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.

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