There are few gas stations on Highway 1 and virtually no black marketeers. The road is used exclusively by large trucks hauling equipment and supplies for the CPA and the military. Any vehicle with a range of less than 700 miles must carry its own extra fuel or risk running out of gas. I've taken that route once before, and with 16 jerry cans strapped on our roof we were a speeding bomb. We have no spare fuel on this trip and so must stick to the local roads. It will take longer, but it will be more interesting and less risky. There are also more thieves working the truck route, looking for cargo to loot.
Scott gets the message and folds the map. I wonder why it took [driver #2] 10 minutes to explain this. We're ready to go.
Our translator also now turns to me and says we have to travel this road anyway because we are going to stop before we get to Nasiriya.
"We have to meet Salman in Shatrah," she says. "He lives there, and there is going to be a funeral."
Salman is Salman Sharif. [Our translator] tells me that he led the Baghdad cell responsible for an assassination attempt on Saddam's eldest son, Uday Hussein, in 1996.
"Don't you want to meet him?" she asks.
"Yes, of course." But I don't really understand why we're meeting him at a funeral. A funeral for whom? I wonder.
We arrive in Shatrah, a half-hour north of Nasiriya, around one o'clock. We're hungry, which means we need to eat. That doesn't sound right, but in Iraq the only reason we eat is because we're hungry. In much of the rest of the world, people eat to enjoy themselves, to be social, to relax, to soothe nerves. Here, given the paucity of menu choices and the poor quality of most restaurants, eating often holds no more allure than a trip to the toilet. It's often only marginally cleaner.
Our drivers troll through town. There's usually only one restaurant where they're willing to take us. But Shatrah is a surprise. More than any place we've seen since Suleimaniya, in Kurdish Iraq, Shatrah is alive, bustling, and remarkably clean. The sidewalks in front of the shops are swept, and I notice people are laughing. The mood is noticeably different. We all see it.
"Nice town," I say to [driver #1].
"Yes, I like it."
"Why?" I ask.
"I don't know."
We're in the south, home to Iraq's majority Shia population -- the people Saddam repressed, abused, tortured, and used to fill mass graves. I am wondering why their spirit and sense of civic responsibility seems so much more alive than the people of the Sunni towns we visited in the north -- towns where Saddam provided jobs and built schools, clinics, and ball fields. Why are the long-oppressed people of Shatrah looking more buoyant? Perhaps because they believe the worst is over. Perhaps because having something to fight for makes you stronger.
"I don't know, either," I tell [driver #1].
We pull up in front of "Tourist Restaurant." Immediately, I am surrounded by a crowd of well-wishing children, the curious, and some beggars. One man pushes up beside me in a wheelchair, its wheel bumping my leg. "I am wounded by American bomb," he tells me through [our translator]. His friend, the one pushing his chair against my leg, hands [our translator] a list of medications. She looks at the list, then at the man in the wheelchair, and then at me. "I don't think he was paralyzed by a bomb. I wouldn't believe him. He was born this way, I suspect. The drug he wants is valium."
The crowd quickly grows larger. People are complaining about loss of income and the lack of running water, electricity, petrol, and propane. But they are friendly at the same time. I was faced by similar crowds in the Sunni north, but I find the atmosphere here much less threatening. Instead of railing against the U.S., Bush, and the coalition, they are pleading for help.
I listen for a while but then explain in the little Arabic I know, "Ana sahafi." I am a journalist.
"He can only report your problems," [our translator] explains. We cross the street to lunch.
There is such a monotony to the Iraqi diet, it defies comprehension. Every time we stop to eat, I ask [driver #1] the same question. "What's on the menu?" Every time his response is the same. "Uhhh, half chicken, half chicken with rice, chicken kebab, meat kebab. The same."
I look over to a man tucking his greasy fingers into a bowl of something that looks like a stew of some sort.
"What about that?" I ask [driver #1].
I think I should be adventurous, but my stomach cowers, and I end up ordering another rotisserie chicken. We've tried to keep count: eating an average of two half-chickens a day, I think I'm nearing 20 whole chickens consumed for the trip. Luckily this one, from Shatrah, is one of the best I've tasted. I'm liking it here. I think maybe I've been too hard on the country in my previous dispatches.
As we finish lunch with some sweet tea, [our translator] explains that the funeral is a ceremony for a man hunted down and killed by Saddam's agents in Iran. His remains have only recently been repatriated, and today his friends are gathering to commemorate his martyrdom. A poster outside the restaurant invites townspeople to attend. His picture is there above his name, Tahseen Majeed Abid Maktoub.
[Our translator] explains that Maktoub was one of the hit men recruited to carry out strikes against Saddam's inner circle. His first target was to be Uday -- the presumed successor to Saddam. The plot was carried out flawlessly, except that somehow, after 50 rounds were fired into his car and 17 bullets struck his body, Uday managed to recover. Not fully. He was rumored to be impotent thereafter, but he was able to walk again with the help of a cane.
Salman, the leader of the hit team and its sole surviving member, meets us with a car outside the restaurant. We follow him to the outskirts of town to what looks like any suburban elementary school in America, except that its U-shaped drive is lined in mud and weeds and the shed covering the sidewalk out front needs repair. However, like everything else here, it's clean.
As we get out of the car, other people are busy arriving. Brown-robed sheikhs step out of 4x4s with armed bodyguards moving briskly ahead of them. Other men in leather jackets or tight-fitting suits mill about. Young boys talk to snazzy-looking guards dressed all in black. There are no women. The event is for men only.
(Later, I learn the men in black are soldiers of the paramilitary organization known as the Badr Brigade, one of the largest private militias in Iraq, with as many as 100,000 men enlisted. They answer to the Shia clerics and to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shia member of the Governing Council in Baghdad. To calm the nerves of the CPA, they've recently renamed themselves the Badr Organization.)
[Our translator] introduces me to Salman, and we talk for a while. Inside what turns out to be a technical college, Salman tells me that people are gathering for an afternoon of speeches, remembrances, and dinner. Most of the people are followers of a previously clandestine group of mujahadeen -- the 15th of Shaban Movement -- named after the day in 1991 at the end of the first Gulf War when the Shia of southern Iraq rose to challenge Saddam's power. ("Shaban" is the name of one of the twelve lunar months on the Islamic calendar, as is "Ramadan.")
I am also introduced to a brother of Maktoub. He looks sullen and even angry, though he volunteers to speak to me for a long time. He wants to talk about his brother and his sacrifices, about Saddam's crimes, mass graves, and torture.
As more guests arrive, a crowd forms to listen in, and I begin to feel that on this day of commemoration and ceremony, we should step back. Before we do, though, I steer the conversation to the recent killings of 15 Baathists in and around Basra, not too far south of us. I ask if he knows who is doing the killing. With the camera rolling, his answer is direct and surprisingly uncensored.
"We will continue to kill the Baathists wherever and whenever we find them."
I explain that we are honored to attend this ceremony, and I offer my condolences for his dead brother. We walk inside the hall. I have never been to Northern Ireland, but the mood is what I imagine the funeral of a fallen IRA man to be like: solemn, but resolutely militant.
[Editor's Note: The names of the Iraqi drivers and translator have been removed from this dispatch for security purposes.]