It was a Monday morning in June when I flew with the crew from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad nonstop. The flight is about an hour and I am not afraid of flying (obviously, am a pilot) but I was terrified on that flight. Starring at my boarding pass (which I have a picture of) I could not believe that it said ‘Baghdad’ on it. The flight itself, however, was relatively normal. It was filled with families and business people — no one looked like they were flying into a war zone. I was thinking, ‘maybe this isn’t so bad’
When we landed, the airport was basically deserted. We got off the plane onto a bus and drove to the terminal. There waiting for us are some Americans from the Embassy. They didn’t look like anybody else in sight. Not only are they white, and nobody else is, but also they are each wearing a navy blue polo shirt with their division (security etc) embroidered underneath an emblem of the US Embassy. These people stood out from the crowd. They grabbed us and marched us through the crowd as if they owned the airport, past all of the local airport security, and put us into an Iraqi Colonel’s office. The whole procedure took maybe 5 seconds. “You can’t be seen out there” they told us. “Tell us what your bags look like and we’ll get them off the conveyer belt. You will not go through customs or anything — we are going to sneak you through the airport and deliver you to your security team.”
The Embassy people explained to us that they are doing this for our safety and that we were free to do whatever we want, that we didn’t have to stay in this office, we aren’t their hostages. We allowed that to happen and we were brought to the other side of the airport where we hooked up with our security team, which was a foreign country’s team (I don’t want to say who they are because they are still in the country), and local bodyguards, so we would blend in.
It turns out there were 3 other Americans on the plane with us. Of these 3, two were archeologists who were visiting Iraq and traveling to Babylon for a dig and the other was a documentary filmmaker who was pretending to be an archeologist in order to get into the country. These Americans were traveling as “guests” of the Embassy. If you are a “Guest” of the Embassy you are placing your security entirely in their hands and you are essentially their prisoner. They control your every move. This obviously would not work for us considering we needed to be in the streets filming.
They are two ways you go into Baghdad: low profile or high profile. High profile is what the other people who were going to the embassy were doing, because I heard they were security briefing. They were traveling in SUV’s driving a hundred miles an hour through the streets. I heard them explain to these people. “Don’t talk to the driver, don’t comment on his driving, we are doing this for your safety.” Which basically meant: God knows what they would be hitting, be it a dog or a person, they would not stop. That SUV was going to be driving 90mph from the airport to the embassy nonstop. They were telling people: Whatever you see just shut up. If we get hit and something happens to the vehicle, follow the instructions of this person.
We chose a second option, to travel within the country accompanied by a private security detail, with as low a profile as possible. Because we would be stopping in the streets and shooting, our security detail consisted of cars that were not SUV’s, they were cars that could blend in and seem like regular cars. Our security details were all Iraqis and everybody wore their bulletproof vests underneath their shirts. As soon as we got to the car, they gave us bulletproof vests and giant shirts to go over the vests. No shirt that I own could go over one of these vests. They gave us our own briefing and then they loaded their weapons. They had more guns than I have ever seen in one place. It was a good five minutes of just loading weapons — putting the clips back and loading the weapons, over and over again. Then we headed out of the airport with our local Iraqi film crew and filmmaker who the State Department had put us in touch with, and had coordinated everything for us in Iraq.
Tags: baghdad, doug liman blog, Fair Game