Security in Baghdad a Deadly Serious Business

BY Margaret Warner  August 17, 2010 at 4:09 PM EDT

Blast walls, concrete barriers and razor wire line airport road. Photo by Larisa Epatko

BAGHDAD, Iraq | The Royal Jordanian flight from Amman no longer has to make a missile-avoiding corkscrew landing on the runway of Baghdad International Airport. And though our security detail had us don 10-pound body armor jackets for the ride out, the Baghdad Airport-to-downtown road no longer enjoys the distinction of being the most dangerous stretch in the country.

Inexplicably dubbed “Route Irish” by the Americans and “Road of Death” by the locals, the desert highway used to expose riders to deadly attacks from militants targeting foreigners of all stripes: U.S. military and diplomats, their coalition partners, contractors and journalists. Monday, moving in our heavily armored cars, we passed without incident. But as the next 24 hours unfolded, it became clear that security in Iraq remains a deadly serious business.

The 7-foot pool of human blood and pile of discarded shoes we found at the site of Tuesday’s massive suicide bombing of Iraqi army recruits said it all. Terrorists still have the ability to strike at major symbols of Iraqi government power — the Trade Bank of Iraq, the Central Bank and army and police installations have all been hit in recent weeks.

The pool of blood lay in a deserted market square just a few hundred feet from the former Ministry of Defense, now used as an army recruiting station. “This is happening now almost every day in Iraq,” said a shaken electronics shop owner, Saad Hasoun Bayati, who had ventured out with neighbors late in the day to look around.

A shop owner talks to Margaret Warner. Photo by Larisa Epatko

A 31-year-old police officer manning the electronic gate into the ministry grounds, who’d witnessed the bloody carnage that morning, just shook his head when I asked him if Iraqi security forces can keep the country safe as the Americans officially end combat operations two weeks from now. “The situation isn’t secure,” he said. I noted that the terrorists these days are particularly targeting Iraqi security personnel. “Does that make you afraid?” I asked him. “I love my country,” he said. “I will protect my country.”

Certainly the number of U.S. and civilian deaths here have dropped off dramatically since the bloodiest days of sectarian warfare in 2006-2008. Families are again venturing out to shop, or enjoy dinner together after dark in fish restaurants on the banks of the Tigris. But July saw an uptick in violence in Baghdad. And according to our security team, there were 127 people killed country-wide during the first week in July, a sharp jump from July’s weekly average of 75.

We tried to prepare for that. We’re staying not in a high-rise, high-profile hotel, but a residential compound owned and run by the British security firm AKE. The compound is well-fortified but non-descript on the outside. The firm that runs it has a simple credo: Know your business, keep a low profile, and respect the locals.

Security contractors in Iraq. Photo by Larisa Epatko

Much of our security arrangements, outlined to us upon our arrival, have to remain confidential. But they involve being prepared for any eventuality. They’re also flexible, depending on local conditions. If we’re going to the International Zone, still home to the major foreign embassies and Iraqi government offices, our detail will be led by a former British or New Zealand Special Forces officer, partnered with an Iraqi. If we’re headed to a Shiite city like Najaf or Karbala, Shiite Iraqi ecurity specialists will assume the lead. If it’s a road trip to a former al-Qaida stronghold or Sunni city like Tikrit, Fallujah or Ramadi, Sunni team-members will be in the forefront.

It’s one small step designed to adjust to a situation in which Iraqis — not Americans — are increasingly in charge. It’s an adjustment the Iraqi people are facing in a far bigger and more consequential way.

View all of the NewsHour team’s reports from Iraq.