‘Baghdad’s Potemkin Village’ by Ben Van Heuvelen ’02

April 16, 2012 / Friendly URL: wesconnect.wesleyan.edu/news-20120416-ben-van-heuvelen

[Ben Van Heuvelen ’02]Managing director of Iraq Oil Report and freelance journalist Ben Van Heuvelen ’02 chronicles the Arab League summit in Baghdad for Foreign Policy magazine. As he searches for his press badge, he explores contrasting attitudes toward the highly publicized event.

“Whenever I hear a boom in Baghdad, it’s hard to tell: bombs or construction? On the afternoon of March 29, I was eating lunch in the office, watching the Arab League summit live on Iraqi state TV, when the air concussed with a muffled THOOMP, as though a backhoe had dropped a boulder a couple blocks away—or an explosive had detonated somewhere across town.

“My Iraqi colleagues always know which sound is which, but I haven’t yet developed the ear. Unfortunately, none of them were at work, because the city had been choked to a halt by the 100,000 soldiers providing security for the summit. Nor could I call anyone to find out what had happened, because the cell towers had been switched off—presumably to thwart phone-activated IEDs. I jogged up to the roof and surveyed the horizon, but couldn’t see any smoke. The Internet was still working, though, and I soon found my answer on Twitter: Mortars had hit near the Iranian embassy, close to the Green Zone where the summit was being held. No casualties reported.

“The attack was the only stain on what was otherwise a banner day for Iraq. All diplomacy is infused with an element of performance, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki succeeded at enlisting his colleagues in the Arab League to participate in an elaborate spectacle. The government spent more than half a billion dollars on security and luxury accommodations, Maliki later confirmed, and the result was an alternate version of Baghdad—a zone of safety and comfort that a foreign dignitary would be willing to inhabit, and could credibly praise. The triumph was a feat of stagecraft.”

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Image: Ben Van Heuvelen.

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