Saturday, June 23, 2007

I could go home.

So my busman's holiday has come to an end. Curfew ended and airplanes whisked me back to the Missouri River Valley.

Although I'd been to Iraq briefly four years ago, in the intervening time it had moved from being a place, to an abstraction. I'll admit to becoming numb to the reports of yet another bombing, of yet another shrine destroyed, of so many more families forced from one place to the next.

Like most people, it had little impact on my life. There's been no draft. Gas got pricier, but let's face it, do any of us drive less than before? Taxes haven't even gone up to pay for the darned thing.

But sitting in Humvees wondering if this was the day I'd be in a vehicle that trips a roadside bomb, sweating into my body armor for hours on end, I was reminded of just how tough troops have it.

At night in my Baghdad hotel, I could hear the mortars most days. I could hear the gunfire. Talking with the brave Iraqi journalists working in the bureau about the chaos of their neighborhoods, about the tough prospects of their lives, I came to understood just what a mess Iraq has become.

At home, people inevitably ask "what was it like?" Great. Awful. Tragic. For U.S. troops? For a high school girl whose final exams got delayed, and delayed and delayed because it wasn't safe to go to school? For an Iraqi politician under pressure to do so much with so little?

In the end, they are stuck with the tough reality of a country in collapse.

In the end, I had the choice to leave. They don't.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Theme song

As I was sitting down this morning for a hard-boiled egg while my Iraqi colleagues drank their tea, I noticed them looking wistfully at the TV while a music video played. It was a song old, dear and bittersweet to them.

Jenan sang along with the TV softly through the chorus ... "Shadi, Shadi."

"The singer is Lebanese," volunteered Hamad. "She's singing about civil war. It's a girl singing about a boy she knew when she was a child."

The singer is one of the most popular in the Arab world, known simply as Fairuz. Hamad said her voice makes him think of angels. He began to translate.

His name was Shadi, Shadi, and I used to play in the snow ...
The world was smothered with fire some people began fighting against other people and the fighting spread to our hills. Shadi ran to watch ... I never saw him again. Shadi was lost forever. Snow fell and melted away for twenty times I grew up and Shadi remained the boy I knew, playing in the snow.

"It's a sad song," said Hussein.

"Now," said Jenan, "there are too many Shadis here."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Just a reminder

For a really incisive blog about Iraq, read what some Iraqis have to say.

Must see TV

OK, let's confess something up front. The curfew that locked down the country after the bombing of the shrine in Samarra has me stuck in the hotel (and in Iraq, for that matter). So it's gotten much harder to find something to share with you.
So let's turn on the TV.
I caught a commercial on Iraqi TV worth mentioning. Keep in mind, my Arabic pretty much begins and ends with "thank you," but even I could follow this one.
I'm told it was produced in New York, and it has the sort of Hollywood production values you don't usually see here. It's all artsy hand-held camera stuff with the sort of black-and-white meets saturated colors look used in the movie "Traffic."
Hooded gunmen corner a middle aged man and ask him, "Sunni or Shiite?" No answer. They keep asking the question, tossing him in a trunk and hauling him off to scary looking concrete room. Finally, he's on the floor, the gunmen are increasingly agitated. Gun at his head. "Sunni or Shiite?" He spits back: "Iraqi." Fade to black.
It's a powerful message of rejection to the sectarian violence ripping this country apart.
Yet in watching you can't help wonder if it's just a shout into the wind. The bombing at the Shiite shrine in Samarra has been answered, despite the curfew, with attacks on Sunni mosques across the country. That's likely to beget reprisals against Shiites. And so on.
It'll take more than commercials to fix this place.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

CARE packages

People have been asking what to send the troops.

It's a tough question. I see letters and pictures from schoolkids posted in quite a few places. Cute stuff. But I didn't notice troops reading them much. That could be because they've been up so long or that after a while the novelty wears off.

I'd recommend against baked goods and such. By the time they get here, they can't be in very good shape. Plus, except for the most remote bases where guys are still chomping on MREs, the food seems plentiful and pretty good.

They do watch lots of DVDs. So any old ones -- think action and horror, hold off on the romantic comedies --might be appreciated. (Why doesn't Netflix or Blockbuster set up some free subscription over here? Great publicity. Establish brand loyalty with young, media-hungry audience. Send the P.R. consulting fee to: Scott Canon c/0 The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO, 64108.)

Batteries, although heavy to mail, would be welcome. Some guys hook up portable CD players and iPods to portable speakers to listen to in the Humvees and they get beat up pretty quick. Might send along that kind of stuff.

Most of all, some replacement troops would be nice. See what you can do.

As for Iraqis, well, you've already sent billions of dollars here. Any way to transform that into water, electricity and peace would, I'm certain, be much appreciated.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Something to go with your cornflakes and coffee

It's just a typical day in the Iraqi newspapers.

Among the headlines:

--The speaker of parliament might lose his job amid accusations he had his body guards pummel a fellow lawmaker for threatening to leave a voting bloc.

--Followers of Muqtada al Sadr are making threatening noise to Turkey.

Car bombs kill scores. Again.

Life insurance being offered to university professors as a way to encourage them to stay in the country. Seems they're frequent targets of assassination.
And the people of Baghdad are having trouble sleeping. It's too hot to stay inside (spotty electricity means no air-conditioning). Sleeping on the roof means enduring the roar of helicopters, the clattering of tanks, the bang of gunfire and the thunder of mortar fire.
One woman tells a reporter: "I want to sleep through the night peacefully. But there is always somebody who wants to kill us."

Keep on Truckin'

I piled into the back of Humvees with at least a half dozen different crews. Each attacked the road with a different attitude.

The best guys go slow. It was the quickest indicator of the discipline of a group. The slower you go -- and it's hard to go slow because it's hot and uncomfortable in those things, and the air conditioning tends to conk out about mid-day -- the better chance of spotting bombs.

Rural roads are pock-marked with potholes left from earlier explosions ( fromIEDs, or improvised explosive devices, in the parlance of the military). If those holes are filled with white concrete, then chances are that everything is safe. Unrepaired bomb craters are favorite places for stashing new bombs.

Plus the troops look for wires, cables, animal carcasses, pipes or anything that looks out of place. The problem is, everything is out of place. Trash is everywhere. Virtually the entire landscape is blasted into disarray.

In the picture above, two empty cooking oil cans brought things to a standstill until a close look with a camera zoom gave the crew confidence to move ahead.

Not everyone is so careful. Some move quickly (and in my brief experience tended to listen to angrier music as they traveled).

Some just aren't as sharp. A civil affairs crew I rode into Kirkuk with had trouble working their radios.

Some are jumpier. One gunner I rode with felt obligated to firing warning shots over the top of any vehicle that didn't come to a complete stop. His staff sergeant finally tore into him when he whizzed shots by a farmer on a tractor.

"He's just a tractor man, dude. A tractor man."

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Say that again

Going from house to hovel in Hawijah, the masked man was in the middle of everything.

J.D., as the troops called their Iraqi translator, was the guy who had to convey the sometimes angry pleadings of soldiers to the men they were questioning, and the flustered pleadings of the men whose homes were suddenly filled with guys toting rifles.

The outfit liked J.D. Thought he was great, in fact. But having used enough translators myself, he was driving me crazy. So often the answers he gave from Iraqis made clear he'd never understood the original question.

Ask them, the lieutenant told J.D., who the guys were fighting here the other night.

They have no problem with anybody, J.D. would report back.

Sometimes the Iraqis would talk on for a full minute or more and the interpreter would sum it up with "they don't know."

In the home of a Taxi driver who wasn't seeing much business lately, they wanted to pass on word of a work project in town paid for by Uncle Sam.

No, said J.D., I told you already that he drives the taxi.

No, tell him there are these new jobs.

What jobs?

J.D, you're killing me tonight.

Forgive J.D. and his brethren. In Kirkuk province, they need to speak English, Arabic and Kurdish. Many cover their faces because being identified as working for Americans could a death sentence.

One translator I talked to urged me to recognize their efforts. He'd been working with troops almost since the invasion. Just a month earlier, the bullet-proof window of a Humvee had saved him from a sniper.

"I stopped counting the (roadside bombs)," he said, "a long, long time ago."

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Drug of choice

It seems almost cruel. The troops aren’t supposed to have booze here. Instead, next to the Gatorade and Cokes in most of the dining facilities, there’s free non-alcoholic Coors – a watery hint of the watery real thing.

So what do they go for? Energy drinks. Red Bull. Rip It and, for the hard cores, something called Boom Boom.

Seems like I’ve read there’s not much in such drinks that really works except a stiff bit of caffeine. Think of a strong coffee buzz delivered in a sugary citrus can of carbonated water.

Get some Boom Boom here, guys in one platoon were telling me, and you get more kick. They're convinced the folks in the Middle East put in something different, or something more, that you just don't get in the States.

I’m older and my bones creek, so I’m sticking with Coke and ibuprofen.

Tagging along

My first Army patrol of this trip was blissfully uneventful. It was a full day riding a few slow miles from a base on the edge of Kirkuk to the village of Khifa. A few days before someone had set off a bomb that knocked down a guard tower near Khifa and the small convoy of Humvees was heading out to see if the town’s muqtar, or neighborhood boss, might shed light on things.

It’s a strange thing to ride in a Humvee here. With helmet and body armor on, you squeeze your knees under your chin talk yourself into believing that it doesn’t really hurt to sit like this. And you work the odds in your head to convince yourself that a bomb won’t go off on this particular trip, and that if it does it will be too far from you to do any harm.

The gunner splits time between standing and sitting in sling that’s something like those flexible rubber swing set seats at a grammar school playground. It’s his job to wave a red flag, to curse, to point his machine gun until all the civilian cars give it wide berth. Some take more convincing than others, and in some areas you can tell the fear of getting shot up by the Humvees is stronger than in other places.

Y put along at 10 to 30 mph, everybody looking for a suspicious pothole or pile of trash.

After a few wrong turns, we found the village. And a few wrong turns later, we found the muqtar’s pad. He was gone, but his son was there.

What did he know about the explosion?

Nothing. I was asleep, he said.

Sleeping, huh? Well, said the hulking sergeant in his spacesuit of body armor, we’d better find something out.

If they know anybody who did the bombing, he said, they’d better step up or the U.S. Army is coming back and it won’t be pretty. Somebody’s going to get jacked up. Somebody’s gonna end up in jail.

Eyes wide shut

It’s hard to get on a military helicopter without your mind turning, however irrationally, to the idea that some times they fall out of the sky. Especially in a war zone. I could only wonder what the three Iraqis on board the Black Hawk with me were thinking.

Each was bound at the wrists with zip ties and had blindfolds made of thick gauze. They were marched to the chopper by an MP, the second sightless captive holding on to the back of the first, the third holding on to the second.

The rest of us were required to wear helmets, body armor and ear plugs. They had none of these.

I sat across from two of the guys and my view of the third was blocked by an MP sitting between us. The guy across from me on the right looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s, dressed in a track suit and flip flops. He stayed cool. He took the occasional deep breath, smacked his lips a bit, and sat tough-guy still.

The guy on the left was middle aged, dressed in a dirty dishdasha and rail thin. As luck would have it, seemingly all of the wash from the chopper blades and the early evening wind ran through the open window and at the face of the older guy. It also somehow worked it up its way under his blindfold to batter his eyes. He couldn’t stop shaking.

He kept reaching his bound hands up to tug the blindfold down to protect his eyes. And for the first 10 minutes of the flight, one of his MP guards would pull his hands away – thinking the Iraqi was trying to peek, to get a look at the landscape as dusk dwindled to dark.

Finally, the guard concluded that the old guy was just trying to protect his eyes and left him alone.

I couldn’t help wondering what had these guys done, what their fate was, and how frightening it had to be to take this military amusement park ride in a blindfold.

A while after landing in Hawija, I learned that my three traveling companions had been arrested about a week earlier, and were actually being brought home for release.

As they were led away from the helicopter, I saw a half dozen more bound and blindfolded Iraqis being loaded on to the chopper we’d just stepped off.

Saturday, June 2, 2007


Traveling a distance that's about the same as going from Kansas City to St. Louis ate up about 18 hours and cost me a night's sleep. And everything ran on time.

That's just how things go in ArmyWorld.

I got to the Green Zone before dark so my drivers could get home safely. I spent a few hours in the media lounge, this time spent talking with a guy from an Austrian paper (less than a year old, circulation 350,000 -- who says newspapers are dying).

Then to the Rhino, which is essentially your Uncle Marty's Winnebago stripped down, filled with 30 seats and wrapped in armor and bulletproof glass. This is how people get from downtown to the airport. They've even got "Rhino Run" T-shirts.

The ride is eerie. Just parking lights going on the convoy of Rhinos and escorting Humvees. I can hardly see a thing outside. The road is bumpy and the weight of the Rhino's armor is more than its shocks can handle. I take close note of the exits, because this thing feels like a steel coffin.

We're dumped out another collection of blast walls -- I wonder if the collective weight of reinforced concrete gathering in Baghdad is going to shift the weight of the planet off balance -- and a more civilized shuttle to the actual airport.

The shuttle plays an Armed Forces Network radio station in all its Orwellian glory. Patriotic country tunes of the lamest sort are separated by eat-your-spinach public service announcements. Volunteering will make you happier, promises one spot. That's followed by reminders to drink plenty of water. Then an announcer warns of the signs of coming suicide: is your buddy gloomy? Is he upset about being a long distance from loved ones? Did things get worse after the extension of your deployment? Uh, yeah.

I get to the military airport at about 3 a.m and kill the time until the 6:30 check-in for my flight failing to fall asleep on a picnic bench. The soldiers around me have no trouble conking out.

Finally I'm walking on the tarmac behind the roaring engines of a C-130, which is sort like walking into a kiln. We're in Kirkuk in less than an hour.

Here, things are much calmer. There's less violence, and as a result, there's less armor on the base that sits not far from the city's center. And I'm embedded in ArmyWorld for a week.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

And how was your day?

It was easily the most cheerful moment of my time here so far. For a moment.

I was pecking away at the keyboard -- heaving lifting, this foreign correspondency -- and a face popped into my room.

"Scott, how are you?" (You'll have to imagine the accent, I don't do dialiects.)

Hamad had gone home to Fallujah for a week. Getting there was dangerous. Being there was dicey. People would ask what he was doing now? Who is he talking to on his cell phone. Being found out as a guy working for Westerners could be a death sentence.

Seeing his smile was a great relief.

How was he?

"Fine. Fine." Except there had been a bombing of a recruiting station just today that killed at least two dozen people. The roads had been shut down. And, it turned out, the cousin he had grown up with had been taken hostage. The kidnappers want $50,000, that the family didn't have.

"Yes, it's bad," he said. "But, you know, this is Iraq."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Change of pace ... or no pace at all.

For the three or so weeks I've been here, my routine has been basically this:

Meeting at 9 a.m. with half dozen or so Iraqi journalists who work for McClatchy. Read their blog.

They read aloud the top headlines from six to 10 newspapers. We talk about what they've been seeing in their neighborhoods, and then divvy up the day's assignments. Somebody tracking violence around the country. Somebody watching what parliament's up to, and so on.

Then I'm either trying to work sources by phone or making the short but laborious journey into the Green Zone for press conferences and interviews.

Often it's not until 6 p.m. we recognize what the story of the day will be. Luckily, Iraqis work late. It's possible to call people well into the evening. Our deadline is roughly 11 p.m. local time and talking things over with Washington editors can stretch until 2 a.m.

Sounds like more work than it is. And it's not as if there's much else to do.

I had set my first military embed of this trip set for Monday. That got bumped up to Sunday night.

I'd steeled myself for the hurry-up-and-wait routine. The waiting area by the parking lot where helicopters come and go was the usual Star Wars bar scene -- weary soldiers sleeping against their ruck sacks, private security guys wearing huge watches wrapped around Popeye forearms, contractors talking about fishing, cigarettes and iPods glowing in the night.

All of this was lit by the orange light of a Gatorade vending machine. I passed some time talking to an Aussie working for a North Carolina firm. It's his job to travel the country talking with provincial councils and studying their records to see how organzied they are.

Alas our flights got scrubbed by a dust storm and, since it isn't safe to go back to my hotel at night, I went to some bunks set aside for stranded journalists. I spent part of the night talking with the author of this blog, a free-lancer in the country doing troop-centric radio stories with the help of grants from conservative organizations.

In the morning, I was told there'd be no flights available to me for two days. Even though I was headed just to the outskirts of Baghdad, I was out of luck.

On Friday, the weather and the U.S. Army willing, I'll head to Kirkuk. I think I'll bring a book.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Where am I?

Took a chopper ride today from the Green Zone north to Camp Taji. In about 15 minutes each way I got a low altitude peek at Baghdad. It was strange the way it reminded me of home. Baghad almost looks like Kansas City from the sky, except grander and more forlorn.

A muddy river snakes through. Traffic clogs in spots. There's plenty of cranes looming over construction sites.

It's just that most of the cranes aren't doing anything. The bridges are mostly empty, and many are collapsed or shut by bombings to a lane or two. Indeed, craters are the most distinguishing landscape characteristic. It's a city of blast walls and blast damage.

Move out of town and you pass over fields not unlike those where soybeans and corn are shooting up now along the Missouri.

Went on the trip to talk with a Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the chief spokesman for the U.S. military. He's leaving the country in a few days and will soon be the commander at Fort Leavenworth (short profile coming soon to a quality newspaper near you).

I sat in on his briefing at the in-country counterinsurgency center (advocates of winning hearts and minds, of getting soldiers to get out of their humvees and talking to people, making friends and gathering intelligence).

Flying over the terrain you can get another sense of how tough the job is. There's square mile upon square mile groves that give cover to insurgents. The neighborhoods stretch on into a horizon smudged out by brown, dusty breezes.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

If the shoe fits

I've been called a lot of nasty things in my eons of reporting. Probably a good number of them deserved. The worst have come from editors, so consider the source.

But I don't usually apply the worst names to myself.

On past assignments overseas, I would identify myself as a reporter for Knight Ridder Newspapers, then have to explain how it was a huge outfit nobody recognized, but that fed stories to tons of readers.

But Knight Ridder is no more. Long live McClatchy, another huge company with a huge audience that's not much well known by the corporate name.
Here we remain Knight Ridder. McClatchy (actually the "clatchy" part) translates to devious or, as one Iraqi told me, "weasel." Accurate, perhaps, but inconvenient.

Circumstantial evidence.

It's been routine for a while for Iraqis to get visits from soldiers -- U.S., Iraqi Army, or militia.

This morning they came to the house of my new friend Hussein, a journalist/fixer/translator in our bureau. He had left for work, but his parents were there.

The U.S. troops are in the midst of the surge aimed at bringing security to Baghdad by ferreting out bad guys. That means going into homes where they might take refuge.

At Hussein's house the American troops found a number of things that could create suspicion. There was a bag of some kind of white mineral. There were all kinds of cables. There was body armor. There was an AK-47. There was ammunition. There was a wad of cash.

So they detained Hussein's father, the clincher being his hands tested positive for contact with gunpowder.

Hussein says the white substance was salt taken from a sacred shrine. The cables are from his brother's work in the air conditioning business. The body armor was Hussein's, something he's used as a journalist in dangerous areas. Guns are commonplace in Iraqi homes. Families are supposed to keep just only one magazine of ammunition. Hussein's family had one in the house and two more stashed outside -- hardly an intimidating cache. The cash was Hussein's. He makes decent money, by Baghdad standards, but like so many Iraqis he doesn't bother much with banks.

His dad's hands had traces of gunpowder, he said, because he always reaches out for his gun at night. The neighborhood's rough. He's frightened.

The soldiers said they were taking his dad to the Green Zone. Back, maybe, in a week. The guy is 65 and has high blood pressure.

Hussein is a gentle and generous guy. He was beside himself. Could our security guy help? (He made some calls)? Could I help? (I made some calls.)

But the reality is that this just sucks.

Most likely, soldiers doing their best to find bad guys found things in a house that looked bad. They took away the head of the house in hopes of getting to the bottom of things.

Just as likely a harmless old man was taken from his home by foreign soldiers and sits somewhere in a scary limbo.

Monday, May 21, 2007

They don't love us

It's hardly earth-shattering to be told that Iraqis aren't wild about having U.S. troops here. And, to be sure, they're conflicted. Depending on where someone lives and what tribe or sectarian group they hail from, different Iraqis would like us. Some just want us gone sooner than others. And they recognize things could get even bloodier when U.S. troops take off.

But Iraqis don't give Americans the benefit of the doubt. They see only the most calculating motives for our arrival, and they don't believe we want to leave. They believe we want to stay -- speaking very broadly here -- and often interpret events as machinations of the part of Americans to make excuses about why we have to be here.

American action that results in civilian casualties -- and their definition of civilian might differ from yours --is not seen as accidental. The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. would rather stir up sectarian violence than stop it.

They like you. They like me. Some might even say they like the United States (quite a few will say they'd like to live there, almost no one can get in). They sympathize with U.S. troops. But the common view is that the U.S. military is, at best, a clumsy outfit. Don't get them started on Bush.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Warning: idiot on board

I headed out with an interpreter to drive not far from our home/office in a neighborhood safe enough to work on a feature story that would require talking to boys playing sandlot soccer.

I took along my somewhat bulky camera, because pictures of the kids kicking the ball around would help the story.

As long as we were out seeing the real world, I shot a few pictures of scenes on the street -- it seemed mostly that people were fixing something, a cart, a car, a motor, a bombed out house -- on the hopes the shots might illustrate some future story.

The translator warned, or at least I thought, not to take pictures of the various security forces. I thought other pictures would be OK if I wasn't too conspicuous. (The consensus later was that is that you check with the cops in an area to photograph anything.)

As we passed one corner I took some shots of a corner market. There were men sitting around talking and the bananas and apples on display added a dash of color to the otherwise sepia landscape. No problem.

But as we passed the same place again on our return the shopkeeper yelled at some cops in the intersection to stop us. For all he knew, I was scouting a spot to bomb.

We spent an anxious half hour while my driver and translator talked with the cops, at high volume. Being hauled in would have been disastrous. An expensive hassle at the least, real danger at the worst. But our guys handled the cops and we were on our way.

Two days into town, this didn't endear me to the drivers. They feared their cars would now draw more attention. And they had reason to believe cluelessness would mean trouble some time in the future.

No more pictures, I promise. Absolutely no more. The staff was forgiving. Everybody goofs up here, they said. The cops were being jerks. It passed. Let it go.

It's Iraq, they said, everything's hard.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The (not so) Green Zone

So Jenan, an Iraqi staffer new to the McClatchy bureau, and I need military press IDs that will help us scoot by some U.S. military checkpoints and that I'll need to embed with troops during my time in Iraq.

That means a trip to the Green Zone, the fortress jury-rigged from Saddam's palaces in central Baghdad that's home to military headquarters and all the key government buildings.

Let's see, first we went through an Iraqi Army checkpoint. Next we zigged our way through barricades and past a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (think tank, but smaller) at a checkpoint armed by U.S. troops in wrap-around sunglasses. After crossing the 14th of July Bridge over the Tigris, we navigate another maze of blast walls and get looked over at a checkpoint staffed by Triple Canopy. (It's a private firm formed by former U.S. special forces who use Peruvians in battle fatigues for jobs like this.) Dogs sniff our car. We move on. A little farther and a squad of Georgian soldiers check us out. We park. We get patted down by more Triple Canopy Peruvians. Then it's Iraqi police. Then a second pat down by Iraqi cops overseen by the Peruvians.

For me this is easy. The ID is in my hand in 20 minutes (granted, it says Hedderson Canon because my middle name got subbed for my first somehow).

Not so easy for Jenan. Because she is not an American, she must be screened for a series of biometrics (fingerprints and more) and needs to make an appointment to return another day.

This strikes her, understandably, as frustratingly ironic. An Iraqi in the center of the capital of her own country must jump through more hoops to get around than some foreigner not 24 hours off the plane.

In fact, the entire Green Zone visit is disappointing for her. She hadn't been here since the war started. Now she finds it not just unwelcoming, but bleak.

Before the war, it was a favorite place for families to take a drive to look at monuments like one for unknown soldiers or tributes to the martyrs of the war with Iraq. There were fountains and gardens and reflecting pools. They're mostly dry now. Weeds creep through the sidewalks. The grass is all but dead. Trash blows around. Graffiti-splattered blast walls make for the unifying design element.

"Why is it so dry?" Jenan wonders. "We have the Tigris and the Euphrates. We have plenty of water. Why?"

So this is Baghdad

After planning this trip for about three weeks and cooling my heels in Jordan for three days waiting on an Iraqi visa (who thought it would be so hard to get into a country so many people are trying to get out of) I braced for what I'd been told would be a landing that would test my stomach. I'd avoided breakfast for just this reason.

Because there is a danger of planes getting shot at -- curse Kansas City International, if you must, but I'll take the long ride to economy parking over the threat of mid-air immolation any day -- planes come in relatively high and then circle down quickly over the Baghdad airport. The landing disappointed. We banked a little more coming down, but I could have stood up through the whole thing.

I ducked out of the Royal Jordian Airlines flight and inhaled a bit of hot Baghdad air. (It's true what they say. It's hot, but it's a dry heat -- like a pizza oven.)

We seemed to be about the only flight coming in this morning, a collection mostly of Westerners -- a few journalists and government contractors. Nearly all men.

The customs officer had some questions about my hard-earned visa that I could neither undertand nor help him solve. In the end, it didn't matter and I was waved toward the nearly vacant baggage claim where I found my two duffels unmolested.

There a McClatchy body guard and driver waited for me, all smiles and warmth.

I'd learned before that the drive from the airport to downtown Baghdad was one of the dicier routines I'd encounter here. This, too, blissfully was more mild than I'd expected. Traffic was light (the looming worry is getting stuck in one place, and thus a target for bombers or snipers) and we passed through the few half-hearted checkpoints quickly.

Some things were what I'd expected. Miles of blast walls and razor wire. People sitting in half-mile long lines for gasoline. Regular sightings of damage from car bombs. More guns than an NRA convention.

But the city was greener than I'd imagined. Los Angeles could learn something about palm trees from these folks. And people were walking the streets, shopping, working construction. I saw more than a few families battling the mid-day heat by going out together for ice cream.
(That might be because they can only run their air conditioners an hour or so a day. To get a good idea of what it's like for even the middle class here, look at the Inside Iraq blog to read some of the stories of the Iraqis I work with here.)

A few blocks from our destination traffic clogged. About three cars ahead of us a police patrol was moving slowly while two officers on the back of vehicle, one of them manning a mounted machine gun, were waving angrily. There had been rumors of a car bomb attack in the neighborhood this week -- one had killed several people nearby a week earlier --and the cops were panicked to see parked cars on the opposite side of the thoroughfare. But again, it passed without incident.

And soon, I was sitting down for lunch.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Why the heck ...

I always got the same few question when folks learned I had put in for a rotation in Baghdad.

Why would I want to do that?

I hem and haw, because the most honest answer is a tad corny. I think it's important.

There's no delusion here that in six weeks of reporting that I'll shed some startling new truth about the mess that Iraq has become. In fact, I don't bring a great deal to the table. I don't have much background in the Middle East or even in foreign reporting.

I have been to Iraq just once before, embedded with an Army unit in early 2003. (The rest of my exposure to the Middle East is limited to a few weeks in Kuwait and Bahrain in 2001 and 2003.)

But I've watched from a distance with admiration the work of the Americans and Iraqis manning the McClatchy Newspapers Baghdad bureau. Some good friends have moved through there.

The work takes its toll, however, so the chain has been looking for other people to help out. I'm hoping that by filling in for a little this spring I can help them continue their strong work.

Plus, I like hummus.