One man's job: getting Baghdad airport off the ground

Mike Douglas blows past the checkpoint, circumventing the long line of cars waiting to get over the city's July 14th bridge to reach coalition headquarters at the Republican Palace grounds. With a gun perched in its hip- holster, a muscle-ripped arm on the steering wheel, and a commanding composure, Mr. Douglas is waved on by a US soldier who glances at him, looks at his Department of Defense tag, and says, "Go ahead, sir."

His unflappable confidence - not to mention that flashing red light he keeps on the dashboard - are the kinds of things that make it possible for Douglas to do his job. As SkyLink's Middle East operations director, he is in charge of a linchpin of reconstruction: getting the airports in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul up and running again so that people and goods can move smoothly in and out of the country.

Douglas's company is practiced in bringing flight operations to some of the most difficult places on Earth, including war zones and third-world hot spots. "We get in where other people can't and get things done," says Douglas, whose Scottish brogue has been internationalized by a life on the road. "We don't normally look for glory, but I don't think there's been a humanitarian disaster in the last 15 years in which we haven't been involved."

For Douglas and his rare breed of contractors, there's a certain draw to doing what seems like mission impossible. Walking in his desert boots for a day has the feel, at times, of being dropped onto a set of James Bond meets Baghdad.

Donning dark glasses behind the wheel, he sits on his flak jacket in case he rolls over a land mine or explosive device. Each morning, he varies his route to throw off possible attackers.

Unlike most expatriates working here, he drives his own Land Rover, trusting the defensive techniques he's honed over years of dodging danger more than the skills of the average driver. And he insists that a guest take the back seat: If he has to draw his gun, he doesn't want an unarmed person sitting in his line of fire.

Once he gets into the palace, however, Douglas picks up an armed Nepalese man in military uniform, who sits up front and stays near Douglas's side for most of the day. Kalu Gurung is one of several ex-British Army Gurkhas, a special unit of Nepalese whose members have been recruited to serve in the Queen's ranks for nearly 250 years. Douglas says he couldn't do the job without them.

Douglas' tasks, for which SkyLink has an $17.5 million contract from USAID, loom large. At the 35-square-mile airport, formerly known as Saddam International, passenger terminals were damaged by serving as a camp for US soldiers during the invasion of Baghdad. Since sanctions put an end to commercial traffic after 1991, save a trickle of flights that came in after 2000 in defiance of the restriction, equipment was obsolete: There were no computers, no automation. Neither were there any Iraqis with the skills necessary to run a more advanced air terminal.

Even the remaining 727s and 747s belonging to Iraqi Airways are rusting on the tarmac. Unusable, they're serving as models for training emergency rescue workers.

Everything's ready - but not secure

To open, the airport will need to put new customs and immigration policies in place, renew agreements with neighboring countries, and secure deals with commercial carriers. But the runways have been repaired and one terminal is ready to go.

The biggest barrier to putting Baghdad International back on the map is security.

Seventeen thousand troops live or work on the grounds of the airport, which has the capacity to handle 7.5 million passengers a year. The military presence may help explain why the facility is still coming under antiaircraft and mortar fire fairly regularly. Even the roads leading to the airport are considered unsafe by security analysts monitoring Baghdad.

"People here are very much ready to start," says Imad Ibrahim, director of air transportation for the Iraqi civil aviation authority. He works across the hall from SkyLink and Bechtel, which has been contracted to do all of the physical reconstruction work here, such as installing new landing and lighting systems. "It's mainly for security reasons," says Mr. Ibrahim."This is the only reason for the holdup."

As of now, the airport only takes flights from the military, the UN, and one or two 15-seat propeller planes a day carrying aid workers. For others, the roads in and out of the country, as well as major routes inside, are plagued with robberies as well as violent attacks.

Douglas is optimistic about getting to the point where people - especially investors - can get in and out of Iraq safely; He's seen it happen before. "As soon as the airport's up and running, it's like, 'Ding!' They say it's OK and they'll come."

But inside the one terminal that is ready - the other still needs major work - Douglas stops to talk to the Iraqi vendor who took over the shattered duty-free store, giving it a face-lift and filling it with sparkling luxury products. There's an eerie feeling looking out into the waiting lounge, a lonely shop without shoppers.

'I need it this week'

Still, that's the least of Douglas's troubles. He spends much of his day on the move, trying to negotiate ways to transfer cash, people, and equipment safely. Without secure roads or a working banking system, it's difficult to move his staff around and get subcontractors paid.

This week, he's trying to bring in refueling trucks, but moving them from Britain via Kuwait presents one predicament; then there's the security risk of getting them from Kuwait to Baghdad.

"Things aren't happening in procurement, period," he complains to a handful of staff members at a meeting, as they sit on the former palace's ornate armchairs and couches. "We need to have a process that works more quickly."

Understandably, perhaps, Douglas isn't a man who likes wasting time. As he pulls up one morning on the airport outskirts, he again skirts the line of cars waiting to go through a checkpoint run by a private security firm. But he stops for a more important checkpoint about 100 feet ahead, run by the US Army.

With his trim physique, short-cropped hair, and arm tattoo, Douglas is easily taken for a soldier. Yet, he says, his biggest security concern is getting hit by friendly fire.

Douglas's dark hair means it's also not impossible for him to pass as an Iraqi. In one of his closest calls, an Apache helicopter hovered over him and his Gurkha employee for 10 minutes as they tried to hook up a satellite dish on a balcony of the Sheraton Hotel just after the war; the pilots were trying to decide if Douglas was rigging up an explosion. Recent incidents, like the mistaken killing of eight Iraqi policemen by US soldiers September in Fallujah, show that a simple communications lapse can turn into a disaster. In August, two civilian contractors were killed in attacks by Iraqis.

What family life?

It can be stressful - but then, Douglas never was going to be a desk man. He grew up in Zambia, and was told he took after his great-grandfather, a British soldier who served in World War I and throughout the British Empire. But crisis-hopping has taken a toll. His first wife couldn't stand the fact that he kept skipping town for a little war on 12 hours' notice.

"I've had 101 broken romances since then," he says. But now he is engaged: He says he has found someone who understands. He and his fiancée, who works at SkyLink's offices in Kuwait, hope to be married by Christmas.

In the meantime, Douglas works 18-hour days, when he counts the two to three hours of conference calls he sits in on each night. He doesn't even make time to hang out in what the other guys have dubbed "The Mortar Bar" at the top of the airport control tower.

"I have days when I think, 'it's too much, man.' I've kind of used up my nine lives," he says. "I don't look for it. It just comes and finds me."

Then he thinks again. "It is like an adventure. There's an adrenaline rush," he says, looking over his shoulder before speeding off down another dicey road. "It's very difficult when you've been doing this to go and do something normal."

SkyLink Air and Logistics Support (USA)

• The aviation company is based in Washington, D.C.

• The firm was awarded $2.5 million initially to bring airports in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul back online, and has been approved for another $15 million. It may also be tapped to work on other airfields in Iraq.

• SkyLink has operated in 50 countries. It has a staff of 16 in Baghdad.

Source: USAID, SkyLink

Second of three parts. Tomorrow: Ensuring that Iraqis have clean water.

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