These vignettes, which will run across consecutive days this week, include: The Teamster (Bassam), The English Teacher (Abbas), The Highway Patrolman (Waleed), and The Last Grand Mufti (Hamza). I also describe my interaction outside Fallujah with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a primary architect of our “shock and awe” war.

The final piece in the series is forward-looking. I interview an Iraqi, Ameer, from Baghdad who worked at the American Embassy and now lives in the U.S. He supported the invasion and continues to believe it was the right decision, with some caveats.

One day let's hope Iraqis will write their own books about the Iraq War. When they do, their stories in their words should be required reading for all.

The Teamster

I arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2003 from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City only to be assigned, as I saw it, the role of Jimmy Hoffa on behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority. My Iraqi counterparts would not be Foreign Ministry officials, but Iraq’s truckers. I liked the unexpected challenge ... in a way. I just didn’t want to meet the same fate as the elder Mr. Hoffa.

Pudgy and bearded with baseball mitt-size hands and trained as a mechanic, Bassam had risen to be a chief representative of Iraq’s hundreds-strong teamster high command. This group controlled massive fleets of Volvo trucks crucial in supplying the country and therefore maintaining stability. He and his men moved food—tons of it, daily. Wheat flour, rice, sugar, beans, salt, cooking oil, and tea were common staples. Iraqis depended on them to feed their families ever since the U.N. had authorized stiff economic sanctions following the 1991 Gulf War. Bassam himself loved eating three-foot-long Tigris River carp, called masgouf—a bony, local delicacy also favored by Saddam and, it was rumored, former French president Jacques Chirac, who had the fish flown to Paris.

I almost expected Bassam to speak with a Jersey accent. He was a self-made—and “made”—man in the Mafioso sense, I’m sure. In Bassam, Tony Soprano would have found a kindred spirit.

“Nice meet you,” he said haltingly, in broken English, using my language since I did not speak his.

“Mr. Bassam, likewise. I hear we owe you some money.”

Reeking of cigarette smoke and body odor, Bassam smiled, seeming to understand and excuse my monolinguism. Had I already shown my hand? Or did he like the attempt at humor?

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The outskirts of Fallujah, TCP-1 (Traffic Control Point One), the closest overwatch location for Marines prior to Operation Al Fajr (“The Dawn”) to clear the city of insurgents, circa November 2004. (John Kael Weston)
Staffing the Iraq War was no longer such an adventure or a sought-after distinction for the résumé.

Over the next hour, with the staid deputy trade minister in suit and tie seated next to me, we listened to the teamsters’ arguments: Saddam functionaries had promised them money, a lot, in past salary payments; some truckers were on the verge of revolting; Iraqi families depended on the food staples to be delivered on time—if not, the Americans could ill afford the repercussions of any stoppage, however brief; finally, the coalition needed more friends, not enemies. And truckers made good friends.

He’d convinced me. They would be paid.

The balding, elderly minister with his professor-like demeanor looked my way, but said nothing. There I sat as an underdressed, 31-year-old, naive imperialist in the making. His awkward silence signaled the decision was mine. He handed me two official-looking memos in Arabic, noting one would mean approval, the other rejection. I signed. Bassam reached out and shook my hand, his two-handed grip like a vice—grateful, to be sure, but reaffirming his dominance.

***

By spring 2004, Iraq was coming apart. The Emerald City had been under direct attack from mortar fire and regular explosions at our checkpoints, incinerating Iraqi day laborers, gardeners, and custodians. Inside, we hunkered down. Blast waves from massive car bombs shook the palace. Insurgent munitions landed next to our housing trailers called “pods” and in our parking lots, even in a swimming pool at one point (kaboom not kaplunk). Sirens blared. Life within our bubble had forever altered—Americans dead, several wounded—leading colleagues to immediately depart Baghdad. Staffing the Iraq War was no longer such an adventure or a sought-after distinction for the résumé.

I managed to escape the Green Zone for a final farewell lunch with Bassam at his favorite fish restaurant on the banks of the Tigris. I was headed to Anbar province to work with U.S. Marines. Senior Baathists, he said with a grin, used to dine there. An Army colonel from Indiana and good friend accompanied me with his pistol, “because no Iraqi could be trusted 100 percent,” in his view. River carp would be the featured dish, and as a seafood lover, I wanted to sample Iraq’s famous delicacy, even if it was, well, carp.

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Marines question civilians in Fallujah in January 2005. (John Kael Weston)

Bassam escorted us to a small cement container at the outdoor restaurant’s entrance. Several meter-long greenish specimens sloshed about within, aggressively competing for space. By tradition, we were asked by the chef to pick the one we wanted. I pointed to an especially lively carp. In half an hour it came out, flayed and roasted, black oily skin peeled from both sides. Charcoal permeated the air, mixed with the sweet smell of the whitish fish meat ... meat that was covered completely by a swarm of black, buzzing flies. Hundreds.

The colonel, gastronomically wimping out, claimed that he had already eaten and wasn’t feeling well. After seeing the flies feasting on the fish before us, I didn’t doubt his (ahem) timely manners. Bassam handed me a large piece, with no attempt to wave away the swirl of winged insects dive-bombing from all directions. It was my turn to smile. I graciously accepted and swallowed repeated mouthfuls of masgouf for the first, and only, time.

Bassam had tested me again. The fish, albeit no salmon, tasted pretty good.

A few weeks later, back at the CPA palace, an all-hands urgent email message from the security office flashed across my computer screen, asking if anyone had recently traveled to Fallujah. There had been an incident—American contractors ambushed, their charred remains strung up on bridge.

I had barely heard of the place. Fallujah would become my home for the next two and a half years.

***

In later years, as Iraq collapsed, Bassam fell silent. Perhaps he survived the sectarian bloodletting that followed, even as trucking remained one of Iraq’s most dangerous jobs. I hope so. His teamsters continued to move food across the country.

I eat a lot of salmon in his honor.