Corkscrew Over Baghdad

U.S. army Sgt. Kenneth Kratman from Fredericksburg, Va., is giving the security brief as his convoy gets ready for the 20-minute run to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). It's bad enough, he tells his men, that guerrillas are "daisy-chaining" explosive devices along the highway. Now there's a new tactic: they follow up the explosions with small-arms fire. "If the first vehicle is hit," he says, "I'm in the second vehicle and I'll ram you and push you 100 meters ahead. Take cover and wait for the Quick Reaction Force."

Minutes later the convoy barrels down the Airport Expressway in midmorning at 90 miles an hour, weaving through traffic. Kratman drives his Ford Explorer SUV with one hand and keeps his .45 automatic pointed out the window with the other, leveling it at any Iraqi he sees. A Latvian soldier is riding shotgun with an AK-47 poking out. This time the convoy clears the main checkpoint before the airport without incident. But Kratman makes no excuses for his precautions: he has already lost one buddy to an ambush in Baghdad, and he's been shot at twice himself.

Pilots coming into BIAP have just as daunting an approach. They stay at a relatively high altitude, then bank hard and come down in what's called a corkscrew landing. That's because people have been trying to shoot them down. According to security reports by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), assailants fired missiles at military aircraft 21 times as of August--always missing, probably because they were too far away. Even some of the larger planes, like DHL's daily Boeing 707 cargo flight, spiral down immediately over the well-guarded runways. "You should see them put that thing on its wing," says Scott Custer, partner in Custer Battles (no kidding), a private American security company that guards the civilian airport. "You wouldn't think a 707 could do that."

The United States is hoping that a new U.N. resolution, which authorizes a multinational force and sets some guidelines for fostering a democratic government in Iraq, will help spur international action to rebuild the country. But the key for progress, everyone agrees, is better security. And nothing in Iraq is as emblematic of the Coalition's successes and failures than Baghdad International Airport.

With generous grants from USAID, the civilian Terminal C has been restored to the spare-no-expense splendor of 1991, the last time it was in regular use. "I've been to a lot of other airports nowhere near as pretty as this one," says Robert Wayne, a former Delta pilot who is the CPA's senior aviation adviser. BIAP, he adds, is more than twice as big as LAX, capable of handling millions of passengers a year. Last week Terminal C went into use for the first time, accepting a couple dozen charter flights a day, mostly small planes with contractors and aid workers. Yet Iraq is still the only country in the world without any commercial-airline service, and Baghdad is the only capital city, aside from Mogadishu, where local residents cannot fly in or out.

CPA head L. Paul Bremer has refused to allow the airport to open for fear of a lucky hit on an incoming airliner, sources close to him say. At least 5,000 shoulder-fired SAM-7 missiles are still missing from Saddam's stockpiles. Some Coalition officials think the risk is overstated, but it's hard to persuade nervous insurance companies.

Last week Terminal C was all prettied up, but also pretty darn empty. Even the few incoming passengers weren't allowed to visit the duty-free shop. Concessionaire Ahmed Kazzaz, an Iraqi from Kurdistan, made do selling Havana cigars to American soldiers, and alcohol to Coalition officials (soldiers aren't allowed to drink). "We have to wait for the right time," Kazzaz said. "God forbid 300 passengers fall out of the sky; that would be a real disaster." In the meantime BIAP will remain more a symbol of the limits of American occupation than of Iraq's new opening to the world.