I walk down the street outside the Green Zone. Kebabs sizzle on grills and suited Iraqis move around the National Police, who tell everyone exactly where they are allowed to walk.

As I enter the Green Zone, through the gap in the cement blast walls, I pop out my cell phone battery, a strongly enforced precaution against cellular activated bombs. At the entrance, I stand on a small wooden pedestal where I am patted for weapons. From there, I walk down a rocky path, walled on each side with cement, the other with a chain link fence and barbed wire. All I can see is the sky and a couple of lampposts. Then another checkpoint. An American soldier stares at a screen while I pass my bag through an x-ray machine.

This isn’t the route I’m used to. Usually, I don’t see American soldiers here, just Peruvian and Senegalese Triple Canopy contractors who pat me down, search me, send me through metal detectors and instruct me where to put my hands in the full body x-ray machines. This time, I end up on a road thick with American military vehicles. A sign tells me that deadly force is authorized. I’m lost in the Green Zone.

I stroll down a road, passing the suspicious and searching eyes of Iraqi soldiers. In one direction, apartment buildings cover the block. In another, I see the famous pairs of crossed swords standing over the road, next to an empty football stadium. A convoy of grey SUVs with tinted windows blast by, breaking up the light traffic. One blares a siren. Its white passengers in green berets scan the surrounds attentively.

I’ve found my bearings. After passing through a checkpoint where parked cars are being checked by German shepards, I walk past the parliament building. Across the street, small jets stand in a parking lot. An American drives a busload of suited Iraqi men past. A parked SUV plays loud music lamenting the death of Hussein over heavy, steady beats.

I find the Rasheed hotel. I enter the search room with the contents of my pocket in one hand, my passport, and press ID in the other. “American!” the Peruvian security contractor shouts. “Don’t search.” The metal detector beeps as I pass. The Iraqi guards step aside.

I proceed through another checkpoint, where I’m signaled to a small wooden building. There, I’m told to put my bag on the floor along with ten others. A heavy white man twirls a role of tape in his hand, staring ahead blankly, waiting for us to leave so he can bring out the search dog. We wait for five minutes in a designated area outside, next to a “duck and cover” bunker, an inverted U-shaped piece of reinforced cement.

I pass through several more checkpoints. At the last one, I put my belongings back in my pockets and notice a drawing etched in a wooden stand. It’s a skull, wearing an army helmet, with a sword for a neck.

I make it to the military press office just in time for lunch, served free in a tent by a KBR employee tattooed with a red iron cross and skulls. I scoop macaroni and cheese and corn on the cob onto my plate. I grab a Coke from the fridge, sit down on a slab of cement in the designated eating area, and dig a plastic fork into my coleslaw.

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