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Green Zone

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So, 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.

For barely 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 a 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 shit and drinking a beer,” says journalist Joshuah Bearman. Bearman pours out a glass for the short-lived bar in a new piece for the Atavist, which portrays 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.

The U.S. has (mostly) pulled out of Iraq and Iraqi politics appear to be teetering on a new precipice of chaos. But, Bearman tells Danger Room, James and Ajax are thinking of getting back into the Baghdad bar biz. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

Wired.com: What was your drink at the Baghdad Country Club?

Joshuah Bearman: I actually never went. I heard about it, tragically, after it closed. I didn’t actually cover the war. But my drink would’ve been a Manhattan. If they had the right vermouth.

Wired.com: Who were the bar’s clientele?

Bearman: A lot of 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.

Wired.com: How insulated was it from the war?

Bearman: 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 neighbor 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.

Wired.com: So did they get shaken down by the insurgents?

‘The Blackwater dudes would play Nickelback.’

Bearman: Just one time that I know about. 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 to me as the most magical fixer you could ever imagine. James has been to Africa, Asia, he’s a Soldier of Fortune-type dude.

Wired.com: How did they come to run a bar together?

Bearman: James was there already 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 the source for wine and liquor. Ajax was on the ground running things.

Wired.com: What was on the jukebox at the Baghdad Country Club?

Bearman: There actually wasn’t a jukebox. They had a stereo system with an iPod attachment. They played random music. No one gave me a playlist, but they had to take Men At Work off because Aussie security contractors would go apeshit when Men At Work came on. Which I understand! When i’m in a war zone and drinking, I 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.

Wired.com: So why’d the place close so soon after it opened?

‘They got shaken down by insurgents, but just the one time.’

Bearman: It’s a bit unclear. In the Green Zone, formally known as the International Zone, there were these cops called the IZ Police. They were U.S. reservists, I presume 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 shit. Someone needed to put order down. And the Baghdad Country Club was casualty of that.

Wired.com: It’s a shame that the Club didn’t stick around for the drop in violence in the wake of the Surge. Or did the Club actually need the chaos of the war to turn it into an oasis? Was that kind of its business model?

Bearman: Certainly, yeah, the siege mentality kind of creates a certain atmosphere of the place. But in terms of raw economics, a secure environment is probably better for the bottom line of a leisure establishment.

In fact, they’re going to refurbish [Baghdad's famous] al-Rasheed hotel. 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.

Wired.com: If they happen.

Bearman: Yeah, exactly.

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When dictators are overthrown by rebel or military forces, their many elaborate palaces, mansions and bunkers are evacuated, left behind for the new forces to rummage through.

From Saddam Hussein’s palace, Maqar-el-Tharthar, a massive residence at Lake Tharthar, to Moamer Kadhafi’s homes and his families homes scattered throughout Libya, the first peek into their lavish lifestyles come to life as rebels enter each residence.

 The Palaces Left Behind

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American soldiers patrolled inside a palace which belonged to Uday Hussein in Baghdad, Thursday, April 10, 2003. The palace was heavily bomed by coalition airpower. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 The Palaces Left Behind

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Soldiers and civilians occupy the office of ousted Romanian Leader Ceaucescu in the Central Committee headquarters 26 December 1989 in Bucharest. Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife Elena has been executed 25 December 1989. (Photo credit should read PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Anti-Communist soldier (L) sticks a bayonet through a portrait of late Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu 28 December 1989 in Sibiu as the anti-Communist uprising to end Nicolae Ceausescu's 24 years of dictatorial rule continue. The communist dictator N. Ceausescu and his wife Elena were deposed and executed by a firing squad 25 December 1989. Eight years after the December 1989 revolution which toppled Ceausescu, Romania has begun lifting the veil on the "mysteries" surrounding the uprising and the circumstances which brought former president Ion Iliescu to power. According to general prosecutor Sorin Moisescu, reports put about at the time of "terrorists loyal to Ceausescu" provoking bloody diversions to sow panic in the population, were "fabricated" to justify Iliescu's takeover. "Nothing that happened after 22 December 1989 was due to chance. The deaths of some of the demonstrators were supposed to provide legitimacy to the new regime" Moisecu said 24 December 1998. (Photo credit should read MICHEL GANGNE/AFP/Getty Images) #

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An inside view of the Saddam Hussein's palace, Maqar-el-Tharthar is seen on June 11, 2003 at Lake Tharthar, Iraq. Saddam celebrated his birthday in 1999 by building Maqar-el-Tharthar, the so-called "Green Palace" which is the biggest and most elaborate of President Saddam's palaces. It covers two and a half square miles and consists of a Presidential and VIP residential compounds; it is the second only to the President's Tikrit residence in overall size. The complex was not bombed by Coalition forces but has been completely looted afterwards by Iraqis. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images) #

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An Iraqi woman and her daughter cross a smoke filled intersection with looted tables April 11, 2003 in downtown Baghdad, Iraq. Widespread looting of both government buildings and private businesses is rampant across Baghdad following the collapse of local authority after coalition forces took the city. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images) #

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A US soldier sits in a seat at the Radwaniyah Palace used during the toppled regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a reception palace for guests near Baghdad's international airport 25 June 2003. The international press was taken on a tour of the palaces by the US military, three months after the fall of Baghdad. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images #

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A journalist films inside one of the main reception rooms of toppled leader Saddam Hussein's 'Peace Palace' or 'Qasr al-Salam' in Baghdad 25 June 2003. The international press was taken on a tour of the palaces by the US military, three months after the fall of Baghdad. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images #

 The Palaces Left Behind

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A US soldier sits on the stairs at the entrance of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's damaged 'Peace Palace' or 'Qasr al-Salam' in Baghdad 25 June 2003. The international press was taken on a tour of the palaces by the US military, three months after the fall of Baghdad. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images #

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U.S. Army Specialist Ureses Zamora, from Las Vegas, Nevada, of the 4th Infantry Division, usues a laptop in a former palace of Saddam Hussein November 12, 2003 in a former Saddam Hussein palace in Tikrit, Iraq. The soldiers are living in relative comfort as they continue to pursue the enemy in Saddam Hussein's hometown. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) #

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CAMP VICTORY, IRAQ - JULY 1: Soldiers stand at attention during a change of command ceremony July 1, 2004 in Camp Victory, Iraq. Gen. Casey took command of the forces from Gen. Sanchez in a change of command ceremony at the elaborate Al-Faw Palace in Camp Victory. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) #

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** FILE ** U.S. Army soldiers Spc. Daniel Andrews of Lynchburg, Va., left, and Pvt. Robert Knott of Fort Hood, Tex., both from Alfa Company-588 swim in an indoor pool at one of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's palaces, now a U.S. Army base, in Tikrit, Iraq, Monday Sept. 1, 2003. U.S. soldiers stationed here in this riverside palace complex that once belonged to Saddam Hussein face constant danger from Iraqi insurgents whenever they leave the base. But once inside, they are getting to kick back inincreasing style. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer) #

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A US Army soldier from the 1-22 Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division (Task Force Ironhorse) shoots the ball during a basketball game inside one of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's former palaces along the banks of the Tigris river in Tikrit, 180km (110 miles) north of Baghdad, 23 November 2003. With their marble interiors, domed roofs and intricate arabesque stucco, the headquarters of the 4th ID look more like a vision from a Middle Eastern fairy tale than a military camp. The resort-like series of palaces now called Forward Base Ironhorse used to be a favorite resting place of Saddam before US-led coalition forces ousted him in April. AFP PHOTO/Mauricio LIMA (Photo credit should read MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images) #

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TACLOBAN, PHILIPPINES: Visitors view the bedroom of Imelda Marcos at the Santo Nino shrine 13 October 2004 that was sequestered by the government. When the former first lady built the mansion in 1981 in her hometown Tacloban, it was dubbed by many as the Malacanang presidential palace of the south. The mansion named after religious icon of the Child Jesus stands as a monument to the obscene excesses of the Marcos years whenthe late dictator Ferdinand Marcos was deposed by military-backed people power revolt in 1986 after 20 years in power. AFP PHOTO ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images) #

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TACLOBAN, PHILIPPINES: The bathroom with jacuzzi of the former first lady Imelda Marcos at the Santo Nino shrine 13 October 2004 that was sequestered by the government. When Imelda built the mansion in 1981 in her hometown Tacloban, it was dubbed by many as the Malacanang presidential palace of the south. The mansion named after religious icon of the Child Jesus stands as a monument to the obscene excesses of the Marcos years when the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos was deposed in 1986 by a military-backed people power revolt after 20 years in power. AFP PHOTO ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images) #

 The Palaces Left Behind

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BAGHDAD, Iraq: Iraqi soldiers gestures to a giant mural of ousted Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein still hanging in of his former palaces in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone in this image taken 19 October 2005. Once a Pan Arab champion, Saddam the feared Iraqi leader will go on trial 28 November 2005 on charges linked to the killing of 148 Shiite villagers. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images) #

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HILLAH, IRAQ, APRIL 21: A worker makes a bed inside a marbled room where Saddam supposedly once slept, at one of the former dictator 's palace villas, which can be rented for about USD170 a night on April 21, 2009 in the city of Hillah in Babil province about 50 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq. The Palace, which is adjacent to the remains of the ancient city of Babylon, was purged of anything of value by looters as Saddam's regime fell in April 2003 and then occupied by US and coalition forces until late 2006. The palace was opened to public who can visit it for about 85 US cents. Some of its surrounded villas have been converted into hotel rooms. (Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images) #

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A looter carries away a chair inside Saddam Hussein's main palace in Baghdad 12 April, 2003. Looting has plagued Baghdad and other Iraqi cities since US forces won control of the capital 09 April. Hundreds of Iraqis, including police officers, answered 12 April an urgent US appeal to help restore order and services to Baghdad after an orgy of looting followed weeks of heavy coalition bombardment. AFP PHOTO ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images) #

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US Army Sergeant Craig Zentkovich from Connecticut belonging to the 1st Brigade Combat Team photographs a pink bedroom at Saddam Hussein's presidential palace 13 April 2003. The palace is located in a vast military compound near the airport southwest of the capital. AFP PHOTO/Romeo GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A US marine walks inside the presidential palace in Port-Au-Prince 09 March 2004. Troops from France, the US and Chile have poured into the country in an effort to stabilize the country after former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide fled the country 29 February 2004. AFP PHOTO/Jaime RAZURI (Photo credit should read JAIME RAZURI/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A soldier of the rebel Alliance of Laurent-Desire Kabila, surrounded by looters, uses his weapon to hit a photograph of ousted Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko 20 May 1997 in the house the former leader kept at the Tshatshi military camp in Kinshasa. In October 1996, Zairean opposition leader Laurent Desire Kabila, as head of the newly formed Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, rallied forces consisting mostly of Tutsi from eastern Zaire and launched a full-scale rebellion against Mobutu, forcing him to flee the country, following failed peace talks in May 1997. On 17 May 1997, Kabila installed himself as head of state after his troops took control of Kinshasa and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Afghan youth play football in front of the ruins of the Darul Aman Palace in Kabul on December 3, 2010. Afghan government officials hit back at "stupid" allegations made in leaked US diplomatic cables about corruption but refused to comment on a damning assessment of President Hamid Karzai. Deputy presidential spokesman Hamed Elmi downplayed documents released by Internet whistleblower WikiLeaks as "not much new," with "nothing substantive to negatively affect our good relations with the international community". AFP PHOTO/Massoud HOSSAINI (Photo credit should read MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A child stands in a room of the former palace of late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, in Gbadolite, on November 24, 2010. Mobutu built two private residences and an official presidential palace among other buildings in Gbadolite and Kawele. Mobutu came to power in a 1965 coup, five years after the central African nation gained independence from Belgium. He ruled Zaire for 32 years, plunging the country into a long economic crisis marked by state corruption, the embezzlement of funds and excessive luxuries. AFP PHOTO / GWENN DUBOURTHOUMIEU (Photo credit should read Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Tunisian workers remove on January 17, 2011 portraits of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from the prime minister's office in Tunis. Tunisian protesters on January 17 called for the abolition of Ben Ali's ruling party amid a chaotic power vacuum as politicians prepared a government of national unity. The Moroccan press welcomed on January 17 the fall of Ben Ali after weeks of street protests, and said it was a lesson for north Africa and the Arab world. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A Libyan rebel stands inside the front door of a luxurious complex that rebels and local residents claim to be the holiday home of the Kadhafi family in Ain Zara close to Tripoli, on August 31, 2011. Numerous luxury buildings have been discovered by rebels as they get increased access to areas after the ouster of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and his loyalist forces. AFP PHOTO/CARL DE SOUZA (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A general shot shows the gardens of a luxurious complex that rebels and local residents claim to be the holiday home of the Kadhafi family in Ain Zara close to Tripoli, on August 31, 2011. Numerous luxury buildings have been discovered by Libyan rebels as they get increased access to areas after ousted Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and his loyalist forces were forced to abandon their residences. AFP PHOTO/Carl de Souza (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A general view shows a luxurious complex that rebels and local residents claim to be the holiday home of the Kadhafi family in Ain Zara close to Tripoli, on August 31, 2011. Numerous luxury buildings have been discovered by rebels as they get increased access to areas after the ouster of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and his loyalist forces. AFP PHOTO/CARL DE SOUZA (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A Libyan rebel walks past a swimming pool outside the mansion of Motassem Kadhafi, a son of Libya's embattled leader, in Tripoli on August 30, 2011. Libya's rebels issued an ultimatum for Moamer Kadhafi's forces to surrender or face a military onslaught, as NATO said the strongman is still able to command his troops despite being on the run. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Libyan rebels inspect the mansion of Motassem Kadhafi, a son of Libya's embattled leader, in Tripoli on August 30, 2011. Libya's rebels issued an ultimatum for Moamer Kadhafi's forces to surrender or face a military onslaught, as NATO said the strongman is still able to command his troops despite being on the run. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Libyan rebels inspect an empty swimming pool at the mansion of Motassem Kadhafi, a son of Libya's embattled leader, in Tripoli on August 30, 2011. Libya's rebels issued an ultimatum for Moamer Kadhafi's forces to surrender or face a military onslaught, as NATO said the strongman is still able to command his troops despite being on the run. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A Libyan rebel poses for a souvenir picture outside the mansion of Motassem Kadhafi, a son of Libya's embattled leader, in Tripoli on August 30, 2011. Libya's rebels issued an ultimatum for Moamer Kadhafi's forces to surrender or face a military onslaught, as NATO said the strongman is still able to command his troops despite being on the run. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Former Abu Slim prisoner, Sami Sadiq Abu Ruwais, stands next to a swimming pool inside a luxurious complex that rebels and local residents claim to be the holiday home of the Kadhafi family in Ain Zara close to Tripoli, on August 31, 2011. Numerous luxury buildings have been discovered by rebels as they get increased access to areas after the ouster of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and his loyalist forces. AFP PHOTO/CARL DE SOUZA (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A Libyan rebel inspects an underground network of bunkers under the mansion of Motassem Kadhafi, a son of Libya's embattled leader, in Tripoli on August 30, 2011. Libya's rebels issued an ultimatum for Moamer Kadhafi's forces to surrender or face a military onslaught, as NATO said the strongman is still able to command his troops despite being on the run. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images) #

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