Back to Bagdhad
by Andrew Lee Butters
The scenes from the world's weirdest commuter shuttle -- the twice daily flight from Amman to Baghdad -- should be familiar to anyone who's been reading or watching the news during the last five years: the evasive maneuvers before landing, the contractors with laptop cases and combat boots lining up for a head count at baggage claim, the tribal sheik with hundreds of the thousands of dollars stuffed into carry-ons, the ruined arrivals board announcing phantom flights to Chicago and Barcelona, the highway into the capital lined with the stumps of date palms cut for clear fields of fire, the helicopter gunships circling like pterodactyls, sparrows swarming at dusk along the Tigris.
But in the case of Iraq: familiarity breeds incomprehension. We've all been here before, but we still don't know what it means. In the four years since I've been away from Baghdad, TIME set up a bureau in a secure compound, and the constant rotation of staff in and out of this war zone frat house has left left a midden of discarded foreign correspondent crap in the bedroom reserved for me, including pistol ammunition, a carton of Viceroy cigarettes, and a pink nylon negligee. I'm wondering which of these will be come more useful in the weeks ahead.
I haven't heard a gunshot let alone a car bomb since I got here on Wednesday, but few of the people I've talked to so far think this is anything but the calm before the next storm. Yesterday I met a the tribal council that had formed last year to put an end to the criminal gangs and sectarian violence that had taken over their religiously mixed working class neighborhood in West Baghdad. They were proud to have done the job on their own, with no help from the Iraqi government, and minimal but friendly backup from the US Army, or so they boasted. But they balked at the thought of the Americans packing it in. The Iraqi army isn't ready, said one sheik, now isn't the proper time.
Meanwhile, the American soldiers I talked to while waiting to get into the Green Zone all wanted to know what I thought about the financial crisis back in the States. With no way to spend much money while in Iraq, a lot of soldiers have become investors, signing up for an Army program that deducts from their paychecks and invests in in funds at varying degrees of risk. These privates were to young to built up much at stake in the market, but imagine watching your savings go down the toilet because the rest of your country went on a credit fueled shopping binge while you were on the suck in Iraq. At least their jobs are sort of secure: this war won't end till the money does.