Friday, May 22, 2009

Magic Card

A short excerpt from Trip to Baghdad--March 2007 by Daniel Rothenberg, published in the current issue (no. 133) of TriQuarterly, "an international journal of writing, art and cultural inquiry published at Northwestern University."

In the era of Saddam Hussein, Iraq required foreigners to have a visa not only to enter, but also to leave the country. It was a system that created an extra mechanism of legal control, as well as a way to obtain bribes and generally increase the bureaucracy of travel. A special exit visa is still technically required, although many foreigners are unaware of this regulation, which may not always be enforced at present. I only know about the issue because one time I tried to fly out of the Baghdad airport and was asked for my exit visa in what became a complicated day-long bureaucratic struggle.

The real problem is that, at that time, I didn't have a Common Access Card or CAC, which is issued by the Department of Defense and entitles its bearer to Geneva Convention protections.

Before this trip, I filled out various forms and drove out to a large Army Reserve office in the Chicago suburbs to get a CAC.

The card is, above all, a sign of the power of the U.S. in Iraq.

With a CAC, you are not subject to searches as you enter and leave buildings in the IZ.

With a CAC, your bags are not opened.

You can walk in and out of the Republican Palace effortlessly.

The same with the Al-Rashid Hotel and everywhere else you are likely to be stopped.

The Peruvian guards take one look at the CAC and shout out, "Federal!" and you slip effortlessly through the checkpoints they manage.

If you are in a vehicle, you are allowed to pass through the special military track where you are not required to open the hood and trunk to be sniffed by dogs and have the undercarriage searched with mirrors. The regular vehicle lines can take half an hour or longer.

What is amazing about this small piece of plastic is that it is generally available to U.S. personnel, including contractors like me. But it is not available to UN staff, representatives of the European Union, or international NGOs unaffiliated with the U.S. government.

En route from my hotel to an office in a UN hard vehicle with guards, staff who had spent years in the country were amazed at the special treatment afforded our whole vehicle because I possessed a CAC.

One day, I called a friend who is one of the nine judges in the Appellate Chambers of the IHT, which is to say a major figure in the country's reconstruction. He was unable to talk for forty minutes as he waited at a checkpoint where cell phone use is prohibited. He is a prominent Iraqi. He lives in the IZ. Yet he faces these delays every day because he doesn't have a CAC.