At Large

The Baggage Room in Baghdad

American rules can have unintended consequences. It's not too late to change them.

By 11.22.05

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BAGHDAD -- I have just flown back to Baghdad from London after a one-week visit. On the return trip the airline lost my baggage. I returned to Baghdad Airport the next day to see if anything had turned up. With very low expectations, I went to the lost-and-found room and showed my baggage check to a short, middle-aged, not very athletic looking woman. She checked against a list she was holding, and quickly informed me that my bag had arrived that morning and was in the baggage room.

Her way to the baggage room required that she get over a two-foot wall that enclosed her work area. She managed to get atop the wall by first getting on a chair then stepping onto the wall. Then, as any gentleman would, I offered her my hand to ensure she didn't break an ankle or a leg on her way down. She immediately withdrew her hand and said: "If my husband sees you touch me he will kill you!" I replied with a question: "And what if he doesn't see it?" She smiled, gave me her hand and stepped down, nearly falling over in spite of my help.

We then went to the nearby baggage room and in pretty short order found my bag. I was struck by the fact this room contained well over 1,000 suitcases, duffle bags, and overstuffed backpacks. In amazement I asked the woman: "What is this? Don't you ever return the luggage? What happened to all these people?"

"It's because of you Americans and your stupid rules! Most of these bags have been here for weeks and months!" she replied. She then informed me that I was looking at "well over a thousand pieces of 'lost' luggage." The problem for the poor owner of any of these bags (which aren't really "lost" at all) is that to return to the airport any time after his arrival he would need to pass through security. And the ONLY way to pass through security is to have a valid and fully paid airline ticket for a flight that day! These poor people can't afford to have all their capital tied up in airline tickets purchased simply to get into Lost and Found.

This is probably the unintended result of a well-meaning rule to keep the number of people coming into the airport to a minimum. Since Americans are generally in charge of security, it is possible that someone reading this dispatch might take notice of this rather incredible situation. It can't be that difficult to alter things so that these unlucky passengers can get their bags back without having to purchase airline tickets they will never use!

Such a solution would result in some badly needed favorable publicity for us as people who are problem solvers! It would also help to quiet the lady with the jealous husband who seemed absolutely delighted to be loudly broadcasting her views about the stupid Americans and their rules. I hope some alert American can quickly fix this rather ridiculous dilemma and very needless cause of friction!

IF THE LEVEL OF ACTIVITY at a flagship airport is any index of a country's economic condition, then Iraq is doing quite well. The BIAP continues to be very busy with flights coming in from Jordan, Egypt, Dubai, and any number of other countries in the Middle East.

Iraqi Airways (IA), the national airline with a fleet of old-fashioned 737's, has a reasonably good schedule of flights to most of the important destinations in Iraq and to some points in the Middle East. IA is about to initiate a once a week non-stop flight to London which, it's felt, will be the start of a long-term expansion of Iraq's international airline service.

In spite of this promising future, however, IA is starting to throw its weight around with a tiny one-plane airline called The Magic Carpet. The Rug, as this airline is known to its frequent customers, flies the only direct, non-stop service between Baghdad and Beirut, a service that IA does not provide. This is a valuable franchise because it enables a flier to get on his way to the major destinations in Europe without having to go through Amman, a very nice place but a nightmare of bureaucratic paperwork requirements. One avoids it as often as possible.

On a recent trip, I was introduced to how IA is dealing with this upstart competitor. I know, and everyone knows, that you don't carry sharp objects, penknives, loaded guns, or any other of the hundreds of items one can find posted on lists all over most airports. Four months ago on a previous flight, IA confiscated my Swiss Army knife which I had very stupidly forgotten to throw into my suitcase before leaving for the airport. This time, a much wiser fellow, I put my replacement Swiss Army knife, wrapped in a very nice plastic bag, in the corner of my large suitcase and checked it through. When I got halfway through the boarding process I was summoned by a woman who resembled a KGB agent. She was looking at an X-ray of my suitcase and pointing very excitedly at what was obviously my Swiss Army knife all cozy in its plastic bag. She started to interrogate me in Arabic and made it very clear I was violating the law even though I was loudly protesting that your unaccompanied suitcase is intended to be the place you put Swiss Army knives. This exchange quickly reached a very high decibel level. I was finally forced to unlock my suitcase and turn over the knife. When I asked her to whom she was planning to sell it, she became even angrier and, through a translator, made it known that even though I was an American in Iraq, there were ways to make my life unpleasant. The upshot of it was that they got my knife. This time I did not replace it at Harrods in London as I had done four months ago.

Standing quietly off to the side of this loud exchange was the legendary Captain Ayad, the 6 foot 7 inch pilot who gets The Rug to where it is going. After getting to the tarmac I helped Ayad load my suitcase (stripped of its Swiss Army knife) into the cargo hold at the back of the twin-engine, propeller-driven plane. He told me that the entire charade to which I had been subjected was orchestrated by Iraq Airways so that I would eventually throw in the towel and conclude that The Rug is not worth the extra aggravation. For reasons I don't understand, but which are blamed on "the Americans," IA does not fly to Beirut now but has plans to do so when "the Americans" allow it.

On the way back to Baghdad, IA raised the ante a bit further by arranging to have my flight cancelled altogether. They claimed, falsely, that The Rug had no landing rights in Baghdad. It was that cancellation that eventually caused me to have to fly back through Amman, at which point my baggage was not transferred to the Baghdad flight. Had it not been for this serendipitous event, my bag would not have been lost and I would have had no lead for this dispatch. In fact, I wouldn't even have met the woman who said her husband would kill me.

ELECTION DAY (IT SEEMS every day is Election Day in Iraq) is less than a month away. What is surprising is that I still don't hear the kind of news coverage such an event would call forth at home. I have asked all my friends if they intend to vote and this time all have said they will, including the ones who did not vote at all a month ago in the Constitutional Plebiscite. When I asked the several voters why they had finessed the prior election, their explanation was, very simply, that Iraq "doesn't need a Constitution."

The only name I hear much about here is Ayad Allawi, who has been my choice for over 6 months. But I don't sense a great deal of conviction about his name. I think, in part, this is because most Iraqis now seem resigned to a long period of daily violence extending well beyond the election. Many Iraqis tell me very frankly that they wonder whether giving up the relative "comfort, safety, and security" of Saddam has been worth "the apparently endless years of chaos" they now face.

This year has been one of dashed hopes for most Iraqis. After the great optimism and world wide excitement generated by the election last January, the rest of 2005 has been a period increasing violence, and increasing incursions of terrorists from Syria and from Iran.

Personally, I am concerned about the possible ramifications of the growing coziness between Iraq and Iran. The president of Iraq has a long association with Iran, where he spent many years while he was in exile. The first two months of 2006 will tell the tale of where things go from here.

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