The world's most dangerous road: the seven-mile stretch of highway between Baghdad International Airport and downtown Baghdad.
Yesterday, my father was buried with full military honors at Quantico Marine Base, Virginia. I was not at the funeral. Instead, I was 7,000 miles away on a plane bound for Baghdad.
I have mixed feelings about missing the funeral. But I was happy I got to see him before he passed away, and that he is finally at peace. So life goes on, and I'm back at work in the war zone.
To get to Baghdad, I had to fly from London to Frankfurt to Dubai to Baghdad. Two days, three planes and nearly 4,000 miles later, I'm back in Iraq for the 8th (EIGHTH!) time since the war started in 2003.
I flew from Frankfurt to Dubai on a Lufthansa Airlines Boeing 747. And judging by the racial makeup, it was clear most of my fellow passengers were also heading to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Dubai, in addition to being the Las Vegas of the Middle East, has become the primary passenger hub in the war on terror, being close to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The plane was full of Americans and British, mostly men, with "high-and-tight" haircuts of buzz cuts, carrying military style backpacks, rucksacks, some carrying diplomatic passports, reading military action paperbacks like Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc. The American troops were wearing civilian clothes like baseball caps, T-shirts and shorts. Many had tattoos like eagles, swords, unit insignia, etc. They could not have been more indiscreet. Others were clearly not military because they had longer hair, but still fit the other profiles. They were probably "black-ops" -- special forces and mercenary-like private militias like Blackwater, etc. There were also a few guys who fit the above profiles -- except they were, how shall I say this politely -- "volume-enhanced." Those big guys were probably Brown & Root/Halliburton-type private contractors -- those bastards who make $100,000 tax-free for a six-month tour. Your tax dollars at work.
So I get to Dubai and sleep about 12 hours. The next day, I go on a hunt to find a sports bar to watch the European championship football match between Liverpool and AC Milan. The front desk attendant refers me to a nearby hotel that has a British pub. Fine. So I go there a few hours before the game to grab some dinner and beer. About five minutes after sitting down, I'm approached by a Chinese woman wearing a Catholic schoolgirl uniform. She was at least 35 years old ... and partially deaf. She starts asking me something, or I should say grunting. I can't understand a word she is saying, can't even tell if she is speaking English, and just shrug and throw up my hands. Another woman next to us butts in and translates: "she asking if you want lady tonight!" Call me naive but I suddenly had a moment of clarity. I look up and take note of the bar patrons: about 75% middle-aged men (mostly British), and 25% Chinese or Russian OVERLY-FRIENDLY young women. Yup, I've stumbled right into a prostitute pick-up bar. Like I said, Dubai is quickly becoming Las Vegas, but without the casinos.
I quickly run out and head to another hotel across town called the Metropolitan Hotel, home to the Old Red Lion Pub. That's the same name as a pub near our London flat, so it had to be a good sign. It was. The Dubai Old Red Lion had a huge outdoor beergarden, where staff had set up large screens to project the game. This was more like it. Unfortunately, the beer garden was located in a courtyard that shared space with a nightclub called the Rattlesnake that -- you guessed it -- was also a pick-up bar. Throughout the game, women in high-heels and slutty outfits kept walking in front of the screen on their way to the nightclub, blocking the view of football fans watching the game. By the first-half, I had enough, and went back to my neighborhood in search of a true sports pub.
There, I discovered the Old Vic at the Ramada. I realize that THIS was the bar that my concierge was originally talking about. Now this was more like it. Dozens of patrons -- men, women and couples -- who were there for only one thing: football (soccer). And beer. Of course, it was a wasted night, as Liverpool got handed their arse on a paper plate, losing 2-1. As usual, an English team chokes in a finals game.
When I got to my hotel, I logged onto the Internet hoping to blog and upload some photos to Flickr. But strangely, FLICKR IS BANNED IN THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES! I get a message claiming that Flickr is "inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values" of the UAE. I'm gobsmacked! What the hell! Apparently, Flickr is also used to share porn and artistic nudes. But this just seems so hypocritical: hookers and liquor are okay in the UAE, but Flickr is taboo? But I guess it all comes down to appearances. For as liberal as the UAE has become, it's still an Islamic country.
The next morning I have to wake up at 4am to make my 7am Iraqi Airways flight to Baghdad. The plane is about half-full of Iraqis families back from shopping trips in tax-free Dubai, and random Brits and Americans. I recognize a few familiar faces from my Lufthansa flight. The flight was an hour late leaving, but uneventful. I slept the entire way and did not wake up until we started into the now-routine spiral descent into Baghdad. When we get to the airport, the guards separate the passengers: Brown & Root / Halliburton employees on one line, all others in the right line. More than 3/4 of the passengers go to the Brown & Root line. Not many regular people traveling to Baghdad these days.
Baghdad itself hasn't changed much since I was last here in December, except it's a LOT hotter. The high today was 106 Fahrenheit, about 41 Celsius. And because of the Baghdad security crackdown, there were a lot more checkpoints. We passed about 7 checkpoints between the airport and my hotel, more than I have ever seen before. But most cars were being waved through without so much as a second glance. Go figure. It doesn't appear to be working because, despite the crackdown and 20,000 additional US troops, Baghdad is still hell on Earth. This morning, a major bridge in Baghdad was bombed. Six US soldiers died around the country. Fiery anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has reappeared after four months in hiding. Inflation is way up ($1 USD = 1,216 Iraqi Dinars, down from 1,500 dinars in December). Iraqis are fleeing the country in droves.
The more things change, the more things stay the same.