The V.I.P. terminal of Baghdad International Airport is a clean and quiet place, about a quarter-mile removed from the noise and squalor of the main arrivals-and-departures hall. If you have the right connections and $150 — American dollars only — you can wait for your flight in comfort on one of the soft white leather couches, sipping an espresso and getting a close-up view of some of the colorful people who run today’s Middle East.
But even here, special treatment has its limits. On April 15 last year, a Qatari man arrived in the V.I.P. terminal on an evening flight from his country’s capital city, Doha. After identifying himself as a senior government envoy, he announced that he and his 14 colleagues, all dressed in crisp white ankle-length tunics called thobes, did not want their luggage inspected.
The Iraqis insisted, politely, that all bags must be screened, even in the V.I.P. terminal. The leader of the Qatari team was visibly shocked to hear this. He asked for time. The Qataris huddled for a quiet discussion and then made a number of phone calls. Eventually, they relented and allowed the bags to be screened. Each of them contained stacks of bricklike squares, wrapped in black tape that the scanner could not penetrate. When customs officials asked what was under the tape, the Qataris refused to say. The standoff lasted all night, and finally, near dawn, the exasperated Qataris gave in and drove to Baghdad without their luggage. It was only later that the Iraqis opened the 23 duffels and discovered a mix of dollars and euros, amounting to some $360 million. The bills alone weighed more than 2,500 pounds.