In a week in which the U.S. body count in Iraq climbed above 1,900 — and in which the British had to blast their way into a Basra police station to rescue two of their soldiers who had been taken prisoner by their supposed allies — I had a flashback to a dinner in Baghdad in the weeks just after the war — or what turned out to be the first phase of the war.
Paul Bremer hadn't been in the job of trying to run and rehabilitate the country long when he invited some members of the American Baghdad press crowd over for a meal and a chat. It was a doubly enticing invitation. It would be a chance to plumb Bremer's mind on The Plan and it would be a chance to get back into the al-Rasheed Hotel. The place had been the press hacks' dorm in the months (even years) leading up to the war and, for all its flaws (the restaurant's tepid buffet was lethal), it had once felt like home. But the hotel had been out of bounds since it had been requisitioned by the then Coalition Provisional Authority.
Instead of crawling with scribes, camera crews, visiting sycophants and too many of Saddam's spooks and thugs to count, it now had a couple of American tanks parked out front and was lousy with U.S. military and civilian personnel, striding purposefully around the lobby with laptops (or occasionally tennis rackets) tucked under their arms. Aside from that, not much had changed.
(Before the invasion, the al-Rasheed's two slightly overgrown tennis courts had been about the only place in town for a candid word with some of Saddam's cronies, who would show up for a session with the hotel's remarkably good tennis coach. My backhand, he used to say, was like the regime — a lost cause.)
Much of the same staff was still there, even the guy who had been incessantly pushing a floor polisher back and forth across the already gleaming entrance hall marble since the beginning of time. OK, so the tile inlay image of President George Bush 41 with the phrase 'Bush is Criminal' had been removed from the floor just inside the front door and guests could now enter the building without being forced to step on his face. But apart from that there was an illusion of business as usual, albeit with new bosses. It was an illusion that Bremer and the CPA seemed all too eager to accept.