From Chapter 10 South of Baghdad
Taken from the start of Chapter 10, this extract sees John Pierce sharing one of my entertaining days in Iraq that occurred exactly as written. It concerned me that editors might want the chapter cut, whereas I think it show in a microcosm the hope, mistrust and deep-rooted anger that permeated Baghdad back then.
‘Look at his face. Can you see his face? He hates you.’ Mr Saleh had suddenly turned from an urbane, confident businessman into an excited Willy Wonka as we’d driven through the gates of his factory to the south of Baghdad. It made a striking change from the recent days spent with the cagey Faris and his crew.
General Imad had introduced the two of us over a phone call from his place the previous day and we’d met up that morning and spent the day together. Instead of focusing on the business set-up, it gave me a chance to spend time with a wealthy businessman and discuss discernible business opportunities.
Lunch had been delicious fish cooked over hot coals in a tented restaurant with an open fire pit by the banks of the Tigris. And Mohammed was right: masgouf was delicious. The place was hired for our exclusive use and his private goon squad sat in a car immediately outside, watching over us and the superbly maintained vintage black Mercedes we’d arrived in.
This wasn’t just for my protection. Local kidnappings were rampant and anyone with money was fair game as were their families. During the war the previous year, most of the prison inmates had ended up free to roam the city and get back to business. With the economy shot to pieces and the scarcity of jobs, crime was about the only sector showing rocketing expansion. Mr Saleh wasn’t taking any chances.
As I checked out the faces of the workers in the compound, I wasn’t feeling the love from any of them. A good job the goon squad were following right behind us or this might have got unpleasant. An especially furious-looking individual with wild hair and wilder eyes stood out. If there was anyone looking angrier than this guy, then I probably needed to be drawing the Makarov.
‘All his family were killed in an American air strike. He hates the Americans. He hates you. If I wasn’t here, he’d try to kill you.’
Why this was said in such an enthusiastic manner I couldn’t quite grasp.
‘Well let’s keep him at a distance. I don’t think it will help productivity if I have to shoot him.’
Mr Saleh’s head turned so fast I thought he had to have done himself an injury. ‘Of course. You have nothing to worry about. I apologise. You are safe here.’
That remained to be seen.
We were about half an hour south of Baghdad at Mr Saleh’s drinks factory. He was giving me the grand tour after I’d explained to him over lunch how I was looking to bring leading Western brands into Iraq and here on the search for suitable local partners.
‘Bring me Coca Cola and all our dreams will be realised,’ he’d told me.
As I inspected the dusty compound, run-down buildings, and forlorn production line, it was difficult to envisage the Coca-Cola quality control people ripping his hand off to sign on the dotted line.
I tried to introduce a diplomatic reality check. ‘Coca-Cola is likely to already have partners here or in Jordan.’ Drinks manufacturing was a sector I knew precious little about and, with no advance warning about the type of business he owned, I’d had zero time to conduct any background research.
Mr Saleh swept my negativity aside. ‘I want you to find me a new production line in the UK or Germany. Send me some details and we can refurbish this factory and make it fit for the big companies. Anyway, we shall expand our water production and become the best brand in Iraq.’
He was thinking big. Provided he had the money, then this could be worth a closer look.
‘He’s outraged I brought you here.’
Mr Saleh reverted to being Willy Wonka as we headed back out through the gates. He drove the highly polished Mercedes himself with only me in the car alongside, the goon squad bringing up the rear in the other Merc. Not exactly low profile but the goons bristled with weapons and ammunition, ready for a fight rather than just for show.
The dirt road leading from the factory wound through some undulating terrain on its way to the main road. We rounded a sandy hillock to be confronted by a pickup truck manned by four armed balaclava-clad men bearing down on us. As it slewed to the right, I could see a fifth balaclava behind a large pintle-mounted anti-aircraft gun, a 12.7mm (.50 cal) DShK, or ‘Dushka’. My eyes must have popped out of my head like something from a Looney Tunes cartoon.
I drew the Makarov and hoped they hadn’t spotted me through the tinted windows. Mr Saleh put his arm across.
‘No, Mr John. It’s okay, these are security forces.’
He stopped the car and opened the window to shout a greeting to the vehicle commander as I tried to bring my heart rate back under control. I was going to need a drink tonight.
Read the rest in Appetite for Risk by Jack Leavers.
My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the opportunity to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.