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Commercial flights provide a bird's-eye view of Iraq's problems

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Every aspect of the war in Iraq springs to life aboard the unpredictable commercial flights in and out of this battered capital. More than just plane rides, they often are highly emotional journeys into the interrupted lives of millions of ordinary Iraqis.

The war's refugee crisis is evident on any given day at Baghdad International Airport, where throngs of Iraqis lugging their most prized possessions wait with one-way tickets to other Arab nations. Always a few break down just before boarding, prompting other passengers to reassure them that they'll return one day.

Iraq's lack of basic services can be seen when awestruck Iraqi children aboard a recent Baghdad to Cairo flight cooed, "Wow! Electricity!" as their plane neared the bright lights of the Egyptian capital.

Sectarianism rears up even in flight delays. At Cairo International Airport, delayed Shiite passengers and a presumably Sunni representative of Iraqi Airways traded insults and seemed close to blows until one exasperated ticket-holder reminded them, like a father to his misbehaving children, that they weren't in Iraq anymore.

The lack of security shows up in chronic cancellations and delays related to threats against the Baghdad airport compound or the shoddy maintenance of Iraq's aging aircraft.

To see the struggle of Iraqi officials to restore law and order, look no further than the ever-changing visa and passport laws.

Even the resilience of Iraqis is on display with jam-packed daily flights into Baghdad at a time when hundreds of thousands are fleeing.

To see the war through Iraqi eyes, you take the cheap and highly unreliable Iraqi Airways or charter flights from Cairo, Dubai, Istanbul or Damascus. For an official perspective, you join Iraqi leaders, Western diplomats and private contractors on the more expensive and better secured Royal Jordanian flight from Amman, Jordan.

This month, it took three days and two failed attempts on both types of flights for this reporter to get from Egypt to Iraq. The direct flight on Iraqi Airways was delayed for 11 hours, forcing me to hastily rebook on a late-night flight to Jordan in order to avoid landing at Baghdad International Airport after dark.

A handful of Iraqis who could afford the ticket change also were aboard the Royal Jordanian plane. After a day of waiting for the direct flight to Baghdad, off we headed to an entirely different destination.

"Shinsawwi?" the Iraqi businessman sitting next to me said wearily. His words translate roughly as, "What can we do?"

A Palestinian grandmother who overheard our chat about Iraq fished a palm-sized, green Quran from her purse and pressed it into my hand.

"You're going to Baghdad?" she asked. "You'll need this."

We landed in Amman at nearly midnight. The next morning, I rushed through breakfast and prepared to set off for the airport to catch a flight to Baghdad when my cell phone rang. The airport road was closed, and the checkpoints along it were considered prime targets because of a major security conference in the Iraqi capital.

A security adviser determined it was safest to wait yet another day.

At sunrise on my third day of travel, I once again set off for the airport in hopes of finally making it to Baghdad. To my surprise, the flight took off on time, though very few Iraqis were on board.

Mostly, there were U.S. officials in khakis and button-down shirts, along with burly South African security contractors in cargo pants and T-shirts. I counted just two other women—a veiled Iraqi woman accompanied by her husband and a blonde American woman in a midriff-baring top.

I struck up a conversation with a Seattle cop who was spending nine months training Iraqi police in the deadly northern city of Baqouba. Making small talk, I asked him how his recruits were progressing.

"They're not," he said flatly.

Then I noticed an old acquaintance on the flight, Fauzi Hariri, the Iraqi minister of industry. With a chuckle, he congratulated himself on dodging the previous day's regional security conference.

"So, how's Baghdad?" I asked.

"Better, I think," Hariri said, thinking over the question. "Yes, better."

The plane swooped low over a landscape of palm groves, Saddam Hussein's bombed-out former palaces and patches of desert. The Tigris River shimmered in the morning sunlight.

It was time for the notorious corkscrew landing, a maneuver to avoid shoulder-fired missiles and rocket-propelled grenades. My head throbbed, my ears popped and my stomach heaved during the plane's acrobatics. Passengers peered warily out the windows, hoping not to see the flash of incoming fire.

We landed without incident, but one last hurdle was in store. I didn't have a visa and the Iraqi government had recently cracked down on Westerners who show up without the proper papers. As recently as a couple of months ago, it took 10 minutes to get a visa on the spot.

This time, a newly hired immigration manager threatened me with deportation. A flurry of phone calls and a bribe of Toblerone chocolate eventually cleared up the matter.

Before leaving, I asked the manager the reason for the sudden change in visa procedure. He looked offended at the question.

"There are rules here," he sniffed.


(Hannah Allam is McClatchy's Cairo Bureau chief. She was the Baghdad Bureau chief from 2003 to 2005.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.