Frequent traveller: Pastures new

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    In which our correspondent is hugely heartened to find business returning to normal in Baghdad.

    The 90-minute flight from Amman to Baghdad is reassuringly normal until the last five minutes. It is then that the Boeing 737 plunges in a spiral from cruising altitude to an approach altitude. There¹s no announcement from the captain, but there have been no successful attacks against passenger aircraft at Baghdad airport since it reopened for business in 2003, so I try to feel reassured as we touch down.

    Immigration, baggage hall, customs and arrivals restore normality. I brush past reuniting families to be met by my security escort. There have been improvements in security over the past 12 months, but few if any foreigners can drive around Baghdad without a security team consisting of a pair of bullet-proof 4x4s and bodyguards, and they are waiting for me. I¹m used to arriving at strange airports and having to fend for myself when arrangements have fallen through, but I¹m very glad to see my welcoming committee as I walk out into the terminal. I¹m not sure my mobile phone works in Iraq.

    My escort is from the British company Control Risks and consists of “Mac”, a softly-spoken Irishman, and a team of Iraqis. I climb aboard the vehicle and Mac passes me body armour and a helmet. “Just in case,” he says, with a smile.

    We set off in a three-vehicle convoy. The road from the airport to the centre of Baghdad was once known as the most dangerous highway in the world, the journey on this three-lane motorway a terrifying race to avoid roadside bombs and shootings. Mac tells me that the level of attacks is now greatly reduced and the last incident took place in June.

    We are heading for the International Zone, a five-square-mile area in the centre of Baghdad, protected by high concrete walls and the sweeping bend of the River Tigris. It houses the US and many other Western embassies, plus the Iraqi parliament, an international hotel (The Rashid) and about 15,000 Iraqi civilians whose houses happen to have been enveloped by the imposition of the perimeter.

    I am staying in the Control Risks compound, which has rooms, restaurant, bar and bomb-proof shelters. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan, calm and bustling, and I even see some other businessmen also in residence.

    The next day, I have my first meeting in the “Red Zone”, the area outside the security of the International Zone. Into the armoured car again, on with the helmet and off we go. The traffic is much more congested than on the airport road and we find ourselves edging forward in a traffic jam.

    Strangely enough, the traffic parts for us as the Iraqi drivers move aside to let us through. I put this down to politeness, then realise it¹s because they don¹t want to be close to a target.

    Looking out of the window, my gaze meets the faces of the many Iraqis in their stalls and workshops strung out along the length of the street. All smile back, indicating my helmet, as though to say that it was not necessary. I¹m amused to find myself not scared but self-conscious at my headgear ­ but I keep it on.

    On arrival at my client¹s office, my host is standing at the entrance, better dressed than me and with far more charisma. He introduces me to his colleagues and we hold a joyously disorganised meeting which covers everything except work. My host, whom I have met many times outside Iraq, is ecstatic that I have made the effort to visit him in his home country and is delighted to be able to show me off to his colleagues.

    He then invites me to lunch and we move to the adjoining room, an office converted into a dining room in recognition that it is not safe for me to venture out to a restaurant. Lunch is Maskuf, the Baghdad speciality which is an enormous flatfish, caught in the River Tigris and grilled over wood.

    Work is completed over a meal with mouths full of moist fish and rice, and we bid farewell.

    The following day, I make the return journey to the airport and to the sequence of airport processing (check-in, security, immigration, even
    duty-free) that reflects normal business travel. I fly out on one of three aircraft operated by Iraqi Airways, whose original fleet remains impounded in Jordan and other neighbouring countries.

    It is a sign of the optimism surrounding Iraq that their flagship national carrier has placed orders with Boeing and Bombardier for a new fleet. If the security situation continues to improve, I expect these aircraft will be much in demand.

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