Day: January 5, 2011

Heading for Baghdad: the practical

I am getting ready for a trip to Baghdad next week and thought I might offer some insight into what that means.

There are the practical arrangements.  Booking the flights is deceptively straightforward:  the travel agent gets you to Amman, Beirut, Istanbul or Kuwait overnight.  From Kuwait I go on a Gryphon charter into the military side of the Baghdad airport (Sather) the same evening, provided the weather cooperates.  Sandstorms, not rainstorms, are the main cause of delay.  But you can only do that if you have a “CAC” (common access card) provided by the Defense Department to government employees and contractors.  Otherwise it is Royal Jordanian from Amman (or something similar from Beirut or Istanbul) the next morning into the civilian side of the airport.

Now the unusual part starts.  The airport is only a few miles from the so-called Green Zone in the center of Baghdad, but Westerners are generally still traversing those miles with body armor and a personal security detail (PSD, as in guards or shooters).  That costs somewhere between $850 and $2000.  We used to do it in low-profile, armored cars (they looked like jalopies but were properly “up” armored, that is retrofitted).  But the Iraqi authorities now require all PSDs to display a plaque on the front of the car, which scuttles the low-profile idea.  I long for the day I’ll feel comfortable arriving on the civilian side and hailing a cab to downtown Baghdad.  I hope it is not far off.

Once inside the checkpoints that more or less define the Green Zone, things are usually more relaxed.  Most of the non-embassy people move around without PSDs, but cautiously and alertly.  What difference would it make?  Not much:  when something happens, it usually happens very fast.  My one close call in more or less a dozen trips into Iraq was a rocket that fell within a hundred yards.  It was over before I knew it had happened (in fact, you hear the blast before the whistle of the rocket moving through the air, since it is moving faster than the speed of sound).

The Green Zone is many things, but not green.  Mostly it is gray T-walls and fine beige dust, which hide just about everything these days from plain sight.  I’ve got a pretty good sense of direction, but I get lost all the time because it all looks so much the same.  In any event, I’m never alone–not smart to move around alone–so it doesn’t usually matter.

Behind the T-walls, there are sometimes very nice compounds, especially in the so-called “Lakes” or “Little Venice” district, where many of the Iraqi bigwig politicians live.  US Institute of Peace had its first office there, in a former Republican Guard officer’s residence–check it out:

There is now some new construction–last time I was there (in June) the prime minister’s office had largely finished what people were saying was a guest house (more like a guest high rise).  The American Embassy is of course new, but it looks more like a prison from the outside, and like an almost comically sterile American town inside.

But whatever I say today could now be wrong, since one of the lessons of my trips to Baghdad is that everything changes:  where the T-walls are, who lives where, the procedures at the checkpoints, which ID will get you through quickly.  For each and every appointment, I’ve got to make sure I know precisely where to go (which isn’t easy in a place with no street names or numbers) and what to say at each of the checkpoints.  And there are many checkpoints at which a common language is hard to find:  the twenty something Georgians who used to guard the UN compound not only didn’t speak Russian but also didn’t know they were guarding the UN.  Go figure.

Checkpoints are in fact one of the real danger zones, though of course they are there for protection.  But not protection for YOU.  The guards are often inexperienced or nervous, sometimes mean and rarely well trained or informed.  It wasn’t much better when the Americans were doing it, though the procedures were a bit more rigorous and standardized.  They still are at the entrances to U.S. military facilities–which are guarded mainly by Ugandans working for security companies, not soldiers.  The name of the game at checkpoints is to get through them quickly (suicide bombers sometimes strike checkpoints) without appearing to be rushing and without being brusque or impolite, which is a sure way to get slowed down.

Where to stay?  I’ll be staying with one of the security companies, a number of which provide food, accommodations and internet access since there is no hotel in the Green Zone and last time I looked no real restaurants either, though there are a few places where you can get a quick bite to eat.  The US military and diplomats have their own DFACs (dining facilities), where you eat only if you have a CAC  card, or know someone who does.  You’ve got to watch your intake at those–the nutritionists are trying to keep young guys who burn 5000 calories a day in good form.  A couple of DFAC meals can put on more than a few pounds.  I generally try to skip one meal a day, but if the Iraqis want to feed you you’d best be ready to eat.

Tomorrow:  psychological preparations.

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