|Life in the Red Zone
‘Two weeks in Baghdad away from the American establishment’
— former student Jim ‘Tex’ Wright’s shares his diary entries
We are driving very fast right now as we go through the famous “Sunni Triangle” of CNN and Fox News fame. It is no exaggeration that it is dangerous in this area. Bandits will stop cars and rob travelers. The defense is to travel in numbers and travel very fast. We have formed an informal convoy with a couple of GMC Suburbans and another Chevrolet Caprice like the one we are in. We do not know each other but we band together for mutual support and defense. If one stops, we all stop. If you see a car stopped on the side of the road, you stop and help.
I am leaving Baghdad in a Chevrolet Caprice driven by a tough looking no nonsense guy named Muqlas. He speaks only a few words of english, I speak even less Arabic. I am an architect from Irvine, California with a family with a relatively comfortable and safe life. People in the U.S. asked me “Why are you going?” and when I got here (Baghdad), they asked “Why did you come?” It is hard to explain simply. But I have always believed that success is happiness and happiness is equal parts, spiritual, physical and professional.
Last November in Washington, I was at a conference hosted by the Corps of Engineers. It was obstencably supposed to be a conference for “Small Business.” The last day of the conference, they shoe-horned in an “industry day” at which the ubiquitous Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) presented its plans for the rebuilding of Iraq. Early on the morning of the second day, a group of us had arrived early and were drinking coffee and discussing Iraq. We were a mixed group of engineers, architects, contractors, salesmen and consultants. The conversation was about how ravaged Iraq was and naturally about the vast business opportunities and financial rewards of going to Iraq. I was talking to one lady, a health care consultant from the Detroit area, about this when we had the simultaneous epiphany about working in Iraq. If you went to Iraq and did business, you could be financially successful (comfort), professionally successful. But, what took my breath away was the concept of having spiritual success also by doing well for my fellow man in Iraq. I or I should say, We Americans can profoundly and forever change the lives of an entire country for the good. We can wipe clean thirty years of fear, oppression, brutality and malevolent neglect.
Iraq is the cradle of civilization. For those that know your ancient history and your Bible study better than you know your geography, I give you a brief orientation. Babylon of the Hanging Gardens, the Ishtar Gate, Nebucanezzar and Daniel is on southeast outskirts of Hilla. Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire, is Mosul, not near it is it. Mosul is on top of Nineveh. Ur, which is one of the oldest cities in the world, was founded by the Sumerians about 5,000 BC well before pharohs dreamed of pyramids. Ur in east of Hilla about half way to Basrah. Ur is the city that Abraham left at the call of God to found the chosen people.
An interesting thought is that home town of the patriarch of the three major religions of the world, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is in Iraq. Finally, Nimrud and Khorsabad, the two other major cities of Assyria are east of Mosul.
We have just crossed the Euphrates River and the landscape is rapidly changing from brilliant green agriculture to rolling hills of pink and tan bare ground accented with cream colored rocks and an occational patch of green that subbornly hold on in low spots filled with accumulated rain water. The ground is essentially bare. It honestly looks like the first photographs of Mars sent back by the Rover, bare dirt stretching to the horizon in all directions.
The main highway system of Iraq is amazing, three lanes wide in each direction and very smooth. According to urban legend in Baghdad, the highways were designed to function as expedient runways for aircraft. If that is the case, it explains the smoothness of highways and their good condition after months of neglect and traffic.
It is very hazy, we had a major storm come through in the last few days. It rained dogs and cats as I would say to the amusement of my Iraqi friends. The wind blew very hard and there were some severe sandstorms here in the western desert. How sand can blow when it is raining buckets has not quite been explained to me but there were sand storms and the evidence of them is everywhere.
The sandstorms get worse later in the spring as the ground dries and the high winds come from the west much like Santa Anas in California. Although I believe the Santa Anas pale in comparison to sand storms that scour windshields opaque and strip the paint from cars, our grass fires not withstanding.
So I had this romantic notion of Iraq as a place to touch my need to be successful spiritually, successful professionally and successful financially (as time went on the spiritual success became so paramount that the other two faded into the background because of my dealings with the Iraqis but more on that later) as well as a sense of historical anchorage to my faith and the origin of our civilization. The entire notion of going to Iraq thrilled me and scared me to death. Everyday on the news there were stories of shootings, demonstrations, bombings and other festivities in Iraq. Names like Najaf, Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit, Basrah, Hilla and others became familiar.
I had a number of long talks with my boss, who agreed that we should seek the opportunities to do work “over there .” She also understood full well that I was working at several levels on this as I made phone calls, wrote letters, send e-mails constantly and talked back and forth to other people wanting to work in Iraq.
When I knew that I was MEANT to go to Iraq came when I was in San Diego for a meeting and had a chance meeting with a friend of mine, he was an Iraqi expatriot who had been imprisoned during the early days of Saddam’s regime by the Iraqi Secret Police, came to me with an offer. He had two class mates from Baghdad University, one was a renowned planner and architect, the other was a general contractor. These friends of his wanted to form a business relationship with an American architecture firm. My friend said that he had chosen us because my boss and I had a reputation for being fair, honest, good people that did high quality work.
I met with my friend three times over the next few weeks and we communicated by e-mail everyday. He was in contact with his classmates and it was finally agreed that I should go to Iraq.
The U. S. Department of Commerce sponsored this exhibition in Amman Jordan and since the big construction contracts which the U.S. was letting for the reconstruction were scheduled to be awarded in mid January, the date was set for 10-13 January. I made my reservations to go. Getting to Iraq is not cheap and airline fares varied wildly from about $950 to over $3,000 from Los Angeles to Amman and then you have to hire a limo service to drive you to Baghdad. The going rate for that was about $300 per person one way.
There is this organization called the Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce nearby here in Cerritos which gave me a lot of very good information as well as a lot of encouragement about travel and what to expect.
We have stopped for gas now and it is at the same gas station we stopped at on the way into Iraqi. There are few gas stations in the western desert and there are always long lines much as you woud see in Hanford on Thanksgiving weekend. The stations have two kinds of gas service, at the pump and at the side of the road with a dozen or so kids with gas cans full of gas for sale for those who don’t want to wait. There are these old Chevy Suburbans and some Caprices with these huge gas tanks on them, originally for the long drive across the desert when the gas stations were closed. The drivers fill them with gas in Baghdad and drive to the western desert, siphon the gas into plastic barrells and set up shop selling it for a quick profit. This also goes on in Baghdad but not to the extent that you find here in the western desert.
Muqlas brought me some tea or “shei” as it is said in Arabic. I could go on for hours about tea and how integral it is to the culture and the business in Iraq (I suppose it is like this in other Arab countries but only a guess).
While we were stopped I was approached by a group of Iraqis. We talked, one was an engineer. The other was a secondary school administrator. We talked until their knowledge of english collapsed under the burden of the subject, I had no knowledge of Arabic, none whatsoever. The engineer in the course of the conversation had figured out that I had travelled and lived in Europe. When he found out I had lived in Germany, he asked me “Sprechen Sie Deutche?” and I said “Un biesen” (a little). I told him I understood a great deal more German than I could construct into a conversation and I had not spoken a word of it in years. The engineer was in the same boat I was, he could understand much more English than he could speak. So, the school administrator would speak to the engineer in Arabic, the Engineer would speak to me in German and I would reply in English and the Engineer would speak to the school administrator in Arabic. There I was in the middle of the western desert carrying on a conversation with some Iraqi gentlemen who desparately wanted to talk to me about anything and we did it in three languages, cigarettes and sign language.
Back to the conference in Amman.
Unfortunately, the award of all of these contracts was delayed for a variety of reasons. (most of us at the conference in Washington in November thought the schedule for the award of these contracts was very ambitious). So the conference, called Outreach 2004, lost a significant amount of its luster but,there were still several hundred people with airline reservations, hotel reservations and conference registration fees, as well as the conference center and the exhibit hall reserved. There would be exhibits of everything from earthmoving equipment to pots and pans to kitchen appliances and family planning. Outreach 2004 was in two parts, one part for the “outsiders”, Americans, Turks, Brits, Dutch, etc., in the morning and a series of afternoon meetings on business for the Iraqi attendees. The Iraqi American Chamber of Commerce sponsored a group of business men from Baghdad to attend. They brought seven bus loads of Iraqis to attend on top of the hundreds who came on their own independent of the Chamber.
Most of the Iraqi businessmen have little if any liquidity due to the cash and carry nature of the Saddam years and they were very very fearful of being left in the lurch in the rebuilding while Kuwaitis, Saudis and Egyptians took all of the work and the money. This fear was mostly assuaged by the financial program the Export Import Bank, City Bank and the Treasury Department had set up. They will write letters of credit to Iraqi contractors who get work so they can finance their mobilization and initial material purchases till the cash flow starts.
(As an aside, the Iraqis do not like the Kuwaitis at all or the Saudis either for that matter. The average Iraqi views Kuwait as a colossal oil grab by the Brit after World War One, to slice off a piece of Iraq which they thought had the most oil for themselves, when they started drawing lines in the sand while carving up the old Ottoman Turk Empire.
It is interesting that we still fight some of the same horrid treaties and illogical formations of countries that occurred after the end of WWI, The Sunnis, Kurds, Shi’ites and others really only tolerate each other. But then there was always this tension under the surface in Iraq between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. Of course, Saddam stoked this animosity by favoring the Sunnis who were in the North where he was from and the Shi’ite majority in the South which he brutalized for years.)
Each day of the conference were these luncheons which I missed as I was essentially mobbed by Iraqi contractors wanting to talk to me when the word spread that I was going to Baghdad to meet some architects. I have very few business cards left from my trip. The Iraqis were very enthusiastic about two things, First I was an American and second, I was going to Baghdad. It became crystal clear that business in Iraq is conducted at a far more personal level and involves a lot of talking about life, family, schools, philosophy, literature, you name it. When you go to meet an Iraqi, you talk for hours.
The last day of the conference, there was a wrap up meeting. Bob Connan who was the Commercial Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Baghdad spoke at length. His replacement is to be Larry Habash. I had breakfast with Bob and he had been in Baghdad almost literally since the Statue of Saddam fell. He had made a lot of personal sacrifices to keep some momentum and interest in work in Iraq trying to overcome the perception that Baghdad was like Dodge City with gunfights on every street corner.
I also cannot say enough nice things about the Commerical Officer in the Amman Embassy, Gil Harkdoushian. He took a personal interest in me literally taking me around to meet the dignitaries there. I was introduced to the Deputy Secretary of Commerce, the U. S. Ambassador to Jordan and a member of the Iraqi ruling council.
Also speaking was Adam Davidson, an amazing person. He is a young man in his early 30’s, a graduate of the University of Chicago and a correspondent for National Public Radio, hosting a segment for “Marketplace” doing legwork in Baghdad. He has been in Baghdad since August. I met Adam literally almost as soon as I stumbled off the airplane in Amman and had fought my way through the baggage porters (possibly the singular worst group of bandits and camel thieves this side of the Yemeni desert). They would represent themselves as airport staff, grab your claim tickets to “help” you and then squabble with you to obtain outrageous tips and then sneer at you when you gave them the Jordanian equivalent of $7.00 to carry two suitcases ten feet.
I had faxed a note to the Grand Hyatt in Amman asking if they could have a driver waiting for me. Thankfully, there was a driver there (at what was later to be discovered for a fee almost equal to the cost buying the car). The drivers name was Suhil, he was a nice looking young man with a big smile who spoke very good articulate english, talking non stop from the airport to the hotel. Suhil gave me an introduction to driving in the Middle East. At 2:00 a.m. there were not a lot of traffic on the road, thank goodness, as we drove on the left, the right, the middle and the center of the two lane rain slick road.
I believe Disneyland could have a real winner of an educational ride hiring a number of Jordanian taxi drivers to transport people on a closed course replica of the streets of Amman. On second thought, the number of heart attacks and other carnage might prove to be too much of a liability. Suhil obviously had learned to drive in Rome taught by a Paris taxi driver. (anyone who has been to either city will immediately understand).
Not one moment to soon, we arrived or I should say careened around a corner and alighted in the driveway of the Grand Hyatt. After kissing the ground and sacrificing a goat in thanks for my safe arrival, I checked in. The Grand Hyatt may be the best hotel I ever stayed in. The staff was exceptional. They fell all over themselves to be helpful. The room I stayed in was comfortable with two big closets, a king sized bed with down comforter (did I mention that it was very cold and wet in Amman?), a bathroom with both a shower and a tub. The restaurants were good and they had an amazing breakfast buffet.
There is this group at the Hyatt called Technology and they were there solely to help guests with they telecommunications needs. One of them came to my room at 3:00 a.m. to get me setup with internet access. I had promised my family and my friends to let them know the instant I had arrived in Amman. I had this feeling that people still think in terms of “Lawrence of Arabia” or Indiana Jones with Ford Trimotors, camels and Bedouins behind every potted plant on Zahran Street.
Amman is a modern city, it is cleaner than Los Angeles and probably much safer with seemingly legions of soldiers and policemen everywhere. You can walk anywhere in Amman and see policemen, both standing in the shadows with an automatic weapon or more prominently displayed. It was somewhat disquieting though to have four soldiers armed to the teeth and two carloads of policemen lingering in the doorway of the Hyatt.
Since I had not slept on the plane from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, we were packed like sardines on the plane. (The stewardesses on KLM were good old fashioned stewardesses like before the airlines had a collective cheap attack and the ACLU decided we should not have beautiful women to look at or good service on long flights, but I digress. The food was very good, there was free wine and beer with meals, there were baskets of bread that were constantly passed up and down the aisles and gallons of freshly brewed excellent coffee. They, the stewardesses, were of course very pretty, very polite and very helpful).
I did not sleep in Amsterday because my sleep deprived mind reasoned that I would over sleep and miss my flight. So, I relaxed(?) by exploring Schiapol Airport. It is essentially a very large shopping mall stuck onto an airport terminal. They sell everything there except automobiles (I cannot speak with certainty about this because I did not get to all the various venues of the terminal.)
I stopped off at an internet café to check my e-mail and give people an update on my journey as well as check on the news and sports. I paid an exorbitant bill for twenty minutes of internet access, almost $10, which I thought was robbery until I met the porters in Amman.
I had intended to sleep from Amsterdam to Amman. Instead, I wound up talking to an Iraqi gentleman from Detroit who was going back to Baghdad for the first time since he left right after the coup that brought Saddam to power. Also dog piling into the conversation was this amazing Dutch woman named Suzanne van den Berg, she worked for Organon and she was their birth control and family planning / women’s health issues guru. She had been all over the world setting up family planning and birth control programs in empoverished countries. Her stories about Africa were heart rending and difficult. She had a good basic knowledge of Arabic. The two of them gave me a crash course in etiquette and a few arabic phrases. (Although I was afraid that my guileless speaking of Arabic with a Texas accent would possibly either start a revolt or get me deported for creating some diplomatic incident.) She said she wanted a full report of my experiences in Iraq which was the first suggestions of a diary.
Her company feared for her safety in Iraq and would not let her go to Baghdad as she had wanted. This definitely gave me pause. If her company was worried about her safety in Iraq with her knowing some arabic and travelling to some of the worst and most dangerous places in Africa, what in hell was I doing going, not knowing one thing about Arabic, Iraqis or anything Middle Eastern.
Muqlas and I are now driving much slower. From Baghdad to well past Ramadi, everyone drives very very fast, 125 miles per hour or faster. Once “safely” past the troubles lurking around Ramadi, everyone slows down to only 100. We had to take a detour a while back. One of those ten second videos we had watched on CNN last April was the main bridge over this wahdi. The bridge was being repaired. We had to drive on a gravel road and over a field expedient bridge around the repairs. A ten second video equals to about a one year construction project.
From Baghdad, there are two ways to Amman, one is through Trebil and across the Jordanian border. If that way is closed, you can go through Syria and then cross into Jordan from the North. Some Americans I met had gone that way and had said it was no big deal, while I was under the impression that Syria was on the no-no list from the State Department. I wondered what would happen in Los Angeles if I arrived with entry stamps from both Iraq and Syria on my passport.
After sleeping well into the afternoon, I got up, cleaned up and had a late lunch and sat in the lobby drinking coffee and reading the paper. It was Friday and most everything was closed. Television in Jordan is a mixed bag of German, French, Polish, Turkish, Arabic and the BBC. With that kind of program line up it is a wonder they are not demonstrating infront of the U.S. Embassy 24/7. The Polish television is odd with lots of music videos and variety shows. Turkish television had a number of sitcoms that were very funny. You did not have to understand a word of Turkish to understand the humor.
At sundown the lobby began to fill with young people. I have to say that from the sampling I saw, there are some extrordinarily beautiful women in the Middle East. In Jordan where the women are more westernized, the lobby of the Hyatt is great girl watching. I enjoyed the view for a while and decided to go for a walk to get some fresh air and exercise. The bell captain recommended I go up Zahran Street which is easy to navigate and a good neighborhood. Zahran goes up past many of the embassies, one of the royal residences and the infamous Royal Hotel. The Royal is a major landmark in Amman, it is rumored to have been built with Saddam’s money and it is reputed to be a hang out for expatriate Iraqi Baathists.
One story I heard was that a number of Baathists had come into Jordan on Jordanian and Syrian passports purchased in the closing days of the Saddam regime for a sweet million dollars a piece. When you realize that even a Baathist would buy passports for his extended family, it would be at least eight to ten million dollars a family. That is a lot of cash money. This was my first introduction to the concept that the Baathists had access to staggering sums of money, all in cash. The Royal is far more expensive than the Grand Hyatt with an entry drive full of very expensive cars.
Passing the Royal, Zahran becomes, at least in part, Embassy row. As I walked up the street, Jordanian policemen would step out of the shadows and say hello. I was politely stopped twice for identity checks. Once in front of the Russian Embassy and once near the Royal Residence. Both times, I was given a big smile and a “welcome to Jordan, enjoy your visit have a nice walk .” I reflected that it is easy to be courteous as a policeman when you have a legal system that firmly sides with authority and suffers no insolence or misbehaviour.
The sand in the Western Desert is now a bright orange much like the photographs from the Mars rover and the desert is much flatter with few terrain features. There are what appears to be zillions of truck heading toward Baghdad and we no longer see any patrols. Earlier in Falluja, we saw a combat patrol with tanks and men on foot in what we used to call a squad column formation. They were obviously looking for and expecting trouble. I saw two Iraqi tanks, one abandoned and stripped and the other with its turret blown off.
The area around Falluja was littered with the bits and pieces of the old regime’s military equipment. There was an antiaircraft gun and other pieces of what appeared to be radar and some reminants of a missile site. We stopped just now for my driver to take a break. A kid came by with a large teapot and thankfully he is filling it from a well near the stop. He had stopped briefly at a low mud hole full of rain water and trash. For a minute I was afraid he was going to fill the pot from the mud hole.
Here at this rest stop is a guy selling television sets and satellite antennas. Amazing, I am literally on Mars, there is not a power line standing anywhere, since they have been cut down with explosives and the copper wire stolen for scrap value. Anything that has any value and can be dismantled has been taken. The armco guardrails are gone for miles in all directions. The chainlink fencing to keep the sheep, goats and wild donkeys off the highways is also gone. I think they would steal the paint from moving cars if the sandstorms did not beat them to it.
The first day of the exhibition was the opening ceremony in the evening. I spent the day mostly meeting people. I had breakfast with a very pleasant and thoroughly interesting Turkish engineer named Orphun (Aaron) who represented a company called Aska that manufactured electric generators of all sizes and types. (I was to find out that there is a very big market for these in Iraq to my occational discomfort, thanks to our friends the scrap copper collectors in the Western Desert). At the next table was an American named David Thomas who I will refer to later as the “Chicken Farmer” as I will explain later. He works for a company that obstincably sells navigational aids, communications equipment and exports other commodities like furniture, computers, appliances and the like. We talked until the waiter in all of his Jordanian politeness shooed us into the lobby so he could set up the midday meal.
I bumped into some people I had met at the industry day in Washington. One, Bill Phelan, is an old friend of the family and a very interesting person. He represents a company that manufactures modular housing units and has been selling them to the U.S. forces in Iraq. His company has built a factory to manufacture them in the suburbs of Baghdad. I will travel to Baghdad with him and his business associates.
I then ran into David Harlan, a lieutenant colonel in the Marines. He is the public affairs officer for the First Marine Expeditionary Force (1MEF). He is in Amman to begin making arrangements and make contacts for housing the 1MEF when they return to Iraq to replace the Fourth Infantry Division in the Western Desert and the Sunni Triangle. Adam Davidson came by and introduced himself and joined our group. We talked for a while. As I said, Adam is a really bright young man who has lived in Baghdad since last August. He was in Amman staying at the Hyatt during the Exhibition and Conference and would be a speaker on the last day. Adam had been in Amman during the big media circus of the run up to the liberation of Iraq and had some wild stories of goings on in the Hyatt with representatives of four very unfriendly intelligence services, one of Saddam’s daughters and a horde of reporters.
We just went through the Iraqi border crossing. They took all of about four seconds to stamp my passport. And THEN they inspected my bags. I bought this absolutely beautiful Colt .45 Automatic in Baghdad, feeling the need to have some kind of self defense weapon other than a cell phone and a lap top computer. The Colt was in perfect condition as was the leather shoulder holster. I bought the pistol, the holster, three clips and 25 rounds of ammunition (a box) for $60 on a side street near a restaurant in Baghdad.
I was tempted to try to bring it home but was warned the Jordanians would have my butt if they found it on me. They don’t make any differentiation between sneaking one gun into Jordan and smuggling a trainload. A gun coming into Jordan from Iraq is gun running and a major crime. I left it with Achmed in Baghdad. After the way the Jordanian customs guys went through my luggage with a fine tooth comb I am glad I hadn’t tried.
The Jordanians are very tight at the border. Jordan walks a very thin tight rope in the Middle East. They are a moderate politically with a constitutional monarchy modeled after Great Britain. They have diplomatic relations with Isreal and are pro-U.S. and have population that is at least 50 percent Palestinian. They are surrounded by countries that are not very sympathetic to their moderate stance. So I clearly understand why their security is so tight. BUT, they seemed to have an axe to grind with the Iraqis and seemed to be inordinately severe with anyone with an Iraqi passport. They don’t let many people through at a time.
We have been sitting on this Iraqi side of the border crossing for almost two hours. I finally found a Jordanian Army Officer who would admit to speaking english and recognized me as an American a fact that seemed almost self evident in the crowd I was standing in. I explained my predicament of having a plane to catch in Amman and he was gracious enough to let Muqlas pull out of line and go through the check point. The entire scene at the check point reminded me of the border crossings in Tijuana or Reynosa with cars strung out for hundreds of yards. It did not have the 40,000 street vendors and it moved much slower than Reynosa.
Back to the Exhibition, Adam Davidson, LTC Harlan and myself rode together to the exhibition. If I had thought security was tight at the Amman Airport, I had seen nothing yet that compared to the security at the Exhibition Hall (called the Amman International Automobile Show or AIMS). The exhibit was a fifteen minute cab ride from the hotel. The cab drivers in Amman are a real experience, very polite, vile if not life threatening drivers who have no idea of what brakes are for and hagglers of the first magnitude. A taxi ride to the exhibit hall could cost anywhere from 2 Jordanian Dinar (JD) to 10 JD and everything in between.
At the closing ceremonies, Adam had said to Americans wanting to do business in Iraq that “you’re going to drink a lot of tea”, which was very true, and that business in Iraq is conducted in a very personal way. He said not to expect to cut any deals very fast, the Iraqis will take their time and decide if they want to trust you or not before they talk business. What he did not say was that you also had to drink like a fish. The Iraqis I met talked to me all day, that evening and into the next day about art, history, school, why I wanted to do business in Iraq, religion, philosophy ( thank goodness I had taked some classical philosophy in college, these guys were deep), our children, parents, the next door neighbors, the cats down the street, you name it we talked about it. Then at night we talked business over a bottle of Scotch. We drank into the wee hours of the morning and we all got pretty drunk (or at least I was, and since they were laughing at my alcohol induced humor, I guess they were too.) I guess what I said when I was drunk was consistent with what I said when I was sober because we negotiated the deals the next day.
The Iraqis have a great sense of humor and laugh, tease and joke with each other almost constantly. They laugh readily and seemed to understand American humor and American sarcasm better than most Europeans. It was especially evident when I told my Iraqi business contacts that I knew they were honorable and honest businessmen because they waited till I was sober to the negotiate the contract. They got a really big laugh out of that. They slapped me on the back and continued to chuckle about it for days. They would tease me again and again while we were drinking from then on saying there were a few loose ends they wanted to negotiate.
The trip out of Iraq was nothing like the magic carpet ride I got coming in. Bill Phelan, the family friend said I could ride with him to Baghdad. Wow, what a ride, He introduced me to a young Iraqi Engineer who was his business associate. Majeed, as it turned out is from a very old, wealthy, well respected and very prestigeous family in Baghdad (I hesitate to say OLD sometimes when I talk about Iraq because I am not sure whether Majeed’s family goes back to Hammurabi or not….but close)
So we left the Hyatt at 5:00 am. Majeed’s cousin rode in a GMC Suburban with all of our luggage which for four grown men on the road for an indeterminate period of time was considerable. Bill and I rode with Majeed in his 260E MERCEDES BENZ. He sailed right through all of the customs stuff on both the Jordanian side and the Iraqi side.
We were met just inside the Iraqi border by three very large men who were employees of the family, body guards to be exact. All three were armed with pistols and there were three of the ubiquitous AK-47’s in the floor boards, they opened the trunk and handed Majeed’s cousin, Mohammed another AK-47. They were driving a Chevrolet Caprice which was also a very ubiquitous item in Iraq. It was a three car convoy all the way to Baghdad, stopping only to help a Suburban that had broken down in the desert, get more gas and fix a bad spark plug wire on the Caprice outside of Falluja.
It is an unwritten rule among travelers in the western desert that if a car breaks down or has a flat, then at least two or more cars will stop to assist and provide security. When we stopped to fix the Caprice, an Iraqi taxi driver in a Caprice pulled over and pulled tools and spare parts from his trunk to assist in the repairs and with no thought of money.
We drove all the way to Baghdad at well over 100 mph. When we saw the first highway signs for Falluja and Ramadi, we speeded up. We went through that area at speeds over 240 kph or 130 mph. We drove at that speed until we got to the outskirts of Baghdad, which was only another 30 or 40 minutes away.
One sight that really broke my heart were the large camps of Palestinian refugees in the no man’s land between Jordan and Iraq. The Palestinians had been brought into Iraq by Saddam e cheap labor. When the U.S. forces started moving North, the Palestinians fled, they had been told the U.S. soldiers would kill them, rape, pillage and torture them. I couldn’t understand how they could believe those stories. And for reasons that no one has explained to me Jordan will not let them back in. So there they sit.
Right now we are approaching three hours in line, and we are inside the fences.
In Baghdad, we went to the Ishtar Hotel, a Sheraton, but in name only. We were searched, frisked and our identification was checked three times between our cars and the lobby of the hotel. Once by Iraqi NPS, who I think are the State Police, once by American soldiers assisted by an Iraqi soldier and once at the entrance to the lobby by hotel security who were most likely former Iraqi soldiers or policemen.
The Ishtar at one time had been a really amazing posh hotel. There was this huge lobby that opened to the full height of the hotel with a statue of Ishtar, fountains, pools of water with tile and marble everywhere. The hotel was very deteriorated from years of no maintenance. It was in serious need of paint, carpet and a general stem to stern cleaning.
I did notice that even in the confines of the Ishtar hotel, one of Majeed’s bodyguards followed me everywhere I went in the lobby, even the men’s room. A little disconcerting but given my nervous state of mind being in Baghdad of all expletive deleted places, it was also very comforting in chilling sort of way. My guardian and I went into the coffee shop and I had what turned out to be my last cup of coffee for three weeks. Heavy, dark, Turkish style coffee with lots of sugar, the finely ground coffee sludge at the bottom of the cup and a bottled water chaser.
Bill checked himself into the Ishtar and gave me his satellite telephone to call my Iraqi contacts. The phone is called aThuraya, it is made in Switzerland and are the only thing that consistently works as it should in Iraq. The air time is very expensive and is renewed with the purchase of a calling card similar to the internet cards you buy in Europe.
We went around the corner to an employee parking lot that looked out on to the Mosque that was on Fox and CNN news everyday and the square where Saddam’s statue was symbolically toppled on world wide television. Yep, I am in Baghdad. I recognized the Mosque immediately as it had been the back drop for at least six months of television broadcasts from Baghdad during both wars.
I met my Iraqi business partners there.
Ali Nouri Hassan was a highly respected urban planner who had worked in the Ministry of Planning. His reputation as a planner was considerable in the Middle East and he had done work in Libya, Yemen and Dubai among other places. He teaches planning at the University of Baghdad.
Asa’ad Mahdi Al-Saleh had been a classmate of Ali’s at the University in the 60’s. He had become a successful general contractor in Iraq. We were all about the same, in our fifties, gray headed and architects.
They took me to the house that would be my home for the next three weeks. The house is located in a district called Qadisiya which is very near and just across the river from the University of Baghdad. It was centrally located to both Ali and Asa’ad’s homes and the office. At the house, I met my full time companion for my stay. His name is Achmed Amil Hadee.
(As an aside, Arabic names are oddly similar to Scandanavian or Russian names. Your first name is your given name, the middle name is the given name of your father and your last name is the given name of your grandfather. Interestingly, women do not change their name when they marry, retaining the names of their father and grandfather. A fact that could obviously confuse any outsider trying to figure out who was married to who or who was not married to who.)
Achmed studied geotechnical engineering in college. He had been in the Iraqi Army during the first Gulf War, was an excellent mechanic, kept an AK under the seat of the car, cooked all of my meals, drove me everywhere I went and spoke good english. His english improved as our time together went on. He told me that after the first Gulf War, Saddam issued an edict forbidding Iraqis to speak anything but Arabic, so English which had been taught in Iraqi schools since the Trans-Jordan partition after WWI was forbidden. Achmed had been severely disciplined with a rifle butt for saying hello to a classmate from school in English.
Ali told me that his home was near was in a district that had been a center of the extreme nationists who were discontent with the American presence and there were some hardline Baathists and Saddam sympathizers in the area. In fact Ali and his wife had been victims of a home invasion robbery a few weeks before and his wife was still obviously traumatized by the experience. Ali could never stay out too late because his wife, who was also a planner of reputation, was afraid to be at home alone after dark. So everynight he excused himself around eight o’clock and let Asa’ad to drink me under the table and interrogate me. A task I might add he was well qualified. He was a contractor and he had obviously “negotiated” several contracts. Asa’ad had a big house but with four children, his wife, his mother and his mother in law and his wife’s sister, there was no room at that inn for me.
The house I stayed in was a duplex owned by Achmed’s father Amil. Amil was retired. He had been a high ranking official in the Ministry of Industry. He had three sons, Ali who taught at the University of Missouri, Mohammed who is an engineer Florida and Acmed who had been educated as a geotechnical engineer but had a business as a mechanic working on GM automobiles. The Iraqis must be amazing mechanics because until the overthrow there were no new cars coming into Iraq except for Saddam’s friends since the invasion of Kuwait. Therefore, the roads are full of cars held together with bailing wire, makeshift spare parts, red cellophane for tail lights and lots of dents, rust and mismatched paint. Any wrecked car is immediately stripped to its frame for spare parts.
Amil is an extremely elegant, courtly gentleman with an amazing sense of humor and impressively good actually very good english. He had been posted to Washington and England for several years. He had been educated in England and the U.S. His photo albums were full of pictures of New York, London, Geneva and other countries he had been assigned.
The car that was my second home in Iraq was a 1990 Volkswagen Passat. Saddam had cut a deal with Volkswagen of Brazil and had imported seemingly zillions of them for sale to the common folk. They were called “Brazils” or “Saddam Mobiles” derisively by the locals. There were more cracks in the windshield than tributaries in the Nile Delta, there was faded red paint with splotches of the black primer coming through and a loud muffler(?). It was however, clean, fast, the heater worked (no small benefit given the low night time temperatures in Iraq in winter, the radio worked and most importantly it was very very non-descript and blended into the surroundings. At this time in Iraq, if you stand out, you had better be very very fast and if not fast you had to blend in.
Oh joy, we are now approaching our fourth hour waiting for inspection, I am very glad I told the Jordanians I needed to get to Amman.
To make room for me, Achmed moved his wife and two beautiful children into the side of the duplex with Amil and his wife. I slept in the living room on a sofa bed and Achmed slept on the sofa next to the door. The door was double bolted and double locked. The house was a mini villa with a high walled yard and a very heavy steel gate also bolted, chained and locked. I was never allowed out of the car until we were in the yard and the gate shut.
Breakfast every morning was a soft boiled egg, cheese, a banana and lots of hot tea and fresh Iraqi bread. Then it was off to the office normally between 8:00 and 8:30. In Iraq, because of the heat in the summer, you see work hours similar to Spain, Greece and Southern Italy. Most business begins around 10:30, and goes to 2:30. Then everyone flees the heat by going to dinner and a long break with work commencing again around 4:30 or 5:00 and going to as late as 11:00. at which time you have “lunch .” Dinner or the midday meal is the biggest meal of the day, probably to help you sleep through the heat of the afternoon.
Iraqis eat lots of meat and rice. Every dinner comes with an enormous portion of rice as much as I would cook for my entire family for a meal. The portions of meat are also large. It is generally sheep, too old to be called lamb but too tender and mild tasting to be called mutton. As soon as you order, the waiter brings out appetizers, plates of chickpeas, hummos, marinated cucumbers, red tomatoes, babaganoush (pureed egg plant, pickled vegetables, taboulie, beets, more egg plant and lots of the flat Iraqi bread.
Everyone takes their spoons and forks and eats directly from the common dishes of appetizers, something that would make my mother shudder. When dinner is served everyone eats with spoons and forks, no knives are used. The meat is cooked until it is very tender and falls off the bone.
I could never finish my portion of rice after eating the appetizers and the meat. I was amazed though that Achmed who was half my size could clean his plate and mop up the remaining appetizers and whatever bread was left. Hot sweet chia tea is served after the meals. I once asked for some tea with my meal (operative word is ONCE) and the waiter gave me such an incredulous look of shock that I never asked again.
Lunch, the evening meal is very light, sliced apples, bananas, cheese, cucumbers, more pickled vegatables, egg salad made with potatoes, tea and the ever present fifth of scotch, usually Johnny Walker or Glenfiddich. I am not really much of a Scotch drinker. So one day, Achmed and I spent the better part of an afternoon touring liquor stores in Baghdad looking for a bottle of Bourbon. We found more labels of scotch than I knew existed, there was this room deodorant that masqueraded as local moonshine, several bottles of Tequila with unknown names, the local liquor called Raka ( a really vile stuff right up there with the worst calvados in France).
So in surrender to fate, I bought a bottle of a previously undiscovered brandy. Back at the house no one would touch it, looking at it like some pesticide or rat poison. It became obvious to me that one key prerequisite for doing business in Iraq besides a smattering of polite Arabic is a taste for Scotch. Dinner is the polite meal and lunch is when all of the deals are cut. Being invited over to an Iraqi’s home for dinner means you are accepted.
An observation that I made that I thought was very interesting was that at every restaurant we went to, one person served only the bread sort of a bread steward, one brought the appetizers, one man, usually one of the older men was the tea steward.
One thing that continually impressed me and initially shocked me was how the waiters could buss a table full of dishes with out a tray. The waiter would overlap the dishes as he stacked and nested them together and then he would pick up the entire stack and carry it off. I initially was expecting to see dishes and food fly but everytime it was a miniture feat of engineering. My eyes must have bugged almost completely out of my head the first time I saw it done because usually staid Ali burst out laughing at the startled look on my face and told me what he was laughing about. I had to laugh too. I could only imagine how dumbfounded I looked witnessing this balancing act for the first time. You know, I have been in restaurants all over Europe and I have never seen any one do that.
Five hours now in this desolate place. At least we are at the inspection point for the car. It looks as if we are next and we are actually going to get through this expletive deleteded place in a few minutes. I swear I have seen children conceived, gestated and born in less time than it takes the inspector to wander around over under and through each car. So after five hours of navel contemplation, a pack of cigarettes (did I mention that all of those cigarettes they were passing around at all of those meeting took their toll and I had taken up smoking again???), rain, cold wind and sleet, yes sleet in the western desert.
We are next up in line. We take everything out of the car, seems when I showed the Customs Officer my American passport, the inspector became very cursory with his inspection of Muqlas and I. We were done in five minutes. It had been sort of like sex, five hours of begging and then five minutes of frantic activity.
Traffic in Baghdad was simply amazing. Since the electricity goes on and off unpredictably, the traffic signals do not work, ever. Every intersection, traffic circle or driveway is a free for all in the best traditions of Rome at morning rush hour. However, in contrast to Rome or Paris, there is this subtle choreography that occurs so that traffic never grinds to a halt and movement around Baghdad does occur in almost a reasonable time period. People stick the nose of their car where they want to go, honk, flash lights and wave at each other.
I cannot really say it is bad when I think of my experiences driving in Washington DC in a snow storm or what Los Angeles would be like with out traffic lights. Even more interestingly, the Iraqi Police do a pretty good job albeit that they are ignored until they literally walk out in the streets and start yelling punctuating their tirades with the banging of their palms on the hoods of cars.
Throw into this maelstrom the fact that Iraqis have taken jaywalking to places that the French never dreamed of. It is almost an art. You will be in the middle an intersection twitching and flinching at the continuous near misses and in this vehicular cacaphony are people of all ages weaving in and out of the cars. The older Iraqis particularly the older women in their black widows burkas seem completely oblivious to the traffic and walk in the streets, across a street and stand in the street yelling as shop keepers haggling for food as cars whiz by going everywhich way around them. The older men were not much better but seemed to display some discretion and understanding that a 3000 pound car could do some damage to them.
On top of this, somewhat like leavening of bread are the forklifts (there was a guy down the street who drove a forklift to work), farm tractors, delivery trucks, semis, cement trucks, donkey carts and horse drawn wagons. This is normal everyday Baghdad traffic. Traffic does move well, people get where they need to go and amazingly they don’t seem to kill each other very often in traffic. Given the fact that I had it on good counsel that most Iraqis had at least one AK in their house and more were floating around in the general population, the Iraqis were very stoic and unexcited about traffic. I would shudder to think what would happen in Chicago or Los Angeles if you gave half the population an automatic weapon and then turned off all of the traffic signals at rush hour.
I have to say that given the circumstances, Baghdad traffic was really no worse than what I have seen in the U.S.. It is certainly better than the anarchy of Washington in a snow or as maddening as Boston.
Muqlas has gone inside to stand in front of a Jordanian customs official who will look at the customs papers, insult him about being Iraqi and then stamp the form, a priviledge that Muqlas stands in line for twenty minutes. He does this everytime he takes some lamebrained American like me or a journalist or an Iraqi business man wanting to make a buck in Amman. All of this is another testimony to the patience and stoicism of the Iraqis. (Which can turn on a dime and become extraordinarily violent and fearless in dangerous situations. The mixture of stoicism at many of life’s travails and the extreme anger and violence at religious issues is very interesting)
The office that Ali and Asa’ad have rented is in the Mansour district, one of the better neighborhoods in Baghdad. The office is on Al Sabawi Road, one of the main traffic arteries in Baghdad. The offices were on the third floor. We waited the entire time I was there for telephone service and must crank a generator twice a day for power when one of the regular scheduled electrical outages occur. The unscheduled daily power outages are the ones that madden everyone.
Iraq gets very cold in the winter Without electricity no central heat. So the Iraqis rely on an array of stoves, gas fired, kerosene fired, diesel fired, heating oil fired, etc., At the office we had a diesel fired stove that doubled as a hot plate for our tea pot. It was almost identical to some that I had seen the British use in the field when I was stationed in Europe. It worked well, thank goodness because the office never really warmed up during the day.
We all pretty much stayed in one room huddled around the stove trying to warm our hands, Achmed would watch television, we had a satellite dish on the roof. Asa’ad would be on the cell phone working the crowd, I would go in one of the offices, pull the desk over so that I was sitting in the sun light and work on the computer putting together som promotional material on our Joint Venture. Ali would sit in the other office bundled up in a coat teaching himself AutoCAD and designing a house for someone. He seemed to always have a house to design for someone.
The stove kept us relatively warm and the teapot kept the office humidified. I drank about eight cups of tea a day partly for the caffiene and partly for the warmth. I went from being a six cup of coffee a day person to an eight cup of tea and a fifth of scotch person in Iraq. I wonder how I am going to react to my first cup of coffee in three weeks after drinking hot spiced and sweetened tea day and night. I will add that drinking all of that scotch did help me sleep at night with all of that caffiene in my system everyday.
When I got back to the U.S. I joked that the most dangerous thing I did in Iraq was brush my teeth. That is no small understatement. The drinking water in Baghdad when I was there was almost lethal. No one drank the tap water. The water treatment plants were grossly neglected while Saddam built all of his palaces. The sewage treatment plants were actually worse not doing any treatment due to deterioration. So the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers were huge open sewers as all of the sewers and storm drains emptied into the them. That of course explains the verdent green fields and the amazing production of the agriculture in Iraqi since every field is being irrigated with what is essentially liquid organic fertilizer. SO, you drink Coca Cola, Pepsi, Tip or Fanta or buy one of the local soft drinks(which you have to put two shots of liquor in to disinfect it) The local soft drinks are very tasty, mostly citrus based but the you cannot be completely sure the water was pure.
Historical aside, the use of alcohol as a drinking water disinfectant explains how the British were able to colonize and rule the godforsaken places and pestholes like Kenya and Afganistan without dying in droves. The extensive consumption of tea also explains how the Arabs were able to survive in the desert without dying of either dysentery or dehydration. The British drank scotch and water day and night, the arabs boiled their water for tea. As a bourbon drinker, I wish the British had learned how to boil water instead of teaching the Arabs how to drink scotch. So reading in the bible and other historic records, you suddenly understand why everyone drank wine (actually wine mixed with water or new wine) or beer, the small amounts of alcohol in the drinks killed bacteria making it safe to drink.
Another source of drinking water is beer and the Iraqis drink lots of that too as most of them cannot afford a bottle of scotch a day. (and you can’t drink bleach) I think the next time I will carry a pocket flask of bourbon with me as a disinfectant. The only concession I made to the tap water was brushing my teeth in the morning. I reasoned that there were all of these antibacterials in the tooth paste to dispose of whatever protozoa was in the few drops of water I wet the toothbrush with and also given that in the morning my bloodstream with half whiskey, I felt pretty safe doing that.
This leads to my first Baghdad moment. After being up very late with the welcoming committee being introduced to my hosts and body guard and then being regailed with stories of the family and college, jokes and sarcasm about the Saddam regime and being dispatched into a stupor by Asa’ad’s constantly filling of my glass. I awoke the next morning needing to take my medications for my thyroid, ADD and malaria (yes Martha there is malaria in Iraq as is the fact that Iraq is one of the few places on earth with reported cases of polio.) There was no bottled water, pepsi or Fanta in the house only a bottle of scotch (shudder), some Raka (stark terror) and a few cans of Heiniken’s Beer. Since I was unable to figure out how to turn on the stove with its extensive jury rigging and modifications to make tea I was forced to take my meds with stale beer. I have never been much of a morning beer drinker and that got my day off to a rousing start.
Achmed got up, demonstrated how to light the stove, similar to the old how to open the wall locker routine of Wally Cox on Mr Peepers, boiled water for tea, got out some white goat cheese, some bananas and introduced me to Iraqi bread. The bread was great, it had the consistency of pita bread but was chewy like sour dough only milder and had a pocket inside. The type we ate most often was shaped like the body of a crab, oval with ears at each end. We ate fruit from the garden and bananas.
The yard had two large mandarin orange trees, a mango tree and an olive tree. Next to our stalward Passat was a 55 gallon drum of heating oil. There were two large cats and a white kitten. The two adults must been fundementalists as they avoided me completely. The kitten was a suck up and immediately came to me demanding a pet and an ear scratch.
The trees were full of pigeons and doves. Since Saddam released huge flocks of white doves at everyone of his contrived celebrations, lots of pigeons in Baghdad came as no surprise, since few of them were white however was the surprise. The dove were astonishing. They looked like the Mourning Dove common to the U.S. in color and marking but were much larger almost the size of a pigeon and very robust. When one lit on the powerlines, the line noticably sagged under the weight. I made a mental note that two or more of these behemoths on a segment of power line could be the source of some of our power outages.
Every morning the street was full of kids, cats and trash. The Iraqis put their trash out by the gate in a wire basket for the trash collector who very rarely if ever comes. Hope does spring eternal in Baghdad and they continue to put it out there. Since the local government is still struggling in the transition with complications like traffic lights, power outages and suicide bombings, trash collection is not at the top of their to do list and collection is hit or miss (given the occational sniper, that may be a poor choice of words). The winds blow the paper and plastic and the cats and Ravens scatter the rest. The street was lined with more orange trees laden with fruit. Amil told me that in the spring and early summer before the 135 degree heat kills everything that doesn’t wear a hat, the streets will be ablaze with flowers and the orange blossoms scent the air with their perfume.
The older children ride to the middle school and the younger ones are walked by their mothers to the local elementary school. Every house seems to have at least two children so the street was full of people and chatter in the morning. The secondary and neighborhood streets in Baghdad have suffered and only the main thoroughfares have storm drains. After every rain, water stands for days. Luckily it is too cold for mosquitoes to breed or Baghdad could rival the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska for most mosquitoes per square inch. Streets are badly rutted and potholed. There is this constant ballet of jaywalking pedestrians hopping over puddles as cars zig zag up and down the streets honking at each other and shouting greetings at their neighbors.
Honking at each other is the second language in Baghdad. Everyone understands “horn speak .” Cars honk at every pedestrian they pass, they honk at each other as they pass or meet each other on the street. They honk at each other as they weave in and out of traffic squeezing and shoving their way across an intersection. Every honk has some meaning. They honk at friends, people who irritate them, the guy down the street, the cats, pretty girls, everything but the Army patrols in their humvees and the herd of sheep that was in permanent residence at the end of Al Sabawi Road. I suppose the honking certainly beat the sounds of cursing, yelling and certainly it beats gunfire, given the universal presence of the trusty AK-47 in Iraq.
Achmed initially didn’t let me out the yard because he was afraid someone would see me, mention it to someone else who would mention it to a friend and so on until Al Douri and his chums came by with flowers and Scotch. As time went on, I got to the point that tenatively venture out and wave at the neighbors and join the kids in a game of street soccer or throwing oranges at stray cats. I really felt very safe there until an Army Colonel I met asked me one day “Where in the Green Zone are you staying?” I told him I was not staying in the Green Zone it visibly startled him. He asked me where I was staying and I told him “Qadisiya”, he sat down in a chair saying they never went into that area without at least one helicopter and a platoon of infantry. Boy that does not sound like the neighborhood I was living in. I had no clue that I was living in a war zone.
It is night now and Muqlas and I are out of purgatory and driving through the Jordanian frontier. Muqlas is obviously tired and worn from the long wait in the cold and the haranging by the Jordanians. We stop in a border town for dinner and go inside to eat. The place is full of Jordanians, Iraqis, Palestinians (mostly) and one American. While it was not quite like the old E F Hutton commercial where everything stopped, I did feel a hundred pairs of eyes on me.
We had grilled chicken, some goop that was supposed to be Hummus, marinated cucumbers and tomatoes. Each portion of chicken came with two large lemon halves. Muqlas squeezed the lemon halves liberally on everything, the cucumbers, the tomato salad, the chicken and the Hummus. I guess lemon juice is some kind of disinfectant. I grabbed some bread , like the Iraqi flat bread but a wheel about 2 feet in diameter and subtly waited for Muqlas to taste the goop and see if he pitched forward on his face. He didn’t so I felt safe enough to dive into the food.
The Hummus was covered with light olive oil that added a light accent to the hummus. The chicken was very spicy and well prepared. The disinfectant added a sharp accent to the flavor of the chicken. It was a good meal and when I got the bill I was pleased to see it was cheap also. We had hot chia which gave us the jolt we needed to continue our drive into Amman.
I felt brave enough to get up from my seat and walk around, I got several nods of greeting and an occational hand to the heart of welcome. The side wall was covered with business cards and I was going to add mine. The business cards were of correspondents from about every news organization on earth. I saw Christopher Roberts of the BBC’s card. That sniveling weasel was the cheerleader for the Baathists who broadcast from Baghdad and seemed to take delight in every stray bomb and wounded goat that occurred. He was the one that reported that terrible incident in the market as a U.S. Cruise Missile, when I had eyewitnesses tell me it was covered in Arabic writing and obviously a SAM that had missed and fallen back on the city.
That explains a lot to me, seeing the cards on the wall. Journalists like good food cheap and cheap good food. The fact that this dive straight from the cantina scene in Starwars was a hang out for the media during the preliminaries then the food was good, the portions large, cheap and safe for western consumption.
Wait, I am in Jordan now, no wait, the water is still a crap shoot. I stick my business card on the wall next to a Japanese correspondent. A professional amoung thieves I thought.
Muqlas and I took off again and then stopped in the next town for some turkish coffee. Obviously the chia had not given my man Muqlas the jolt he felt he needed to continue driving. He had to be very alert in the Jordanian wilderness, which it was. On the drive in I got a very good look at the Jordanian desert, more rock than sand and lots of volcanic looking black rock everywhere. Even harsher looking than the pink and orange sands of western Iraq.
The road from the Iraqi border that connects the main highway to Baghdad to the main highways in Jordan is a two lane highway. It is a big problem with all of the truck traffic that already exists. Contemplating the magnitude of the rebuilding program soon to begin in Iraq. This road is going to become even more inadequate than it already is and the Jordanian and Iraqi customs and border police are going to have to streamline their processes or be overwhelmed by the shear numbers of trucks of building material and equipment and van loads of fools like me headed for Iraq. You have to drive over 100 km to the nearest 4 lane main highway.
Muqlas offers me a cigarette. I have started smoking again, dammit. Cigarettes are another part of the Iraqi social and business etiquette. It seems that everyone who breaths smokes in Iraq. Every street corner has at least two cigarette vendors. They have Iraqi cigarettes, Jordanian cigarettes, UAE cigarettes and Kuwaiti cigarettes. Naturally everyone complains about how lousy the Kuwaiti cigarettes are. Iraqi cigarettes vary in quality from our light cigarettes to some that are so mild they have no taste and then to the ones made from camel stray or goat dung which though more flavorful that the others are almost too much. They think Marlboros are too strong and the Dunhills I brought in gave them a real buzz.
But you smoke everytime you have a meeting or drink tea or drink scotch and all the time in between. Everytime you have a meeting you are expected to offer a cigarette to your host and he offers one to you and then you light up. Cigarettes and tea are the tone setters for the meeting. Cigarettes and tea during the day, cigarettes and Scotch at night.
One night in Baghdad, Achmed and I went shopping on the way home. We bought beautiful bananas from Ecudor, some white Iraqi cheese that may have been goat cheese. Everyone warned me away from eating dairy products in Iraq. I avoided everything but the cheese and luckily I am still functioning.
We bought some chicken spam. As moslem countries do not even import pork you see lots of imitation bacon, ham, sausage and spam made with turkey or chicken for the westerns. Finally we stopped at this hole in the wall bakery near the house for our bread. The baker had this big clay oven and a pile of scrap wood probably salvaged from some construction site. The crab shaped bread was still steaming hot from the oven and was puffed up like good Santa Fe Soppapillas. While Achmed conducted the business I stood there and scratched the cat on the ears and smelled the bread. Driving back to the house, I could stand it no longer and broke one of the breads open and shared it with Achmed.
Physically the Iraqi people are a very handsome people and fall into three types. The classic Bedouins who are tall, thin, dark complected, hook noses, black eyes and hair and an overall look of being carved from dark walnut. The bedouins are formidable and have this disconcerting tendancy to look through you not at you as if they can read your mind and see your soul. The office building manager hired this tough old bird of a bedouin to be the building security guard. He was about 6-3 and thin as pipe. He had fought in Iran and in Kuwait. He hated Saddam as he had fought bravely but had been imprisoned because he had been captured by the Americans rather than being killed. He had been wounded twice fighting Iran, as his story went. I gave him cigarettes everyday and he was very talkative with me in broken english.
The next group of Iraqis are the classic arabs. Very handsome men, beautiful even breathtaking women with fair complexions and large dark eyes. We ate lunch at this one restaurant called Raleh Al Alam. The maitre’d was one of the most beautiful men I had ever seen, movie star handsome. The classic arabs are tall with broad shoulders and high cheek bones.
The third group are the one I would call Semetic or sumerian. They looked very much in appearance and proportion to the sumerian sculptures I saw in a museum in Germany. Shorter than the bedouins and arabs, very broad shoulders, thick hands and heavy bone structure. They had large noses and soft probing eyes. They were very soft spoken as a group and very intelligent. Of course all of the Iraqis are very intelligent and very well educated.
Both Ali Nouri Hassan and Asa’ad Madhi Al-Saleh had me over to their homes for dinner. Adam Davidson said that if I ever received an invitation to an Iraqi home it meant that I was a trusted companion. Adam also said that Iraqi women were lights out in the kitchen as they were fabulous cooks and would put out an incredible meal.
At both homes, we had roast meat and rice, although this time the rice was cooked with pine nuts and white raisins. There were a variety of egg plant dishes both roasted and pickeled in brine and served cold and cooked in casseroles with onions and tomatoes. If you go to Iraq, I hope you like eggplant. At Ali’s home, we had chicken for the main meat. At both homes we had a potato patty dish that I had never seen before. They were flat round portions that were stuffed with spiced meat and this browned in oil. And there were the myriad of pickled vegatables, carrots, green pepper, califlower, onions and beans. Dessert at both homes was candy made of honey, milk and sesame seeds. I think it had bees wax in it as it was hard and it was served like fudge. This was delicious. I would have eaten the entire plate if I had not been stuffed from the cornacopia of wonderful food at dinner which I ate several helpings of to be a good and courteous guest.
I have to say that I have never had food as good as this in any of my travels. Iraqi food is noticably different from the Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian foods I had eaten in the past.
Muqlas and I are in the outskirts of Amman. There is electricity!!!!
By decree, all of the buildings in Amman are built of stone. The stone varies in color from off white to a pink or flesh colored stone with dark reddish orange streaks. Amman is a very hilly city much like Seattle or San Francisco. Driving in Amman is very adventureous as I mentioned earlier. The stores are full of people shopping to get to my drop off point to go to the airport, we had to go through the shopping district. I noticed that the driving is a lot like Baghdad except the traffic lights work and people do not honk at everything that moves.
Since the Jordanian authorities, with some good reason, do not let vehicles with Iraqi license plates go to the airport, we go to the limosine service office where I am served more tea and cigarettes. Ali, the local manager, works for sky-net which does freight forwarding for DHL into Iraq. While I am watching music videos and having an out of body experience watching Beyonce dance partially clad, Ali calls one of his freight drivers and tells him as near as I can tell to get his butt in there and take this idiot to the airport before he changes his mind and wants to go back to Iraq.
Sultan the driver arrives, another tall bedouin much like Muqlas. Sultan is a palestinian, judging from his red head scarf. He speaks good english and knew a lot of jokes I had not heard so we laughed and told jokes to each other and shared cigarettes on the way to Queen Alia International Airport. Sultan drove very well, staying between the white lines and using his turn signals. I did notice the Combi we were in did not have rear view mirrors. I had noticed in Iraq that few cars had rear view mirrors and thought that the only way a traffic cop in Iraq could pull someone over given the noise of honking and the lack of rear view mirrors would be to shoot out their tires. As if there are any traffic laws being enforced or observed anyway.
Sultan stops the combi unloads my luggage, refuses a tip and then throws me to that pack of camel thief porters lurking at the airport. I wish I had brought my Colt back from Iraq so I could have shot a few of them and made the odds a little better. After ten minutes of furious hand to hand combat with the porters (I was desparate for Achmed’s AK to speak the truth) I checked my bags, to through four different check points and customs and Immigration.
The Jordanian Immigration Officer is a nice handsome man, he noted with some interest that I was returning from Iraq and asks me several questions about the conditions. He also asks me when I will return to Jordan and if I had enjoyed my stay. As I left he said that I should come back soon and stay longer in Jordan.
At Queen Alia, you go through x-ray machines and metal detectors to get into the terminal, then you go through another set of metal detetctors to get to the ticket counter. After you have your bags checked you go through a check point and another set of metal detectors to get to the boarding gate. It was tedious but very comforting. Another thing they do is double check your ticket against your passport in two different data bases. One has the reservation in it and the other is some kind of date base that checks your passport and issues your boarding passes. American airport security should be this good or this well organized. There really were not any significant delays getting through this.
I board the plane and I continue writing for awhile as boarding is completed. When we take off the KLM pilot puts the nose of the plane almost straight up with the engines screaming. It is the steepest ascent on takeoff I have ever made. We climb like this for it seemed five minutes. I think it is some kind of terrorist with a missile launcher avoidance manuver.
Once we are airborne, I wrap up in a blanket and sleep till they serve breakfast. More of that vast dutch supply of bread going up and down the aisles in baskets. I had two good cups of my first real coffee since landing in Amman three weeks earlier. I think I might be drinking more tea and less coffee from now on although the coffee tasts wonderful.
We land light as a feather, obviously they don’t hire many U.S. Navy pilots, at Schaipol Airport. I go to an internet café to check e-mail and send messages to friends and family that I am safely out of Iraq and almost halfway home. I download about a hundred messages from my business e-mail about half from people to whom I had given business cards at the exhibition in Amman. When I receive my bill for internet time for the equivalent of $17 for a little less than an hour of use, I realize the baggage porters at Queen Alia have relatives in Holland.
I am in a coffee shop now, drinking a cup of $3.50 coffee, about the same as it cost in the Grand Hyatt. I go to the mens room and am shocked to find toilet paper, clean floors, no trash and urinals that do not smell and flush on the first try. I guess I am back in civilization. Schaipol is the best airport I have ever been in even considering the bandits at the internet café. It has more services, amenities and shops than any airport I have ever been in.
It is foggy here at the airport and my flight boards in 30 minutes. When you come to Amsterdam, schiapol is a large airport. It is very linear in layout with long distances to walk. They have motorized walkways everywhere which helps but it deos take a long time to get to the gate. Walking to my gate I see lots of Northwest Airlines jets lined up and I arrive at my gate with apprehension and am relieved to see the big two toned blue KLM 747 hunkered at the gate.
I have saved my thoughts and impressions of the American men and women serving in Iraq in both military and civilian capacities to the end. They are a very hard working energetic and are all very impressive from the Colonels I talked with to the PFC guarding a gas station who came over to talk to me. They are all a nice bunch of kids, heavy emphasis on kids, young men and women. They are doing a very difficult job of trying to build a country literally from scratch and shift through 18 million Iraqis for the few thousand dead enders, insurgents, Jihadists, Iranians, Syrians and Saudis trying to short circuit what we, the U.S. and most definitely the Iraqis, are trying to do in Iraq.
I was most struck by the soldiers. The first was a kid from Fort Riley Kansas guarding a gas station near our office and the second was a sergeant with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment who helped me when Achmed and I got lost. Neither had been out of the green zone and were very interested in what I had seen in Baghdad in the “Red Zone .” The Sergeant said he had not been allowed out of the compound surrounding the Al Rasheed hotel for four months. It showed in his eyes.
I spent three days in the Green Zone going from office to office and building to building. The Green Zone is essentially the old Saddam Presidential Compound and Government offices along the Tigris river, containing two of Saddam’s palaces and all of the ministry buildings we saw being bombed on the ten o’clock news. As to be expected most of the buildings were bomb damaged. It was interesting to stand and look first hand at what a 2000 pound smart bomb actually does to a reinforced concrete five storey building.
Access to the Green Zone is limited to four check points. The first day we went through the check point most of the people use. Everyone, the Iraqis, the soldiers, me were very tense and the security had been screwed up to a higher level. The bombings at the middle school in Kerbalah and the police station down town had occurred just that morning.
I observed every day I was there the security get progressively tighter and tighter as the number of check points were reduced. There were tanks at every check point and sandbagged fighting positions with machineguns. By Saturday, the day I went there for my first meeting, they were not letting any Iraqi civilian cars into the Green Zone without a CPA sticker and a thorough inspection. Luckily, there is a shuttle bus between the Baghdad Convention Center where most of the commercial offices are and the Presidential Palace where most of the CPA administration hides.
Even with the shuttle buses you have to walk very long distances on foot. Asa’ad and I went together the first day as he had a CPA sticker on his car. We went to several offices. It was a bit disheartening. We had been told in Amman by CPA representatives to come to Iraq, make contacts with the local businesses and they would welcome us with open arms. More like open distain. It was not the case for certain at the Central Contracting Office where we went and the Contracting Officers would not even come here our briefing on our joint ventures but sent a very polite Iraqi engineer to hear our presentation and collect our brochures.
At the Iraqi Procurement Center, the Corps of Engineers Offices, there were two people there. The contracting officers were all out. I left letters of introduction explaining our new Iraqi-American Joint Venture, brochures, business cards and telephone numbers. They promised me that one of the contracting officers would call or e-mail us. I am still waiting. Many of the agencies which I needed to call on were in the Presidential Palace.
No one was allowed in without a CPA identification card or an escort and you had to go into the palace to get the ID card AND there was no way to get any telephone numbers to make calls to get an escort. I was surprised that an American Passport, blue eyes and a Texas Drawl was not enough to identify me as a business man and not a terrorist. So much for open arms and ready access to the CPA.
In our search for someone to acknowledge our efforts and listen to us, we walked and saw quite a bit of the Saddam’s private world. It was sad that I could not take any pictures. Signs everywhere explaining that photography was forbidden. It was a lot like Neverland on Steroids. Everywhere you looked were elegant and very expensive structures. There were highly decorative bronze gates, elaborate wrought iron fencing, concrete walls with Sumerian and Babylonian designs all stretching for hundreds if not thousands of yard along every street and along the river. Every intersection and entrance to the area had a gate house with Assyrian decoration and domes and extensive tile work.
The small Central Contracting Office (CMCC) building was finished inside and out, floors, walls and ceilings with white marble. Even the water closets and urinals in the bathrooms were carved from white marble. The Corps IPC office was pink limestone and the interior floors were multicolors marble designs and the walls were hard wood paneling.
The second day, Adam Davidson had returned from Amman and contacted me. He said he would show me around the Convention Center in exchange for an interview and a story on americans coming to do business in Iraq.
We met on the 14th of July Bridge at a checkpoint. The 14th of July Bridge is one of the major arteries across the Tigris river. The CPA in their infinite wisdom has closed the bridge to all traffic creating havoc with the morning and evening rush hours cutting off traffic to the central business district of Baghdad and the train station.
Since we had to walk across the bridge, it makes get to the Convention Center a very long walk. I was very unhappy with the previous day and as Adam and I walked through the usual inspections, ID checks, frisking, etc., I vented long and hard. Adam had the same impression that I did, that Americans coming to Iraq to partner with locals would be well received and welcomed enthusiastically.
Adam knew the routine in the Green Zone very well. As soon as we got through the check point, an Iraqi with a CPA sticker stopped and picked us up. It became a very consistent pattern that day that as Adam and I hitchhiked around the Green Zone. The GMC’s, Land Cruisers and Expeditions of the CPA, KBR, et.al. would never even slow down, but an Iraqi would never pass us. Even if they did not pick us up they would stop roll down the window and inquire as to our health and apologize. Usually not giving us a ride was due to having their wife or daughter in the car.
I am sure though that an Iraqi man might throw his mother in law out to give an American a ride. Adam would thank them profusely in Arabic and I would pass around cigarettes.(I had been told in Amman that western cigarettes would be a big hit in Iraq and had purchased two cartons of Dunhills at the Jordanian duty free shop at the border. As my peace offerings dwindled my supply I wished that I had purchased three cartons.)
We went to the Convention Center, which had two check points. An ID check, a frisking and a bag check at the shuttle bus drop off and also at the main door to the convention center. We could chat and joke with the Iraqi NPS guys doing the baggage checks and the frisking. I told one that I thought he enjoyed frisking people too much, he laughed and quickly came back saying that was why he took the job….with a wink. The two American soldiers were grim faced, polite glad to see other Americans and shook my hand as I came through the check point and they recognized that I was not some official with the CPA. They were always very polite and they looked great, almost like a recruiting poster.
In the Convention Center, are the Commercial Offices of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Iraqi Business Center (IBC) which acts as a liaison between U.S. firms and Iraqi firms and also as a clearing house for projects and contracts. The Commercial Office offers assistance and advice to American businessmen. The two Iraqi assistants to the Commercial Officer came over when they saw Adam and I as we had met and had a couple of beers together at the Exhibition in Amman. One of them, mentioned that I should register with the U.S. Consulate Office. I asked where it was located.
I had been in Iraq for almost a week by this time and had not found anyone besides Adam and them who knew where it was. It was in the Convention Center conveniently hidden one floor down without any direction signs and closed for Martin Luther King’s Birthday. A National Holiday, I understand but I could wind up face down in a ditch or spread all over two blocks of Baghdad and I was annoyed at the lack of information, names, telephone numbers or even a way to slip a ransom note under the door.
There were at least seven agencies of the U.S. Government and two prime contractors claiming to need assistance in the Convention Center and there was no building directory, information desk, signs, bells to ring or bugles to blow, a signal flare would have gotten me shot. I wondered if setting myself on fire would get me any attention. Except for the kind gentlemen and ladies in the Commercial Office I felt I could be walking around naked and not be noticed.
Adam took me around and we managed to stumble across the Bechtel Offices, which alledgedly were looking for U.S. and Iraqi firms to register with them to do work. They were only open from 8 to 12. We went to the Iraqi Business Center which gave us our firm good hard information. I got some telephone numbers and e-mail addresses in the Ministry of Health, since I was wanting to do healthcare work, I was ecstatic. Those were the best information I got the entire time I was there and they opened doors for us that would have never even FOUND with out them.
We went to the U.S. AID offices and were told that everything had been contracted to a large company called “Crown .” We managed to hunt down and ambush a couple of project managers from “Crown” and were told that they had all the contractors they needed and did not have any information they were willing or interested in providing to us. Rumor has it that “Crown” had subcontracted the lot to the much beloved and appreciated Kuwaitis.
In sharp contrast to the desolute reception given to American Businessmen, CPA has built a state of the art media center for the visiting press. Each registered member of the press gets a private cubicle with lockable desk and unlimited free broadband internet access. I was shocked by the lack of music, food, dancing girls and liquor which I felt was a crass and illmannered afront to the fifth estate. I quizzed a young Captain about the possibility of providing a similar way station for american business men and he said they had one but had turned it over to the Public Affairs Officers.
Adam and I left the Convention Center and began hitchhiking our way to the 14th of July Bridge. I was muttering under my breath. With all of the technology that the media has why did they have to have a free private office and internet access. They even had free bottled water. As was the case with the arrival, hitchhiking only produced stares from the Americans and an immediate ride from the Iraqis.
And so it went everyone of the four days I was in the Green Zone. I was always glad to back into the real world of Baghdad and see food on the street corners and smell lamb roasting in the shops.
The morning before I left, Amil came over to our side of the duplex in tears. He said “Mr. Jim, I am losing another son just like Achmed’s two older brothers in the United States.” He threw his arms around me and wept and kissed my cheeks. I asked him for the priviledge of taking a picture of him and his wife. He rushed next door to change and came back dressed to the teeth in a very fine three piece suit with an English silk tie and a silk pocket handkerchief. His wife was also finely dressed and very handsome. I took their picture and pictures of Achmed and his two children.
The night before everyone had come over to give me one last hangover. I put the bottle of Cognac on the table which Asa’ad and Amil politely treated like rat poison and a fresh bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch (oh expletive deleted I am in for it). Achmed was sent down the street to get some fresh bread, cheese and some meat. He went down the street to the local sheep rustler. Amil brought over ice and some pickled vegatables.
Asa’ad arrived with a perplexed look on his face. He had been missing in action all day, not a difficult feat though in a country with marginal telephone service and constant rotating power outages. He had been on a job walk since early that morning at the airport, a difficult task, it was easier to get one on one with Paul Bremer than it was to get into the airport. The civil engineer I had met at Asa’ad’s house when we had dinner had a project to design two combat training auditoriums. He wanted “us,” as in Ali, Asa’ad and me, to do the project. A full set of plans and specifications were needed and it had to be a U.S. standard type training theater.
In the midst of this hubbub, Ali arrived followed by Achmed with three large platters of what was thought to be sheep. The meat was very light in color and finer textured than lamb and I asked Achmed who or what this was. Ali comforted us with the story of a road side meat grille near Hilla that had been closed down for awhile. They had been killing wild donkeys and serving them to the public. I personally thanked Ali for his comforting words and increased the amount of whiskey I used to wash down the meat (?)
I drank the vile and poisonous brandy while Amil and Asa’ad dispatched the scotch. When we were in rousing good humor and well fed, we began to talk business about the project. I unlimbered my lap top and opened up a cost estimating data base I kept. It luckily included information on auditoriums and classroom buildings. We modeled the building on a systems cost basis and then began to convert the dollars per square foot into dollars per square meter to dinar per square meter.
A lot of zeroes started showing up as a square meter is about 10 times the area of a square foot and the official exchange rate for Iraqi Dinars is 1500 to the dollar. SO a building that would cost $118 per square foot suddenly became a 1,902,000 dinar per square meter building. No mean feat for two men at 1 a.m. on mystery meat and alcohol.
While I was still able to walk and speak a language recognizable as English, I went outside and called my family on the Thuraya Satellite phone. A really nifty and impressive piece of technology except you have to go outside to use it and make sure you keep the antenna pointed in the general direction of the satellite to get a good connection. The real excitement with using a Thuraya is the thick antenna that is about the thickness and length of a gun barrel making a Thuraya with the antenna extended resemble a pistol or small automatic weapon. So don’t use your Thuraya near military convoys or wave it at troops. Anyway, you can call anywhere in the world anytime on one of them. I got a connection and it was good and clear. I confirmed that I had indeed made reservations with a limosine service to go to Amman.
I thought I was hearing applause in the background over the phone when I realized that an Army helicopter was hovering over our neighborhood. To confound my call home (using much the same technology as E.T.) as patrol of Humvees came down the street, swiveling machineguns menacingly at the stray cats, kids playing soccer and me. As mentioned earlier, a Thuraya in marginal light can get you into serious difficulty, I slowly and carefully continued talking as I eased myself into the house as I said goodbye. When I came back outside all of the neighbors, cats included, came out to see what the excitement was and of course look at the americans. I suspect the neighbors expected me to be drug off in chains, this mysterious visitor that was the only stranger in the neighborhood.
The patrol went to the dead end of our street and stopped. They dismounted and began searching the vacant lot full of trash and olive trees. I was amazed that they were in the neighborhood where I stayed.
I was also deeply concerned that if some shooting did indeed break out, many of these neighbors could be an inadvertent casualty of war. So I asked Achmed to politely and without alarming anyone to tell them to get indoors before the Americans shot them all as terrorists. Achmed and most of the neighbors (who spoke English) laughed at the joke. This did clear the street except for one stray cat at which I threw an orange in keeping with the neighborhood tradition.
The patrol left after walking the length of the street. I said hello to them from inside the yard and enjoyed the look of surprise on the sergeants face as he heard an american voice in such an unexpected place. After completing their sweep they went back to the Humvees and left. I had held out some hope they would make them selves useful and take out the trash while they were in the neighborhood. The helicopter continued to circle the neighborhood for some time to insure that to disturb everyone’s drinking and my number crunching on the computer.
In the midst of all of this, I had a flash back to the Colonel I met with in the Ministry of Health telling me my neighborhood was “hot” and how they made social calls in Qadisiya where I lived.
So between Amil, Ali, Asa’ad, and the U.S. Army I got a rousing send off that night.
I have to reflect here on the completely surreal nature of Iraq. Achmed and I often took side trips to different parts of town, Achmed to look for girls and me to sightsee. On prayer day, we went through the Kerada and Kerbalah districts. It was just a normal shopping day for the locals, much like a Sunday afternoon in Detroit or any other big city with the streets full of cars, shoppers and buildings being built. And then you go home at night and stop by the good old neighborhood bakery and see three Bradley fighting vehicles and a M-1 tank parked in the front door of you bakery. So we drove out and around the entire area as they had it cordoned off, taking about 30 minutes. Then we came back to the bakery and stood at a safe distance checking our watches and smoking wondering when they would get out of the way so we could buy bread.
I can say that from what I saw and the people I talked to, Iraq is not Viet Nam. We have the general support of the vast majority of the people. They are glad Saddam is gone.They are tired of having no electricity because some thug in Falluja blows up the main power transmission line from Jordan and they want traffic lights and the trash picked up.
The citizens in Baghdad almost to a man, everyone I talked to, felt we had made a mistake not going into the Sunni Triangle and razing Falluja to the ground when we first went into Baghdad. They say we should have not stopped “the world’s longest drive by shooting until we got to the Syrian border. The people in Falluja are almost universally hated in Baghdad. It is where many member of the Special Republican Guard, the Security Police, Intelligence and bureaucrats in the Ba’ath Party organization lived. Saddam was gone, the gravy train was over and they were now common bandits and terrorists. Robbing travelers on the road to Amman and blowing up power lines for scrap metal.
But kidding aside, I was in a terrorist environment. You can have the support of 20 million Iraqis and have a thousand criminals willing to shoot American soldiers for $100,000 each and you have a major problem more on the police work level than a war level. The Ba’athists have a lot of money, still. It was estimated that Al Douri had over $100 million in cash which can buy lots of Simtec, bullets and pay a lot of bounties for dead soldiers.
Compounding this is a history changing geopolitical chess game known as a free and democratic Iraq. A free, successful, prosperous democracy in Iraq immediately puts the regimes in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran at risk. There were numerous rumors flying around Baghdad that most of the problems with bombings smacked more of interfraticidinal action between extremists in the Sunni and Shia or at the worst of human nature designed to terrorize the civilians. The bombing in Kerbalah on the 14th killed 20 school aged children and maimed dozens more. That bombing inscensed the Iraqis. The bombing in front of the police station this last Saturday in Mosul (January 24th) killed 20 civilians. The bombing in Mosul was clearly aimed at disrupting the local electrions. The Iranians, Syrians, Saudi,Kuwaitis and other jihadist malcontents that come across the border will be a problem for a long time.
And about oil, the war was not about oil but it was about oil. We went into Iraq to end the rule of a dangerous brutal regime, not to get oil. But the oil in Iraq stands the middle east on its head. Saddam never really did any development of the infrastructure or the oil production in Iraq during his rule. There are explorations which indicate that Iraq may have more oil reserves, undeveloped, than Saudi Arabia. A pro western, democratic reliable source of oil in the Middle East renders all of the oil in Saudi Arabia worthless for diplomatic black mail or international brinksmanship. The Saudis no longer can play their duplicitious game with us of being our ally and giving money and safe havens to our enemies. Not to mention the wide spread export of the Islamic Jihadic Army and Wahabism.
I had one U.S. officer tell me they were killing or capturing more Iranians in recent weeks than Iraqis. It was enough to make you think we were fighting Iran and not Ba’athist holdouts. The Iraqis would say in frustration that they wanted the rest of the Arab world to get their hands off Iraq and let them alone. They joked that the Iranians came to die in combat, the Syrians to collect a bounty on an American and the Saudis came to blow themselves up.
The amount of violence in Iraq does not reflect how the Iraqis feel about Americans. But put with the amount of weaponry, explosives and other war material so easily available in Iraq, a terrorist campaign funded by reminents of Saddam’s regime and their dwindling funds could go on for a long time.
So the comic and surreal scene of Bradleys in your front yard and tanks in front of the corner bakery continues in Iraq. Imagine a soldier guarding a gas station in Baton Rouge or a Humvee in the drive through at McDonald’s in Denver or even a light armored vehicle stuck in rush hour traffic in Philadelphia and you get some sense of how odd it all is.
I was a celebrity at the local neighborhood internet café near the office. I would go there to check e-mail and search for information on upcoming projects and send notes to friends and family that the guy they paid the money to had missed and there would be no insurance check.
People in the neighborhood would come in and introduce themselves to the American, “Mr Ghem .” They would give me cigarettes, candy, pepsi and practice their english on me. Two big guys came by with a small flask of scotch and some flowers (socially acceptable and not a comment on the sexual orientation of either the giver or the receiver). I had guys show me pictures of their sisters. They were warm and friendly and full of energy. It was a wonderful welcome from a population that had every reason and excuse to be mean spirited, sullen and hateful when quite the opposite is the case. Achmed has two older brothers, not counting me the honorary one, who fled the limited opportunities in Iraq for the U.S. years ago.
I helped him set up a Yahoo e-mail account and showed him how to use Yahoo Instant Messenger. We found their e-mail addresses and sent them a note. I took pictures of Achmed and his children and e-mailed them to his brothers. You can only imagine what it is like to receive an e-mail from someone, a brother you have not seen or heard from in 25 years. This was not possible under the Saddam regime. This simple “Ali, it is me your brother Achmed” going across the wires from Iraq to Missouri and a thousand places like that everyday in Iraq that personifies the new freedom the Iraqis have.
I heard literally dozens of horrifying stories of the random and brutal violence and oppression that was there. Almost everyone I talked to had a story of a brother, a sister, a neighbor or a coworker being jailed, beaten, tortured, raped, executed or interrogated. Amil, a high ranking minister made a wrong turn and wound up at Saddam’s private entrance to the Presidential palace. It was only the random kindness of an Iraqi General that kept him alive. Use of that drive was punishable by death and Amil had written his own death sentence making a wrong turn in rush hour traffic. Ali’s boss was the Minister of Planning, he went to a meeting with Saddam and was arrested and beheaded. People were afraid to hold meetings or talk to each other for weeks.
Saddam Hussein killed over a million Iraqi soldiers in the war with Iran. Amil says that over a million more disappeared and were killed and buried in the desert. On a percentage basis that is the population of New York City being executed in the U.S..
Add to that another one million Ali’s, Mohammed’s and Achmed’s who fled Iraqi with their excellent educations and skills sorely needed in Iraq and you get some idea of the impact the Saddam regime had on Iraq.
Finally Iraq is one of the few places in the world with recorded cases of Polio. In the years that Saddam was building 16 billion dollar palaces under the corrupt sponsorship of the UN, the infant mortality rate in Iraq rose to 37.4 deaths per 1000 live births. In comparison, the U.S. has a rate of 0.04 per thousand.
Every Iraqi said to me that this is the greatest thing we as a nation have ever done. The Iraqis do not care about weapons of mass destruction, they talk of sons buried in the desert or fled to America. They talk of years in prison, missing relatives and gruesome executions and public rapes.
Another thought about the U.S. presence. The Iraqis are very confused as to why the Americans do not come out of the Green Zone so they can be welcomed, and thanked. I think the U.S. authorities should let the soldiers out and allow them to socialize with the locals. The Iraqis have this code of honor, if you are a guest in their house you are a member of their family and they will not betray you. Proclaiming your self the guest of your enemy can get you some protection and buy you some safety.
I think that letting the americans mix and mingle with the locals, date the local women, marry and socialize with the Iraqis will actually help the war on terrorism. The Iraqis will see we are basically good people with honest intentions and we would starting getting information. Every day we stay hunkered down in the Green Zone we are looking more and more like like an occupation.
Finally, the U.S. took 20,000 casualties in Germany after the armistice was signed. The dead enders in the Nazi party ambused patrols, set off bombs, shot at soldiers well into 1948. The same will be true in Iraq. We will continue to take casualties until the Ba’athists and the dead enders from the Saddam regime are killed or captured.
I intend to go back to Iraq to do business and enjoy the people. I have a dozen e-mail addresses of Iraqis who want to keep the relationship alive. And I have a note from Amil who calls me his Fourth Son and wishes that I return soon.
I also want to thank my boss for understanding this wild adventure that did not turn out to be so wild for the opportunity to go develop business in Iraq. I owe thanks to my family for their love and prayers. I also owe thanks to a collection of friends who sent me e-mails, funny jokes, pictures and silly conversation to keep my spirits up. Iraq is a long ways from home but Iraq is a fine place with vast potential and a fine people who have the potential to change history much in the same way they shaped it under Sargon the Second or Nebuccanezzar the Great.