- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

Getting to Baghdad

There is an old story, probably apocryphal, that if a frog is placed in a pot of water that is slowly heated to the boiling point, it will not realize it is in trouble until much too late.

Security experts training reporters and international relief workers for duty in combat zones tell the story to make the point that people, too, can fail to recognize mortal danger when the risk level rises only gradually.

The opposite is also true: A reporter coming back to a trouble spot at intervals of several weeks or months is immediately struck by changes that may have gone almost unnoticed by people who were there all the time.

So it was for our reporter Sharon Behn, who returned last week to Iraq on her fourth visit since the U.S. invasion almost two years ago. Just getting her and photographer Maya Alleruzzo from the airport to the heavily guarded green zone in downtown Baghdad required hiring two armored SUVs and a team of heavily armed guards.

“When I came in January last year, we drove from Kuwait to Baghdad — we drove fast and with a convoy, but there was not one incident,” Mrs. Behn recalls. “Now that trip would be unthinkable without a lot more firepower.

“Driving the road to the airport is a breathless experience — it has among the highest number of gun, bomb and mortar attacks per mile” of any stretch of road in Iraq. Along the way, she reports, scorched cars and flattened houses mark the spots where terrorists have detonated their roadside bombs.

Inside the capital, other changes are evident.

“I see … a lot less construction going on; actually, almost none,” Mrs. Behn reports.

“Those in the green zone, like diplomats, don’t go out — one State Department employee told me they are not allowed to. They are trapped in ‘Fortress America’ behind huge concrete walls, armored vehicles and countless military checkpoints.

“You can’t get into buildings without specific passes, and more and more jersey barriers are popping up. It is also no longer a safe haven — mortars land there all the time. It’s more like Fort Apache.”

A shopping trip

When we had asked Mrs. Behn to send us a story describing everyday life in Baghdad, she decided, in spite of the risks, to visit a market where Iraqis were shopping for Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice.

To do so, she dressed as an Iraqi, covered from head to toe with only her face showing, and took care never to speak out loud. But the Iraqis who escorted her absolutely refused to let Miss Alleruzzo go along. The sight of a camera would have put them all in danger.

When she was in Baghdad’s shopping district last summer, Mrs. Behn says, “I walked down the street, bought ice cream, cashew nuts off a little cart with piles of different nuts, and stared at the gold necklaces and bracelets in the shop windows. For expats, those days are gone.”

No doubt because she is a mother, Mrs. Behn was particularly struck by the children.

“We drove through one neighborhood and there was a kid, could not have been a day over 12 —one year younger than my son — walking around with a large gun,” she reports. “I could not tell you what kind, but it was like an AK-47.”

Similarly, it was the children who stuck in her mind after a one-day trip to the southern city of Nasiriyah — this time on an organized outing with plenty of military escorts.

“Even in the presence of military vehicles and armed soldiers and armed security, the kids had no fear,” Mrs. Behn says. One of them threw a rock that hit a female Egyptian reporter in the chest.

“It didn’t surprise me that they did not fear the soldiers, but it surprised me that they felt they could throw a rock and knew they could get away with it,” she says.

“Just like the insurgents are getting bolder and bolder, even the kids are getting more aggressive and bolder.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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