"Opening soon: Paradise," says the sign on the side of the empty building on the roadside in Taji Military Camp. Whatever Paradise was, it will not be opening any time soon here.
The sign is a relic from the camp's heyday when the United States military was here during the Iraq War. It was a thriving town, complete with Burger King and Taco Bell and a PX supermarket, which has reopened - a sign that the troops' involvement here could be a long one.
Now, vast tracts of the complex are abandoned. It is a stark, glaring place of dust, prefabs and concrete - a place of shades of grey and brown. Huge walls of concrete line most roads to protect buildings and people from blasts and overhead shelters are outside any part of the complex that does not have its own overhead protection. Portaloos are the only option in some areas - and in the stifling heat the smell can overwhelm. Body armour and helmets must be worn if venturing outside the compound the New Zealanders are based in.
On the first night, our security advises us to sprint for the shelter if sirens for an attack sound - "grab your helmet on the way if you can".
Prime Minister John Key stays in what is known as the VIP accommodation, self-deprecatingly called the Taj Mahal. Key has stayed at the real Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and described it as his favourite hotel. This one is BYO jandals, because the shower drainage isn't the best.
On the way out to the training grounds, the New Zealanders are working at a huge graveyard of equipment which spreads as far as the eye can see. There are rusted military vehicle frames, shipping containers and all manner of unidentifiable objects. It is like a scene from the apocalypse.
We arrived in the dark and left in the dark. The Australian Air Force Hercules C-130 lumbered toward Taji Military Airbase staying high for as long as possible before it suddenly started dropping in to land. The landing is in black-out conditions - the airfield is on low lighting and the plane's lights are off. They prefer to fly in at night, not only for security but also because there is an effort to downplay the military presence for the local population so it does not seem like an invading force. Despite that, choppers and drones do fly over in the day time.
It is the place the New Zealanders have called home for the past six months. They do not believe their mission is a futile one, although they are realistic about the extent of what they can do.
One trainer says he gets a lot of personal satisfaction out of it. He even likes working with the Australians. "We are like stepbrothers. We work together really well but we like to give each other a bit of banter, especially around sports and things." Inside D-Fac there is a schedule of the Rugby World Cup games and there are several places to watch them.
They are bemused at why people would think they would not volunteer for the deployment. They did after all join the army for a reason.
Most people I know are scrambling over each other to come and be part of something like this," one says. Tucked away deep inside the Taji complex, they feel safer than Afghanistan where many patrolled.
Another trainer who also served at Bamiyan in Afghanistan says he is enjoying Iraq. "We are helping individual soldiers. You can really see that. We are helping them and I'm enjoying it. Definitely worthwhile." In Afghanistan he was on patrol duty in Bamiyan. Here he is locked in a compound and feels safe.
While there is always a risk of blue on green attacks, "the [Iraqi soldiers] I feel very comfortable around".
Off the training fields, the soldiers have managed to create their own fun. It is a dry camp - no alcohol is allowed. So they pretend. The women at the medical centre report that "Near Beer" can be bought from the local shop, Jimmy's, and if you squint hard you can pretend it's real. So they have created a "Near Beer Garden", which doubles as an outdoors movie theatre. They also have the Tuscan Wine Bar though the environment is nothing like Tuscany and there is no wine. "It does have fairy lights," one reports. The accommodation has outside toilets - which can be perilous in a country in which the briefings include warnings of cobras, vipers, scorpions and the huge camel spider. "A real treat is getting up a 3am to go pee. That's a particular favourite of mine. I just look out for snakes on the way."
For some reason they are disappointed that they have not seen a camel spider.
Food is provided at the D-Fac - the fancy American name for a mess and an abbreviation for dining facility. It is US fare and there are a range of options, such as buffalo wings, pecan pie, hamburgers, hotdogs. An Australian reports deployments can go two ways: "You either get really ripped and go to the gym every day or you get a bit of extra cushioning on cause someone feeds you lots of great desserts and cakes".
The nurses and medics report they are hanging out for some lamb and a flat white. They get bags of coffee from New Zealand. "We are up to the six-month mark and it's pretty boring. You want a good Kiwi barbecue and some lamb shanks. A glass of wine wouldn't go amiss." There is a sports bar - but it just plays sports.
The official deployment announcement was not made until February, but the medical team had started working together as a team a couple of months earlier in case.
They have just named a medical ward after Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, a medic killed in Afghanistan in 2012. The emergency doctor and a medic had both worked with her. The medic served two tours in Afghanistan as well and signed up to Iraq without hesitation. "There's been a lull in deployments for a while after we pulled out of Afghanistan. Whenever something comes up it's always try and get on there, and do what you joined to do."
The Afghanistan base was a lot smaller - only one kilometre in perimeter and it only housed the New Zealanders. They mix with the other nationalities. "We've done a few fun runs with the Americans." She does not explain how any run in such heat and dust can be fun.
She also does the training and says the Iraqis did not appear to have issues with her being a women other than staring at first.
Media travelling with the Prime Minister to Iraq covered their own travel and accommodation costs from New Zealand. Transport in and out of Iraq from Dubai and accommodation at the Taji Military Camp were provided by the NZ Defence Force.