Furtive Franks Misses Out on Kebabs in Palestine Hotel

Editor’s note: The Posts’s energetic and slightly wary senior Iraq correspondent, Sheikh Ya’erbuti writes in his final missive from Iraq about the post-war preparations, Palestine Airways and Waqil, who has resurfaced after several weeks in the desert. He filed this piece on April 21.

BAGHDAD: In one corner, combatants of the self-styled milita known as the Free Iraqi Forces are holding court. A muslim cleric and his entourage sweep past soldiers in full battledress while a middle-aged man hustles whisky out of a plastic bag.

A marine yells: “Clear a path” as General James Mattis tries to leave. But the order is ignored by the hundreds who fill the hotel lobby. His bodyguards deploy the butts of their M-16 assault rifles to force an exit.

Cameras flash and journalists shove microphones under the noses of ranking military in the hope of securing an elusive quote. Noone is quite sure whether General Tommy Franks will pop in for a kebab.

A mix of cigarette smoke and the aroma of Turkish coffee fill the air as a blear-eyed soldiers twinkles the ivories on a beaten-up piano. He attempts As Time Goes By, then settles for Chopsticks .

It’s rush hour in at the Palestine Hotel and the end of the war in Iraq has delivered a circus of characters that would test the imagination of any Hollywood scriptwriter.

The Palestine is not quite The Ritz in Paris after World War II but its atmosphere is comparable with the al-Rashid in the first Gulf War or even Saigon’s Continental or Phnom Penh’s Le Royale during the Vietnam War era.

It is, however, a little more dangerous, gunfire is common, there are looters a plenty and nobody is riding the elevators that tend to freefall between the third and 15th floors and have been rather aptly dubbed Palestine Airlines.

Between these floors self-interest is the fastest horse. One Iraqi has declared himself mayor of Baghdad, another the governor of Iraq. Neither has told the US military but they argue their positions were authenticated by interviews they gave on CNN where veteran correspondent has been hanging around since NBC relieved him of his last command. Arnett was last seen freelance for a Greek television network.

Outside the Marines have pitched their tents and are giving themselves a pat on the back for a job well done. Except for Colonel Joe Dowdy who I can say was relieved of his post for failing to “combine all the elements of a combat regiment and running it at a tempo comparable to the war.”

That’s according to his boss. I guess Colonel failed to impose his will.

My subversive friend Waqil, last spotted in northern Kuwait is now selling over-fermented beer for seven bucks a can which he stores in Spit’s camel-bags. Spit proved rather popular among the British officers in Basra and is undecided about leaving. Waqil is demanding four months back pay — cheeky sod doesn’t appreciate my best wishes.

But pleasing, this war is drawing to a close.

You know how I know? Those detestable do-gooders have started showing up disguised as NGOs with their usual opinions, well-honed from the backpacker hostels in Kao Sanh Road in Bangkok.

For the military, our main point of contact for the entire war is Corporal john Hoellwarth, who at 22, some people would argue is a little young for the post. I like the lad but did raise an eyebrow when a lovely 16-year-old sauntered past prompting John to quip: “Wow, she looks like Jasmine in the cartoon series Aladdin.”

He then confirmed that a string of Saddam’s henchmen had been arrested, no weapons of mass destruction had been found, and more civilians had been killed. But he couldn’t restore the nearest electricity grid first to allow us a hot bath.

Once again it is chic to be anti-American and anti-war. That is a good thing for the folks in Syria and North Korea, though I remain uncertain about whether Iraq’s ousted strongman Saddam Hussein is still grateful for their previous efforts.

Thus I have packed my bags and booked myself on the next flight to Beirut. Waqil shan’t be needed unless he apologizes for being greedy. Spit shall follow. I simply won’t allow those Brits in basra to advantage of his sensitive side.

Speaking of sensitive sides I do remember Colonel Rick Thomas (he cannot be quoted) telling me at the start of all this that we would be embedded with the military for life and the current noises about Syria are irritating. Ricky and I will not meet again. Next time I shall ensure total coverage from the Hotel Maurice in Paris.

Until next time, dear`readers — and there will be a next time, perhaps Cambodia for the elections? I bid you a fond farewell and look forward to meeting the legions in your capital’s fine bars. S.Y .

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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