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The price of access in Iraq

By Cameron W. Barr / October 23, 2002



His name was Mustafa. With a wink and a smile, he reached over and squeezed the tip of my chin between his thumb and forefinger.

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It was his way of making extortion slightly more pleasant – at least for him.

We were in an office off the baggage hall at Saddam International Airport.

As a reward for his stamp of approval on a list of equipment – laptop, phone, etc. – I was bringing into Iraq, Mustafa wanted baksheesh, as he kept repeating. I demurred. He insisted.

Finally I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet. As I fished around for the smallest note in the billfold – one worth 20 Jordanian dinars, or about $28 – he kept his eye on the door of the room. He snatched the note out of my fingers, stuffed it into his pocket, and sent me on my way through customs.

I have spent time in many countries famous for corruption – Indonesia and Cambodia come to mind – but I've always managed to avoid extortion or paying a bribe. Even during a previous trip to Iraq I was never asked for baksheesh, even in its subtler forms.

But this time around in Iraq, more people have their hands out. Perhaps it is the feeling of impending war that makes people want to seize the cash available.

Foreign journalists in Baghdad ruminate endlessly about what to give whom and how. So-and-so, a local hire for an international news organization here, is said to be close to the personal secretary of a senior official. One is advised to send up a bottle of Scotch whisky and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin through this food chain of petty corruption.

Another official is said to be uninterested in gifts or cash. I've noticed he performs his prayers regularly.

I was sitting in his office recently as a television correspondent and crew, no doubt mindful of the likely need to return to Iraq soon, came in to say good-bye.

Pleasantries were exchanged. An envelope was offered. "What is this?" said the official. "It's just goodbye," said one of the journalists.

Unfortunately, I was momentarily distracted. The envelope was gone when I turned back.

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