Baghdad, Iraq—I have arrived in Baghdad, safe and sound. The journey appeared to have been delayed a day when British Airways again could not find my bags last night. Thank goodness for the Internet, on which I was able to find that the bag had arrived last night. I received the bag containing the ever vital body armor at about 3:30 a.m., and I was on the road by 4:30 a.m.
The first challenge was that my driver spoke very little English. This would be a long and quiet ride. Of course, any drive in Jordan and Iraq is interesting. The drivers have a rather nuanced understanding of lanes and passing, even if they have a less than nuanced understanding of theirs horns.. On the drive to my hotel from the airport in Amman on Sunday, for example, the taxi driver spent much of the time driving the dead center between the lanes, and would not shift over completely even if there was a car in one of those lanes, preferring instead just to lean a bit less in the lane with the car. Put this kind of driving on a long section of two lane road with hills and blind switchbacks, where cars weave between tanker trucks, and you begin to understand why some have called the Jordanian side of the road to Baghdad one of the most dangerous roads on earth—even without terrorist assistance. While there are speed limits, they are largely ignored once you get out far enough, so we spent much of the journey with the speedometer buried at its maximum of 100 miles per hour. Add to that a broken air conditioner, March temperatures that are already warm, and the added heat from several pounds of bullet-proof vest, and you have yourself a pleasant ride.
After driving for a few hours, we stopped at a roadside café. The place was relatively sparse, with plastic tablecloths and a kitchen upstairs from the eating area. But what caught my eye was the wall. Pastered over a considerable space were business cards and signs from reporters. There was the Washington Times, Fox News, NPR, CBS, Reuters, and CNN, just to name a few. While the café did not look like much, it was clear that this was a normal stop for the drivers.
For several hours, there was little to see, with barren desert reaching toward the horizon in every direction. There was a camel crossing sign, but like deer crossing signs in the U.S., the camels know better than to cross there.
We reached the border about four hours into the journey. We first needed to clear the Jordanian side. The station was like going to the District of Columbia DMV (the crown jewel of all DMVs) without understanding the language. Picture if you will the huddled massed packed into a room, the immigration officer shouting over a microphone in such a way that it was almost impossible to understand him even if he were speaking your language, and a pattern of pushing and jockeying for position which stood as a vivid reaffirmation of the non-western world’s general rejection of lines and cues.
It was only at this time that I learned, through his passport, that my driver was Iraqi. By contrast to the mobs in the Jordan offices, the entry into Iraq was quick—too quick if you ask me. The man behind the desk stamped the passports without question. While there was a cursory inspection of the vehicle on the Jordanian side, there was no inspection on the Iraq side. The lax security at the border should give pause to anyone who had concerns about the possibility of weapons—including WMDs—floating through Iraqi borders.
The drive was much the same until we reached the outskirts of Ramadi, the first major city along the route. I fnoticed a section of charred pavement. Then I saw the remnants of what once was a car, strewn about 20 feet off the opposite shoulder of the divided highway. My driver pointed to the car. “American,” he said gravely. He made a motion like someone manning a gun turret before saying “Ramadi . . . Saddam.” Enough said. A little further and we came across what appeared to be an abandoned, entrenched position, with a hole for a gunman and dirt piled up on all sides for protection.
It was when we hit Ramadi proper that we hit our first set of U.S. troops, which were present in varying degrees for the rest of the trip. When my driver saw the first Humvees, he smiled and exclaimed enthusiastically, “Americans . . . good, good.” Of course, it is difficult to know for certain whether he was saying this because he believed it, or to curry favor with his paying passenger. The language barrier prohibited me from inquiring too much further.
The next major city was Al Fallujah, and again we were greeted with a piece of charred pavement, this time accompanied by an obliterated guardrail. The driver makes the motion of a bomb going off. Given the location of the explosion, there is little no need for further explanation: this was an IED—the lingo the military uses to describe improvised explosive devices. IEDs are generally radio controlled, and are disguised in dead animals, behind rocks, or in cans in order to evade detection. They have wreaked havoc over the country, and are responsible for some of the recent, coordinated attacks thought to have been orchestrated or assisted by AQ.
It was about 4 pm when we arrived in Baghdad, which put us in what looked like rush hour traffic. The driver had no idea how to get to the entrance of the cluster of hotels which provide American security, and, upon finding them, he was especially nonplused to find that he could not drive up, but had to park some distance away. (While I did not appreciate the inconvenience, I found the nice man with the machine gun’s not letting us go further with an uninspected Suburban comforting.) Both of the hotels in this area are showing the signs of conflict: both were previously subjected to bombings. In no small part because of these attacks, guests must pass multiple checkpoints to enter the hotel, and in the final stop you are given a pat down in front of a M-1 tank, which minds the street and assures that you mind your manners.
Upon getting to my room, I collapsed. I will give you an update on the city soon.