The small Royal Jordanian Fokker F-28-4000, which makes daily trips to Baghdad, sits out on the tarmac away from the jetways as if some airport official feared it might prove to be an airborne IED (improvised explosive device, a US military acronym). Those of us on this hajj to the global epicenter of anti-Western and Islamic sectarian strife are an odd assortment of private security guards, military contractors, US officials, Iraqi businessmen, and journalists; a young man in a sweatshirt announces himself as part of the “Military Police K-9 Corps” (bomb-sniffing dogs).
The Baghdad International Airport terminal is full of armed guards and ringed by armored vehicles. I saw no buses or taxis awaiting arriving passengers. Almost everyone is “met.” I am picked up by The New York Times‘s full-time British security chief, who has come in a miniature motorcade of “hardened,” or bomb-proof, cars, escorted by several armed Iraqi guards in constant radio contact with each other.
As America approached the third anniversary of its involvement in Iraq, I had gone to Baghdad to observe not the war itself, but how it is being covered by the press. But of course, the war is inescapable. It has no battle lines, no fronts, not even the rural– urban divide that has usually characterized guerrilla wars. Instead, the conflict is everywhere and nowhere.
It starts on the way into Baghdad, the cluttered seven-mile gauntlet which has come to be known as Route Irish after the Fighting 69th “Irish” Brigade of the New York National Guard, which patrolled it after the invasion. Some also now call it Death Road, because so many attacks have occurred along its length. Now largely patrolled by Iraqi forces, it is not quite the firing range it used to be. But it is still the most nerve-racking trip from an airport that any traveler is likely to make.
Although pre-war Iraq had a relatively modern highway system, with multilane roads and overpasses, an occasional clover leaf, and even international standard green and white signs in both Arabic and English, it has been eroded by neglect, fighting, bombings, and tank treads which have ground up curbs and center dividers. Everywhere there is churned-up earth, trash and rubble, loops of razor wire draped with dirty plastic bags, decapitated palm trees, wrecked equipment, broken streetlights, and packs of roaming yellow dogs sniffing at piles of garbage, the perfect places for insurgents wishing to hide cell phone–triggered IEDs to greet the next passing convoy of patrolling American troops. Much of the roadside looks like a combat zone, even when it hasn’t been under attack.
Many of Baghdad’s main roads are a nightmare of traffic congestion. When American or Iraqi patrols of Humvees mounted with 50-caliber machine guns, M-1 Abrams tanks, and Bradley Fighting Vehicles pull onto a street, everything slows to a crawl. Signs tied on their tailgates warn in English and Arabic: “DANGER: STAY BACK!” Every driver gets the message. Failure to maintain one’s distance …