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Middle East

A dicey return to Iraq

| Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003

BAGHDAD - Getting into Iraq has never been easy. These days, it can be quite dicey.

The choices include a mad 14-hour ride through the desert, preyed on by machine-gun-toting bandits, or flying in a small aircraft that corkscrews to a landing.

After making the desert run five times, I thought flying seemed a less harrowing option.

Departing from a small airport in Amman, Jordan, 12 aid workers boarded a 15-seat Beechcraft 1900D operated by Airserv. It's an airline that regularly flies into combat zones, bravely ferrying equally brave people (such as the aid workers) who try to fix broken places and people.

Before taking off, the pilot announced in a friendly voice that our flight would be a little different than most. The two-propeller plane, he explained, would perform something of an acrobatic feat - a spiral landing - in Baghdad.

The reason, he cheerily continued, is that some nasty people are shooting SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles at anything approaching Baghdad International Airport. "During the Angolan war" - the civil war that has raged, off and on, for decades in that African country - "the only planes hit were those that didn't spiral in," the pilot concluded.

Well, then. By all means, spiral away! Becoming toast over Baghdad wasn't my idea of a good morning.

Missile threat

In recent months, according to the pilot, 28 missiles were fired at planes approaching Baghdad. But "none have hit any planes and none have been shot at for the last few days."

I felt better already.

We flew at 23,000 feet on a relatively turbulence-free ride until arriving over Baghdad. The little Beechcraft flew right over the airport, then dropped suddenly to 15,000 feet, then began to spiral down to the runway. It banked to the left at a 45-degree angle. Not once, but twice.

A woman across the aisle gritted her teeth so hard that she snapped one off.

After a second pass over the airport, the Beechcraft shifted gears and plunged in the opposite direction, over an emerald-green man-made lake with one of Saddam's former palaces in the middle. Finally, the plane straightened out and landed.

My stomach flip-flopped as the plane's wheels hit the ground. Despite the belly-whirl, at least my teeth were intact.

The plane stopped, to the obvious relief of its wild-eyed passengers. The woman across the aisle stared at the broken tooth cupped in one hand.

The Beechcraft's ever-cheerful pilot merrily announced, "Welcome to Saddam International Airport. Well, that's what it still says on our flight plan."

Armed greeting

Soldiers armed with assault rifles pointed the way to the terminal. (Kind of reminded me of Algiers' airport, another bloody spot, where government troops wore black ninja-like outfits.) We staggered into the newly refurbished building. Until recently passengers were herded through a warehouse at the war-ravaged airport. So, things are improving after all.

Inside, a grinning Iraqi security guard pronounced it "good" that I'm an American.

Surprisingly, Gurkhas also stood guard. The Gurkhas are elite Nepalese soldiers whose predecessors famously fought with the British Army during the heyday of Empire. In recent decades, they've made a habit of appearing in trouble-spots like Somalia and, now, Iraq, earning foreign currency as peace-keepers.

Past the Iraqi immigration counter, an American soldier asked passengers if they had anything to declare. "Like what?" one woman asked.

The soldier laughed. "Like any bad stuff."

There's already enough bad stuff in Baghdad. Who needs to import more?

Not surprisingly, Baghdad's airport still has no curbside pickup. Instead, a bus takes you to Checkpoint 1, where, if you're lucky, a prearranged driver can meet you.

Mine did, taking me on to the home of friends. There, in a small rear walled garden with lemon trees, we were catching up on news when gunfire rang out nearby.

Some things never change in Baghdad.

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