10 March 2004
A drive to the former Saddam Hussein International Airport to meet a colleague. Palm trees cut down on the airport road by the Americans to deprive snipers of cover, the wood given free of charge to Iraqis who sell it in turn to bakeries in Baghdad.
In a dusty car park, I find eight recruits to the new Iraqi army, standing to attention in uniforms that would do credit to a takeaway. Some are in the clothes of the old Iraqi army of the 1960s, heavy khaki that just might have once been British, a few old camouflage fatigues. Two have beards, two are giggling and one stares forlornly at his Iraqi officer, a fat man smoking a cigarette with three large golden stars on his shoulders. "Attention!" The eight men put their hands to their sides, holding plastic bags of clothes.
An American soldier with "Wilkins" written on his helmet and with an "Old Ironsides" badge on his sleeve - Old Ironsides was the most shelled gunboat of the American civil war - is watching this parade. "When I see this," he says to me, "I don't like what I see." When I suggest that I'd rather have my job than his, he grins. "I bet you would," he says.
The men march through a dust storm to a prefabricated building and halt. Mr Wilkins turns to the two Iraqi officers, the fat man with the stars and a thin, stooped youth with a tiny moustache, and asks them to board the truck to the airport. The man with the stars says he wants to go to the building where the soldiers are. "Get on the truck," says Mr Wilkins. The man with the stars repeats that he wants to go to the building. "Please get on the truck," Mr Wilkins says kindly and he gently wafts his clipboard towards them. "Get on the truck." He is obeyed, slowly. Then he turns to look at me. "And these," he says meaningfully, "are the officers."
I come across a Nepalese with a rifle over his shoulder, one of the armies of mercenaries now employed by the Americans - let us not call them sandbags - to secure the airport perimeter. He sleeps at the airport and has been here for five months. Does he like it, I ask? "Boring but not much sleep," he smiles. "Too many mortars and too much gunfire."
Overhead, a four-engined military transport aircraft is groaning into the sky, turning tight 1,000-metre circles to keep outside missile range. Go over the 1,000 metres and you can be hit. It streams four dirty fuel trails behind its engines as they fight to gain height.
At the terminal stands an American officer in his forties, a lieutenant colonel in civvies but with a flak jacket covered with camouflage cloth. And how does he like the airport? "We're leaving here soon. We're leaving the airport. The Iraqis are taking over." In other words, I suggest, the Americans are going to let the Iraqi army or the Iraqi "Civil Defence" or any of the other fancy Iraqi outfits being trained by the Americans, take the nightly fire of the resistance here? "That's pretty much it," he said.
I don't entirely believe this. The US occupation forces fly their transports into Baghdad airport and won't leave their security to Iraqis. But they could let the new Iraqi army do the dirty work, hunting and patrolling in the grass and muck outside the 1,000 metre perimeter at night, guarding the perimeter wire, withdrawing the massive US presence to save American lives.
And then I remember that most famous of dates - 30 June - when Iraq's "sovereignty" will be handed over by the Americans to the American-appointed Iraqi "Governing Council", and it begins to make sense. The Americans aren't leaving on 30 June, of course; they are retreating to secure barracks. The airport will become an Iraqi responsibility. Iraqis will risk their lives to defend it from the "resistance".
And it dawns on me that this will happen in a thousand other areas of Iraq. The dams on the Euphrates west of Fallujah, the walls of the old RAF Habbaniya airbase which is now home to the 82nd Airborne, the street patrols in Baghdad. Even now, you see fewer US patrols in the old Caliphate capital. No bad thing for a people who don't want to be occupied.
But the Americans are not leaving Iraq and the Iraqis know this. On my way back to Baghdad, I see two of the new recruits in the middle sandswept parade ground. They are taking their military trousers down and pulling on jeans, right there in front of the Americans. Time to go home for the night, the war over for another 12 hours. Until the Americans leave. Why does this remind me of Afghanistan?