Sunday, October 12, 2003

Arrived safely at Baghdad Airport Friday morning after an uneventful one and a half hour flight from Amman on Royal Wings, a subsidiary of Royal Jordanian. The flight was “sold-out’’ and we were denied spots on a list of confirmed passengers, but we went standby and there were plenty of empty seats. On board the 50-something seat propeller plane were other journalists, an Army medic on her first R&R since March and a Brit who says his firm is providing security for oil fields. Arriving in an empty immigration hall in Baghdad, we were greeted by a customs official who asked us to have a pleasant stay. Behind the glass, another official looked at my passport, noted my place of birth and said, “California! Arnold!” and gave me a thumbs up sign.

The al-Hamra hotel – once dust beige and non-descript among its neighbors - is now painted bright white and seems more of a target. There are concrete barriers and big gates blocking the entrance now. Management has banned all cars from the small parking lot immediately in front of the hotel. The street below my window is closed to traffic. The near constant sound of gunfire is gone, at least for now. My Knight Ridder colleagues, both veteran war correspondents, gave me a big dose of what it’s like to work in Baghdad now: it’s more dangerous, crowds are more volatile and security has made getting into a coalition press conference an hours-long event in which you are searched at least three times. Falluja, a town in the so-called Sunni Triangle, so regularly breaks out in violence that reporters no longer go there each time they hear a soldier is killed – otherwise, you’d have to live there.

Friends have asked me what I packed for Baghdad.

Among other things: a laptop, spare battery, floppy and CD drives, a high-speed data modem for satellite Internet access, a satellite phone and charger, tape recorder, notebooks, shortwave radio, MP3 player, a pair of walkie talkies, police scanners, water purification kit, a medical kit, 2 pairs of khakis, 2 long skirts, 4 long-sleeved shirts, 4 T-shirts, a full-length black abaya and head scarf.

Spent most of Saturday re-introducing ourselves to coalition officials and spokesmen for the military and then covering a briefing from members of Iraq’s new Governing Council, who are trying hard not to be seen as puppets of the American administrators.