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IRAQ: Bird’s eye view of an empty, wounded city

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By Saad Khalaf in Baghdad

It was my first time ever in a helicopter, and I was both excited and a little worried. I’m not afraid of flying, but the low-flying U.S. Army Blackhawk choppers are frequent targets for insurgent missiles.

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Still, I jumped at the chance last summer to accompany Baghdad Bureau Chief Tina Susman on a short tour of American bases near Baghdad.

(View the photos.)

My wife of one year, Zina, was even more worried than me. She had just given birth to our daughter, Toqa, one month before and she asked me not to go.

‘No, I want to see this,’ I said.

We set out at night from the guarded compound that houses the L.A. Times bureau and spent the night inside the Green Zone to make our morning flight.

My first difficulty came as soon as we strapped into the Blackhawk seats. The noise inside is deafening, so all passengers wear earphones in order to communicate over the intercom system.
But I couldn’t fully wear the earphones because of lingering nerve damage on the right side of my face.

I was one of several L.A. Times employees wounded on New Year’s Eve 2003 when a suicide car bomber struck the Baghdad restaurant where we had gathered for a celebratory dinner. I’ve been through three operations since then, and the nerves around my right eye may never fully heal.

From the Green Zone’s heli-pad, we took a short flight to a U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport to pick up our guest of honor — Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. Lynch would be visiting the soldiers at a pair of U.S. bases south of Baghdad, and we were along for the ride.

As we flew over Baghdad, I was shocked. The city was empty. There was a complete daytime curfew in place that day due to some sort of security alert; looking back, I can’t even remember what it was.
This was the first time I had ever seen Baghdad from the air, and it was strange to see my home city looking deserted.

The city also looked wounded and traumatized. From above, Baghdad’s scars are even more obvious.
I saw the concrete blast walls and roadblocks that crisscross one of the Arab world’s great cities. Buildings that were damaged in the war five years ago still sat unrepaired. Piles of garbage filled the streets in neighborhoods such as Ghazaliya and Ameriya, which had witnessed recent street battles.

It all made me feel sad and frustrated. I felt like there were very few tangible results to show from the last five years of bloodshed.

We flew south over the desert toward a U.S. base. I noticed that the soldier manning the Blackhawk’s side-guns became extra alert at one point, which of course made me even more worried, wondering just what he was worried about.

At the base, we watched the general greet several soldiers, pass out certificates and thank the troops for their bravery. The whole thing took about 90 minutes. Tina interviewed Gen. Lynch while I wandered around, then we were off to another base.

When I returned home to Baghdad, I told my father what I had seen and how it made me feel.

He told me he still believed Iraq would recover from its traumas.

‘We just need more time and a stronger government,’ he said.

View the photos.


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