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48 hours in Baghdad

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The first time I came to Baghdad was in 2000. Saddam Hussein was still in power, and Iraq was under an international embargo that had virtually shut it off from the rest of the world.

Then, the only way to get to get here was to drive 11 hours across the desert from Jordan. Now, it takes 90 minutes on an Airbus.

Still, on my first trip back since 2004, a year after the Iraq war began, Baghdad feels almost as cut off as it did during the embargo. Or, more accurately, hemmed in.

However safe the city might be today — and it does seem a bit safer, despite a rash of deadly bombings last week — it comes at the price of concrete barricades and towering blast walls that block off streets, neighborhoods, entire sections of the city. Every community is separated from every other — Sunnis from Shiites, Shiite from Sunnis, rich people from poor people, Westerners from everyone else.

I first have that rat-in-a-maze feeling as we drive in from Baghdad International Airport. At the height of the insurgency, this arguably was the most dangerous road in the world. Today it is undoubtedly the safest in Baghdad, a smooth six-lane highway completely shielded from the rest of the city by 20-foot walls on either side.

It's even attractive, in a Potemkin Village sort of way.

Along the 5-mile length of wall, artists have painted romanticized scenes of Iraq — the Ziggurat of Ur, the Tower of Babel and, fancifully — sleek skyscrapers a la Dubai.

But the reality at the end of this superhighway is the same drab, low-slung city I first visited a decade ago. It is both amazing and depressing that, except for the walls and barricades, Baghdad appears to have changed little despite the hundreds of billions of dollars American taxpayers have poured into Iraq.

Admittedly, mine is a pinhole view. I am here for just two days, to do a story on an Iraqi woman, Najat Saleem, whose tragedies and successes I have chronicled since the Iraq war began. She now lives in Jordan but returns to Baghdad periodically to check on her real estate holdings

Tony, a British contractor, picks us up at the airport.

"Najat, our street looks very bad,'' he says.

Tony rents a trailer next to Najat's in the Green Zone, a heavily guarded area along the Tigris River.

Except Tony isn't Tony. He still has a wife in England even though he is also married to an Iraqi woman. "Please don't use my real name,'' he says.

And the Green Zone isn't the Green Zone. Now it's the International Zone, controlled by Iraqis since U.S. combat forces withdrew in August.

The Zone is one of the prime areas of the city, home to the $1 billion U.S. Embassy and several of Hussein's once-lavish palaces. But most Baghdad residents never go there. They can't even cross the July 14th Bridge, the main entrance to the Zone.

As we wait at the checkpoint before the bridge, Najat tries to explain the elaborate system of security clearances that govern movement in this part of Baghdad.

A blue badge, it seems, is the Tiffany of clearances. It entitles the wearer to enter the International Zone via the July 14th Bridge and to escort others in, too.

Then there are the yellow and green badges. They also provide access to the Zone albeit by far more circuitous routes.

Najat and Tony are in the lowlier badge class. Fortunately, they have a blue-badge friend, Omar, who is in the vehicle ahead of us and will serve as our escort.

Once inside the Zone, we drive through a maze of concrete canyons. Now that the Americans are gone, the place feels almost deserted. We finally come to Najat's street, which, as Tony said, looks very bad.

There is trash everywhere, and dusty piles of construction debris. And this is supposed to be one of the cleaner, nicer sections of Baghdad.

Najat unlocks a heavy iron gate, flicks on a $16,000 generator — Baghdad still has no reliable power — and makes her way through a wilted garden to the one-bedroom trailer where she stays on visits here. She deposits her luggage, and we set out to find lodgings for me.

For a city of 6.5 million, Baghdad has a dearth of full-service hotels. The Iraqi government, eager to present a good face to Arab leaders, has temporarily closed several of the largest hotels for a $300 million refurbishment in advance of an Arab summit to be held in March.

For now, most foreigners bivouac in camps run by Western contractors.

We first stop at the camp of Harlow International, which is renovating the Al-Rasheed Hotel. During the embargo, the Rasheed was best known for a large mosaic at its entrance that depicted the first President Bush. Everyone entering the lobby had to step on the president's face.

Alas, the Harlow camp is full. We are referred to another contractor, Sabre International, which does have space.

The rooms are nicely furnished but tiny — a 42-inch flat-screen TV takes up half of one wall. When I open the closet, the first thing I see is a helmet. There were also instructions for "IDF'' — immediate action drill — and a warning to "Remember the Rule of 3'' in event of a rocket attack.

The first rule: "GET DOWN. Lie flat on the floor in order to present as small a profile as possible. Blast and fragments spread upward.''

The room is so quiet and tomblike that I am surprised the next morning when Najat asks: "Did you hear the rockets?''

We leave the International Zone and head into Baghdad's notoriously terrible traffic. The only difference I notice from 2004 is that there are a lot more Toyota Land Cruisers, including the one Najat is driving. No matter what troubles the automaker might have, the ubiquity of Land Cruisers in war zones means Toyota will never go out of business.

But I am surprised there aren't more high-end vehicles. And apart from a few Western-looking furniture stores, I am surprised there aren't more places with big-ticket consumer goods and internationally known brands.

What I do see everywhere are checkpoints, guard towers, barricades. Almost every side street has a gate and a guard or two. But how good is the security? In just three days, nearly 130 people are killed after militants attack a Christian church and plant bombs at 13 different places, including this very area where I am now.

Even when bombs aren't exploding, there is a disquieting atmosphere. I try to take photos but Najat repeatedly warns: Not near the guards. Not near the tanks. Not near that villa. And two policeman look nervous when I aim my Canon at the U.S. Embassy — even though we are clear across the river. On that first trip to Iraq in 2000, a St. Petersburg Times photojournalist couldn't photograph Saddam's palaces. Now, after eight years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I can't photograph America's palatial embassy.

For dinner both nights, we go to Najat's favorite spot — Al Reef Italian Restaurant, perhaps the only place in Baghdad where you can get a glass of wine and eat spaghetti bolognese on red-and-white checked tablecloths. With its Italian Alps ambiance, it looks charmingly out of place in this flat, sweltering Arab city.

The owner, an Iraqi Christian named Saad Albert, was kidnapped in 2006 and released six days later after paying "a lot of money.'' He was nabbed again two years ago, though an alert policeman thwarted that attempt.

Albert thinks Iraq is worse off now that it was under Saddam but he also thinks the Americans are pulling out too soon. Still, it never occurred to him to flee Iraq. "This is my home and my destiny,'' he says.

It is dark when we leave — very dark. Electricity is so spotty that vast areas of the city are eerily black at night. But now that the daytime haze is gone, the sky is clear and the stars are beautiful.

On Tuesday morning, Tony picks us up for the flight back to Jordan. He and Najat have clearance to enter the airport grounds but not to escort in foreign visitors like me. So I have to get out of Tony's pickup and take an authorized taxi to the terminal. The five-minute ride costs $50.

All told, we go through no less than five separate security checks, complete with luggage searches, metal detectors, pat-downs and bomb-sniffing dogs. At one point, we are stuck behind a group of Iranian women, clad head to toe in black, who are heading home after a pilgrimage to the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

"They like to bring back souvenirs to put in their houses,'' Najat says as security people comb through the women's bulging bags.

After one final check, we are bused to our plane. All of the luggage is on the tarmac — nothing will be loaded onto the plane until it is matched with its owner.

"I want to apologize for the terribly slow ground handling in Baghdad,'' the pilot of our Royal Jordanian flight says as we prepare to take off 40 minutes behind schedule. But no one seems to have minded the security.

Two hours later, we are back in Amman, riding through streets lined with luxury hotels, U.S. fast-food restaurants and striking new office towers.

"Do you think Baghdad will ever look like this?'' I ask Najat.

"Maybe in 20 years, '' she says.

I wonder.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

48 hours in Baghdad 11/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 6:56pm]

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