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IRAQ: And then there were eight...

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It’s easy to lose track of how many times you and your belongings get sniffed by dogs, frisked by police and scanned by X-ray machines on any given day in Baghdad, so I decided to count en route to the airport to fly out of Iraq for a break. The total was surprising, especially considering the griping that goes on in U.S. airports where people go through perhaps two checks before boarding flights. In Baghdad, you go through at least eight.

The first check is the easiest. It occurs a few miles from the airport terminal and marks the spot where regular civilian vehicles are no longer allowed on the road. Only taxis and other vehicles with special passes are permitted past this point, and a man squawking through a loudspeaker allows vehicles to pass after their drivers have shown the proper pass. Between two rows of concrete blast barriers, people exit their cars, leaving the bags inside and the doors ajar. Contract workers guide bomb-sniffing dogs through the vehicles, encouraging them with ‘tsk tsk’ sounds. It’s the first search, so everyone is still in a good mood. The dogs help. Most people stand there with slightly dopey grins on their faces watching the animals trot down the rows of cars, their tongues hanging out and their fur ruffling in the breeze.

Once the cars are cleared, you move about a half-mile down the road to the next search spot. Here, cars sit in a parking lot while passengers drag their luggage into trailers for hand-searching. There is a trailer for men and a trailer for women. The women working at this checkpoint are exceptionally thorough and aggressive. The searcher tore through my suitcase, and through every smaller container inside it. She opened the shampoo bottle and sniffed it. She riffled through the cosmetic case and opened the powder compact. She poked through the jewelry pouch. She shook the bottle of Advil and opened it.

“Are you sick?” she said, peering curiously at me. She opened my checkbook. “What’s this?” she demanded.

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Then she frisked me with the subtlety of a competitive wrestler and, satisfied my bags and body held nothing lethal, sent me onto checkpoint No. 3.

At this point, you are inside the airport, about 200 feet from the terminal entrance, but there are still two searches to go. First, you place your bags on the ground for more dogs to sniff. While they are sniffing, you go through another body frisk.

If cleared here, you approach the terminal door and checkpoint No. 4. There, a polite man with a submachine gun places your bags on an X-ray belt as you walk through a metal detector. This is my favorite search. It’s the only one where anyone helps you lift your bags. Sometimes, a hand search is conducted on the other side of the X-ray machine.

At checkpoint No. 5, it begins to feel a lot like LAX or JFK. People are getting grumpy, having had their bodies and bags groped, prodded, stretched and smelled for the last 10 miles. Gray, plastic dishwashing bowls appear. People begin tearing off belts, watches, and coats. Laptops come out of bags. Passengers try to remain dignified while bending to pull off their shoes. Bags and people go through the X-ray machines and emerge at the other end, partially clothed and disheveled but one checkpoint closer to flying.

No. 6 is simple. Having checked in and gone through passport control, you have your hand baggage searched before heading into the departure lounge.

Once the flight is called, you go through search No. 7: another X-ray machine, another body-search, another search of hand baggage. Then, it’s onto the bus toward the plane and one last search, conducted on the runway under the watch of armed guards. Here, perhaps, is the most rigid search and the most infuriating. It can also be unnerving. Mortars have been known to land on the airport runway. In summer, the heat on the tarmac is well above 125 degrees. In winter, the cold wind blasts hair, scarves, and sometimes boarding passes into the air. Nobody is immune from having their hand luggage sorted through, and the wait can be 10 minutes or longer depending on how many people are ahead of you, and how big their bags are.

After the handbag search, one last body-frisk follows. Men must stand at the foot of the airplane steps, arms held perpendicular to their bodies, while they are patted down. Women are granted the dignity of an indoor search, in the airplane cabin nook where the coffee maker is kept.

With traffic tie-ups and body-searches, it had taken four hours to reach this point, for a flight that took 1 hour and 20 minutes and that ended with … another search, this one to gain access to the airport terminal in Amman, Jordan.

— Tina Susman in Baghdad


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