IRAQ EXPLOSION
Darko Bandic  /  AP
Smoke rises following an explosion in the heavily protected 'Green Zone' that hosts the U.S. and the British embassies and the Iraqi interim government, in Baghdad, on Monday.  
By Producer
NBC News
updated 1/24/2005 3:34:07 PM ET 2005-01-24T20:34:07

Heavy fighting outside Baghdad International Airport prevented two Royal Jordanian passenger planes from landing on Monday. Mortar shells struck an Iraqi National Guard camp near the airport. There were no reports of casualties in the attack, but it was just one of several that have occurred in the lead up to the all-important national elections that are scheduled for Sunday.

On board the aircraft was NBC News Producer Madeleine Haeringer, who was headed to Baghdad with a team to begin reporting on elections. Haeringer explains the problems that prevented them for successfully reaching Baghdad and how they are typical of the unpredictability of the environment in Iraq.  

What happened when you tried to fly to Baghdad today?
We were scheduled to fly out of Amman on a 7 a.m. flight, going directly into Baghdad airport. It’s about an hour-and-a-half long flight, like a quick shuttle from D.C. to New York.

We got on the flight, got over Baghdad Airport with no incident around 8:15 a.m. The captain got on the loudspeaker and said that we were about to land in Baghdad and gave the usual warning that he was going to execute a number of spiral-fashion turns before landing at Baghdad Airport. They do that to avoid being hit by rockets, so they sort of warn everyone to brace themselves for the nosedive in. About 10 minutes later the captain got back on the loudspeaker and said, “I regret to inform you that we are returning to Amman due to military operations over Baghdad. The Baghdad Airport is closed.” That was pretty much it, that was all we knew.

So we returned back to Amman. We tried again the same flight at 11:45 a.m., which is a scheduled flight, and the same exact thing happened. We flew out over Baghdad and they said due to military operations they couldn’t land and they flew back. So, a lot of flying time in the air without getting to our destination.

How did passengers find out later about the problems really were?
Outside of the statement that there were “military operations,” we were sitting in the airport with no computer access, so we didn’t know what was going on. We used an international phone to call our bureau in Baghdad and they told us that they had heard that there had been some mortar attacks around the airport. I believe that turned out to be at the Iraqi National Guard headquarters over there. We just didn’t know what the nature of it was, but obviously there is always the daily possibility that there will be attacks at the airport and along airport road. Whenever you head out in the plane there is certainly never a guarantee that it’s going to land. This isn’t the first time that this happened.

Was there a sense of nervousness onboard?
The flight was largely composed of journalists and media workers who are headed out to cover the elections. So, these are people that have been in Iraq before and have been in numerous war zones before. I think there is a lot more nervousness once you land in the airport and you have to drive on the airport road than there is getting into Baghdad itself. It pales in comparison to the daily fears that surround Iraqis with roadside bombings and mortar attacks and all that. So the press just sort of chuckled, buckled down and decided to see what was going to happen. There is never any guarantee that you are going to get into Baghdad.

What kind of people, apart from media, fly into Baghdad these days?
The plane was full of almost all media people. There seemed to be a few officials — I’m not sure if they were Jordanian or Iraqi. But the other passengers seemed to be almost all journalists.

What do you think the security problems even getting to Iraq say about the upcoming elections?
All of Iraq right now, even some of the most populated areas, are unsafe and considered too dangerous to vote. So, as far as security concerns getting into the country are far less than the concerns once you are actually there. The press and the media have become an increased target. There is always the threat of suicide bombing and gun battles and certainly journalists have become prime targets for kidnappers, but that’s something that is taken very seriously when you weigh the decision to go in there. We are provided with heavy security and you just can’t take risks.

So is this just another example of the difficulty of covering this story?
It is. How the media is going to get the real story of the Iraqi elections; it is going to be very difficult to cover. The security within the country is going to be very tight, the polling stations are only being revealed at the last moment, they are shutting down roads around the polling stations, they are taking a lot of security measures such as cutting off cell phones. It’s very difficult to get around Baghdad and Iraq now and it’s going to be even more so during the election. It’s going to be very challenging to get a very accurate overview of how the elections are going.

Madeleine Haeringer is an NBC News Producer. She is en route to Baghdad to cover the Iraqi elections scheduled for this Sunday.

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