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Last Updated: Monday, 9 October 2006, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Baghdad diary: Delayed, 16 years
Andrew North, the BBC Baghdad correspondent, begins a regular column about his experiences in one of the toughest reporting assignments in journalism. He will be sending fortnightly entries reflecting daily life for him and ordinary citizens in the embattled Iraqi capital.

Baghdad International airport

Baghdad airport
Pilots approach Baghdad airport at a stomach-churning angle
"Iraqi Airways, Baghdad-Chicago" read the indicator board in the terminal.

Or how about "Yugoslav Airlines, Baghdad-Mexico City".

There was even a special flight on offer from Basra to Sydney.

Someone's joke, I wondered, as I sat in the terminal waiting to be picked up and driven into the city. Or perhaps a whole new travel market is opening up. After all, there may be a war on, but there's already a choice of airlines flying into Baghdad.

I had come in on one of Royal Jordanian's twice-daily flights. State-owned Iraqi Airways also run a regular service, or you can take your chances with the wonderfully-named Flying Carpet Airlines out of Beirut.

With the still very real possibility that insurgents will shoot down the plane, landing in Baghdad is a little different to most airports.

Think corkscrews rather than nice straight lines and you'll get the idea, with our pilots completing the last stomach-gripping turn just above the runway. The sight of a US predator drone cruising above the city as we start our descent is another reminder of our destination.

But in the terminal building, you're back into apparent normality again.

Marbled floors freshly cleaned, the kitsch water-feature brightly lit, the water bubbling up as well as down. The duty free shop is open, although the alcohol it used to sell has now been discreetly removed.

Iraqi airways jumbo jet
Long ago the airport was a major hub for international air travel
But the passengers give it away. On the in-bound flights like mine, it's mostly Western faces and voices - contractors, diplomats and of course the odd journalist.

Upstairs in the departures lounge, it's almost all Iraqis, mountains of luggage piled up around the check-in desks. Many of them are leaving for good.

These are the wealthier refugees, but with Iraq's sectarian dirty war getting ever nastier, more and more people are getting out - up to 9,000 a week now according to the latest UN figures.

That indicator board tells another part of Iraq's story. It has been like that since 1990, when Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait. With the sanctions that followed, all flights were grounded. And that Iraqi Airways flight to Chicago?

Sixteen years later, the indicator board still says: "More information at 1.15."

Shopping and power

We're driving along a busy market street in east Baghdad - although not as busy as it used to be - on our way to an interview. A row of electronic goods shops stands out, with bright neon signs, shiny gadgets in the windows.

Tangle of electricity wires in Baghdad
A spaghetti tangle of wires emerges from the cages around his generators, then spreads out along the street

You can find most kinds of high-tech goods in Baghdad, laptop computers, digital cameras etc, at better prices than in the Gulf. No tax helps.

But seeing the computers in the windows makes me think. Last week, 14 people were kidnapped from another computer store not far away.

Then 26 workers at a meat factory were taken away in the same area. Some have already been found dead, their mutilated bodies dumped at the roadside.

Going shopping, doing anything that puts you on the streets, is riskier than ever. Forty or 50 Iraqis are abducted every day, no-one knows the true figure.

Hardly surprising that many Baghdad residents are staying at home as much as possible. Streets that were once full of people now seem strangely quiet.

Generator shop
Few families can afford their own generators so they have to share
Shops are limiting their opening hours and checking every customer before they enter. And more and more shops are closed and shuttered up for good. The owners have left.

For the same reasons, we are ever more careful in how we move around Baghdad. We've come to interview a "generator man" - a fixture of every mahalah or neighbourhood, with the city still getting just a few hours of power a day. Yasser has two large generators supplying almost 200 households and many local shops.

A spaghetti tangle of wires emerges from the cages around his generators, then spreads out along the street.

But his customers aren't happy - the "residential" generator hasn't worked for the past 10 days, and they pay in advance at a monthly rate of US $50 a household.

It's not just electricity they lack here - they also don't have running water or sewage disposal.

There's a black pond the length of the street. We get a friendly reception. Children enjoy the novelty of our presence. But we don't stay long, in case less friendly individuals get word we're there.

Baghdad barometer

With the restrictions on our movements we Westerners face, the daily stories of the bureau's Iraqi staff provide a constant barometer of life in and around Baghdad.

US embassy under construction
The US is building a massive new embassy in the Green Zone

The new school term has started recently. But many schools are strangely quiet this year.

Adnan tells me how many teachers are not turning up, because of security fears. At least a hundred children have not returned after the holiday - he thinks they've left Iraq with their parents.

Every aspect of life in the city is being affected by the violence.

Ali came into the office recently with a grim expression on his face.

"My friends, things are changing in our village. You know how we have managed to keep the fighting away so far, but maybe not now," he said.

Two people from the village had recently been kidnapped. One was found dead soon afterwards.

He told us people from the village responded by firing two mortars at a nearby district, where they believe the kidnappers had come from.

That district answered back, with a barrage of 11 mortars. Local tribal chiefs then intervened, but Ali fears a line has now been crossed from which it is hard to draw back.

This goes to the heart of Iraq's troubles now - each new killing breeds the next, as a relative or friend vows revenge.

We go into the Green Zone to interview someone from one of the international organisations based in that strange other-world, where the US and British embassies and many Iraqi government ministries are based, behind rings of concrete and checkpoints.

Many of the American, British and other foreign workers based there never leave the Green Zone during their entire posting in the country.

"What's going on in Baghdad?" asks one official cheerily as we arrive.

"Stuck inside here, we might as well be on another planet."

The names have been changed in this last entry




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