12 March 2004
I flew into Baghdad International Airport on a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules. Our final approach was, for tactical reasons, a steep one. It felt as if a giant hand were pulling my body deep into the inward-facing jump seat. The pilot put the plane down hard on the airstrip at BIAP, whereupon I exhaled and thanked God for being back on terra firma. We taxied for a bit and then the crew chief dropped the back ramp revealing to me, for the first time in a month, Iraq.
BIAP is pretty depressing. Everything out there is the color of dirt. The buildings are dirt colored. The rows and rows of army tents are dirt colored. The motor pools scattered around the airport grounds are full of dirty, dirt-colored tanks, Bradleys, dump trucks, and back hoes. Life for the poor soldiers at BIAP is made up of dirt and canvas, barbed wire and diesel engines, the hot sun and portable toilets, and the slow, slow passage of time.
My mood changed for the better as we left the airport and entered Baghdad proper. There, thanks to the life-giving waters of the Tigris, brown yielded to green. Springtime in the Iraqi capital meant green grass in the parks, vegetables in the gardens, and green leaves on the trees. Even the date palms, numbering perhaps even more than the human inhabitants of the city, seemed greener than normal. A good breeze blew through this entire scene, bending the trees and grasses, lifting paper leaflets off the streets, and cooling the faces of the bent women working in the verdant open spaces.
The breeze also moved the large black and green square banners that appeared on nearly every street corner and atop many buildings. The green is a symbol for all Islam, while the black flags honor Hussein, the most revered saint for the Shi’ias. Shi’a political activism was apparent everywhere. I saw a large demonstration of guys ritualistically stomping their feet and whipping themselves with cat-o-nine tails. Posters with messages like “Submission Only to God,” made clear that this long-oppressed portion of Iraqi society would not settle for a return to business as usual. They were putting the world on notice that “a change is gonna come.”
Indeed change of a non-political type is already happening in Baghdad. It’s been happening all along in small, often unnoticed increments. People have found jobs here and there. Police officers have finished their training and are now on the beat. Construction projects have moved from the design to the build phase. Enough of those improvements have added up now to where, after an absence of one month, I could see some difference. As we rolled through streets surprisingly animated with strolling pedestrians and energetic, laughing children, I was struck by a pleasantly strange feeling of being back in peaceful America on a lazy, warm weekend afternoon. Smiling sidewalk conversations between neighbors and the dashing about of playing kids looked like a scene from anywhere in the less-conflicted world.
In April, a massive, multi-billion dollar construction program will finally get underway throughout Iraq. Everything will be touched by this Herculean effort; from power generation and distribution, to water mains and sewer systems, bridges, roads, hospitals, and schools. It is this project, which should employ tens of thousands directly and act as a spark plug for the rest of the economy, that keeps most of the CPA and military people I know optimistic. They are all working to hoist a third flag above Iraq, this one flying higher than all the rest: The white flag of peace.