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Flights to Baghdad Are Like No Others


With fears of terrorists armed with anti-aircraft missiles and the main airport road in Baghdad being periodically attacked, just getting to and from the country has become increasingly dangerous. But flying is still safer than the road from the Jordanian border, where attacks by bandits plagued travelers in the months before the Baghdad airport re-opened.

Traveling to Baghdad from outside of the country is like no trip experienced by most airline passengers.

When flying from Amman on Royal Jordanian Airlines or Iraqi Airways, passengers are scanned and searched for weapons no less than four times before they are allowed to get on the plane.

Baggage is scanned, and passengers are often ordered to open their suitcases, while an airport security guard searches through them. The bags are then placed on the tarmac next to the plane, and passengers must identify their personal belongings before being allowed to board the aircraft.

Royal Jordanian aircraft traveling to Baghdad are painted white and bear no markings that a terrorist - possibly armed with a missile - could spot in the sky.

Once in the air, many passengers can be seen peering through their windows down at the ground. There is a sense of uneasiness, as one wonders about the possibility of a surface-to-air missile, or some other weapon being fired at the aircraft.

The one-hour and 20 minutes of unease is followed by several minutes of near terror as the aircraft comes in for a landing at Baghdad International Airport.

Cognizant of the potential for weapons being fired from the ground, the pilot maintains his altitude until the plane is directly over the airport.

At that point, the plane banks hard to the left and almost goes into a dive as the pilot spirals down to the runway in a descent unlike any commercial aircraft landing anywhere else. The process takes about 10 minutes and is not for the feint of heart, or those with sensitive stomachs.

Expressions of alarm and discomfort often fill the faces of first-timers. But, for those who have made the trip to Baghdad before, it is kind of fun - like a roller-coaster in the sky.

Once on the ground, passengers line up to have their passports checked for the required Iraqi visa. For those who do not have the visa, one can be purchased for $40, providing they have a letter from a consulate office, or a letter from an employer stating the reason for the trip.

With a only four commercial flights going in and out of Baghdad each day, the terminal seems cavernous and empty.

Upon leaving the terminal, bags are once again checked. Iraqi security personnel make almost everyone open their bags as they search for weapons.

In most places, once a traveler clears customs and security, the journey is essentially over, with only a routine taxi or bus ride remaining. But in Baghdad, the most hazardous part of the journey lies ahead.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein last year, the airport highway has periodically been attacked by insurgents using car bombs, roadside bombs, gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons. In recent weeks, there have been two suicide car bombings along the road.

Only government officials are allowed to have someone waiting for them at the terminal to pick them up. The others must wait for a bus that takes them to what is called Checkpoint One.

After all the passengers have boarded the bus, the driver gets on, and then a fully uniformed and flak-jacketed security guard with a machine gun sits in the front of the bus. His job is to scan the highway for possible trouble.

The drive to Checkpoint One takes about 10 minutes, and is probably the quietest part of the trip, because most people find themselves helping the security guard scan the highway.

Checkpoint One is where passengers meet with their drivers who then take them to their final destinations, usually in and around Baghdad.

And, most would agree, reaching their final destination produces a sense of relief far beyond what they experience at the end of any other trip. Dangerous as Baghdad is, it seems like a safe haven, compared to getting here.