Dispatch: Return to Baghdad

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FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith just arrived in Baghdad after a long absence since his last film “Gangs of Iraq” in 2007.  He first traveled to the country in 2003, following the invasion, to produce “Truth, War and Consequences” a seminal FRONTLINE film on the decisions that led to the war, and the realities confronted by American troops and diplomats on the ground. He followed that film with “Beyond Baghdad,” a journey through the countryside from Mosul in the north to the Shia-dominated south, and “Private Warriors,” an investigation into the contractors hired to support the war. Smith is currently producing a film on Iraq’s present crisis. Some of the names used in this dispatch have been changed to protect peoples identities.

I arrive at Baghdad Airport shortly before 4 a.m., darkness still covering the desert below as I fly in from Istanbul. After not more than an hour of sleep, I stumble into the Baghdad airport, clear immigration and collect my bags.

The airport is vacant, with a few cabs lined up outside to take arriving passengers to a drop-off point five minutes outside the airport. No one is allowed to meet you outside the terminal. So I find a taxi, ring my fixer, Mohammed, and hand the phone to the driver. We head off.

At the first checkpoint I take a photo with my phone, only to get us pulled over. A policemen walks over and asks me why. He demands to see the picture and he insists that I erase it. Welcome to Baghdad.

WATCH: Losing Iraq, FRONTLINE’s in-depth look at what went wrong in Iraq and how we arrived at the current chaos, online or on air starting Tuesday, July 28 at 10 p.m. on most PBS stations (check local listings).

A few miles away from the airport, we circle around and around an area with many police and army, clogged by checkpoints, with cars lined up for hundreds of yards, their trunks and hoods open. I make a few more phone calls to Mohammed and then pull over to wait along the airport road.

I have vivid memories of days past when this was the most dangerous road in Iraq, and we would drive this stretch at high speeds in black, bullet-proof Suburbans wearing flak-jackets and helmets.  Soon, Mohammed and his driver pull up. We greet — it’s been a long time — transfer the bags and are off.  It is 7:00 am. I am too excited to feel tired.

The night before I had received a troubling email. It was a briefing from the Institute for the Study of War, warning of an impending ISIS assault on Baghdad before the end of Eid holidays, at the end of Ramadan — July 31st.  I ask Mohammed about this and he says that ISIS has pledged to kill Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, before the week is done.

Mohammed is a 40-something man who decided not to leave Iraq in order to stay and care for his aging father and sick mother. He worked for us in years past, and more recently with other major broadcasters and journalists.

I ask him how he puts up with all the violence and loss.  “We are used to it,” he says. “There have been bombings and shootings since 1980.” We pass a corner and he points, “There we lost a driver.  All we found was his leg.”

As we cross the Tigris River and enter downtown Baghdad, we chat about politics and Maliki and, of course, about ISIS.  He says blithely he expects a bloodbath before this is over.  I asked, “Isn’t there already one?” He shrugs. “Sorta.”

I ask about who is in town reporting. “The journos are pulling out,” he says. “Because of Gaza and Ukraine?” “Well, no. I think because things are stable here.” He catches himself. “I mean not stable. There is fighting all over the country, and more and more bombs here in Baghdad, but no one is really advancing.”

“What about ISIS?” I ask. “Where is this all going?”

“They are crazy — fanatics, but I tell you many Sunni people say they are really happy someone is finally kicking Maliki’s butt.”

We talk of others who’ve joined the rebellion. Gen. Izzat al-Douri, vice president under Saddam, now leader of the Naqshbandia army, other former Ba’athists, Sunni tribal chiefs with their own militias, and a smattering of smaller armed jihadi groups.

I ask about a bomb at a checkpoint just the day before I arrived and how it killed and injured so many people — 25. “The explosions go off in the waiting traffic and people burn to death in their cars.”

We arrive at our house. Once used by foreign press, it’s unoccupied at the moment, but has a guard house and a housekeeper, an office, kitchen, TV and internet for $140 a night, cash up front. The housekeeper, Sam, a man with few teeth, shows me to a dusty room and with his head bowed ceremoniously presents me with a towel.

Back downstairs, I am thinking about the mundane, like having to report my expenses to FRONTLINE accountants, and how to get receipts.  I go over some details with Mohammed: how much to tip Sam for the laundry, dishes and shopping. Then we talk about schedule, who we need to be calling, and then I beg off to get a few hours of sleep. After that we will go out, buy some SIM cards and supplies.

I crash hard. It’s 9:00 am and suddenly Mohammed knocks on my bedroom door at 2:00 pm. Up and shower and I go downstairs. Mohammed and our driver Abu Ali are watching the news. There is the dour, impassive Maliki looking inscrutable in a joint press conference with Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general. Why is Ban here? No one knows.

We walk out into the sauna-like, dry heat of midday Baghdad, and somehow that feels good. For all its run-down, tired and tense crappiness, I am feeling happy — as well as apprehensive — to be back here … a part of my life I had forgotten. Memories rush in and the geography of the place starts to come back as we drive through the “upscale” Karrada neighborhood. It looks like a bad street in Tijuana. Tangled electrical wires sag overhead. The garbage doesn’t get collected, just pushed around. We get out of the car and I notice that Mohammed steps back and waits as a motorcycle goes past on the sidewalk.

At a fruit and vegetable stand under the only tree within sight, we buy a watermelon, some mint leaves and dates. After several more stops — a phone store, a supermarket, a bakery — we head back. More talk of plans, who has responded to our letters and calls so far, and what more we hope to accomplish. I talk up FRONTLINE, giving him talking points, and I get phone numbers of members of parliament who speak English so I can make some calls too. At the house, I give Mohammed some gifts. He is most happy when I hand him a DVD of The Hobbit. He asks me if I can get the latest Harry Potter film.

It is Ramadan and the sun is setting. Mohammed is hungry and we say goodnight. I haven’t eaten since that early morning plane ride, so I fix myself some pasta and switch the TV to the BBC. Dinner.

In the morning I learn that around the time I sat down to eat, two bombs detonated within seconds of each other along the street where we had been shopping earlier. More than 20 people died. I wonder why I didn’t hear the blasts. I call Mohammed. He says he often doesn’t hear the bombs. “When I am in my car and they are nearby, the car maybe absorbs the blast. You feel it but don’t hear it.”

The other big news this morning is the destruction by ISIS of the centuries-old Jonah mosque in Mosul, where the Old Testament figure is reputed to be buried. On the internet, from New York, a friend has sent me a video of the aftermath of the blast. This upsets me even more.

I start making phone calls. It’s the start of a new day in Baghdad.

*This piece has been updated.

Photo: An Iraqi man inspects the site of a car bomb attack near a restaurant in central Baghdad's busy commercial Karradah neighborhood, Iraq, Friday, July 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
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