January 30th, 2010
02:53 AM ET

Iraq and back: From the air, Baghdad could be Southern California

Editor's note: CNN White House correspondent Dan Lothian and producer Xuan Thai served as the pool for Vice President Biden's recent trip to Iraq, filing reports for all the networks. Here are Thai's observations of a trip that took them from Washington to Baghdad and back.

Washington (CNN) - Once the Black Hawk helicopter was in the air, I saw the beauty of Baghdad. The city was alive. It was twinkling with the lights of homes, businesses, and the headlights of cars.

In an odd way, it reminded me of Southern California. Everything from the cool night air and palm trees to the low-rise buildings with stucco siding and the pools and fountains in some of the backyards. Even the traffic was familiar, right down to the smog in the air from the oil refinery.

And there was more. An amusement park sat in the middle of the city, complete with a Ferris wheel and other rides that were outlined with colored Christmas lights. There were lit signs for the shops that were still open. The bird's-eye view completely defied my expectations for the city. Perhaps naively, I had thought that all I would see would be rubble, buildings in ruin or under reconstruction, craters from suicide bombers and empty streets. Instead, what I saw from those few hundred feet in the air was a vibrant city bustling with life.

We were on a secret trip with Vice President Biden, leaving late on a Thursday night and arriving nearly 14 hours later at a Baghdad landing strip. There we boarded U.S. military Black Hawk helicopters for a quick flight over the city to the Green Zone, the fortified international area of the city where the U.S. embassy is.

We were told that we had to wear flak jackets and helmets, to remember which seat we were in so we could be accounted for quickly on future helicopter rides, and no flash photography once in the air; the flash would easily give away our location, we were told.

On the ground I had nervously wondered what you would want to take a picture of at night over a war-torn city - in the air, it was a picture to behold.

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Topics: Iraq • The News • Vice President Joe Biden