BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT — The flight out of Iraq has been grounded by a sandstorm. The sky is opaque, amber-yellow, and travelers pass the time talking guns.
A well-known Sunni political leader on his way to Lebanon likes the lightweight German Glock. He can tuck it into the waistband of his pants. His friend, an American contractor, prefers the Italian Beretta, a more reliable weapon. He points out the window to the blinding sand dust.
"Can you imagine what that does to a gun?" the American says.
As the hours tick by and the weather refuses to clear, the Iraqi fingers his prayer beads. The American rocks back and forth on his heels. The airplane is still stuck in Jordan, two hours away.
"Did I tell you they tried to kill me with a suicide bomber?" the Iraqi asks his American friend.
"No, you didn't mention it."
"Two of my bodyguards died," he says.
The Iraqi, who asks not to be identified, is a player. He talks to Shiite religious and political leaders. He talks to the Americans and to Ahmad Chalabi, a former U.S. ally. He talks to Sunni sheiks, and who knows who else.
"Yeah, well, they want to kill you. A lot of people probably want to kill you," the American responds.
It is early May and I have only been in Baghdad for a few days and a couple of suicide bombs, but already I understand the numbing effect of the pervasive violence. My Royal Jordanian flight to Baghdad had made the requisite corkscrew landing to evade any insurgent missile fire. A flight attendant announced afterward that passengers should remain seated until the plane came to a full stop and refrain from opening overhead bins "for your own safety."
I chuckled. A whack on the head from carry-on luggage seemed the least of my worries with the deadly airport road and bomb-racked city looming ahead. But no one else seemed to see the irony. The other passengers stared straight ahead, seat belts dutifully fastened.
I moved around Baghdad in the back of an armored car whose thick windows separated me from kebab shops, cafes and fruit stands with bright red apples that I could see but could not touch, as if in a dream. For the return trip to the airport, I donned a black abaya and head scarf so that anyone looking in the car window would not immediately see a Western woman.
By then, my thinking tilted toward the paranoid. I wondered if the man lighting a cigarette by the side of the airport road simply wanted a smoke or meant to signal insurgents, whether a young boy herding sheep was a shepherd or a scout.
At the first airport checkpoint, I got out of the car for a suitcase and body search. Secular Iraqi women headed for work at the airport stared at my Muslim dress. They do not like the Islamization of Iraq, and danger or no danger, they did not like my abaya. I took it off inside the airport, and when one of the women working the ticket counter spotted me in my Eileen Fisher travel wear, she shouted, "Now you look beautiful!"
The airport is open to Iraqis with a passport and a ticket, but on this day most of the passengers waiting in the hall lighted by gray-green fluorescent light are U.S. contractors wearing dusty boots and pouches around their necks with badges from the Department of Defense. They line up for flights chartered by Halliburton's KBR subsidiary to places such as Tikrit and Irbil.
Some of them are veterans of past wars, former soldiers and fellow travelers from Panama, Somalia, Kosovo. They eat sandwiches of flat Iraqi bread and drink cups of strong, sweet coffee that could almost send them flying without a plane.
The talk turns to politics. The American contractor and his Iraqi friend are frustrated. Things went wrong in Iraq from the very beginning, they say, when the U.S. failed to prevent looting after the fall of Saddam Hussein, decided to disband the Iraqi army, and refused to hand power over to Iraqis immediately.
The U.S. government allowed the liberation to become an occupation, they say, and is still paying the price of that mistake. In their view, the violence is not diminishing. The transitional Iraqi government will not succeed. The ongoing violence will end in civil war.
A day before, I had visited the so-called Green Zone, encompassing U.S. installations and the seat of the government, where I was told things were improving in Iraq.
The walled Green Zone conjures images of Oz, but it's desert camouflage rather than emerald. To enter is to go through layer after layer of security barricades, past watchtowers and armored tanks with turrets, through car and body searches, beeping scanners and scrutinizing eyes. The guards are Gurkhas and Georgians, many of whom speak neither Arabic nor English.