Fly Dubai FZ211 bound for Baghdad was half empty compared to the flight to Jeddah that was scheduled to leave the same time from Terminal 4 of Dubai International. As the Boeing 737 taxied, the onboard entertainment system began showing “American Sniper.” Quite timely, I told myself. Is it an indication of things to come? In my bag was the book “Green Zone” that Chuchay and Butch Fernandez gave as a going away present.

My fellow passengers include Iraqi families and businessmen. There were some Americans, probably private military contractors, some Europeans, including a Russian, other Arabs and several Chinese-looking Asians. I am probably the only other Filipino on board. There was another one but I am not sure if she is Filipina. I think she arrived in the same flight from Manila. She looks Vietnamese actually.

There was one flight attendant who looks Filipina. I wonder what they will be doing in Baghdad. I guess all of them are all wondering what all of us will be doing there a few days after the Islamic State (ISIS) overran Ramadi, capital of restive Anbar Province northwest of Baghdad.

I left Manila before midnight of Sunday, 23 May, a week after I was originally scheduled to go. My departure got delayed by the late issuance of my visa by the Iraqi Embassy. I was initially just supposed to spend 10 days in Manila for official consultations but ended up staying there for an extra week. The visa was supposed to be issued overnight but we failed to factor in a three-day holiday in Iraq, thus the delay. I had to have my flight rebooked twice as a result.

I took advantage of the official time in Manila that was granted me to get as many briefings as possible from the various stakeholders in government–from the Department of Foreign Affairs itself as well as the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration and several others. All the consultations gave me a better sense of what my role would be once I assume in Baghdad.

I also had a tactical shooting refresher course courtesy of Col. Arnel Duco, our former Air Force Attaché at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C., who was now the Deputy Commander of the 710th Special Operations Wing of the Philippine Air Force based at Clark Field.

A week before my departure, ISIS launched a major offensive against Iraqi security forces in Ramadi. ISIS had the provincial capital under siege since last year but it has been kept at bay. That was until last week when ISIS, taking advantage of a sandstorm, sent out waves of suicide truck bombs against government positions. Militants in police uniforms also successfully penetrated the city. Others were said to have gained access through tunnels that went under Ramadi. The onslaught forced the Golden Division, supposedly Iraq’s most elite military unit, to abandon Ramadi and allow ISIS to dig in and establish positions within an hour from Baghdad.

“How can you withstand an attack from people who are willing to sacrifice themselves and die for a cause they fiercely believe in?” This was the thought that I kept asking myself as I took the final leg of my journey to what was ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.

It was a Fly Dubai flight a few months ago that received small arms fire as it was landing at Baghdad International. Several rounds hit the plane and penetrated the cabin, wounding one passenger. That incident forced Emirates, Etihad and other airlines to stop flying the route. Newsweek had reported that there have been other unreported cases of small arms fire directed at aircraft taking off or landing at Baghdad. This is one reason why many pilots reportedly would not want to fly into Bagdad anymore.

The Iraqi Government said the rounds that hit the Fly Dubai flight were from celebratory gunfire that has been a custom among locals. Even then, the risk does not only come from small arms fire. There is always the risk of aircraft getting hit by surface to air missiles. ISIS is believed to have some in its possession as indicated in the shoot down of the Jordanian Air Force F16 that led to the capture and eventual execution by fire of its pilot.

As we flew high over Iraq, I could barely make out details of the landscape from up above.  I wondered how the plane will land. But everything looks peaceful from up here.

As we flew high over Iraq, I could barely make out details of the landscape from up above.  I wondered how the plane will land. But everything looks peaceful from up here. 


It was a normal landing. I was expecting some sort of a rapid descent and a quick rough landing at Baghdad International Airport. But the approach and touchdown of FZ221 was uneventful. There was no small arms fire nor surface to air missiles to dodge. Welcome to Baghdad!

Andrei Bauzon, the junior officer who had kept watch over the Embassy as chargé d’affaires following Ambassador Edsel Barba’s resignation, was there to greet me at the immigration counter. He was accompanied by Jun Munji, the Embassy’s administrative officer. He had served in Jeddah during the time I was a reporter there for the Saudi Gazette. The plane was half full but it took more than 30 minutes before the conveyor belt released the two pieces of hard-case luggage I brought with me.

Outside, the rest of the Embassy staff waited. There was the Finance Officer, Joji Adaya; the Communications and Assistance to Nationals Officer, Donnie Fetalino; and the Consular and Protocol Officer Charles Garrido. The two Iraqi local hires were driving us that day. I boarded the grey Mercedes S-320 for the first time. The official car has seen better days. It’s as old as my daughter Elyse. It’s side mirrors were held by masking tape.

From the airport, we proceeded straight to the Embassy. Vice Consul Andrei suggested I meet everyone, especially the local hires—Bassim, Qaisser and Khalil. I met them when I visited Baghdad with Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rafael Seguis four years earlier. The Chancery was the same as it was during my first visit. A diplomatic police detachment remained outside, housed in a refurbished container van. The Embassy was also protected by 10-foot high wall to protect it against car bombs. One police officer is on duty per shift.

The Embassy, for all intents and purposes, looks like a bunker. It was a mess. There was really no serious effort to clean up since the Department decided to reopen it more than two years ago.

Inside, the Hesco sandbags are still in place to protect the Embassy from grenades and other explosives. Several chickens belonging to one of the caretakers were roaming the garden. The Embassy, for all intents and purposes, looks like a bunker. It was a mess. There was really no serious effort to clean up since the Department decided to reopen it more than two years ago.

Andrei prepared an Iraqi lunch of lamb and masgouf to welcome me. We were joined by the rest of the staff, the local hires and the two Filipino runaways who were waiting to be repatriated.

At 2 p.m., we decided to check into the hotel, the Babylon Warwick, one of the newest hotels in the capital. I checked into an upgraded room on the eighth floor, Room 823. The Warwick is located between Abu Nawas and Karada Streets and is just a few blocks from the Embassy. From the balcony of my room, I could see the Embassy of the United States and parts of Baghdad across the Tigris River.

View of the Green Zone across the Tigris River from Room 823 of the Babylon Warwick

Andrei and I later had coffee at the lobby where we met some of the Filipino staff. There were more than 20 of them working there. Andrei briefed me on the situation on the ground. ISIS continues to pose a serious threat, he said. Although it had taken control of many parts of Iraq, its fighters still have not been able to make it all the way to the capital. However, Andrei warned that ISIS sleeper cells are active in Baghdad where they carry out as many as four terrorist bombings per day.

“I hope they stay away from here,” I told Andrei.

“No worries, Sir,” he said. “This is the most secured location in Baghdad outside of the Green Zone.”

Sunday, 24 May 2015

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