- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

Mrs. Behn in Baghdad

The story was written in Washington, but reporter Sharon Behn’s front-page account last week about the enormous security costs facing contractors in Iraq was the result of a recent visit to the country.

Mrs. Behn for months had been keeping in touch with a locally based Iraqi-American who is trying to get several business enterprises off the ground in the new Iraq, and she found him a valuable source of information about developments there.

When this businessman invited her to tag along on his next visit to Iraq, she jumped at the chance. The newspaper willingly approved the costs of the trip, believing we would get an excellent story on the problems and opportunities facing entrepreneurs in Iraq today.

Civilian air travel to Baghdad is still impossible because of security concerns at the airport, so Mrs. Behn flew with her host and his entourage, first to Kuwait, from where they set out overland for the Iraqi capital.

Their convoy consisted of at least five cars, Mrs. Behn reports, with well-armed guards in every vehicle. They drove at breakneck speeds through potentially dangerous areas and, when that wasn’t possible, gun barrels were extended out of every window.

At roadside stops, the convoy formed up in a sort of cross formation, with the car containing Mrs. Behn and her host surrounded by security vehicles front and rear and to either side.

A similar principle applied to the party’s choice of a hotel in Baghdad. One U.S. military official pointed out to Mrs. Behn that the hotel was surrounded on three sides by taller buildings and on the fourth by the wide river that cuts through the capital. There was only one narrow opening through which a rocket or mortar shot could reach the hotel.

Travel within Baghdad usually involved the same sort of security precautions as the trip from Kuwait, Mrs. Behn said. But for visits to certain neighborhoods, the presence of so many security men simply would attract unwanted attention.

In those cases, she said, she and her host would dress modestly and travel in an inconspicuous car in hopes they simply would not be noticed.

A terrible toll

Night life for Westerners in Baghdad, Mrs. Behn reports, is extremely limited. On one occasion, she invited a private security official to go out with her to a restaurant.

His reply: “Well, we would first have to send three cars with armed men to sweep the restaurant and then post guards outside while we ate. It’s much easier to just eat here at the hotel.” Reporters in Baghdad seem to enjoy more freedom of movement than the security people — either because of the nature of their work or because they are just too dumb to recognize the danger.

In any case, Mrs. Behn said, she was able to cover her head and go out with Iraqi and Turkish businessmen to a Lebanese restaurant with no problems at all and enjoy a few moments of relative normalcy.

Back here in Washington, we fill our pages daily with the latest attacks on U.S. military personnel, Iraqi police and soldiers, and Iraqi civilians who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We see very little from the wire agencies or other news organizations, however, about the deadly toll on U.S. civilian contractors and the small armies of security people who guard their work sites.

Partly on purpose, the contractors and businessmen deliberately avoid reporting about attacks on their people for fear of attracting even more attacks. And the U.S. military authorities seem anxious not to report any more violence than they must.

Most contractors would not even discuss casualties suffered by their employees when we asked their corporate offices directly. So we were surprised when Kellogg, Brown and Root, the U.S. company with the lead role in getting Iraq’s oil industry back on its feet, leveled with us on the numbers.

We were even more surprised by the extent of those casualties. Counting both staff and subcontractors, the company said, it has suffered eight killed and 39 wounded since it came to Iraq at the end of the war.

That’s a terrible price to pay to try to do business, even in the most difficult environment. And it makes it easy to understand why the contractors in Iraq are hiring so many security people and why the measures they take are so intense.

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

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