Cover Story

FROM DICTATORSHIP TO DEVELOPMENT

Rome wasn't built in a day, and Baghdad hasn't come back in a year. But with the anniversary of Saddam's toppling a promise emerges: Ordinary life -- despite the continuing spasms of terrorism -- may be thinkable again

Issue: "Iraq: Liberation Day 2004," April 10, 2004

On a clear day the civilian flights into Baghdad seem almost to hover over the runway before corkscrewing down to land. On descent, defense contractors, relief workers, and others onboard gain stomach-churning, concentric views of the landscape they have come to master. It's a baked-clay desert stretching endlessly to the horizon, save for three palace compounds visible from the air near the runways. Icons to Saddam's self-absorption, they are typical of the 70 or so he built around Iraq -- octagonal atria, marble expanses, vast halls and ramparts surrounded by lakes and moats.

As the sheer enormity of each complex comes gradually into view, aid workers see perhaps the first real evidence of the work cut out for them. War didn't destroy this country but Saddam Hussein did.

Consider:

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• Annual per capita income fell from a high of $2,500 in 1979 to under $1,000 in 2001.

• Electrical output fell from 5,500 average megawatts in 1992 to 4,400 in 2002.

• Under Saddam child mortality rates rose from 83 (per 1,000 live births) in 1980 to 125 in 1998.

The task of rebuilding a nation, one caught beneath the heel of a dictator and at war with someone or another for the last 25 years, is at once elemental and enormous. With the country preparing for its first Liberation Day April 9, Iraqis are fond of saying that with each new day, the good news gets better and the bad news gets worse.

For pilot Chris Erasmus, the route to Baghdad is a cakewalk compared to other war zones. "The airfield is flat and open. In Afghanistan we were plagued with the high altitude and bad weather."

Capt. Erasmus and his co-pilot, Rudolph Van Eden, fly the Amman-to-Baghdad route every day, and sometimes twice. Their employer is AirServ, a rare transport service that is both nonprofit and non-government. After someone fired a surface-to-air missile at a DHL freight plane on take-off from Baghdad's international airport late last year, AirServ found itself the only game in town. DHL escaped a lethal SAM hit but the incident grounded all nonmilitary flights except AirServ. Civilian contractors, relief workers, and a few journalists clamored for space on its 19-seaters to avoid the hazardous overland trek to Baghdad.

U.S. Air Force controllers, who monitor the airspace into Baghdad, permitted AirServ flights because its crews were already battle-tested. In addition to flying aid workers into Afghanistan, Capts. Erasmus and Van Eden have flown in Angola and Rwanda -- hot spots more challenging than the wide-open spaces and paved runways of Baghdad International. When UN headquarters were bombed last year, AirServ went to work alongside the military, evacuating about two dozen wounded to Jordan.

With the DHL hit a distant memory, AirServ pilots hold fast nonetheless to wartime tactics to avoid missile threats. They fly directly over the airport at about 15,000 feet, nose the plane down, bank it to 45 degrees, and spiral in for about 20 rotations to land. "It's quite safe," says Erwin Temmerman, AirServ's country director, "but no fun for the passengers."

Every day Central Command in Qatar e-mails slots to the pilots, designating a flight path (so they won't be shot down) and permission to land. Each slot comes with a disclaimer, Mr. Temmerman said. All flights -- no matter how humanitarian -- are entering a war zone. "It's our responsibility to make it in and out safely," he said. Asked if he's ever been fired on, Capt. Erasmus says, "We don't know. All I can say is we've never been hit."

AirServ is emblematic of hundreds of nonprofit groups and for-profit contractors at work in Iraq since the end of major combat. Figuratively speaking, they labor like modern-day Nehemiahs: one hand on a shovel, the other holding a spear.

To succeed they must fly below the radar, avoiding the sort of high profile that will lead to their becoming a terrorist target. At the same time they need the occasional splash to win financial and moral support back home and in the streets of Baghdad.

Some, like the troops, have been on the ground for a year enduring the regular water shortages, the blackouts, and the traffic snarls. Unlike the troops, most have to hire a security detail. Here where it matters most, their work is impervious to Washington battles du jour -- WMD intel, terrorist connections, coalition solidarity -- because the work simply must be done. They are racing against the clock, hoping to "revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish" before a June 30 handover to a new Iraqi government. At a Baghdad press conference on March 29, U.S. administrator Paul Bremer announced 2,300 new contracts for Iraq and predicted that 50,000 Iraqis will have jobs under U.S.-supported civilian contracts by the handover date.

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