To Baghdad with luck: a once-in-a-lifetime trip

Email|Print| Text size + By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / January 4, 2004

BAGHDAD -- As we walked from our Royal Jordanian plane across the runway, an explosion thumped in the middle distance.

''Welcome to Baghdad," grunted an American soldier sitting at a folding table in the 105-degree heat as he waved us toward a rusted metal hangar at the cargo terminal. No one was shooting at us, he explained; American soldiers were just blowing up captured Iraqi Army munitions on the edges of huge Baghdad International Airport. Fresh blasts occurred every minute or so.

With such a drumroll, I joined the relative handful of travelers to postwar Iraq who have made the short trip from neighboring Jordan by commercial aircraft. Mile for mile, it must be one of the world's most expensive air journeys -- $565 one way for the 491-mile trip from Jordan's capital -- to get to one of the world's most dangerous cities. By contrast, my ticket from New York to Amman was $900 -- round trip.

But there's no competition. This has been the only permitted flight, and it is available only to aid workers and government officials, with journalists tolerated when space permits, at premium prices.

Of course, you could get shot down. Security officials in Baghdad say Iraqi insurgents have fired rocket-propelled grenades or surface-to-air missiles at least 30 times at approaching or departing aircraft in recent months.

On Nov. 22, a DHL cargo jet was hit by a missile and had to make an emergency landing with smoke pouring from its wing. Royal Jordanian immediately suspended its four weekly flights until the trip could be deemed safe. In early December, before Saddam Hussein's capture, a military cargo transport plane was hit, but was able to land safely.

Yet these Royal Jordanian flights were crammed full for months, often with long waiting lists even though service was sometimes canceled, or overbooked, or delayed for hours.

One reason for flying is the alternative: The only other way to get to Baghdad is to drive 12 hours across the desert in a high-speed convoy. These often are attacked by highway robbers exploiting the security vacuum that has existed since Saddam's downfall in April.

Carol Williams, a veteran Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent, described the cynical calculations of hard-bitten war reporters as they lounged around the hotel pool deciding how they would get back out: risk a few minutes of airborne terror during the corkscrew take off, or hours of boredom and highway dangers on the drive to Amman.

I chose the briefer terror on a visit in October to spend a week with the Globe's reporting team.

A 3:30 a.m. wake-up call at the new Four Seasons Hotel got me to Amman-Queen Alia Airport by 4:45 for the 6:30 flight. The airline normally uses a 40-seat turboprop plane for the flight. This day, it had substituted a much bigger Airbus A320 jet, and the reason became apparent at check-in.

An American contractor had chartered the plane to transport 102 cooks and kitchen staff from India to Baghdad. It never became clear why US occupation authorities needed to import cooks from India.

The air passengers included international aid workers, bureaucrats from the interim Iraqi government, dignitaries, and journalists.

After a breakfast of a rock-hard pastry and instant coffee at the airport's cafe, we boarded the flight and took off at about 7:30 a.m. It took just an hour over the gray desert to reach the dramatic green line marking the Euphrates River Basin west of Baghdad. That same line also signals the boundary of the Sunni Triangle, the stronghold of Hussein loyalists who shot down a Chinook helicopter on Nov. 2, killing 16 US soldiers.

We reached the airport at 16,000 feet, and began our spiral descent, corkscrewing in tight circles but without the stomach-wrenching dive that some had said to expect. We saw fleets of US helicopters lined up along one runway, and then we swung well to the east before circling back for the landing. We taxied away from the commercial terminal toward the freight hangar. After 30 minutes, we were able to deplane.

Feet back on the ground, we entered the surreal world of American-occupied Iraq. We were herded through the cargo hangar to a tiny, makeshift immigration room. A few Iraqis worked at fancy new computer screens to process each arriving passenger. Digital cameras attached to the computers snapped our pictures. Soldiers watched over the Iraqis' shoulders.

Then we tumbled out onto a driveway, where our luggage was unloaded from a forklift and a shuttle bus and dumped on the tarmac. Iraqi drivers waiting for passengers milled about with soldiers toting automatic rifles and submachine guns.

Beyond the airport, it was instantly clear what the American occupation looked like. We passed unbroken convoys of American humvees bristling with alert machine-gunners, and tank-like Bradley Fighting Vehicles. American checkpoints halted traffic frequently on highways and bridges.

The Globe's Baghdad headquarters since the war has been the Al Hamra, a white, 14-story hotel in a well-to-do section on a peninsula east of the Tigris River. With hotels and foreigners both considered targets, security has been stepped up steadily, with concrete barricades slowing down approaching vehicles and security guards with AK-47s patrolling the perimeter.

The hotel is home to journalists, aid workers, and contractors who have opted not to live within the compounds of the more isolated Palestine and Sheraton hotels, virtual fortresses guarded by menacing tanks and rolls of concertina wire. Still more secure -- although not invulnerable, judging by an attack that narrowly missed Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in October -- is the Al Rashid Hotel, open only to the military and high-ranking coalition officials.

The Hamra is a nondescript three-star hotel with basic rooms, reliable hot and cold water, and generators to ensure that electricity stays on during the daily blackouts. At $130 per night per room, it's pricey for what you get, but it offers a fair balance of comfort, security, and camaraderie. Australian soldiers from the nearby embassy patrol the lobby. The windows are taped up to minimize flying glass in the event of a bombing.

For the week I was there, I became Irish. Americans are not welcome guests throughout much of Baghdad. My translators and colleagues said it would be safer not to let strangers know you were American. Our travels through Baghdad were not quite furtive, but we hardly strolled the streets casually. Rather, we made judicious visits to the few beautiful sights: the 12th-century Abasid Palace, its doors and other valuables looted but structurally intact, and the medieval Mustansiriya School, an Islamic center of learning that was untouched in the war.

At the end of my stay, I reconfirmed my flight. To do this, passengers had to work their way through the half-dozen concentric checkpoints at the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority in the Baghdad Convention Center, where my translator, Mohamed Alawsi, remembered once singing for Saddam Hussein in an elementary school choir. Passengers who didn't reconfirm in this way were frequently bumped from the flight, confirmed ticket or no.

The departure was as unusual as the arrival, although very different. We were only the second passenger flight to be channeled through the just-reopened commercial terminal of what had been Saddam International Airport. Some passengers came by airline bus from the Palestine Hotel complex; a few of us came with our own drivers. But we could go only as far as a new, air-conditioned trailer set up on the highway median, a mile or two from the airport. Nepalese guards hired by the security company used sniffer dogs to check our luggage; we took a bus from there to the silent, almost deserted terminal building.

The security check to get inside the terminal was extraordinarily rigorous. It took each passenger 10 or 15 minutes to get through; the private security operation, run by the Custer Battles Co., removed every item from every bag and checked it by hand. Then we lounged around the lobby, which was frozen in time. The departure board hadn't been used in years; commercial flights to Iraq had been mostly halted since the 1991 Gulf War.

The board still bore the hopeful titles of flights long since abandoned -- to Barcelona, Berlin, Chicago. In reality, the only flight leaving that day was our chartered 54-seat turboprop to Amman. And within weeks, that flight too would halt temporarily, for fear of missile strikes. Right after the war, US officials had spoken hopefully of resuming commercial flights as early as summer. Now no one knows when such flights might begin, let alone bring tourists into the country.

Finally we were led through a glass partition, through the departure lounge and out onto the runway, where we walked to the plane. We taxied and the takeoff seemed routine as we rose uneventfully above the verdant Mesopotamian plain and beyond the Euphrates, safely back over the blissfully empty desert.

James F. Smith is the Globe's foreign editor.

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