Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Visits around the AOR

I've just returned from a 2 day trip throughout the southern Coalition Provisional Authority region (CPA South). As I've probably mentioned earlier, CPA South is one of 6 geographical regions created at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The overall Coalition is currently administered by Mr. Paul Bremer, under the direction of President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld. Of the six regions within the coalition, CPA South controls all military forces operating in Southern Iraq, which includes a dozen different countries, such as England, Romania, Japan, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, and Korea, to name a few. Interestingly, there are very few American forces operating in the region. With the exception of my team, the CPA compound in Basra is almost entirely staffed by British and Fijian soldiers. We also have quite a few local Iraqi's employed as day laborers which always creates a little bit of tension when we consider the security of the compound.

CPA South is controlled by a career British Diplomat, Mr. Patrick Nixon, who was a direct appointee of Bremer, Rumsfeld and Pres. Bush. The other 5 administrators are also career diplomats, though most are American. Each administrator, or Ambassador, will eventually turn over his duties to newly elected Iraqi Governors, if and when the Iraqi elections finally take place.

It is the duty of my team to provide protective support to Ambassador Nixon throughout his tenure as the CPA South Administrator. While in the CPA compound, we rarely interact with the Ambassador unless there is some apparent threat, such as a mortar attack or some other reason to hustle him into a bunker for safety. However, the Ambassador will not make any trips out of the CPA without having my team in tow. Perhaps he enjoys the extra attention, particularly when he's seen walking through town with his security entourage. However, I can only imagine the constant presence of his ever-suspicious security team must become tiresome, particularly in some of the crowded areas we walk through during his face to face meetings with Iraqi governing councils or local religious leaders.

Our trip throughout CPA South took us back to the familiar towns of Al Nasiriyah and As Samawa. What made our trip different was the weather. A cold front had swept in from the North, bringing with it those famed sand storms you hear of and see in movie classics starring Lawrence Olivier. Although our morning started with a dusty haze in the air, by noon, our visibility had lowered to approximately 100 feet and we still had several hours before reaching our destination. The sand and dust had become so thick that you could stare directly at the sun, similar to the way you look might gaze at the moon at night.

After reaching the CPA at As Samawa, we were informed that the Ambassador would be having tea with the local Iraqi Governor of As Samawa at his "secure" compound. Having been informed of a recent rocket and small arms attack against U.S. General Abizaid, commander of CENTCOM, that had occurred 2 days earlier in another "secure" compound, we were a little hesitant to trust the security provided by our Iraqi hosts. As we reached our destination, my entire team dismounted our vehicles and hastily posted a 180 degree defense around the front of the palace. Then, out of nowhere, a dumpy white guy approaches on foot and asks in English if I could answer some questions about the newly arrived Japanese forces in the city. It turns out he's a reporter for the LA Times who was sent to Iraq to cover the 1st deployment of Japanese forces since W.W.II. Amazing who you meet in such far-away places.

On our trip back to Basra, the weather started cooperating and cleared a bit for the drive. Driving the armored SUV's is a unique experience at 100 mph. Each vehicle is built with special armor to withstand small arms attacks and varying levels of explosions. The package creates a very heavy vehicle, which rides very smoothly at high speed. Believe it or not, the highways throughout the region closely resemble interstate highways in America, complete with rest stops lined with umbrella shaded picnic tables, though the tables haven't fared too well from the war and the weather. However, there is no such thing as a gas station or 7-11 to pull off and visit. You can literally drive 100 miles and see nothing but highway, rusted tanks, sheep and desert.

We headed northeast for a small town named Suq ash al Huq, which I dare say is even dirtier and nastier than any other locations I've previously reported. We were told the city was prone to criminal violence and that we could expect to have rocks thrown at our vehicles or other acts of protest against our visit. That's a great way to start a ride. Although we asked ourselves why such a visit would occur, we already knew that the Ambassador was scheduled to meet the local Iraqi governing council to discuss the early stages of the CPA's involvement in the financing and rebuilding of the town, which had also suffered battle damage during the coalition advance.

While waiting for the Ambassador to finish his meeting, I was surrounded by a group of young street children, most dressed in dirty, unkempt clothing, some with no shoes. Despite their appearance, all of them smiled and appeared excited to interact with someone so different from anyone they had ever met. Having only experienced unsmiling British and Dutch military patrols passing by in their military vehicles, the sight of eight oddly dressed "americani's" carrying fancy guns and wearing special gear and clothing was something the children considered fantastic. Three well dressed children approached us, schoo-ing the other children away, and spoke directly to one of my teammates in perfect, yet accented english. The children were Aussies! The sons of an Iraqi father and Australian mother, they had come to Iraq with their parents 6 months earlier. The children warned us that all of the robed men in town carry concealed firearms underneath their gowns and that we should be careful. However, the children also remarked that the entire town hated Saddam Hussein for having destroyed the town following Desert Storm and that most townsfolk liked Americans. Sometimes you never know who you'll befriend in far-away places.

Our return to CPA Basra was once again uneventful. Although we passed a few individuals armed with AK-47's, none were foolish enough to raise them or point them our way. Most armed men are associated with the newly formed Iraqi Police, though many individuals still carry their weapons outside of their homes despite the ban by the Coalition. Fortunately, few have ever received marksmanship training and even fewer can actually hit something they aim at. Most of the former Regime soldiers were provided weapons without training and utilized the "spray and pray" method of firing their weapons. Sometimes we worry that we are more likely to get hit by a stray bullet fired during a wedding procession than we are by a possible attack from insurgents.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Mundane days

Over the past couple days, our pace has slowed considerably. The Ambassador has made only a couple of recent ventures out of town, thus leaving the team to find other avenues of entertainment. Life in the compound can be pretty simple - eat, work out, sleep, eat some more, and sleep again. The daily grind can become quite tedious and monotonous when the team is static. Fortunately, several of the team members brought portable DVD/CD players which have allowed us to have "movie nights" when we are not away on travel. Comedies and police dramas are the usual routine, and all that is missing is the pizza and beer.

Our compound spans 50 acres and is divided between British regular military forces and civilians who've signed on for a variety of jobs available with the coalition. The compound infrastructure is maintained by KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root), a contracting firm that operates in all of the top vacation spots of the world - Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, Liberia, and Iraq, to name a few. The contractors are paid quite well. Although it might not pay much by American standards to work in the laundry, a lucritive assignment such as private security nets the contractors up to $500.00 a day in salary. There is certainly no shortage of contractors who want to work in the various CPA's throughout Iraq.

Last Wednesday, our team escaped the compound to make a short trip to the port of Um Qasar, a small town located close to the Kuwaiti Border. Um Qasar was one of the first towns to experience the northern push of coalition troops during Op. Iraqi Freedom and has become the primary seaport for goods entering the southern region of Iraq. As part of the planning stages of any movement outside of the CPA, my team conducts an "advance", which was hindered on Tuesday by the discovery of an IED, or improvised explosive device (military speak for bomb) right in the middle of our route. Fortunately, the Brits sent an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) team to disarm the device and make the route clear for coalition vehicles. It just goes to show that not everyone in the southern region has accepted the coalition's peace efforts. Most of the devices, we believe, are probably coming in from elsewhere and are not made locally in Basra.

Our trip to Um Qasar also included the use of a special vehicle we affectionately refer to as the "Death Star". If you can imagine a large, black SUV bristling with antennae and sprouting all shapes and sizes of rods and orbs from it's roof, you've got a good mental picture of the "Death Star." The "Death Star" allows us to jam a wide spectrum electronic frequencies within a certain distance of the convoy. When operating, it also disables AM/FM radios, walkie talkies, and personal cell phones, something we'd all love to use back at home during morning rush hour. It was quite amusing to watch a local Iraqi punching his car radio after losing his favorite Islamic radio station as we passed. We had a little fun with one particular vehicle filled with US Army staff officers who were stopped in front of us at NAVSTAR , a coalition refuel and arming station at the Kuwaiti Border. It appeared that several of the officers were attempting to make cell phone calls while the junior man got stuck pumping gas. Of course, we always test the "Death Star's" equipment before hitting the open road. It just so happened that our testing fell in direct synchronization with each of the officer's attempts to make their telephone calls and provided quite a laugh for my teammates whenever the officers gave up in disgust with their dialing efforts.

We've only got one movement scheduled for today, hence most of our day will be at the CPA. There is a mosque located on the eastern, outer edge of our compound that transmits the daily "call to prayer" 5 times a day for the local populace. Over the last 3 days, however, the local muslim clerics have been reciting in chant and song the entire Koran. As typical of all Islamic mosques, the tower is outfitted with loudspeakers so that prayer can be heard by those of faith many blocks away. With the loudspeakers situated approximately 500 feet from our compound perimeter, the 16 hour sing-song of the Koran has started to frazzle even the most pious of the CPA inhabitants. The clerics have allowed an 8 hour window of silence in the evening, which was shattered by the sounds of automatic gunfire this morning at 3 a.m. You can't have this much fun in Washington, D.C.! Thankfully we'll be back to just 5 prayers a day tomorrow.

Saturday, March 06, 2004


Recent events in town have somewhat altered our daily routine. Since the 24th of February, the local population has been celebrating Ashura, an Islamic holiday celebrated annually during the first month of the Islamic year. For you non-Muslims, Ashura commemorates the death of Husain, the leader of a small band of martyrs who were killed in 680 AD, and is a time of fasting, reflection and meditation. According to tradition, Ashura participants celebrate for 7-10 days and participate in public self-flagellation and whippings, reenacting the martyrdom of Husain and his fallen soldiers. These reenactments are practiced by dozens of men at a time, with the bloody results visible to all who witness the gathering. Groups of Ashura participants have been seen congregating throughout many of the local neighborhoods or marching thru traffic with red, green and black flags held high. Although we have not been able to find out the meaning of the green and black flags, it was interesting to find out that the red flags of Ashura “should be kept flying as a sign of the emergence of the day in which there will be a retaliatory measure on behalf of the oppressed against the tyrant.” Perhaps non-Muslims? The groups can be as small as a dozen or can surge upwards of a hundred or more participants. Try to imagine 30 or 40 men marching with military precision, whipping themselves with “cat-o-nine tails” and bleeding profusely. To view the tradition is quite an experience!

Although Ashura is a celebratory Muslim holiday, outsiders (particularly westerners) are warned to steer clear of the celebrants, who have been known to attack westerners lingering too close to the gatherings. Written warnings have been passed to all CPA staff urging us to avoid any provocation of Ashura groups, if possible. A number of our CPA vehicles have had to make last minute U-turns for fear of being surrounded by Ashura participants.

Late last evening, my team accidentally confronted an "after dark" Ashura celebration in the Basra village area of As Sarraji. We were returning from a late ending mission, which we normally avoid due to the increased danger of traveling after dark. During our ride back to the CPA, we turned down a dark street and immediately drove into the path of approximately 100 Ashura participants, dressed in black and in the midst of full celebration. Locally garrisoned British troops were busy with other duties and unable to station a blockade on our particular route of travel. Thankfully, our 4WD vehicles have enough ground clearance to easily cross small curbs or medians, which is one of the recommended actions to avoid confrontation. A quick U-turn over the concrete median proved to be the best defense against potential stone throwing or other unpleasant reactions.

In conjunction with Ashura, we have experienced a dramatic spike in the number of IED's, or improvised explosive devices, found in town and along our routes of travel. Early this morning, my team drove a “secure” route south of the CPA. Shortly afterward, a second security team from the CPA departed the compound on the same route and was struck by the effects of an IED that exploded as the vehicles drove past. Luckily, the IED exploded just as the first vehicle passed by and immediately before the second vehicle crossed the primary path of the explosion. No one was injured, but the security vehicle has seen the end of its duty in Basra. You can see the effects of IED shrapnel against the thin sheet metal skin of an SUV in the picture I’ve included from this morning’s blast. None of the shrapnel penetrated the armored interior of the vehicle, and all of its occupants escaped without injury. FYI - the vehicle leader was on his 2nd day at work! Hopefully, my team will continue to avoid such incidents based on our use of additional countermeasures against such attacks. Further, our vehicles have better armored protection than the one affected this morning.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Valentines Day

It is 11pm on the 12th of February. I've just realized Valentines Day is in another 2 days and that I don’t have any way of sending my wife a card or flowers. I think she’ll understand, considering the circumstances. For those of you who do not already know, Andrea is also deployed in support of a separate NCIS mission in Kuwait City, Kuwait. She recently arrived and sent me an email stating she is residing in a comfortable apartment rented by NCIS for those agents supporting "Team Kuwait." She has maid service and a satellite TV, but won't have much time to enjoy it with all of the work ahead of her. There are a variety of missions Andrea will be conducting in the next 90 days that will certainly be considered a "once in a lifetime experience."

While it is unlikely Andrea will make it very far into Iraq, there is a much higher likelihood that I may get a chance to see her in Kuwait if our principal (the Ambassador) decides to take a vacation from Al Basra. Whether it is a trip home to England, or an official call back to visit his superiors, his departure leaves us with the opportunity to drive south through the desert down to "Navstar", the checkpoint/refueling station at the Iraqi/Kuwaiti Border, just above Camp Doha.

During our first drive from "Navstar" to the CPA in Basra, we passed hundreds of military vehicles, dozens of personally owned trucks and cars (some which you can't believe run), and many donkey carts loaded with items ranging from LP gas containers to freshly slaughtered sheep. The road is littered with debris - abandoned vehicles, dead animals, trash, even rusted tanks and personnel carriers left over from Desert Storm '91. It's easy to spot a "Desert Storm" casualty from an "Iraqi Freedom" casualty by the condition of the paint on the vehicle and the location of the vehicle. Most of the Iraqi Freedom armor was abandoned before being destroyed and still sits adjacent to the vehicular fighting holes prepared by the Iraqi troops. Conversely, the majority of the rusted remnants from Desert Storm were blown into pieces while attempting to make a stand against our far-superior tanks and weaponry. Many a tank turret still lie next to their undercarriage, blown off by laser guided missiles or M-1 Abram Tank rounds. Quite a few have "DU" visibly spray painted on their sides, signifying they were hit by depleted uranium rounds, which left dangerous levels of radioactive materials inside the tanks.

It's hard to accurately describe the city we travel through on a daily basis. Recent rains have turned entire neighborhoods into lakes. Shoddy brick structures, which wouldn't qualify as backyard sheds in the U.S., serve as permanent residences to the 2 million residents of Basra. Most appear half finished, and you wonder in amazement how anyone could comfortably live inside without the constant fear that the structure will collapse around them. As you leave the city, the desert opens up and is dotted with large tents, mostly owned by the homeless Bedouins, or stateless people. The funny thing is that these people have permanently moored propane tanks and satellite dishes next to their tents. Something must ring true in the phrase "location, location, location". All across the desert, one sees long hills of piled dirt embankments stretch hundreds of miles North to Iraq, the work of Iraqi soldiers preparing for the "mother of all battles." Dozens of these embankments still have ditches inside which were meant to be filled with oil and set afire in hopes of staunching the movement of US Armor Northward.

Back to current events - our team escorted the Ambassador and his Aide to the Al Zubayr Police Academy yesterday to view the ongoing training of the new Iraqi Police Force by coalition members. A mixture of Brit, Finnish, Czech, and Italian civilian and military police are attempting to teach the Iraqi's the basics of policework and human rights. It amazes the training staff how foreign the concept of human rights is to an Iraqi. In the U.S., beatings of prisoners are against the law. In Iraq, it is not only tolerable, it is expected. This is what keeps them in line! Another concept unfamiliar to the typical Iraqi cop is "evidence." Although the Iraqi cops know they can seize contraband, be it drugs, weapons, latent fingerprints, etc, they fail to understand that the evidence can be used to convict the person. The average Iraqi cop seizes the evidence only because the contraband gives them reason to suspect a person of a crime. (remember - there is no such thing as sending the evidence to a lab for fingerprint analysis, etc. That technology just doesn't exist anymore, if it ever did). With contraband, the cop can now freely beat their prisoner until the person gives a confession. In Iraq, the confession proves the crime, not the seized items. So much for the poor sap who happens to have "evidence" dropped in his car or home. He'll be beaten until he confesses that the stuff was his, or worse.

We were assured the Police are slowly beginning to see the error of their ways, though that may only be lip service so they can graduate and earn a paycheck. It will be several years before all of the Iraqi Police force is trained by coalition forces, and perhaps longer before we realize whether the concept of human rights fits into the new Iraqi society.