We arrived at the airport this morning on a private plane. I was surprised to hear that there are now three Royal Jordanian flights into Baghdad every day. It was difficult to see much from the air ... though I did see the Tigris River. The scope of the destruction can better be taken in at ground level. I had heard a great deal about the corkscrew landing into Baghdad airport, ostensibly to avoid being a clear target for SAMs, or surface-to-air missiles.... But the airport has gotten much more secure; we banked slightly, but it wasn't nearly as jarring as I had anticipated.
The airport itself was fairly unremarkable. Not many people, but there was a duty free store with candy and scores of watches ... and a number of Iraqi police or military units hanging around. (The largest contingent, I was told, was from the Ministry of the Interior.) And everyone had a gun ... AK-47's.
I was not looking forward to the road from the airport, having heard so many stories about how dangerous it was. It's about a five-mile stretch, a straight shot to the so-called Green Zone (which is really called the International Zone), and it's pretty much a mess ... concrete barricades everywhere, lots of barbed wire, and many checkpoints, some manned by Iraqis, others by U.S. troops.
The place used to be strewn with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), or people would just shoot at cars, especially at military convoys passing by. The U.S. military has made a point of securing it; they've blocked off a number of on ramps, and Iraqi armored personnel carriers are dotted along the road, pointing to the neighborhoods that border the highway, as if to say, "Don't even think about it."
Despite improved security along what the military calls Route Irish, I was relieved when we reached our CBS compound, just outside the Green Zone, which is something I had been anxious to see.
I don't think most Americans understand what the Green Zone is, and many people feel those who live and work there are so cut off from what's happening in the rest of the city, it's like living in a bubble. I guess that's why the author of a recent book on the zone named it "Imperial Life in the Emerald City." Our living conditions are hugely luxurious compared to what most Iraqis experience. We've taken over a house rented from a wealthy Iraqi entrepreneur; it has air conditioning, multiple televisions (which makes sense, of course), and a pretty spacious kitchen.
The folks in our Baghdad bureau are brave or crazy ... or probably both. Many of them have been here since the war began. Phil Ittner is a producer here. He was in the Moscow bureau and came over when the U.S. invaded and was embedded with the aviation brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division as a one-man band ... filming, producing and reporting. He works two months here, then leaves for two months.... I asked him why he didn't try to get another assignment. He said, "One, this is one of the most important stories in the world. Two, I know how to do it." I asked him if he thought things had improved since he got here. He said no, he was afraid not. But his personal opinion was that the U.S. has a responsibility to continue its presence here because, as he put it, "We tipped over the apple cart."
Later in the afternoon, we headed to the home of an Iraqi family to find out what day-to-day life is like for them.
The city looks like a third world country, where concrete reigns supreme: Concrete barriers and huge piles of concrete rubble everywhere. All the stores I saw were closed, some for good, some were not open because it was Friday, a holy day in Islam. There is a vehicle ban every Friday from eleven to three, so there were very few cars on the street.
The Iraqi family was warm and welcoming. Their apartment was small and extremely hot. They had no running water, as is often the case. They told us that their electricity is very spotty. They get only about an hour or two at the most from the national grid ... more from the generator that is for their neighborhood, and then they have a small generator themselves, but fuel is very, very expensive.
They have three children ... nine, seven and eight months, and the older boys looked dazed. It's too dangerous for them to play outside. It was heartbreaking. The parents said they don't blame it on U.S. forces, and said they hope American troops stay, because if they don't, the "militias will kill everyone."
The father, who works as a radio reporter, said he blamed the government and said a more secular government would do a better job. The mom told me, "It's hard for us to be good citizens, when you always have to worry about electricity and water and food." Staying inside all day in sweltering heat, no running water, and three children. Only buying enough food for the day because you have no place to refrigerate it. Being scared to death every time your husband goes to work. Fearing for your life because you've talked to an American journalist, and there are those who kill anyone who has anything to do with Americans. Not having enough money to leave Iraq. This is life for one Iraqi family, and they are probably luckier than some.
When I returned, Phil said, "I'm really glad that's done with." When I asked him why, he said he could tell me now. "That was the one dicey thing you were doing. I was worried that while you were inside, some troublemakers would have time to plan something." Now he tells me. I'm anxious to talk to General Petraeus, to other top military brass, to some of the soldiers, and to Ambassador Crocker to get a better handle on the political situation.
It's ironic that I was in New Orleans last week, which seems like nirvana compared to Baghdad. You can't help but wonder if this place will survive, much less thrive. Meanwhile, all U.S. and Iraqi soldiers patrolling the streets have my renewed respect and appreciation. One-hundred-and-ten degrees with full-body armor and heavy uniforms. I don't know how they do it. But they do, and we should be grateful.