- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

BAGHDAD, D.C., Iraq, April 19 (UPI) — Ibrahim looks a lot like Saddam Hussein. At 45 years old, he's younger and thinner, but the resemblance goes beyond the brush mustache that's so popular in parts of the Middle East; he has the same cheekbones, nose and intelligently piercing eyes as Iraq's former despot. His smile is also exactly the same.

Like many in Amman, Jordan, he's also a Palestinian, a demographic that puts Saddam — genocidal dictator or not — in far higher esteem than the U.S. President George W. Bush. In fact Ibrahim, despite being unfailing polite like many Arabs, more or less despises America, not to mention Israel, Jordanian Bedouins, and just about every Arab leader who's not outright hostile to America and Israel. Meaning he likes Saddam and Syria's Bashar Assad.

The shared appearance and politics with Saddam would not be the least bit unsettling except that Ibrahim is driving me across the desert in a Chevy Suburban on my way from Amman to Baghdad. The almost 700-mile trip through the desert requires purchasing black market gasoline from decrepit pumps, avoiding bandits who consider journalist convoys to be mobile and much more accessible ATMs, and considering he makes this return journey once a day, I'm a little worried he might fall asleep. In fact, that possibility sounds worse than the bandits, mostly because Ibrahim drives really fast and the desert night is pitch black.

Ibrahim is part of what has become an unofficial subway between the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman and the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. Every day at about 4 p.m., a convoy of grungy reporters arrives from Baghdad. While the hacks seem to head straight for the Mexican-themed hotel bar for a drink, the drivers unload bags and television equipment, clean the trucks and begin hustling business for the outbound convoys which leave between midnight and 2 a.m.

To get onboard, all one needs is a Jordanian press card, an exit visa for Iraq and to have signed a document that roughly translates from the Arabic: "I am an idiot who wants to drive 12 hours across the desert — at night — to a war-torn capital. The King of Jordan, while happy about the size of my bar tab in Amman, will do nothing to ensure the safety of me and my nitwit friends as we embark through one of the most isolated and — and thanks to the American military — now lawless places on Earth. I will not whine to the king if I am hurt, killed or kidnapped. And my family will not sue. In exchange the police will not stop me. So long as I pay the 35 dinars for this visa."

After three or so hours across eastern Jordan, another few hours at the border with a score of other vehicles, and suddenly, as the sun abruptly rises on the barren desert, we are in Iraq.

But we're not really moving. On the Iraqi side of the border, there are American soldiers who want to see our passports. Tom, from Tennessee, checks our passports and demands we stop filming him and taking pictures. His uniform is unadorned with patches of rank or units, which means he's U.S. special forces, most likely a Ranger. He's too young to be a Green Beret or a Delta Force operator. He actually looks too young to drink.

After warning us about bandits in a tone similar to the Jordanian visa document, I realize that Tom and King Abdullah II of Jordan have a similar view of my mental capabilities.

But the trip is mostly uneventful. At one filling station we encounter a group of Iranian Kurds looking for a new country. They claim to have fled Iran 23 years ago because of political persecution — which must have been pretty bad to choose asylum with men who have used nerve gas on their own Kurds. They say that they are afraid to stay in Iraq because Saddam's men continue to control their camp, which has yet to see any American soldiers. They fear the northern Kurds, the Iranians and the Arabs. They ask me to tell their story in the hopes they can come to America.

While I exchange hugs and kisses with the men and their adorable young girls point at me and giggle like the schoolgirls they should be, I wonder how this will turn out for them. The Jordanians, already swamped with Palestinian refugees, certainly won't let them across the border. And when Rumsfeld and Bush speak of the need for this war, I don't think the democracy they claim to be bringing to Iraq includes letting these people move to some corner of America. Even more so than the Kurds to the north, these are people truly without a nation. Maybe the United Nations will feed them and show them to tents near the border, but even the most optimistic outcome for this war doesn't seem to include a happy ending for them.

Ibrahim is an excellent driver and we make good time. His constant intake of Marlboros and tea seems to keep him awake just fine. Saddam double or not, his aversion to America doesn't interfere with his clearly decent nature. He a delight to talk politics with: too polite to lie about hating my country and too kind to make it personal with me. He tells me he suspects our "British" companion is an Israeli; but ever the professional driver and a good man, he wouldn't let it change anything.

As we approach the Euphrates River, the desert suddenly blasts into a sea of green. The land is still too arid to be lush, but it will do for those tending the sheep around destroyed Iraqi tanks, collapsed bunkers and charred corpses. This wasn't a fair fight. That's not the goal in war, of course, and the disparity led to a rapid collapse that obviously spared much of Baghdad and its population. But it's brutal to see firsthand nevertheless.

We enter the city to a mix of greeting; some people smile, others wave, and some launch stony glares. It's mostly what I expected from a people abused by their leader, crippled by cruel economic sanctions and then invaded by a nation they've been conditioned to hate. The U.S. military is obviously trying its best to be kind, which is even more confusing in some ways. How do you act when reality is different from what you've been told all your life?

The first Iraqi I meet who's not trying to sell me something or drive me somewhere asks when I arrived. I tell him: "Two hours ago."

"Oh," he grins. "You're late!"

Apparently not. Five minutes later, the unmistakable sound of small arms fire breaks out just blocks away. And as I write on my hotel balcony as night falls, the sniping has begun. I realize that my satellite phone doesn't work indoors and I need to balance my laptop and phone on the balcony to file. It'll be fine. But I still think of Tom.


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