Midnight in Amman, Jordan. Five journalists, ten cases of water, baggage and equipment pile into a sport utility vehicle for the 13 hour trip to Baghdad.
Since Baghdad fell over a month ago, hundreds of journalists have employed a loose network of car services to form caravans into Iraq.
As we leave Amman, safety concerns are foremost in our minds. Our journey is not without danger and we have all heard horror stories. Bandits work the road from the Jordan border to Baghdad. Iraq has been operating on a cash-only economy and the bandits know western journalists will be carrying large amounts of cash.
Four hours later we reach the border.
After our passports are checked and stamped by Jordanian authorities, we wait in line with hundreds of other cars. It’s now 5 a.m. and the border doesn’t open until eight.
With the sun rising over the desert, people get out of their cars and begin life’s daily routines. In the days of Saddam there were large tariffs levied on cross-border trade, and importing cars was forbidden. Now the border is operating tax-free and our driver tells us many of these cars were recently purchased in Jordan to be sold in Iraq.
Taking a walk to stretch our legs, we get our first taste of Iraqi hospitality. This group of men were eager to invite two Americans to a breakfast of tea, pita bread, and cheese. They spoke no English and we only know a few Arabic words. But, the language of friendship was loud and clear.
After waiting for hours, it was time to enter Iraq. On the other side, we saw kilometer after kilometer of empty trucks waiting to return to Jordan, a sign of the economic ties between these two countries.
We were told the security situation had improved in the past few weeks. And we passed several coalition military convoys along the way. Then we run into one of those infamous Iraqi sandstorms. Visibility drops dramatically and our driver has to slow down.
Other than the occasional mangled highway guardrail there are very few signs of war out here in the desert. Although this bridge looks like it took a direct hit from a bomb.
There is fuel available in the desert. The stations are small outposts in an otherwise desolate place. Unlike Baghdad, there are no long lines at the pumps, just a couple of scruffy looking dogs.
Eventually, civilization began to emerge beside the roadway and we knew our journey was coming to an end. Off in the distance we see one of Saddam’s unfinished palaces still surrounded by construction cranes. It looks like an enormous space station rising from the landscape.
It’s Friday, the holy day and weekend in Iraq. And the streets are very quiet. After 13 hours we were in Baghdad, thankful for a safe journey.
People are wondering how long it will be before air service returns and caravan routes will no longer be Iraq’s only connection to the outside world.