Living Inside Baghdad Airport

She is 22 and wears a black leather skirt to her knees, a white frilly top that leaves most of her arms exposed, and short heels. She graduated from a local university two years ago but says she can't find any other job. "There are no opportunities in Baghdad, there's no money in Baghdad."

She says she doesn't mind it, though, and she smiles easily at the table of Western men.

"Westerners are better customers than the Arabs. They drink more."

I ordered a second beer.

We asked her whether she feels safer today than she did a year ago, as the levels of violence on both civilians and the military have dropped to four-year lows.

"The security situation has improved. I'm not worried about kidnapping," she said. But still, it's safer for her to live at the airport on the days she works. And she admitted that she wants to "leave Iraq, like most Iraqis. I'd like to learn English in America."

Mike's company secures the airport, and during my visits here I've always felt safe. The airport has never been directly attacked since the United States arrived here.

But there have been incidents. The U.S. controls the roads around the airport, and two months ago U.S. soldiers in Humvees gunned down the manager of the airport's bank as he drove to work. The military says the soldiers saw the car as a threat, but eventually admitted it was "an extremely unfortunate and tragic incident."

"The only weapon I've had pointed at me since I got here has been American," Mike says. Soldiers, private security officials -- all of them have to leave their weapons outside the airport.

It may be safe, but in many respects it's awfully basic.

After you check in and before you walk through immigration, you have to pay an airport tax. At 7 p.m., though, it seemed the standards were a little lax.

I asked the man underneath the "Tax" sign how much I owed. "Habibi as you wish," he said. I knew the tax was officially only $2 (payable only in dollars), but I only had a $5 bill. He took it, smiling, and put it into his pocket.

Later, as I waited, it dawned on me that neither Mike nor anyone in his company nor anyone else at the airport could actually tell me why my flight was so late, when it would arrive, or whether it had even departed Istanbul on its way to Baghdad. There are no reassuring information boards with flight numbers and departure times.

"Yes, 30 minutes sir," I was told about five times, beginning at 7 p.m. and ending at 12:30 a.m., when that statement was finally accurate.

The U.S. Air Force, which owns the Iraqi skies and oversees the airport's control tower, doesn't exactly share its information with the civilian employees trying to run the airport.

Not to say that those employees have a lot of flights to worry about. You can count the number of daily international departures and arrivals on one hand. Destinations: Amman, Jordan; Dubai, U.A.E.; Istanbul, Turkey. That's it.

In 18 months, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N. body that certifies airports, will visit here. If the airport can pass the ICAO tests, the extraordinary insurance rates paid by the three commercial airlines currently operating out of here will finally drop, and more carriers will be able to fly in and out. That can only bring money for the country and more money to fix up the airport.

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