Friday, February 27, 2004

Walk-about town

Our Principal decided to go on a walk through town today to meet some local shopkeepers and act the part of the politician he plays. (FYI - he is also referred to as the CPA Administrator, or by his official title of "Ambassador, CPA South," which includes the subserviant city CPA's in Al Nasiriyah, Samawa, and Al Amara). My entire security team felt this was a little risky, but obviously, we can only advise the principal of the potential threat of walking into town. Our primary concern is that everyone we encounter is an unscreened individual; unknown Iraqi's, former Ba'ath party officials, and former soldiers who've since blended into society. However, unless we know of a specific, direct threat posed against him, we still have to follow his wishes. Fortunatley, our CPA compound is also shared by a Brigade of British soldiers, who routinely patrol the city by foot and by vehicle. We quickly contacted the British S-3 officer who happily informed us which squads were patrolling certain areas the principal was interested in. By hook and by crook, we were able to liaison with a squad in town and join forces during the Principal's walk-about.The city market is a very hectic, crowded area set against the Euphrates River, known locally as the Shatt al Arab. The market is comprised of hundreds of small shops crowded in dirty alleyways, selling various items such as cloth, silk, seeds and herbs, carpets, and all sorts of electronic goods, proving capitalism is surely abound in Iraq. Some areas of the market span 20 or 30 feet wide, while other alleyways are only wide enough for 1 or 2 people to squeeze through. The alleys are criss-crossed with electrical wires so densely that you wonder how nobody is electrocuted when it rains. We stopped and greeted a number of local shopkeepers, as the Ambassador actually speaks Arabic and wanted to reassure the locals that the CPA is doing it's best to provide security for the people of Iraq. Numerous Iraqi's mentioned they were concerned about the violence in the city, to include IED's and gunfire which erupts nightly. However, they were all very impressed that a non-Arab could speak arabic, and more importantly, would venture out amongst them.The Ambassador took several minutes to stop in a small, dirty shop aout the size of a walk-in closet and have tea with an elderly Iraqi. Of course, Muslim culture dictates that you join them if offered, as it would be an insult to tunr them down. With one hand on my M-4 and the other delicately balancing my tea cup, I managed to keep an eye of the rooftops and the adjacent alley while still attempting to maintain the civility expected by our host. A sip or two is all that is required to show your appreication of their hospitality, although I hear many of the local teas contain traces of opium, which wouldn't fare too well on my next urinalysis!The biggest problem we faced during the hour long stroll was not potential IED's or suicide bombers, however. Actually, our biggest problem was the hundreds of children running in and out of our formation, trying with all their might to engage us in conversation and take our attention off of our Principal. During one brief stop, a local Iraqi who spoke English told me not to let the children get too close, for they were all little "Ali Baba's", or thieves, waiting for their chance to take something from us. In addition to our M-4 machine guns, each of us wears a drop-rig thigh holster containing a 9mm pistol, which seemed to be of great interest to the kids. Thankfully, they all have special locking mechanisms which keep anyone from being able to snathc the pistol from it's holster.Our walk-about ended without any problems, and we were all thankful to get back into our armored SUV's for the trip back to the compound. While the Ambassador's ventures certainly go a long way in assuring the Iraqi population that we as a coalition are tying our best, his outings surely provide my teamates and I with some tense moments as we weave trhough the crowds scanning for possible trouble.We are off to visit a local Police Training academy in the Al Maqil district of Basra (about a 30 minute car ride) tommorow. After hearing of today's bombing in Iraq which killed 50 Iraqi police and trainee's, it will be interesting to see if the population of the academy has decreased in the last 12 hours.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

A trip to An Nasiriyah

Just a few details of my visit to Nasiriyah and Samawa over the last 2 days...Was headed out from Basra to Nasiriyah yesterday morning. If you recall, this was the town where POW Jessica Lynch was rescued by US Marines. Our route to Nasiriya was approximately 60 miles. We passed numerous convoys of military machinery, gasoline tankers and trailers containing pre-fab shelters (like construction trailers) to be used by occupying troops. The convoys included American, Dutch, Romanian and Japanese security forces. It's pretty amazing to see Japanese forces in action, as they have not deployed to another country since the end of WWII. We arrived at the CPA in Nasiriyah mid afternoon to discuss some information with the staff regarding a previous mortar attack against one of the CPA's. Following the meeting, we continued on to an area west of Nasiriyah where the Dutch have a contingent of Marines and some Dutch Army soldiers. We spent the night there in some of those comfortable pre-fab trailers, which seem to have replaced the standard GP tents I got used to in the Marine Corps. Ahh, progress! The Dutch served us a fine dinner by the best looking female solders I have ever laid eyes on. Of course, they are all 6 feet tall and blonde, and probably all named Inga or Helga or somthing like that! Sorry, I digress. After a healthy nap, we departed for Samawa to meet some other individuals at the CPA Samawa. FYI...Each major town in Iraq has a CPA (Coalition Provisional AUthority), which permits the Coalition to administer the law in the town until such time it can be taken over by the locals. However, only 6 towns have actual CPA Ambassadors or Administrators, such as the one I work for in Basrah. All of the others are primarily military HQ's for Coalition troops who administer the law in that particular area. Our visit to Samawa was highlighted with a windshield and walking tour of Samawa from a couple of Dutch Marines who work at the CPA. There were 8 of us, including the Dutch, and we were all very security conscious (and heavily armed, of course). It was very interesting to see a town which had not only suffered from heavy fighting between the US forces and the Sadaam Fedayeen, but also from equally horrible destruction caused by the troops of Sadaam Hussein himself after the Gulf war, in reprisal for the locals rising against him after the Gulf War loss. In the short time I have been here, I have seen more poverty and hopelessness than I cared to experience. Unfortunately, it will take an entirely new generation of Iraqi's before society here can truly exist under our interpretation of freedom. The current generation has suffered so much under Hussein's rule and lived under such constant threat of torture that they will never fully trust us or any other force that promises freedom and hope. I can only hope the children we see will grow up differently. Al of them greet us with smiles and "thumbs up", and all seem to desparately want to communicate with us using any broken english they can.Our trip home was long and uneventful. We just missed a visit by Prince Charles, who visited his troops at the CPA in Basra only hours before our arrival. Since our return, we have been hearing the constant popping of AK-47 rounds beyond the compound walls, which hopefully relate to the celebration of a wedding and not the threats of troublemakers.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Arrival February 2004

Finally got in country 2 days ago. The ride in from Kuwait was quite interesting and a litle pucker factor was present the whole way. The compound here is pretty nice. We are living in CONEX boxes, 2 to a box (sort of like what you see put onto container ships). There is a bathroom in the middle of each box, so we each have our own private living area. New beds, linens and new desk and wall locker. Even has an AC unit. Our office on the compound is in one of the elongated pre-fab trailers, and has 3 email computers, so it aint bad living here. I did manage to get some very tasty chow following arrival - one thing I can't complain about here is the food. Much better than MRE's! CRG is the other firm here doing protection for all the other individuals beyond our principal. They are a british firm similar to Blackwater, a private US contrator. We share one side of the compound while the Brits have the other. Not a lot of co-mingling that I can see. Separate facilities, dining, and hooches. Overall, it could be a lot worse. We drove thru town yesterday on our first mission. The place is one of the nastiest, most poverty striken countries Ive seen. Ranks right up there with the slum areas of Manila and New Dehli. Horrible living conditions for the locals; all dirt and mud streets, lots of stray dogs and garbage everywhere you look. The air is filled with the smell of burning garbage and tires and has a permanenet haze about it. It was pretty amazing driving up from Kuwait. There were dozens of burned out tanks and BMPs still lying in the fields. Many of the bridges we crossed had only one side open as the other had been bombed and destroyed. Have got a long drive and overnight stay elsewhere today. Was hoping to see my sister Kathy on Saturday but that trip got cancelled at the last minute and a new one came up. At least we are keeping busy.