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!

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