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The Italians know how to party in a war zone

Justin Marozzi finds time to salsa amid the sirens and window-rattling helicopters of Baghdad…

Plenty of interrupted nights in Baghdad this week. I’ve been startled out of sleep by early-morning prayers from a nearby mosque, wailing police sirens, window-rattling Black Hawk helicopters thundering overhead and volleys of gunfire from the shooting range. It could be worse. Last summer it was mortars, the one before that car bombs – one threw me out of bed – so on a sliding scale of violence things are definitely looking up. It also makes a change from waking up to Jim Naughtie on the Today programme.

*Having spent the past five years travelling around the ancient world with Herodotus, researching The Man Who Invented History, I have become slightly obsessive-compulsive about him, to the point where it is now difficult not to spot echoes of the great man everywhere, especially in Iraq. His warnings against imperial overstretch, the caution that hubris invariably leads to nemesis, his call to respect other people’s customs, traditions and religion, and the portrait of a clash of civilisations between East and West all have a powerful resonance here.

He even has something instructive to say about the financial crisis. “Often enough God gives man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him.” Hedge-fund types take note.

*On Tuesday, switching from travel writer to security consultant, I nip into town to speak to some Baghdadi businessmen. The security situation has improved beyond recognition post-surge but it’s still a good adrenaline boost. The streets bristle with moustachioed policemen and soldiers, and checkpoints every few hundred yards. Traffic is often at a standstill and you can’t help wondering whether you’re going to be blown up. Amazing that many people here still refer to

the Red Zone. How about calling

it Iraq?

*Thursday night is Pizza Party at the Italian embassy. My Italian cousins lend a burst of colour and glamour to an otherwise drab world of concrete blast walls, khakis and beige cargo pants, sorry, trousers. Needless to say, they also have the best uniforms. Goateed carabinieri strut around in black summer kit with red piping (paramilitary chic, brought to you by Giorgio Armani), gazed at by hopelessly smitten young women from the State Department. The DJ plays thumping salsa. Then the Italian peacocks take their pick of the prettiest girls and hit the dance-floor. They may not be the most formidable soldiers in the world but the Italians know how to party in a war zone.

*Or should that be post-conflict environment? Assessing where Iraq is these days remains as intensely political as the decision to go to war. If you opposed the conflict, it’s all disaster – Iraq is doomed to a downward spiral of sectarian fighting and disintegration. If you were an ardent supporter, the surge has worked wonders and Iraq is now a bastion of freedom and the biggest commercial opportunity in the world.

Justin Marozzi is the author of ‘The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus’, published by
John Murray.