It was a cold early morning in southern Iraq as I stepped outside and up to the B6 Land Cruisers parked next to the curb. I was on my way to assist another sister security company in completing a site survey for an upcoming contract near the Iranian border; about 300km from my location that morning. I walk over to the vehicle and extend my hand to the team leader, greeting him in English since he was the only one who did being an all local national security detail, while offering a casual “Salam” to the rest of the team. He asks me if I would like body armor to which I nearly scoff at but politely refuse; if the heavily armored vehicle doesn’t stop it, the vest wouldn’t really matter in my opinion. It was going to be a rather low-risk trip given the latest threat assessment and to be honest, I wanted to blend but also show a bit of bravado to the future client.
We load up and begin the long haul north making small talk during the trip, caught a few naps between checkpoints as well. Eventually we arrive at the site, a massive oil refinery, and link up with the company’s security manager. We drive around and inspect the facilities, entry control points and other relative aspects taking notes and asking the client questions as we go. A smooth and effective interaction, we finish our survey and undergo the necessary formalities prior to our departure; a four hour drive just to spend an hour on site but hey, that’s the way it goes sometimes. By now it’s early afternoon and once again we have a long way to go; other than a quick stop at a roadside shop for snacks, the team and I haven’t had anything to eat. The team leader proclaims that he knows a good restaurant along the route we are taking, where we can get some kebab. Honestly I’m not a huge fan of kebab but when you’re hungry– anything will do, plus I wasn’t about to complain when it was their dime.
It’s nighttime when we pull off the freeway and into the parking lot of a large building, the restaurant, surrounded by several small shops set-up in a strip mall format. I immediately begin to notice the abundance of bearded Iraqi men wearing military style clothes walking around, most of them fairly young and somewhat disheveled in attire. I was quickly aware that these were not Iraqi soldiers but one of the local volunteer entity known as Hashd al-Shaabi, a Iraqi government backed conglomerate of primarily Shia militias; they are not particularly fond of Westerners, especially Americans. We stroll inside, of-course I’m the only white guy there, and my presence earns me a few curious if casual glances or quick glares from some militia members at various tables. I walk to the bathroom to wash my hands, standing in line directly behind one of them; if anyone spoke to me I was just going to reply in French (most Middle Easterners don’t have any qualms with the French other than the Islamic State) a gamble at best that I hoped I wouldn’t have to make. I clean up and return to my table, as our appetizers arrive I take the opportunity to shoot a few selfies not feeling ballsy enough to try for actual photos. A large group had just left, but I assure you there were plenty more of them out of frame; a company of them must have been passing through the area, judging by the vehicles outside. Not the most extreme situation to be sure, but definitely not the safest one either; oh well, roll with the punches I guess, with head down and eyes up.
I ask the team leader innocently as if I was oblivious to the situation if those were militia men sitting behind me. He quickly and sternly corrects me that they were in fact Hashd al-Shaabi and not militias because according to him the militias were the same as “Daesh,” and apparently they were neither. I nod and drop the conversation not wanting to offend him or anyone else in the vicinity for that matter. The majority of local national run private security companies in southern Iraq are comprised of Shia Muslim families and these men had similar ties if not the same religion to be sure. We finish our meals and walk outside to enjoy a cup of chai and smoke cigarettes next to a set of shops. I notice several militia men walk into an adjoining toy store, probably to buy a family member a gift, so I chance another blurry selfie not wanting to make myself obvious to anyone especially to the group standing in the parking lot in front of me by mistake.
We down our chai and get into our respective vehicles to leave, returning to the freeway towards home. We arrive several hours later and I thank the team before parting ways. As I walk inside I hear the faint staccato of gunfire in the distance, most likely someone firing into the air, and can’t help but wonder if it came from the men I had seen earlier in the evening. Not a particularly eventful evening, but somewhat on the fringe compared to my usual uneventful evenings.