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Baghdad Country Club

It takes Real Balls to Play here

 The Who’s Who of Baghdad’s Green Zone Ate Steak and Drank Fine Wine at a Bar that Billed It’self as “An Oasis of Calm.”

So, many Western visitors to Iraq in the past decade have thrown their heads back after a near-miss with a roadside bomb and thought, I need a drink right now. That was where the Baghdad Country Club came in.

“The management is happy to secure any firearms, grenades, flash bangs or knives in the club armory.”

Saturday night in Baghdad, and Heidi, the barmaid at the Baghdad Country Club, is worried about the beer. On a busy night, she might serve 800 cold ones to the diplomats, security guards, and construction workers who frequent the Country Club, a white cinder-block house with blue trim on a residential street in the Green Zone.

The BCC, as its known, gets its alcohol from suppliers outside the walls, but insurgents are targeting the crossings on either side of the Tigris River. On this Saturday, a truck bomb on a bridge has locked up traffic on the west bank of the Tigris, delaying the delivery of the night’s beer supply. Heidi, a recent college graduate from Florida, wonders whether the war will eventually collapse on the Green Zone, the way it did on the U.S. embassy in Saigon. But she doesn’t let that occupy her for long. Looking down at the empty glass in her hand, she smiles and says, “Let’s do a shot…

For a year, a British former paratrooper known only as James and his Iraqi fixer, Ajax, ran a bar and grill that served as a rare Mesopotamian outlet for the Western urge to answer stress with alcohol. The facade concealed greenery nestled inside Baghdad’s secured Green Zone — essentially, a walled garden within a walled garden. Even stranger, its next-door neighbor was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite political party with its own death squad. They weren’t exactly customers.

The Baghdad Country Club was a tiny, tiny enclave inside of that warzone where you could theoretically escape while shooting the breeze and drinking a beer, it was the “Casablanca in the Green Zone” in its heyday — 2006-2007, the most violent era of the war — as a place where you could avoid the roadside bombs, but not the mercenaries crooning Nickelback songs.

In the world of Chaos which is Baghdad there it was an oasis of calm. If James Bond were to walk off the pages of a book; or if Hemingway was again reporting on the world’s troubles they could probably both be found relaxing over a drink at the Baghdad Country Club. So if you happen to be in Central Baghdad and know a person, who knows the whereabouts of the BCC, you too could be sitting in the cool shade with a vodka martini, mojito or your own personal favorite.

The Restaurant was arguably the finest in Baghdad and you had the choice of dining al fresco in the secured gardens or in the main restaurant adorned with mahogany walls and a clean and simple décor. The menu was a fusion of European and Arabic cuisine and the extensive wine list boasts such classics as vintage Margaux and Chablis through to Australian Shiraz, Chilean Cabernet and Californian Zinfandel. All of which could naturally be enjoyed with a choice of Cuban cigars from the walk in humidor.

The bar’s clientele was mainly contractors, State Department people, embassy people, foreign military could go. Active-duty U.S. military were prohibited from drinking, so they were not in there very much, but there was the occasional U.S. soldier in there, flouting General Order #1, the prohibition on drinking. There were some Iraqis in the bar. But it was mostly U.N. people, aid people, contractors, mercenaries, et cetera.

Photo: Yuri Kozyrev for TIME Magazine. Alex Manikas, 63, a sheet metal worker from Michigan, goes to the Baghdad Country Club to unwind every Saturday night after working his six-day a week, 12 hour a day job building the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on April 14, 2007.

Photo: Yuri Kozyrev for TIME Magazine. Alex Manikas, 63, a sheet metal worker from Michigan, goes to the Baghdad Country Club to unwind every Saturday night after working his six-day a week, 12 hour a day job building the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on April 14, 2007.

It was insulated from the war, and it was widely known about. Right next door was the office of SCIRI [the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now known as ISCI]. Before the bar opened, they approached Ajax, who was worried they’d issue a fatwa banning the place. But instead they just wanted a good neighbour policy — keep the noise down, that sort of thing.

It was Ramadan shortly after they opened, and some Mahdi Army [militiamen] came to Ajax and said, “We know what you’re doing here, and if you’re trying to get alcohol shipments from downtown, it’s going to be difficult during Ramadan.” That stopped the whole bar for a period of time

They had trouble from insurgents just one time. The beer supply came from Christian alcohol sellers downtown, so the bar would have to send trucks from the Green Zone to get it. One of Ajax’s drivers was captured by insurgents. They ransomed him. I think the bar paid a ransom for the driver but not for the booze. So they got shaken down, but just the one time.

That speaks to the effectiveness of Ajax. He’s just a super-smooth operator. He was described as the most magical fixer you could ever imagine. James has been to Africa, Asia, he’s a Soldier of Fortune-type dude.

James was already in the country doing security for a company there, Global Securities Group. He did security for the U.N. during the January 2005 elections. He runs into this guy at the airport who owns some duty-free rights to [import to] Iraq, and he sells alcohol. “Maybe we should get some booze in here,” James says, and he replies, “OK, we can do that.” Later he calls James and says he’s actually got a shipment of liquor ready. James was actually taken by surprise that the guy was serious.

But he jumped into gear and they sold all the liquor. James thought they had a good thing going, so he found a villa in the Green Zone and they opened an establishment. But he needed a local guy, so he asked around for who was the most competent guy, and found Ajax. It’s as simple as that. The guy at airport was a source for wine and liquor. Ajax was on the ground running things.

James had been a paratrooper in the British Army during the invasion. Soon after, a friend of his called to tell that his company, had picked up the contract to run security for the Green Zone and the US Embassy, and he was looking for a project manager. He did that for a while, then worked for another company as director of intelligence. James had been in Baghdad for a couple of years and knew a lot of people, and one thing just led to another. It wasn’t really a grand plan to go in there and open a bar and restaurant, but it fell into place through a chain of coincidences.

So he decided to hunker down in the Green Zone. The Mahdi Army and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq were becoming very prominent in life in Baghdad at that time.

For one year, the Baghdad Country Club acted as a decompression chamber for the expatriate community in a city racked by military, political, and religious turmoil. With the address circulating by word of mouth, mostly beer and scotch was served, but the complexity of the list was a minor consideration, overshadowed by the brutal reality of life in the city.

It quickly blossomed into one of the most popular watering holes in this corner of the former axis of evil, providing Western amenities of the liquid variety to thirsty members of the coalition of the willing to drink.

James, a Brit promised his patrons fine dining, an extensive wine list, Cuban cigars, and an exclusive ambiance. Instead, the tavern’s plastic lawn furniture and gravel yard became a sanctuary for those unseen casualties of war: bored contractors doing twelve-hour shifts, six days a week.

Before James opened the bar he had spoken with a number of prominent Iraqis.

And before the bar, he had sold wine and spirits out of a shop. He had been working there for five years, and not naïve, and had many Iraqi friends, including the chief of police—not some gentlemen he bumped into on the street, but high-level individuals who were well placed to give him advice on things like this.

To a man, not one of them had a problem with it. SCIRI even had a place next door to the restaurant, and even those guys never had a problem with it. They just said, “Look, as long as you keep the music down at certain times of the night and don’t create a nuisance, we don’t have a problem with you.”

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Even during Ramadan, some people from Sadr’s group came around and said, “Look, it’s Ramadan coming up, James. We know what you do here. Do us a favour and close down at night. You can sell the alcohol during the day, we’ve got no problems with that, but just make sure it’s in a bag.” So that’s what they did.

Soldiers and other U.S. military personnel weren’t supposed to drink (though some showed up anyway), so the crowd was mostly civilian. And it was as mixed as the Green Zone itself. Anyone — mercenaries and diplomats, contractors and peacekeepers, aid workers and Iraqis — could walk in, get dinner, open a decent bottle of Bordeaux, and light a cigar from the humidor to go with it.”

On a clear April night, the white plastic tables in the garden would fill up with an assortment of Green Zone archetypes: broad-shouldered security contractors walk in with dates in tight tops and high heels. A handful of diplomats mingle in blazers; a construction worker wearing a fishing vest that reads BAGHDADDY meets his friends at the end of a 12-hour shift.

“I’d say 30 percent were Iraqi, including ministers and high-ranking generals in the army.”

There wasn’t a jukebox. They had a stereo system with an iPod attachment. They played random music. They had to take the band, Men At Work, off because Aussie security contractors would go ape when any of their music came on. Which I understand! If I’m ever in a war zone and drinking, I would kind of want to let off a little steam, too.

But actually, sometimes they had live bands. Contractors who were over there a long time would bring instruments and musical equipment. There would be jammy, crappy cover bands. The Aegis guys would play the Kinks. The Blackwater dudes would play Nickelback. There was a strong cultural difference in what mercenaries were into, musically speaking.

Not everyone was delighted. But the BCC earned high marks from some for employing the comely barmaid named Heidi, recently graduated from college in Florida.

Heidi the bartender “won high marks” despite gripes about the bar and restaurant menu’s spotty availability. But the highly dangerous supply chain meant it didn’t always achieve its fine-dining aspirations. “Some disgruntled customers denounced the club as nothing but a “sleazy place for mercenaries and rednecks.” Others complained that the kitchen was usually out of the Euro-Arab fusion dishes advertised on the online menu; that the service was poor; and that the tables were set with paper towels instead of napkins. James had little patience for complaints.

In 2007, as violence in Baghdad spiraled out of control and threatened to penetrate the gates of the emerald city, US authorities moved to shut down the club.

In the Green Zone, formally known as the International Zone, there were these cops called the IZ Police. They were U.S. reservists, military police. They were aggressive. There was a particular captain of the IZ Police who started coming around to the bar and giving them tickets, conducting stakeouts, checking people’s badges. Then they’d raid the place. They’d run in with full-on military gear, checking badges for who didn’t belong there.

The Baghdad Country Club thought it was like being harassed by the town sheriffs, essentially. They were disrupting theme of the bar. So that was that.

Remember, [the Club] gets to Iraq mid-2006, when the insurgency was going crazy. The Green Zone was a total mess. Different countries’ armies are there, contractors are running around like they own the place. There would be empty fields with shipping containers packed with 100 Filipinos who’d been abandoned by KBR. You’d see the craziest stuff. Someone needed to put order down. And the Baghdad Country Club was casualty of that.

To cross hostile roads in vehicles laden with liquor, James would trade his suit for overalls and body armour, his Glock tucked into his ops vest, an M-4 in the passenger seat, a bag of cash stashed in the back. Fatalism came easy in a place with so many fatalities — if today’s your day, it’s your day, James thought whenever he eased behind the wheel.

Beer for the BCC was a loss leader: It had to be in the bar, but the extraordinary logistics to obtain it were bad for the bottom line. That’s because beer came from downtown. The volume meant size, and size meant you were a target, winding through Baghdad’s warren of confusing streets in an open truck. Proper security, however, disappeared in the face of overwhelming demand.

James couldn’t go anywhere near the area himself, so Ajax was in charge of that department, even though Ajax was Sunni, which put him at great personal risk in Shia territory. But I knew my way around down there. He could get what they needed. He knew all the principals in the local booze business, having worked at Habur Gate, the border checkpoint where deliveries from Turkey arrived. He had the whole supply chain down, man!

For the first beer run, Ajax stacked an SUV with 20 cases. It was gone within the hour. James called Ajax as he was driving home.

“Can you head back downtown?” he asked. “We’re empty.”

Ajax knew he needed a bigger car. He took his Jeep Cherokee, tinted the windows, and removed the backseats to double the load capacity. The vehicle still wasn’t big enough. By the time Ajax upgraded to multi-axle trucks, the violence was worsening. This created an additional problem, since larger vehicles couldn’t be armored. Sometimes Ajax stationed a guy with an AK-47 amid the beer, hidden in a makeshift turret assembled from cases of Carlsberg or Sapporo. His job was to light up attackers, but Ajax knew he was usually drunk by the time they got moving.

A month after the bar opened, just before Ramadan, some emissaries from the Shiite Mahdi Army alerted Ajax that the holiday would be an unfriendly time downtown. Realizing that they wouldn’t be able to restock for a month, Ajax and James mounted nonstop supply missions, bringing in 6,000 cases of beer. It filled the BCC’s storage rooms and the giant containers outside and then had to be piled on the roof until the structure bowed. Apache pilots rerouted their flights over the bar so they could check out the stash.

It might have been the most hazardous beer procurement process in the world at the time, which is why it drove James nuts when Green Zone guys in clean pressed khakis complained about availability or pricing like they were in a grocery store back in New Jersey. “People could get killed for your damn Corona Light,” he’d tell people at the bar. One day, a contractor suggested to James that he could get beer cheaper himself. “Oh sure,” James said. “Go ahead and drive to Sadr City. See if you can find the warehouse. Make sure you’re armored and locked and loaded, because if anyone sees you, you’re bloody well done, mate.”

James himself often braved the deadly Route Irish to pick up shipments of spirits from Ahmed, a businessmen out at the airport who supplied him with most of his liquor. The road was a target for snipers and car bombs, resulting in trigger-happy U.S. military personnel and mercenaries. A typical private security detail cost basis, with a heavily armored airport pickup of one passenger, was five grand. James had done many such contracted Baghdad Airport trips himself. Now he was routinely making the drive in an unarmored vehicle, often alone.

Ajax was a drinker who liked to stay up all night, a combination that left James in lurch most mornings. In addition to IEDs and insurgents, Route Irish had commuter traffic. James really wanted to beat that traffic. Any idle moments stalled in gridlock on the pitted blacktop made you a mark. By 6:30 a.m., he’d have a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, spend 10 minutes making futile calls to Ajax’s voice mail, and then ease one of the jeeps out of the driveway himself. People thought James was reckless, hitting Route Irish solo and soft skinned. But he preferred going low profile, and he always double-checked the spare magazines and smoke grenades in his plate carrier as he left Checkpoint 12 heading west, toward the airport.

Route Irish was once a grand motorway though a bourgeois neighbourhood, lined with palms. The road was extremely dangerous: Drivers were targets. James would hammer up it, hoping to make the seven miles in ten minutes. Such speed was possible but rare. Instead, the drive was often several harrowing hours, with military call signs barreling the wrong way through wreckage to dodge firefights against insurgents, who were known to release signal pigeons from nearby rooftops.

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James’s little jeep looked like Iraqi traffic, so he also had to worry about being fired upon by American soldiers or contractors. They tended to be quick with warning shots and non-warning shots soon thereafter, when any vehicle came within 100 yards. Now on the other end of coalition military muzzles and bad attitudes, James understood Iraqis’ resentment. But having been a military contractor himself, he also understood the fear that goes with wearing a bull’s eye. The whole thing was a mess. And here he was, threading the needle every other day to pick up some Dewar’s.

As he drove, James would blast music to distract himself, usually whatever was on Armed Forces radio. Everyone had lost friends on that road. He’d felt the pressure sucked out of the air by massive explosions and braced for the blast that followed. Once he’d hit the T-walls of Checkpoint 1, the gateway to the relative security of the airport, he’d let go a sigh of relief, but even that wasn’t quite safe. He’d seen car bombs go off right at the checkpoint, and he’d jumped out to assist, only to find people he knew on the ground, too far gone for a medic.

Once through the entrance, James would show up at Ahmed’s compound, jittery smoke in hand. Then he’d stack up his supply and head back out through the checkpoint for the return trip.

Iraqis have a word, barra, which means “out there,” and for those lucky enough to be inside the Green Zone came to mean the rest of Baghdad, the bedlam beyond the T-walls. As the insurgency reached fever pitch in 2006, Iraqis and Americans alike were terrified that barra would not stay out there but come in here, that the war would breach the perimeter, that the place would collapse and there would be a mad scramble to evacuate, like Saigon in ’75.

The Baghdad Country Club, the only authentic bar and restaurant in Baghdad’s Green Zone, was one place where people could forget about barra for a moment. Anyone — mercenaries and diplomats, contractors and peacekeepers, aid workers and Iraqis — could walk in, get dinner, open a decent bottle of Bordeaux, and light a cigar from the humidor to go with it. Patrons would check their weapons in a safe, like coats in a coatroom, and leave the war behind as they wandered past a sign that read:

BAGHDAD COUNTRY CLUB

NO GUNS, NO AMMUNITION, NO GRENADES,

NO FLASH BANGS, NO KNIVES

NO EXCEPTIONS!

They’re going to refurbish [Baghdad’s famous] al-Rasheed hotel and James is thinking about reopening the Club as a modern restaurant at the new hotel. The Baghdad Country Club could live into the peaceful years of Baghdad.

It’s hard living over there. James did it for five years. The whole issue about the club is that it was an escape for people, so that they could live. When you serve in environments like that, you have to live. There are only so many DVDs you can watch, only so many books you can read, only so many people you can talk to. You need to have an escape. People say, “How could you open a club while our soldiers were fighting over there?” Well, nobody understands the plight of a soldier more than him, and would never do anything to offend them. And while soldiers may be over there for a year, a contractor can be over there three, four, five years. It’s healthy for them to have somewhere to go to blow off some steam now and again. Anyway, there’s no reason why things like that shouldn’t be part of life in Iraq. People want to go out and have fun. You need to provide places for them to do that.

So if you ever find yourself in Baghdad and need to escape the hustle come and rub shoulders with some of the more interesting and intriguing individuals that the world has to offer.

Inside the Green Zone’s Only Bar

Baghdad Country Club

What It Takes to Open a Bar in Baghdad

Beers in Baghdad: Remembering the World’s Most Dangerous Bar

These Were The Painstaking Measures Used To Keep Journalists Safe In Baghdad


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