Greetings from Baghdad
BAGHDAD — Well, I guess I should call this blog Back in Iraq again… I’m in Baghdad as I write this and glad to be here. The last few days hanging fire in Amman were tedious. But at least it gave me time to restock, clear my head and screw my courage to the sticking post. And so here I am.
First of all, the flight from Amman to Baghdad was startingly normal. A couple of flight attendants served refreshments and vile airline food, just like a normal flight. Except this one was in an all-white South African-registered plane (the irony should be lost on no one, there) and populated by a bunch of Parsons, KBR and other assorted contractors. I’m not going to call them mercenaries at this point, since the guys I talked to were all there to work at oil refineries or on cellular services. Hardly the mercenary types.
The landing was anything but typical though. After a normal flight, we went into a tight, corkscrew dive that sent your stomach up into your throat — and in the case of two passengers, out their mouths and into their laps. It’s a vomit-comet experience. But if you like roller coasters in a sealed container where you can’t really see anything, it’s a lot of fun. Just don’t think about the very real threat of shoulder-mounted SAMs.
Finally, the airport. Again, surprisingly normal. Professional immigration inspectors — Iraqis, all — used high-tech screening, including digital cameras and passport readers, and I finally got the Iraqi entry stamp in my passport. Third time’s the charm.
It’s a small airport, however, and this is pretty much the only non-military flight that comes in, so there’s not a lot for the staff and security — courtesy of Custer Battles’ subcontractor Biap Security from Vietnam, I think — to do. There are no working phones and the cellular network doesn’t extend out to the airport. I met a nice woman who said she works for the Defense Department at the Palace. When I asked her about Baghdad and the situation there, she shrugged and said, “I’ve not been out of the Green Zone, so I don’t know.”
Finally, boarding the bus to the first checkpoint: We all crammed on with mountains of luggage, just me and about 40 Iraqis. As more luggage kept piling on, a very nice Iraqi woman next to me smiled and said, “You’ll see miracles in Baghdad,” and then she pointed to even more luggage somehow shoved into any available space that people didn’t occupy. Oh, also there is no cell phone use allowed on the bus. Another hijabbed woman started talking on her phone and the driver angrily told her to shut it off. The threat of ambushes is real, even in this heavily patrolled route, and no one is allowed to possibly call in a position.
The first checkpoint is the end of the line for the bus, and people piled off in a dusty heap — along with the luggage — to greet friends. I hadn’t had a chance to change any dollars in the the new Iraqi dinars, so the miracle lady paid my “tip” to the driver. “This is part of Iraqi hospitality,” she said to me. I thanked her in my pidgin Arabic. Shrukrun.
My driver, S., was waiting for me. Though endearingly dorky, he had some pretty sweet wheels: a late-model BMW. We motored out onto the highway after I had wedged my body armor between myself and the door. He just shrugged. Crazy Americans.
“It’s hard to say if it’s safe or not,” S. said when I asked him about the security situation. “Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. It’s in God’s hands.”
But there were no incidents. There was some kind of traffic tie-up on the highway to my hotel, and S. took a roundabout way to get onto another highway because he said it was safer that way, but otherwise, there were no problems. The American presence is infrequent and the parts of Baghdad we were in, the Masbah district, sported — I kid you not — many fresh billboards in the Western style for Western Brands, including Swatch, Dunhill and Spring — a European brand of toothpaste, I think. The billboards are sprouting up everywhere, and with the late model cars on the street, the advertising, the heat and the palm trees, I felt I could almost have been in a Florida ‘burb. It was the oddest feeling, one of dislocation but in the wrong direction.
I’m staying in one of the hotels near the al Hamra, the local journo-hang. I can’t speak for the rest of Baghdad, but this part of the capital is not wracked by chaos or violence. There aren’t many happy glances directed my way or anything like that, however. Instead I sensed more a resigned feeling. Here’s another one, they seemed to be thinking. So far, the Iraqis are not hostile so much as impatient and annoyed.
Night is falling and things may change then, however. And S. told me, as we snacked on schwarma on the street near my hotel, that tonight would be the first and last night we would eat at a sidewalk cafe. “It’s too dangerous,” he said, “We will eat inside or take it back to the hotel from now on.”
Across the street, the Americans had staked out an unfinished 8-story building and sandbagged it to turn it into a very tall bunker. Machine guns bristled from strategic sightline points, and two soldiers peered down through field glasses at us as we sipped Pepsis in plastic chairs. The night air was pleasant and cool. I waved to my new neighbors up in their machine gun nests. They didn’t wave back.