In and out of Iraq with Wiley

WASHINGTON"" The last time I was in Baghdad, I'd gone to fetch my dog. Wiley had stayed with me for most of the two years I'd been based in Iraq as a reporter, and now, 10 months after my departure, it was time for Wiley to leave, too.

But as my taxi pulled up to Baghdad International Airport, with Wiley in a plastic kennel propped sideways in the open trunk, I worried about what lay ahead. We'd arrive at the airport, and I'd be thrust, I feared, into a role I did not want but could not avoid &

the American carrying her dog away from a war zone while desperate Iraqis had no way out.

We all try to pretend day-to-day that our differences of nationality, race and class don't matter to us, but airports in war zones have a way of making clear that they do. When it's time to go, what passport you have in your hand and how much money you have in your wallet are matters of life and death, a haves-vs.-have-nots wedge that most people stateside don't ever experience.

OK, you 26 million Iraqis living in daily mortal fear for yourselves and your children &

y'all hang tight! American chick with her Australian shepherd? You're good to go, little lady!

Setting Wiley's cage on the airport sidewalk, I felt a familiar tension. I was determined to take care of my dog, my responsibility. But I pictured myself succumbing to the disorder of the crowded and corrupt Baghdad airport, trampling desperate Iraqis to push Wiley's kennel onto the plane, and exposing my pretense of the past two years of being more or less the Mother Teresa of all Iraq.

A woman I encountered in West Africa, in Liberia in 2003, laid bare the hypocrisy of it all. Standing at the doorway to the Monrovia airport terminal, watching the mayhem of evacuation, she loudly made known her misery at being trapped while the fortunate scurried to safety.

Liberia's venal and vicious president, Charles Taylor, had just fled the country. The next day, as rebels kept up their advance on the capital, fleeing members of Taylor's family and regime converged on the airport. So did foreign journalists, leaving a story that had peaked.

Huddled against the terminal building for shelter from a pelting rain, Liberian villagers had flocked to the airport, too, hoping for protection against the rebels.

Just ahead of me in line was a noisy, frantic entourage. A kinswoman of Taylor's was fleeing, with her family and her flunkies. At the tail end of their group was a man lugging a plastic dog carrier. Inside was a poodle, its fur clipped and pompommed and dyed bright blue. The dog's indigo toenails skittered inside the cage.

At the sight of the blue poodle, the woman at the airport door wailed more loudly, outraged at the dog's advantage.

"Lord, the white people are leaving, and they're taking even their dogs! Even the dogs can get out!" she cried. "Lord, what about us? What about us people?"

Later, when our plane landed in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the dog cage came out on the luggage belt, listing at a sharp angle, on the verge of tumbling to the floor. It's not the dog's fault it's blue, I told myself, as the pet circled slowly on the conveyor belt, its blue toenails clawing for purchase.

You could straighten the cage, I told myself. But I stayed put with the other passengers, coldly eyeing the circuiting blue poodle.

Taking Wiley with me to Baghdad had been the best of a gamut of bad pet-care options. When I'd left Dakar, Senegal, my previous posting, I'd paid my old house guards to take care of her, but when I returned on a visit I found her wasting away. And I'd had bad luck before in farming pets out to family or friends.

In Baghdad, at first, Wiley struggled to adjust. She had no experience of sectarian warfare. She would freeze like a rookie, hunkering where she stood in the yard, when a car bomb blew up nearby or a mortar round landed.

But Wiley settled in. She spent her time in the garden, where a plaster Greek lady stood pouring empty air from a broken fountain ever since U.S. troops rolled in and the owners of the house fled. Through the Iraq summers, Wiley would lie panting in the flower bed. When two truck bombs blew up outside our compound one day, we used the same flower bed to bury an elbow that came flying into our yard.

When something blew, Wiley learned to scramble inside the bureau, where several of us worked and lived. As soon as a boom shook our house, the dog would be indoors among us.She would twine herself around my legs as Americans and Iraqis dashed around, all of us trying to figure out what had just been hit, the more traditional among the women staffers hitting the floor in a faint. Wiley would lock her eyes on mine, beseeching mercy in the way dogs do.

I imagined her suggesting, respectfully: "Bomb shelter? Flight out? Dig a hole under the house with our paws?"

the end of my Baghdad tour, I thought Iraq was well on its way to blue-poodle time. Car bombs. Chaos. Bodies dumped on the streets.

The day I flew out a year ago saw yet another in the daily stream of refugees that had taken 2.5 million Iraqis out of the country since American troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in April 2003. I was leaving Wiley behind at the bureau with colleagues for the time being, until I found a home in Cairo, my new posting.

At the airport, Iraqi families and their swollen suitcases lined the sidewalk outside the terminal. Mothers and fathers held the hands of little girls dressed in white and pink, ruffled to the last inch of their visible being. The children wore their best for their flight into refugee status.

Security rules dictated that travelers had to line up hundreds of feet from the terminal, waiting to be called behind the concrete blast walls where dogs would sniff their luggage for explosives.

A "Mad Max" array of mostly white, mostly Western security contractors pulled up to the airport in waves of armored SUVs, some with sirens wailing. Their gunners squatted in the open backs. Sunglasses blanked out their expressions. They were the "trunk monkeys" &

security contractor parlance for the gunmen who ride in the back of convoys, aiming their weapons at the Iraqi civilians on the road. Other gunmen poked their heads out the hatches of steel-plated trucks.

The vehicles offloaded mercenaries rotating out of Iraq on their six-week break. Many of the contractors lugged dog kennels. Guard dogs and sniffer dogs that had done their time in Iraq were headed home.

There was a bark, and a scream. A German shepherd had snapped at a young Iraqi woman standing in line. The woman fell back into the arms of her friends. A contractor tugged the dog's leash and spoke sharply to it. He didn't look at the gasping Iraqi woman or speak to her.

Another contractor stepped out of his vehicle, his half-eaten breakfast in a foam container. Smiling, he crouched down and handed his leftovers to a little boy waiting in line. For most Westerners, their trips in and out of the airport would be their only chance to interact with an Iraqi family not at gunpoint.

Puzzled, the boy's middle-class mother took the box of leftovers from the boy, to be polite. She looked at the carton of milk with it. She shrugged, bemused at the ways of Westerners here, and at why he thought her family needed food.

"BLACKWATER? BLACKWATER?" an American woman bellowed at the head of the line. And Blackwater employees moved forward, showed their IDs and moved up the line.

As the Westerners jumped the line, an Iraqi businessman with teeth mottled by tobacco pulled out his Iraqi national ID card, known as his "genzia." He joked to the people around him in the line.

"Hey, I've got an ID!" he said. "Doesn't this count?"

Apparently not. All Westerners working in Iraq have some form of security clearance and IDs that give them access in U.S.-occupied Iraq. Most Iraqis don't.

Other Iraqi men pulled out their national ID cards. They wiggled the cards about. They asked each other rhetorical questions about whose country it was.

They were just kidding. After four years of occupation, with Americans banning Iraqis from base swimming pools and shunting them to separate portable toilets, Iraqis knew all too well whose country it was.

As morning wore on, I could see only two other Westerners still in the line, right ahead of me. They were graying American contractors, chatting with each other, comparing the rigors of child-support laws in various U.S. states.

The line had all but stopped moving, owing to so many Westerners cutting in. Rules ought to apply to everyone, the two contractors said. It wasn't right, they said.

My heroes, I thought. My child-support-evading heroes.

I had spent 21 months in Baghdad. I stayed in line. My plane left. I had to get a later flight.

Finally, in October, I went back to Baghdad to bring out Wiley. My cousins in Oklahoma had agreed to take her, and it seemed the best option.

Back in Baghdad after 10 months away, our bureau seemed more than ever a medium-security prison. Almost all of our Iraqi staffers had moved in. Traveling to and from work had become too dangerous. At night they slept 10 or more to a room.

Baghdad was much quieter. I was there 48 hours and heard only one boom that could have been a bomb, no gunfire, and only one or two of the military and mercenary helicopters that used to fly over our place.

It seemed the silence of a dead city. Blast walls encased entire districts, sarcophagi for dead neighborhoods.

Iraqi staffers made uncharacteristic jokes about smuggling themselves out in my suitcases &

only this time, hiding in my dog kennel and flying cargo to Oklahoma with Wiley. They were normally incredibly stoicl and must have been miserable to expose themselves that way.

But hiding in suitcases was about the only way Iraqis could make it to the United States. The Bush administration had promised to take in more Iraqi refugees over the last year. But the week I was in Baghdad, it announced how many Iraqis it had managed to allow in:1,600.

Syria, which had taken in hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, announced that same week new visa restrictions for them. More than ever, Iraqis had nowhere to run.

And yet, here I was, worried about getting Wiley out. Her kennel would be too heavy for me to handle by myself. I was afraid I'd pull out my ID, barrel to the front of the line and make my earlier, sullenly principled stand just empty posturing. Never send to know for whom the blue poodle barks; it barks for thee.

But as it turned out, the airport was no trouble. A colleague helped me get a trolley for Wiley's kennel. The security line was short. Almost everyone followed the rules.

When I arrived back in Cairo, I received an e-mail from one of my cousins in Oklahoma. The subject line was "ugh." It had been a hard e-mail for him to write.

Wiley had disappeared, my cousin wrote. Weeks of searching the neighborhood and dog pounds had failed to find her.

Mountain lions, my cousin suggested. Speeding cars.

Last seen in the back seat of a limousine, I told myself, eating foie gras out of a tin and heading for the home of a new owner &

certainly not me &

who could keep her alive.

Believed to be hoofing it cross-country, trying to get back home, to safety, to Baghdad.

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