As you prepare to head back to Baghdad, how worried are you about the recent abductions and beheadings of contractors from their homes?
I'm very worried about it. It would be foolish not to be worried about the danger and lack of safety in the streets. It's extremely dangerous to be in Iraq right now for a Westerner not in the Green Zone. Psychologically it's always been difficult coming in and going out. It's like the heat there; it takes about a week after you go in to get used to it again. I would hate to say I'm not worried and then get killed and have people say "What a dummy." I am worried about it, and I take every possible precaution, and it's a tense situation.
When you first went into Iraq, you didn't fly in. Didn't you come in overland?
Yeah, I came in through Turkey and overland from Kurdistan. At the time there was no way to fly in. Government people were coming in on C-130s from Kuwait, but for other people, it was very difficult to do. The road from Oman was extremely dangerous, so the safest way to get into the country was the long way, which was through Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish part of Turkey. The route was Istanbul to Diyarbakir, then from Diyarbakir by taxi to the Iraq border, and then by car or taxi south to Baghdad. Typically it was about a three-day trip from Europe.
Was it dangerous for you to be seen at that time? Were you able to sit up in the front seat, or were you hidden in the back?
When I first went in it was relatively safe. By the time I left, which was by the same route, it was getting really dangerous. Now it's really, really dangerous. Iraqis have no problem doing it. It's a little unsafe for them. But as a Westerner, in a non-convoy, non-militarized car—an individual car—you're taking very serious risks of being kidnapped. When I left the last time going north by that road I had a feeling that it was at the edge of what was an acceptable level of danger. I had some confrontations going north. There was a firefight that erupted to my right at one point, and there were some problems on the road, including exhortations to kill Americans. So it was tense. There were a lot of roadblocks. The roadblocks were frightening and still are because you really don't know whether they're set up by people who can be trusted. Even the new Iraqi security forces are not necessarily to be trusted. Betrayal is a constant concern.
So now I go the other way. Royal Jordanian is running these little flights that come in from Oman. There are at least two a day. They're very expensive, and they're packed with all these strange people, because the only people who want to go to Iraq these days are kind of strange. They're either mercenaries of one kind or another, security people, who seem to make up the majority, or they're hard-bitten journalist types. Sometimes they're government employees. The pilots are South Africans and they fly these beat up old Fokker 28s, these small jets. Everyone's luggage is heavy with body armor and stuff like that, and the planes can't carry it all, so they have to leave some of it behind and put it on other flights or truck it in. The funny thing about the flights is they have flight attendants—these pretty girls who act like we're going on vacation to the Caribbean or something. They're trying to be real, regular flight attendants, and they offer safety advice about putting on seat belts. But you're going to Baghdad, so why bother? They say, "We'd like to thank you for flying. Have a great day, the temperature is so and so degrees, have a wonderful stay in Baghdad. Thank you for your business; we know you have a choice in airlines." Actually, I don't think they say that. Anyway, there's this veneer of normality to that flight, and yet the fundamental thing is that it's completely abnormal.