We flew into Baghad this past weekend on a Royal Jordanian flight from Amman, Jordan. The one-way fare for the 90-minute flight is a bargain -- $85.
The flight was packed, but bargain fair or not, I did not see any tourists. The flight had some journalists, and lots of American security types going to jobs that in their line of work are very plentiful in today's Iraq. Of the 63 passengers on the plane, 61 were men. The two women were journalists.
The flight was not a routine one, at least compared to what I'm used to. As we approached Baghdad, the pilots started doing spirals with the plane as they went into a steep descent. The idea is to make it harder for insurgents to hit the aircraft with their weapons.
Once in the airport, it was easy to forget we'd entered a war-zone. They have a fully staffed duty-free shop inside, and the terminal is actually gleaming and quite clean.
But when we got in an armored car to leave the airport, we quickly realized where we were. The road leaving the airport has become legendary for its danger. Insurgent attacks, whether from IEDs or suicide bombings or other methods, have been frequent and deadly. Even veteran travelers to Iraq hold their breath as they barrel down that highway. I was here in Iraq for several weeks in March of 2003 at the very beginning of the war, but this was my first time on the airport highway. I can unequivocally state it is an unnerving experience.
I am here now to cover military activity at the Balad Air Base, which is the U.S. Air Force's largest facility in Iraq. We had to take an Army helicopter to get to the base, which is about 45 miles north of Baghdad. We were warned that rockets are often fired by the insurgents at the choppers. Supposedly it would take a stroke of luck for them to hit us. Those words aren't necessarily comforting, especially when 15 minutes after we took off into the night sky we saw what our crew believed to be a rocket fired at us.
The helicopter automatically emitted flares in order to draw the heat-seeking ammunition toward the flares, rather than the chopper. The rocket and the flares turned the nighttime into daylight out the right window of the chopper for about ten seconds. Nothing hit us, and we are doing fine. But our first hours in this country initiate us into the reality of today's Iraq.
-- By Gary Tuchman, CNN Correspondent