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Baghdad Diaries, Part 1 of 3

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Length: 2:57

Graffiti on blast walls

Graffiti on the blast walls inside the Combined Press Information Center reads - I Came, I Saw, I Want to Go Home

From the air, Baghdad twinkles. The city lights spread out in the familiar pattern of any major city. But reality comes in flashes. The navigator sitting next to me points them out as we begin our descent into Baghdad International Airport on a C-130. Bright sparks arching through the air. After an hour spent listening to the six-man crew chit chatting over headsets, I had stopped thinking about where my reporting partner Lucille and I were going. But that's how life seems to happen here. Spells of tranquility interrupted.

Baghdad is just a stop over for us. My partner Lucille Quiambao and I are actually headed much farther north to a small outpost close to Mosul. We're here for the holidays, trying to get a sense of what it's like to spend Christmas and New Year's in Iraq. It's a strange time to be traveling here knowing that a change in policy is due from Bush. But for the time being, all we can do is think about how we're going to get from the airport into the Green Zone.

After landing and dragging our bags off of a wooden palette unloaded from the back of the plane, it's hard to make sense of where we are. Along with a small group of infantry guys headed back in, a handful of Dyncorp contractors, and an Iraqi-American translator from Michigan, we are herded from one waiting room to the next.

It's like wandering through a maze, but instead of hedges, the walls are 12-foot-high concrete barriers. We can't see more than 20 feet in any direction and every building is buttressed by a wall of sandbags.

Our next step is to find a ride to the Green Zone. Not an easy or inexpensive task. A journalist with a private security detail told me that one trip from the airport cost her company $4,000. Without that kind of cash at hand, we take the free ride with the military on a shuttle service called the Rhino.

"The Rhino can take fire and keep going... The only time you can leave the vehicle is if the fire is on the inside."

A boxy armored bus in dark grey, this thing is true to its name. It's protected by a convoy of American humvees. But the drivers and gunners inside the buses are private contractors. Our gunner is a soft-spoken guy from Iowa. He delivers the security warnings like a flight attendant reciting seat belt instructions: "Welcome to the Rhino. If you have a cell phone, iPod or other electronic device that emits light, turn it off now. We will be riding in black to the IZ [IZ stands for international zone]. Everyone must wear their flak jacket and helmet at all times. If we come under fire, do not leave the vehicle. The Rhino can take fire and keep going. So we will not stop. The only time you can leave the vehicle is if the fire is on the inside."

Once the ride begins, everyone on our bus is silent. Mostly civilian contractors, the passengers are all dark huddles of helmets and kevlar. Lucille is dozing off along with most of the bus. Most of us have been traveling for a day or more. But I fight sleep to try and catch a glimpse of this infamous road from the airport. What I see is just the orange glow of an empty highway at night and a ceaseless wall of chain link fence and barbed wire. We pass one other humvee, but otherwise the road is deserted. It's impossible to see beyond the road.

Twenty minutes later we're in the Green Zone, or what most people here now call the IZ -- for International Zone. Once we pass through the security checkpoints, the driver and gunner take off their helmets and the rest of us follow suit.

Inside the IZ

"This isn't Baghdad. They just took a square of Florida and plopped it down in the middle of Baghdad," Private Chris Urbano tells me after taking a drag off his cigarette in the smoke pit of the Combined Press Information Center or CPIC -- a two-story concrete garage that has been converted into the military's press headquarters.

Private Chris Urbano

Private Chris Urbano takes a break in the smoke pit.

Urbano is a field reporter for Armed Forces Network (AFN) Iraq, the military's answer to CNN. He was just starting his freshman year at Ohio State when he was called up. He was only 12 weeks out of basic training.

But unlike a lot of the young faces in the public affairs office here, Urbano seems to have slipped into something that suits him. He is the combat reporter for AFN, and as he chain smokes Marlboros, he tells me that he loves being in the field.

"I can't stand office politics. I'd much rather be out there sleeping out of a rucksack," he says.

Urbano is in some ways like other journalists that pass through this press center. He's a self-described adrenaline junkie and has seen more combat than most. The next story he's doing will be a ride-along with Iraqi boat patrols on the Euphrates River. But he's also doing some "good news" stories. Today, it's a spot on the new Iraqi police uniforms.

"People see right through that," he says, taking a drag off his fourth cigarette.

"This isn't Baghdad. They just took a square of Florida and plopped it down in the middle of Baghdad."

One afternoon, we get a quick tour of life outside of the military's press fortress. Our guides are two young military escorts, Sergeant Strand and Specialist Hudson. They drive us around in a beige SUV that looks normal enough from the outside. But the true capabilities of the vehicle reveal themselves when I try to open the door. The car is fully armored on the inside; the beige exterior is actually just a shell. Strand and Hudson have to don full body armor to drive us around. So before they climb into the front seats, they transform into camouflaged linebackers. And they carry their M-16s at all times, even in the chow hall.

They've obviously given this tour before, rattling off the names of monuments of soldiers and pockmarked palaces leftover from Saddam's regime. Our first stop is the crossed swords, an image that most Americans know from the 24-hour coverage of the invasion. The swords seem to be the quintessential postcard backdrop here. And oddly, or maybe appropriately, this is one of the few spots where you don't see 12-foot concrete blast walls, and it is the only spot where we're allowed to walk around.

If the swords are the least fortified area, the American embassy is its opposite. Our cameras must be turned off when we pass through the checkpoint. Our bags must be left behind when we go the PX (the military's answer to Wal-Mart) to buy toothpaste and socks. Next to the PX is a row of fast food chains from the US. The comforting smell of saturated fat wafts from the Burger King. And within this fortified fast food convenience store compound is another mini fortress: a walled off area covered by a green canopy and populated with white plastic patio furniture. Young American soldiers and older middle-aged contractors enjoy their burgers in the shadow of the blast walls.

It's not scary so much as surreal. The mortars fall, but the booms are distant. They are momentary. You shudder for a second and then continue on with your business. But not everyone is numb to it. One young specialist from Kansas told me that even though he hears the blasts everyday, they still make him stop.

"I'm in here and I know it's miles away," Specialist Wyatt Harper tells me. "But someone out there right now is hurting."

"I'm in here and I know it's miles away. But someone out there right now is hurting."

The only real conversations I have with anyone seem to be in the smoke pit. We are stuck, for the time being, in a dorm room inside the Press Center. It's a comfortable set up -- fresh linens, Internet access and an enormous flat screen TV -- a way station for journalists on their way in or out of embeds. For the past two days, we've spent 90 percent of our time in this room.

Home to thousands of journalists, troops, embassies, political heavyweights and even ordinary Iraqi citizens, the Green Zone is not the kind of place where you can just go for a stroll. If we want to leave this building, we must leave with a military escort in an armored SUV. If we want to walk 50 yards to the Al-Rashid hotel across the street, we need an escort. That makes simple things like getting dinner a tricky matter. As one specialist here put it, getting into a chow hall is like getting into a club. Most of the proverbial bouncers seem to be Peruvian -- compact guys in desert tan cargo pants employed by private security firms like Triple Canopy. Instead of it being all about who you know, it's all about what ID you have. Most of the time, press officers just opt to bring us our food.

The Green Zone is not Baghdad, but then there are reminders of where we are. At 6:40 in the morning our second day here there is a loud boom in the distance. I know in my mind that it must be miles away but I feel the vibration beneath my feet. Seconds later, there's a blur of choppers overhead, and then minutes later, the whining of ambulances.

International Zone at night

Barriers protect the entrance to a restaurant in the International Zone.

Reality intrudes again in the smoke pit. A widely built Iraqi man impeccably dressed in a dark knit sweater and black leather jacket offers me a light. He is working on the other side of the building, training local NGO workers to write grants.

He is a believer in Iraq, in the greatness of the country, but he speaks with urgency. All the international NGOs have left the country, he tells me, making his job much more difficult. His job under Saddam was with a trading company. Now he is a certified NGO trainer. But they don't have direction from the international NGOs, and civil society is new here. Everything is new. They need help.

"Everything in Iraq is connected," he says. The massive exodus of the educated, the well-off, the middle class, the professionals, is hurting everything. The doctors are all young because all the experienced ones have left. The medical professors at University are all new so the training is bad. He too has thought about leaving. If he gets a good opportunity in a neighboring country, he will go.

I decide not to ask him his full name and decide not to use his first either. There are many Iraqis working here and I'm told straight out not to film any of them. Like many of the locals working here, the man from the smoke pit drives in from the "red zone" every morning. We see the spot where many Iraqis enter this walled city on one of our escorted drives. Men and women walking across the river. It reminds me of a U.S.-Mexico border crossing.

The NGO trainer lives just across the river. But he must go through four checkpoints to get here. And each day he is driving into an unknown.

"Under Saddam, I knew when I left the house that I would come home. But now when I leave my house I don't know if I will come back," he says.

"Under Saddam, I knew when I left the house that I would come home. But now when I leave my house I don't know if I will come back."

Many checkpoints are "illegal" these days, run by militias in Iraqi police uniform. He is careful to hide his Green Zone ID whenever he passes through, but he can't hide his last name, he tells me.

"Everyone knows my name is Shia," he says. And often, that is reason enough to get pulled out of your car at a checkpoint.

Everyone has lost someone. A brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle. His cousin was killed for refusing to abandon the small market he ran in a mostly Sunni neighborhood. The city is self-segregating as a result, he explains. Sunnis leaving mostly Shia areas and Shias leaving most Sunni areas. He rattles off neighborhood names and their affiliations. He tries his best to avoid the Sunni areas of the city.

"The political men only look out for themselves," he says when I ask about the debates over a change in strategy in Iraq. "Right now there is no solution. Baghdad is only getting worse."

I can't think of what to ask after he says this. All the talk, all the competing proposals that are being talked aout ceaselessly now at home seem futile. But more than that -- vain and indulgent.

As soon as I stub out my cigarette, I can walk away from him and his reality. This morning, we fly off to Balad to one of the largest U.S. bases in Iraq. We will again be in an enclosed space, well protected and insulated. So we'll just have to see how much reality can flash in through the barriers.

Check back in early January, 2007, to see Lee Wang's video for this Dispatch.

REACTIONS

Matthew Velissaris - Milwaukee, WI
"We must learn to live together as one or perish together as fools." Dr. King's words seem so relevant espically in Iraq..

Liz Wolf-Spada - Wrightwood, CA
Hi Lee. It's Liz, Josh's mom. I wondered what you were doing. I am going to print your article and send it to Josh. He will be interested. Be safe.

Karen Murray - Aurora, CO
Very well written story. I have friends in the very areas you visited and it is eye opening to be able to picture where they are and a day in the life of a soldier.

Charles LaBarbera - Pearl River, NY
My overwhelming impression to this piece is the isolation of the Iraqis and everyone else in Iraq. You have to constantly be aware of where you are, what neighborhood, what tribe prevails there, and hope that you can stay in safe bounds. The piece makes me even more pessimistic about the future in Iraq. I can't see a final security solution other than one segment winning out over the others or each of the segments walling themselves off into mini-states. This over three years after our invasion.

Naj Ben - Casa, MOR
"Baghdad is only getting worse." Worse than THIS? I can't wait to see how much reality will flash in through your video piece. And I wonder how much reality you will really see there. Be safe Lee. Even a few miles away, you're too close to danger.