A Flight Back to Baghdad

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Franco Pagetti / VII for TIME

Journalists pass through a passport check inside the Baghdad International Airport.

The departure lounge for commercial flights from Amman, Jordan, into Baghdad is made up almost entirely of men, sizes XL through XXXL. Most wear baseball caps; all have long faces, sitting silently. When boarding is announced they arise, and like buffaloes stampeding in soft slippers across tiled floors, shuffle into one thick, single-file line.

High over Baghdad the plane readies for a tactical, corkscrew landing and I can see the glowing grids of the U.S. detention center on the far side of the airport below. From around 5,000 feet in the air, just past dusk, it is one of the brightest structures anywhere in sight. We land, taxi, deplane and spill out into the darkness. The highway at night is empty, wide and pitch-black. After nearly five years it is still unsecured, still dubbed the "highway of death." In some cases checkpoints are every couple of hundred yards. Wide boulevards where children once played soccer have been made narrow and ugly. Everyone carries a gun. Many carry two.

Today Baghdad looks as you imagine it: a war zone direct from central casting. The detritus of car bombs and truck bombs, suicide bombers and firefights would be ample documentation of urban decimation if it only were safe for photographers to walk around and work on the streets. It is not.

Thick, 15-foot high blast walls are everywhere. Some form extended contiguous barriers, like paranoid rat mazes of concrete-and-sky tunnels. Some connect to nothingness, sitting at odd angles, left littering the highways, neighborhood streets and alleyways, forgotten pieces of drab, tan cityscape. Except for the helicopters thumping just above the low skyline, views in Baghdad are therefore always partly obscured.

Violence may be down 60%, but that only brings the city back to 2006 levels. Life in Baghdad in January 2008 is still a far cry from normalcy. Those of us who were here in 2003 and 2004 remember the backed-up traffic and streets wheezing with raw, unencumbered capitalism, let loose after decades of state-controlled socialism. Back then we ate lunch at hole-in-the chicken shacks. Today, those places literally are holes in the walls.

Buildings that were once thriving now look decrepit and dilapidated. An Internet cafĂ© is now an empty shell of a concrete structure. Some restaurants have been hit four or five times in car bomb attacks. Wires and cables are strewn like drunken, haphazard spider webs from building to building and street to street. I saw the hotel room I lived in for six weeks in 2004. Not because the desk manager let me in — the place is now shuttered and boarded up — but because the windows are blown out. Banks, mosques, and hospitals, in addition to whole neighborhoods and private houses, are barricaded.

In 2004, journalists still had parties and friends would pass out in the bushes and lived to tell of it. I enjoyed taking taxis at night. Today taking a public taxi during the day as a western journalist is tantamount to a death wish. Back then there was an overabundance of satellite dishes — these big metal pans — for sale at nearly every shop. Today commerce has slowed to a crawl. The traffic now is a bit more orderly, but the number of horse-drawn carts has increased. Fancy cars are all but absent. And everyone is on edge — get too close and you might be a victim of the car bomb in front of you. And 2.2 million Iraqi civilians have fled their homes and are living as refugees, one of the largest mass migrations in recent human history. Now the city is more Somalia than Sacramento.

The Green Zone, that weird gated community divided and subdivided into ever more impregnable subsections, has ever more checkpoints. I counted about seven on my way to the press center; there used to be only two. Everything is permissions and clearances; passes and badges of various colors and sizes. And what is clear is that the closer and higher you are to the U.S. military the easier you move, the smoother you glide through to the beast's belly: the U.S. embassy. It is the tackiest, strangest circus attraction this side of Vegas. A Starbucks-like coffee shop with baristas from Madras sells cappuccinos in the main rotunda. Heavy blast-proof doors — identical to those at U.S. embassies around the world — are fitted into the regal marble lintels Saddam built.

The last time I was in the Green Zone I heard the American spokesman, Dan Senor, articulate the goal of America's mission in Iraq. It was to establish "a free and democratic Iraq, at peace with itself and its neighbors." He said it with such iambic verve and confidence it could have been the subtitle of a best-seller on Iraqi history — in a parallel dimension.

Four years later Iraq is exactly none of those things: free, democratic, peaceful internally or externally. Lines of humongous, heavily-armored American Humvees with steel chains dangling from their front ends roll through Baghdad, America's tax dollars in action, a panorama of monstrous battle cats going anywhere they want. It was never like this before. Back then, you could at least see the fresh faces of young American soldiers, even if their eyes were obscured by wrap-around Oakleys. Now their faces are steel plates, their eyes electronic sensors.