Thursday, April 29, 2004

Where are the reporters?

Over the last couple of weeks, the media has reported a rise in violence occurring in Iraq, mostly within the northern cities of Baghdad and Fallujah. For those of you who follow the headlines from Iraq, you may recall the recent deaths of 5 soldiers killed on March 31 when the armored personnel carrier they were riding in drove over an anti-tank mine. The mine exploded, destroying the APC and killing all of it's occupants. This tragedy was compounded when four civilian contractors from the North Carolina firm Blackwater were attacked and killed, with angry mobs subsequently mutilating their bodies and hanging the corpses from a bridge. Pictures of their charred remains were splashed across the front pages of national and international newspapers, while television stations aired footage taken from personal video cameras. Unfortunately, tragedies like these fuel the media frenzy by providing juicy stories for folks at home who, for the most part, have no connection to Iraq and most likely cannot even locate Iraq on a map. What purpose is served when the average citizen reads only of violence and bloodshed? As pointed out by a friend of mine serving with the Marine Corps Reserve in Baghdad, the media rarely reports anything positive from Iraq. They (the media) seem to revel in stories that portray a "negative, defeatist viewpoint." How many dead this time? How many injured? Are we reverting to the days when a body-count dictates whether we continue to pursue freedom and basic human rights for a country that has suffered under years of tyrannical leadership?

When was the last time you read of something positive being accomplished in Iraq? Hard to recall, isn't it? Where are the stories of the medical facilities being built where no medical facility previously existed? How about the construction of schools for children who have never owned a book? Over the past couple months, I've seen children playing in in the streets of Basra who've never touched a real toy. They play with rusty cans, empty boxes or a car tires they've found in heaping piles of garbage that dot the city. How about a story on the introduction of sanitation services in a city that hasn't seen a single collection of garbage in 12 years? Or a story about the toys donated by American charities to the local "Save the Children" facility in Basra?

Since my arrival, I've seen some remarkable changes occurring throughout the southern region of Iraq. Sure, the country is far from beautiful. However, every time we return to Al Nasiriyah, or Al Samawa or any of the other small towns we've traveled, I see improvements in the infrastructure of this country which never before existed. Under Saddam's rule, the majority of national funds were funneled to party officials in Baghdad and Tikrit, or other Sunni strongholds. Most Shiite dominated areas, such as Basra, suffered as a result and never received funding for basic services that we take for granted, such as water, electricity or medical services. Imagine living your entire life in a squalid adobe home, complete with dirt floors but no roof. Imagine never having plumbing or running water, and gathering all of your drinking water from the nearest rain puddle. These are the conditions that the coalition is attempting to change.

I'd like to see stories that equally portray the coalition's military successes alongside their failures. Yes, 5 soldiers were killed in Fallujah, but so were 18 bad guys who would have done anything to impede our progress. Multiple weapons caches were seized and destroyed, which prevents those weapons from ever being used to hurt another soldier or innocent Iraqi civilian. While millions live in Iraq, only hundreds participate in the violence you see in the media. Most Iraqi's want only two things - security and income. It doesn't matter who delivers it; America, Britain, or any other country. Give the population the security they need to earn the income they desire and success will dominate over failure.

Ensuring the success of this mission isn't easy. We still face incredible challenges, and unfortunately, more injuries and deaths of American citizens will occur. The few who resist the coalition will make it difficult, but not impossible. For the most part, the Iraqi's I've spoken with understand the need for a coalition presence until Iraq is strong enough to take care of itself. They may not like it, but they understand the need for our presence and what we are trying to accomplish.

Everyone who serves in Iraq, be they military or civilian, does so on a voluntary basis. The draft ended long ago, and enlisting servicemembers understand that in today's world, a servicemember's duty is a dangerous job that will take them to dangerous places. Whether we are here out of our sense of duty, the extra money or the pursuit of adventure, all know and accept the risks associated with being in such a place. Families at home hate it. However, for those of us who've seen some of the real progress made, the risk is worth being part of it all. I'd like to think that someday I'll be able to return to Iraq and see a country resembling Kuwait, Bahrain or even Dubai.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A Kuwaiti Vacation

Recently, the Ambassador returned to England on a 10-day business trip, leaving my team "stranded" in Kuwait City during his absence. Although our team could have returned to the CPA, the comfort of a hotel room and the guarantee of gunshot-free nights convinced us to spend our time in Kuwait, vice returning to Iraq. The worst day in Kuwait is better than the best day in Iraq, hands down!

Our time spent in Kuwait was quite interesting and was a distinct contrast to our experiences in Iraq. Although these two bordering countries share a common religion and language, very little else in either country resembles that of the other. The drive from the Iraqi border to Kuwait City takes you over smartly paved city streets and 4 lane highways, complete with American styled traffic signs, mileage posts, and traffic lights. Local Kuwaiti's flaunt their wealth in this oil rich country in many ways. The roads are jammed with all brands of luxury automobiles, to include Jaguar, BMW, and Mercedes, as well as an occasional Ferrari or Lamborghini. The buildings of Kuwait City are mostly modern, beautiful structures with large windows, marble floors, and decorative lighting inside and out. Modern and traditional mosques dot the cityscape, lending a distinctive Middle Eastern flair to the city.

Subsequent to the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Kuwait City was reborn in the image of many other modern, western cities across the globe. The shoreline is dotted with uniquely American restaurants like Fuddruckers, Applebee's, and Chili's. Shopping malls, complete with food courts, record stores, and fashion designer boutiques occupy valued real estate along the coast. Yet, even as the city appears to model itself after modern democratic society, Muslim values still dominate daily Kuwaiti life. A large percentage of Kuwaiti men still prefer wearing the traditional robes and headdresses of the Islamic devout, while many Kuwaiti women remain hidden behind veils and flowing black robes. The contrasting mixture of business suits and robes, western chic clothing and black veils is a constant reminder of the dominating aspect of religion within the Middle East.

One cannot spend any time in Kuwait without also noticing the huge disparity between the minority Kuwaiti population and the majority non-Kuwaiti residents who make up the remainder of the country's inhabitants. Known as third country nationals or TCN's, these individuals provide over 80% of the labor force in Kuwait. Although residents of Kuwait, TCN's are mostly relegated to menial labor and retail jobs and will never hold occupations of value within the Kuwaiti society. Only true Kuwaiti's can be found working among the various ministries of the Kuwaiti government, and are guaranteed a government job or valued occupation based solely on their birthright as a Kuwaiti citizens. Further, the Kuwaiti government provides a stipend to all Kuwaiti citizens for housing and education, while providing no such assistance to TCN's. As such, TCN's are looked upon with disdain by most true Kuwaiti's, who arrogantly believe they are better than the TCN's. It is not uncommon to see a Kuwaiti berate a TCN for the most minor infraction, treating them more like slaves than human beings. Although many TCN's have become successful small business owners, most are hourly wage earners, residing in small, slum-like apartments or group housing similar to the tenement buildings of Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

One major distinction between Kuwait and other western nations is the lack of entertainment establishments and bars that serve alcoholic beverages. Despite the initial appearance of a modern society with American values, the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages is still punishable by imprisonment in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti newspaper routinely reports the arrest of people who've violated the strict laws banning alcohol and it's consumption. Pornography is also banned in Kuwait. The sale of magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse, as well as a number of non-pornographic magazines, to include Maxim and FHM, is strictly prohibited. Very little tolerance is granted the American appetite for such reading material. A sentence of several years in a Kuwaiti jail awaits anyone caught distributing pornographic magazines or movies.

In less than three hours, our return trip to Iraq will take us from a modern city steeped in traditional Islamic values to a primitive society filled with intolerance and violence. The landscape will change from modern buildings and manicured lawns, to that of dirt roads, mud houses, and war damaged buildings. The roadways of Kuwait, paved and marked with traffic signs, will turn into unmarked roadways, many of which still bear the scars of explosions and tank tracks from coalition vehicles. The threat of IED’s will alter our awareness of our surroundings the second we cross the border. Our trust in the Kuwaiti Police and Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials will be replaced with our mistrust of the Iraqi Police, who have been known to empty their AK-47 magazines at passing coalition vehicles. The coalition has a long struggle ahead of them, despite the religious similarities between Iraq and Kuwait. Beyond religion, the countries are as different as night and day.

The short time I have spent in Kuwait and Iraq serves to remind me that there is truly no society as wonderful to live in as that of the United States of America. At home, women do not worry about having acid being thrown in their faces for failing to wear veils, like the recent attacks against women in Basra and Baghdad. Men are free to worship the religion of their choice. US Citizens and lawful permanent residents share similar occupations in business and industry. Only in America can one rise from pauper to politician; assemble and congregate for any manner or means of religious belief; and speak freely of their opinions and beliefs, be they for or against the standing laws of our government. It should be mandatory for all U.S. citizens, particularly our liberal activists, to spend a month abroad in the Middle East, on the African continent, or in southwest Asia. Perhaps then would they realize the greatness of our society and how fortunate we all are to live and work in a country that allows all of us the freedoms we take for granted on a daily basis.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Faces of the CPA

Within the Basra CPA, there are a variety of people assigned to different jobs and functions. The majority of the CPA personnel are British, to include the Ambassador and his staff. However, a multitude of other nationalities can be found throughout the CPA. There's a contingent of troops from Nepal and contractors from Fiji who provide the majority of our perimeter security. These folks man our gates and watchtowers 24 hrs a day, alongside British soldiers and Iraqi Police (IP) counterparts. There are a dozen or more Dutch and Finnish Police Officers who conduct basic law enforcement and human rights training at the Al Zubayr Police Academy in Basra during the day. They too return to sleep behind the walls of safety at the CPA nightly. Small groups of Italian soldiers and Caribinieri (Italian National Police) make their way through our chow hall on a regular basis while conducting business with the CPA staff. A further look would discover folks from Romania, Scotland, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, all here to support the efforts of the coalition provisional authority.

As you wander the makeshift office spaces among the trailers scattered about the CPA, you will encounter dozens of American contractors from Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), who provide the majority of our logistics support, from fuel to construction. The KBR staff has a varied background. Many are retired service members seeking the travel and excitement once offered through their military service. Others are young folks from the Texas who signed on with KBR for the tax-free cash advantages of serving overseas. Many just wanted to do their part for the coalition without having to join the military.

In addition to coalition personnel, a number of local Iraqi's do their part to assist in the daily operations of the CPA. They arrive daily before 7 a.m., and conduct many of the more menial tasks at the CPA, from grounds keeping to laundry service. There is the Iraqi barber who cuts our hair for free. A two or three dollar tip is common practice, though some of our cheaper residents have actually stiffed him without a tip. During my last visit, I asked him how long he had been cutting hair. In broken English, the barber replied he had been cutting his children's hair for years, but that he was actually an engineer by trade. Prior to the Gulf war, he was charged with building highway bridges and roadways in Iraq. However, he had not been able to return to his engineering job following the embargo and now holds three different jobs to support his family.

Two Iraqi sisters used to work in our laundry room, which is nothing more than a CONEX box, or metal shipping container similar to those found perched atop large merchant ships. Their CONEX box had been fitted with an air conditioner recently to keep the box cool during the stifling heat of summer. The sisters, Lika'a and Shaimaa, had worked at the CPA for over a year and were paid approximately $350.00 a month by KBR, a handsome salary for most Iraqi's these days. Every morning, Lika'a and Shaimaa would show up at the CPA by taxi before many of us were awake, on the job no later than 7 a.m. Neither Laika’a nor Shaimaa would leave their post before 7 p.m., at which time the laundry closes for the evening. Unlike most of the Iraqi's who work at the CPA, both Laika'a and Shaimaa spoke fluent, though accented, English. Apparently educated and well spoken, Laika'a and Shaimaa worked 12-hour days in a CONEX box because there are few jobs in Iraq available to educated young women.

On Wednesday evening, Laika'a and Shaimaa were murdered on their way home. According to information we've received, unknown gunmen stopped their taxi and opened fire on them, shooting them each over ten times. These girls were only teenagers, and their only "crime" was befriending American's inside the CPA compound. Everyone here was affected by their deaths in one way or another. Having spoken with Shaimaa just 3 hours earlier, this is the first event that has truly gotten to me since being here. A sense of sadness hangs over the CPA like a fog.

While we expect a soldier to be injured or killed by a roadside bomb or an attack against a coalition convoy, we rarely stop to think of the other lives affected by the violence in this country. For the life of me, I will never understand a people who preach violence against all who don't believe, act, or behave the way these mindless Islamic fanatics do. Murder for associating with westerners, death to the infidels! All in the name of Allah! I just don't get it.

Monday, April 05, 2004

The Road to Baghdad

We've just returned from the longest trip of our journey so far - a road trip to Baghdad and back. The trip was precipitated by a meeting of all of the regional coalition provisional authority (CPA) Ambassadors at the former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein. Our drive to Baghdad was quite interesting. As the team navigator, I chose a route that weaved through or around several small towns and cities, to include Al Amara, Al Kut, and Al Ghurub. Unlike the roads and highways in the U.S., there are no road signs or mileage markers along our routes of travel. All travel must be done the old fashioned way - maps and terrain orientation. Although this seems a relatively simple task, it is quite a different experience in Iraq. At home, we can look at the exit sign outside of our car window to confirm we’ve arrived at a certain location. We can even stop at a 7-11 for directions! Unfortunately, there are no 7-11’s in Iraq, and no exit signs either. An unplanned stop at an unknown location could be your last. Every bend in the road, every water tower, and every power cable tower must be visually sighted and found on the map in order to keep from easily getting lost in an unfamiliar town or area, many of which are still hostile toward western occupiers.

The roadways are a patchwork of paved highways, asphalt routes similar to our state routes, and dirt roads. Making the travel more difficult is the mixture of traffic found using these roadways - trucks, passenger cars, donkey carts, military convoys and horse drawn wagons. To fuel their vehicles, local Iraqi's lucky enough to own cars often must travel to a neighboring town or city to obtain their petrol, since working gasoline stations are a rare commodity outside of the major cities. None of the coalition vehicles risk stopping at an Iraqi gasoline station for fear of attack. All of our vehicles are topped off at the CPA before we travel, with refueling available at various coalition fuel points scattered throughout the country. Most fuel points consist of several bulk fuel tankers, manned by some unfortunate reservist from Arkansas or Ohio, whose only job is to make sure coalition convoys aren't stranded on their long journeys north or south. Five gallon gas cans are a staple in every vehicle packing list, and ours were used twice during this journey.

After 8 hours of driving, we arrived in Baghdad to witness M-1 tanks cruising the roadways and U.S. Army Bradley fighting vehicles stationed alongside roadway checkpoints. Baghdad is a huge city, much like driving through any major metropolitan U.S. city. From the vista of a raised highway, you see what appears similar in any U.S. cityscape - bridges; buildings; traffic; and all sorts of movement associated with seeing a city from afar. However, upon closer inspection, you also see sites unfamiliar at home. Painted towers of mosques peek out all around you. The majority of buildings are dirty and in disrepair. They all appear a sandy desert color and haven't received any maintenance or care in years. Many of the smaller buildings are nothing more than adobe or mud brick. Highway light poles and guard rails lie in twisted heaps from damage caused 12 years ago during Operation Desert Storm, and remain where they fell. Rusted cars dot the roadways, while strands of barbed wire, lines of sandbags, and military vehicles come into view every mile. Although Baghdad was once a modern city, it has obviously suffered from months of warfare and the decade-long embargo imposed against it.

Our arrival into the “green zone” was a welcome relief. The “green zone” is the area surrounding the former presidential palace, several square miles large. The zone is cordoned off by a vast array of military vehicles, barriers, concertina wire and armed soldiers and Marines. Although the “green zone” is considered a secure area, it still suffers from random missile and mortar attacks on a weekly basis. A missile was successfully fired into the “green zone” the day before our arrival, reminding us that there really is no such thing as a secure zone.

The presidential palace itself is now the headquarters for the coalition. All sorts of military and civilian VIP’s roam the hallways, volleying for their chance to meet with Coalition Administrator Paul Bremer or his staff. A bustling collection of military personnel of all ranks, services, and countries scurry through the corridors of the palace, and have utilized every nook and cranny for ad-hoc offices and operations centers. Saddam’s former bedrooms now provide working spaces for military staff, while interior rooms adorned with paintings of Saddam fighting the “mother of all battles” are now filled with bunk beds and cots for permanent personnel.

I never imagined I would be standing on the lawn of the presidential palace in Baghdad, or sitting in the grand foyer, playing a game of spades with my teammates. Being at the palace was a surreal experience. Just a little over a year ago, Saddam himself was making grandiose threats against President Bush and the United States military in those very halls, scheming with his staff on how to best avoid another war. Much like my visits to the White House or the State Department, I was in awe of my surroundings, fortunate to have a job which allows me the opportunity to see such places.

The night was filled with sounds heard much less often in Basra. Sleep was interrupted by several explosions and numerous bursts of automatic gunfire throughout the night. However, it was easy to fall back asleep after having driven 8 hours in an alert status. The following morning, we ate breakfast in a large banquet room which now serves as one of the many coalition chow-halls found in the “green zone.” Prior to departing the “green zone,” our team took the opportunity to visit Saddam’s victory stadium, with it’s huge crossed swords marking the entrance of the stadium. Saddam used this stadium to view his military forces on parade, and had a throne of sorts built in the center of the stadium to view the parades. Naturally, each of us took a moment to stand at the edge of Saddam’s pulpit and view our teammates below, pretending to give some superb oratory. Just another moment of being in awe at what we were witnessing. A photo of the the stadium entrance is attached to this e-mail.

Prior to departing Baghdad, the team made a brief stop at the Baghdad International Airport, which lies several miles outside the “green zone.” The airport, or BIAP, houses another vast collection of military units and personnel. Vacant commercial aircraft lie dormant on the runways, damaged from gunfire or scavengers searching for parts. Still bearing paint saying “Iraqi Airlines”, the jetliners haven’t moved in years.

My visit to the BIAP was highlighted by a brief visit with my twin sister, Kathy, who was activated with the Air National Guard last year. An Air Force Major, Kathy has been at the BIAP since November and is due to return to the States very shortly. Although our visit was brief, it gave us the opportunity to swap a few stories and gather updates about each other and our family. Upon her departure from Iraq, Kathy will be returning to Louisville, KY to her husband Mark, an Air Force veteran, and their 2 children. Neither Kathy nor I ever dreamed we’d be visiting each other in Iraq!