A young white South African pilot leans in the cockpit doorway of a small NGO-chartered prop plane and gives his ten passengers the pre-flight pep talk: “At 10,000 above Baghdad International Airport, we will begin our descent in a spiral dive. This avoids surface-to-air missiles and ground fire, we hope. But don’t worry, the maneuver is well within the technical capacities of the machine. Enjoy the flight to Baghdad.”
The flight is fine–but the dive is fast, steep and scary.
Since April most roads into the capital of Iraq have been closed by sporadic combat and marauding gangs of looters. Westerners are special targets. Some elements in the resistance are said to pay $20,000 a head for hostages. The only truly open road is the heavily patrolled route north through Kurdistan to Turkey or Iran.
So now journalists fly in. It’s the “safe” way to reach this politically diseased metropolis, which after fourteen months of US occupation and alleged reconstruction is tormented by a fever of violence, social breakdown, administrative anarchy and economic decline. The crisis now seems to feed on itself in an epidemiological fashion, with symptoms reinforcing root causes in a downward spiral. Lack of security–the central issue–means lack of electricity, which means no work, which means more violence, and so on. In response, Iraqis either cling to a blind faith that America will sort things out, or they turn to tradition, self-organization, Islam and armed resistance.
At the 1970s-style passenger terminal where we land, the long hallways and lounges are empty. Outside I find some Kroll security men headed to Baghdad and bum a ride. The twenty-kilometer dash from here to the city is called “RPG alley.” This, despite the airport being contained within a huge US military base.
“This road is ridiculous,” says the flak-jacketed Brit riding shotgun. He chambers a round in his short Heckler and Koch assault rifle. Recent ambushes have hit several convoys here. The only one that made the news ended with four more dead mercenaries from Blackwater USA, their SUV in flames. “The First Cav should have checkpoints every few clicks. And they should clear all surrounding areas,” says the Brit. “I have no idea how they think this is supposed to work without a secure airport.”
June was a bad month. The malady of occupation was in full recrudescence: car bombs killing scores each week, assassins culling the political class, routine but underreported sabotage. In the slums of east Baghdad–Sadr City–the newly arrived First Cavalry Division has almost nightly shootouts with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jeshi Mahdi, or Mahdi Army.
Ten days to sovereignty–the city waits. I awake, as usual, in a sweat to the sound of a rumbling boom. The big explosions are usually in the morning. This one sounds close. “Car bomb!” yells a colleague down the hall. Four of us are bivouacked in a cheap, almost empty Baghdad hotel run by a friendly but thuggish man from Falluja. The accommodations–along with our recently grown beards, dark tans, locally purchased cloths and preference for beat-up old cars–are all part of a low-tech “security strategy.” If most Western journalists live in walled compounds with armed guards and still get kidnapped or shot up, we figure, do the opposite. Go local, blend in, try to pass as Iraqi, to the extent we are able.