21 Feb 2012

A cold welcome to Baghdad

I don’t know what it was like before, but if this is the new normal in Baghdad it must take some getting used to.

I step off the overnight flight via Istanbul bleary eyed and blinking into the bright sunlight of Baghdad. It is freezing cold. Despite being warned that it isn’t hot all year round I am still, stupidly, surprised. Baghdad never looks cold on television. This trip is for the new series of Unreported World. And isn’t it strange how unreported Iraq has become? There are precious few foreign journalists here these days.

They are planting huge, mature palm trees on the way from the airport. It will one day look a bit like Dubai I suppose, once the miles of huge concrete blast walls on either side, armoured personnel carriers and soldiers are gone. In Central Baghdad there are Iraqi police and military (it isn’t easy to tell which is which) everywhere. And enormous traffic jams, mostly thanks to check points all over the place. The International/Green Zone is massively fortified and takes an age to get through the vehicle checks so we stayed outside it today.

Private security company armoured Toyota Landcruisers drive past with huge badges and numbers on the side screaming “I have an employee of a very wealthy business inside”. They have a dazzling array of aerials, including some which look a bit like Mickey Mouse ears. These are Electronic Counter Measures, apparently, to jam mobile phone and radio signals that might be used to detonate bombs. People say one of the big improvements of the American withdrawal has been the ability to use a cellphone without the conversation dropping out all the time.

There are lots of street markets, bustling with people. At one place we see row upon row of military surplus stalls selling flak jackets, vests and boots. I come across a large selection of black “S.W.A.T” vests. Who buys this stuff, you wonder? Certainly not the security forces – they are impressively equipped with American vehicles, uniforms and weapons. An Iraqi special forces team in sunglasses drives past sporting an array of menacing pistols and automatic rifles. I see boys kicking footballs around on the street next to lines of traffic. But when we pass a small park with what looks like a new and colourful children’s playground it is completely empty. I don’t know what it was like before, and it can’t be like this everywhere, but if this is the new normal in Baghdad it must take some getting used to. The impact of America is everywhere, but I have not seen a single American. Have they really all gone? I am itching to start work.