Part prison, part holiday camp

No prizes for guessing the least popular and most hassled men at Camp Striker near Baghdad. That would be the staff at Magic Island Technologies (MIT), who last week switched off the camp’s free wi-fi internet access.

It may surprise to some to know that there is any internet access at an army camp inside a warzone. We can only speculate what impact distractions such as Facebook and YouTube would have had on the World War I poets.

The US military regards it as good for morale but as web users know, once gained, it soon comes to feel like a basic right.

The contractor MIT replaced free wi-fi with a faster service at $65 per month, but it has been suffering technical bugs. A seemingly endless flow of soldiers, assault rifles slung over their shoulders as always, has poured into its small wooden hut office to complain. I know because I’ve been among them.

Alternatively there are internet cafés at the camp, often full to capacity so that a 30-minute time limit is imposed on each user. Sitting in combat fatigues, the soldiers seem to favour MySpace, dating sites, their sports teams’ homepages and chatrooms where they can keep in touch with their family at home. Signs on the walls insist in capital letters: ”NO PORN.”

Based around Baghdad international airport, Camp Striker is nevertheless a world away from the sound and fury of the Iraqi capital. Life here is somewhere between a holiday camp and a prison. Or a music festival without the music, replaced by the regular moan of helicopters overhead and the eerie snap, crackle and pop of distant military manoeuvres. Like a music festival, there is mud, albeit sunbaked, which clings to your feet and pursues them into your tent and sleeping bag. Like a music festival, there are plastic Tardis-like toilets where you curse your failure to bring a head-torch. Unlike a music festival, there is no alcohol. None at all.

But there are posher toilets, washbasins and showers if you look for the right caravans. Camps like Striker are astonishing works of engineering costing millions of dollars. Walking past the rumbling power generators, surveying the giant concrete slabs which form dividing walls between the tents and steel huts, and watching armoured vehicle convoys stretch off into the horizon is like being inside a small city built from scratch. I feel I am standing on the flexing muscle of the most powerful empire in history.

The canteen, or ‘DFAC’, serves four meals a day and boasts 22 rows of tables and more than 1 600 seats, plus an adjacent ”movie room” complete with popcorn machine and framed film posters. The menu is a mixture of fast food (cheeseburgers, chips, onion rings) and healthier options such as fruit, vegetables and salads. Oddly I have found security precautions tighter here than out on patrol in central Baghdad. I am allowed to take photos of terror suspects being questioned but not of soldiers eating chocolate chip cookies.

Near the DFAC is a ”food court” comprising Burger King, Green Beans Coffee, Pizza Hut and, on certain days, a Subway van. Also close by is a barber who continues to ensure that every man (and many women) on camp have shorter hair than me. There is a substantial store with contents including cameras, CDs, flatscreen TVs, MP3 players, PlayStation 3s, DVD players and a film library dominated by action and comedy but also containing Brokeback Mountain, The Graduate and The Sopranos.

Nearby is a car sales shop managed by a young Irishman promising unbeatable prices and to have the vehicle ready in America when the soldier returns home. Souvenir stalls sell T-shirts with spoof pictures of George Bush and Saddam Hussein and legends such as: ”Who’s your Baghdaddy?”, ”Stand 100 metres back or you will be shot”, ”Property of Abu Ghraib Prison”, ”Baghdad Beer Drinking Club. I fear no beer” and ”If you aint Sunni you aint Shiite!”

The staff at these various outlets in the Iraqi desert seem to be primarily from India, Sri Lanka or the Philippines. ”So at last we got the UN on board,” wisecracked one patron.

So, why is it like a holiday camp? Because there are adverts on noticeboards for a Caribbean music night, a ”poetry jam” and other entertainments, as well as sports clubs and a stop smoking class. There are gyms, treadmills, volleyball courts and recreation rooms where men and women read, strum guitars or play pool or table tennis. The atmosphere is friendly, with strangers likely to strike up a conversation.

And why is it like a prison? Because some people never leave the grey expanse of concrete and gravel until it’s time to fly home. Those that do venture beyond the perimeter fence into Baghdad itself do so with Kevlar body armour, cocked weapons and a perpetual alertness for roadside bombs. Then there is the pent up sexual frustration of a predominantly male, twenty-something group in isolation, as Joseph Heller captured so well in Catch-22.

The US forces are stretched, not least by the troop surge, so tours of duty in Iraq have been extended to 15 months. I asked one soldier, who has used up his leave so won’t finish until next November, whether the camp comes to feel like a prison. ”No,” he said matter-of-factly, ”It feels like home.”

But what’s not to be missed at Camp Striker is the beauty of the sky at night. Walking back to my shared tent, where I sleep on one of 20 put-up beds, involves bumbling through darkness with almost no artificial light. The benefit is a lack of light pollution in the atmosphere, liberating the constellations in the night sky. No planetarium can match it.

I’m not sure President Bush had Sir Patrick Moore in mind when he began this military drama, but studying the immensity of the cosmos each night is a sure way to put events down here into perspective. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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