January 30, 2005

Let Freedom Ring

The polls are open and people are voting, almost with a vengeance. One polling station was hit by a VBIED this a.m. and an hour later they were open again ... and people lined up to come in. I'm sure much of the press will focus on the polling stations that have troubles, and not the ones that have long lines of excited people, but this is a momentous occasion -- democracy to Iraq.

One of our local staff members just came back from voting. This is the first time in her life that she or anyone she knows has been able to actually vote for anyone she wanted. She came back elated, jumping around and really excited.

This is a big deal for the people of Iraq, you can feel the vibe. My being a small part of it has me feeling good about this assignment again. That said, I have a February 8th departure date schedule as my business here is handled for the time being (with some time in Amman, back to CA mid Feb). I plan to nudge things along from home and I might come back to finish it up someday, hopefully things will be on the upswing by then.

Posted by rick at 05:36 AM

And the beat goes on

As I write, multiparty elections are going on in Iraq for the first time in half of a century. That in itself makes this whole thing worthwhile.

There's been a lot more booms and firefights lately, but it's not always clear who's on the offensive. A building adjacent the palace was hit by rocket fire last night and two were killed; I heard it, though it wasn't the loudest boom I heard last night. The majority of IED detonations occur *after* the device/car is found and detonated on-site by our EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) forces -- would you want to drive a home made car bomb around? Me neither, so they blow ‘em up where they find ‘em. Artillery and other sounds go boom too. So a boom isn't always a bad thing and firefights can be the other side getting their butt kicked too. I think it's safe to say that both sides are very active right now.

What do the "insurgents" say about the elections? The lead terrorist, Zarqawi, says: "We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology,".

Why be against democracy? I thought Democracy was a good thing. Well it is ... for the people, but not for the rulers. It means that those in charge can't oppress everyone else and live like kings off the riches of the land (though, given the culture here, they will try). The religious nut jobs go on to say that authority is handed down by god and that only the church should rule.

"Democracy is also based on the right to choose your religion," he said, and that is "against the rule of God."

Great, okay, fruit-loop, rather than letting things slide back to the Dark Ages, how about we just kill you instead. Your murdering of innocents and other terrorist acts have won you a $25M price on your head, that goes a long way here. We'll put you in one of two boxes: the one we have Saddam in or the one in which we put his sons.

Posted by rick at 12:36 AM

January 29, 2005

plastic bag = $1,600,000

Okay, today we're living vicariously through a neighbor of mine who has better access to the Palace than I do.

First, there are no banks here. Well, there are, but there are no real checks, credit cards, or anything like that in use yet. This is a cash economy. So ... how do we actually pay to get things done? In cash. We're rebuilding this country ... in cash. $18.4B in reconstruction? The stuff bought locally, at least, is paid for in ... you got it -- in cash.

Where do you keep all that cash (as well as a bunch of tacky "valuables" laying around the palace when you took over)? In the vault, of course...

Is everyone as shocked as I am that they won't let me in?

"Security? Yeah, he won't come out. Right, we tried the tear gas. Uh-huh. Stun gun too. Yup. Look, he's crazy, he offered us each $100k to turn around for five minutes, and he keeps yelling that he'll pay a million dollars for a wheel barrow and an SUV..."

Posted by rick at 06:36 AM

January 28, 2005

Campaign Literature

Well, the Iraqi's sure are good at abusing power. We were driving down the street in the GZ the other day and there were armed Iraqi soldiers in the streets, handing something out. Is it some kind of security alert I wonder? I stop, put down the window, and take a poster. A campaign poster.

You will note that in the US armed soldiers don't walk around in uniform, driving military vehicles, handing out literature for President. In fact, I'm no political scientist, but I'm pretty sure that's on a list of things that you can't do somewhere. Looking at the poster, the guy on the left is the current Minister of Defense.

So, this is kind of like Rumsfeld running for president and having the military stand in the streets handing out campaign literature.

These guys don't really get it yet. It seems that, more often than not, once they are in power they treat State assets like their own, simply as a matter of course.

Posted by rick at 05:31 AM

January 26, 2005

Saddam's Rock and Roll Fantasy

It's got to be great to have your own country; whatever you say is, by definition, true.

For example, you can lead your country into wars where you get your ass kicked, come home (short a bunch of soldiers) and declare victory. Even better, you can draw cool cartoon pictures about it and make murals and monuments and stuff. Those two big swords, Victory Arches, in some of my pictures, are to commemorate the "victory" of Iraq in the Iran/Iraq war. The hands holding the swords are even said to be exact matches of Saddam's hands too.

But then it gets better. The APO, Army Post Office, where you can send and receive mail at the same price as if you were shipping it from the US, is in some old government building (er ... in a socialist state they're all government buildings, but you get the idea). There's a mural on the ceiling depicting the Gulf War -- and Iraq's victory therein.

It might be the funniest thing I've seen here.

You can see pictures of the Iraqis charging forward, with their dark uniforms and Saddam-like mustaches. You can see the coalition forces fleeing and then you can see the Iraqis routing them. One Iraqi solider has a blond-haired coalition soldier in a headlock, another is smashing an enemy in the face with the butt of his rifle, a third is shooting fleeing soldiers in the back. Best of all there's a US tank on fire and Iraqi aircraft controlling the sky (with jets that were old in '91).

No one would dare say anything to the contrary under Saddam, but I got to tell you, this nut job had one heck of a fantasy life. Click here to check out Saddam's Rock and Roll Fantasy.

Note the names on the camp containing the APO on the way out -- Steel Dragon and Wolfpack, clearly American military names, which is the final irony of the fantasy mural located therein.

Posted by rick at 12:20 PM

January 24, 2005

Night Moves

When I was here in the summer I didn't get to go outside at night. Our house was in the RZ and we weren't allowed to leave it. I did go up on the roof every now and then to look around but our guards took a dim view of this so I mostly stayed inside.

This trip, however, I'm living in the GZ, and it's dark earlier this time of year, so I'm outside regularly after dark. I've seen some things that have almost blown my mind. Remember when you were a little kid and the fire truck went by? It was the biggest, loudest, coolest (esp. if you were a boy) thing you had seen in your life. It's kind of like that.

Our camp is on the flight path for the helicopter pad in the GZ, there's an obvious pattern: two transport choppers escorted by two gunships. I'm used to small airports, esp. at night, what I'm not used to is having aircraft fly around at night with their lights off. I hear a noise and I look up for the lights ... doesn't work here, you can't find anything that way. Also, these helicopters are big, massively powered twin turbines, pushing a LOT of air to stay in the sky. They move fast, constantly execute high bank maneuvers (hard to hit) and are armored and armed to the teeth.

So you're walking outside and you hear "whomp whomp whomp whomp" and you know it's getting louder fast, and you look up and you can't see anything and the echos are keeping you from figuring out where it's coming from and you know the weapons system is hot and you're almost certainly on FLIR (Forward Looking Infra Red) and the pilot can see you, and if the gunner is bored there's a cross hair on you too, but you can't see anything and the "WHOMPS" are getting louder until the thing breaks out of the darkness like a wraith and is heading to fly right over you, skimming the trees and streetlights, and the sound is suddenly deafening with a WHOMP WHOMP WHOMP that shakes your bones with a bass line louder than you've heard at any rave and you're almost overcome by the sound and the fury and the second one materializes right on the flank of the first tracing its motions and doubling the effect and you twist your head and body to keep up as they go by and ... whooom, they're gone, followed shortly by a big wind that almost magnifies the silence.

When the Chinooks (big double bladed helicopters) fly overhead it's even louder, though somehow less menacing than the gun ships.

Another example: walking back to the car from the cafeteria the other night, got to cross the street and waiting for a break in traffic. Okay, no cars, just that one light way down the street let's go. Hey, what is that thing, it sounds like a huge semi pulling a massive load and over-revving the engine. It's only got one headlight. What is that? Man it's loud. It's really hauling ass too, that huge engine is revving way too fast to be a semi, it sounds like a turbine, and it's bigger than any semi truck engine I've ever heard. Crap, there's only so far off the side of the road we can go and this thing is heading right for us. Stop here and watch as the noise grows and -- GGGRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMM, the M1 tank goes flying by, must be doing 50mph, faster than anyone else drives on that road, 3' from your nose and toes. It is louder than a freight train. You can yell at the top of your lungs and not only can you not hear yourself yell, you're being shaken so hard that you can't even *feel* yourself yell. The main gun points right down the street at oncoming traffic, staying eerily still, as if distended from the vehicle (I assume this is the auto-aiming system), there is no windshield or window to look in and make eye contact with the driver, it's like some kind of automaton from a science fiction movie.

See, I'd pay to be here and see this stuff. Just like the little kid with the fire truck I'm in awe. As soon as something like this passes I turn to whomever I'm with, and see the mirror of awe on their face, and say "that, my friend, is the sound of freedom".

I'm glad they're on my side.

Posted by rick at 05:09 AM

January 21, 2005

Balanced Reporting

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but I wish our press had a little more appreciation for their counterpart -- or at least did their jobs honestly. The fact that such a great piece as the article below is relegated to minor sites (I mean, c'mon, he's IN the center of it all, not coverig his story borders on cencorship) really points to the media's fascination with bad news and that no one likes to read about all the cats that didn't get stuck in the tree today.

Or maybe it's just that being a journalism major is only interesteing to those with a liberal bent or something. Maybe they all realized that no one in the media who was pro-vietnam (the first time a war could really be covered) made any money in journalism in the 60's and the industry reflexively maintains that stance today. I dunno, but it is just crazy the way our press handles this war.

Some balanced reporting would be nice, I wonder why no one gets to read this: Balanced Reporting

Posted by rick at 01:37 PM

January 19, 2005

Iraqi alarm clock

Laying in bed this morning, asleep, and BOOM the trailer shakes with something big.

I can't yet tell a far away car bomb for a nearby mortar, at least not when I'm asleep, so I didn't know if more were coming or not (mortars tend to come in clusters, car bombs are usually singular). So I have already thought this through. My bed runs parallel to the outside, sandbagged, wall of the trailer. Along my bed I stacked, on their sides, my two bullet proof vests (the big obnoxious one issued to me and the smaller concealable one I brought myself) as well as my Kevlar helmet. So in this gap between bed and wall I have sandbags on one side and Kevlar on the other. Something goes boom and I roll out of bed and into the gap.

Laying naked on the floor of your trailer between sand bags and Kevlar, listening for another boom is a strange feeling. It really gives you an opportunity to think ... and examine your own sanity. I'm all about the numbers, I always play the numbers, the numbers say that even though danger is near, I'm well insulated from it and quite safe. So I choose to stay here; and while I'm here I maximize my numbers by doing things like rolling into the gap when things go boom. Ironically, I think this means I'm sane.

It was a car bomb outside the GZ that woke me up:
Australian Embassy.
While typing this we had another smaller one, but I haven't seen it on the web yet.

Posted by rick at 12:41 AM

January 18, 2005


I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when our security guy came up and said "what's your blood type?" I used to know this, I was even an EMT once, but frankly no one had asked me in over a decade and I couldn't remember with any certainty ... so off the to the hospital I go to find out.

The good news is that we go to a US Military hospital here. So all the needles are clean etc. and security is nice and tight too. In fact, side note, I carry a pocket knife around here. It's big for a pocket knife, and airport security would have a fit if you tried to bring it on the plane in the U.S., but here it's a joke. Every time I go through security and get patted down "Do you have a weapon?". "Just a pocket knife". The response is usually just a roll of the eyes and a dismissive wave to pass. Going into the hospital the other day the female soldier asked to see it, I pulled it out, and she said "oh, that's cute and all... go on in". I made an agreeing comment about the value of brining a knife to a gun fight. I want a weapons card. I have three guns in CA and zero in Baghdad; and they ship over so many soldier with guns to look after each of us you would think they'd just arm us too. In the early days of the CPA they did, I've heard stories of wire rimmed accountants walking around with a .45 under each arm.

Anyway, when we were walking into the hospital a helicopter came in to land and I said "I'll bet they're really busy in a few minutes". A few minutes later 3-4 soldiers came in carrying a local Iraqi on a stretcher/bed, he was apparently sedated. They started talking to a female doctor in the lobby, who was lounging outside when the helicopter came, and a couple other people in scrubs. The one soldier was saying "he's got a gunshot wound here (pointing to the guy's shoulder/arm, which was bandaged) and another one here (pointing to his hip/leg), and something down here too (pointing to one of his legs)". The doc said "okay thanks" and they took him to the back.

Dunno why they flew this guy into the hospital in the GZ. Maybe he was working for us and we wanted to make sure he was well treated (or not in danger from the other side), maybe he's a bad guy they want to interrogate when he wakes up, I dunno.

I do know that I was having a much better day than he was.

My sister's blog just had this same topic (www.davisworldtour.com); if I was born here I would probably would have been on that stretcher, or worse, a long time ago.

Posted by rick at 03:20 AM

January 13, 2005

Bunker bar!

Okay, so enough politics, back the surrealistic stuff. Today I went to the Bunker Bar.

We're not really supposed to leave camp after 7pm, but recently we got an extension until 10pm (I'm pretty much the only one that even follows that one). There's a curfew in the GZ at 11pm but even that is routinely ignored (not by me). A group here was heading over to an alleged bar for one gal's b-day, so I tagged along.

Drive through the GZ at night, turn here, turn there, down this alley, follow the sign, go through security (car checked by four guys who look in, on, and under it), drive between the florescent lights into the car park, walk behind a building around back, past more guards, through the double doors and BAM! you're in a bar. Bunker Bar. It's a quintessential bar, people are here from around the world, the atmosphere is great, music is pumpin', it's decorated perfectly. From the neon sign, to the guns/rpg's/landmines/grenades on the wall, to the flags/pictures/posters, to the ashtrays made of large caliber cartridges (with bullets reloaded back in) there's a pool and foosball table, there's even a bomb in the corner with a TV and X-box in it in front of a couch. There were even girls! Okay, so the ratio is worse than any other bar on the planet outside of a prison but it gives you that extra edge in pretending for just a second that you can walk out the doors and be on the streets of San Francisco and hail a cab back to your place. I'm no barfly, but I haven't felt as close to home as I did today. I really enjoyed it ... but left early to make my curfew.

It's not really the place where you pop out your camera and start playing tourist but I was discreet so that you can check the pics and vid.

Posted by rick at 01:30 PM

January 12, 2005

if someone comes to your house and threatens your family

Some people may think that "the insurgency" is some kind of fight for freedom from imperialism -- this is crap. It is nothing more than good old fashioned terrorists and anarchists. There are those who would like us gone so they can go back to ruling by force, in fact, that's what they're working on. Take a bunch of former regime members, add the money and weapons stashed from their old jobs, and all they want to spend their time on is driving out the coalition so that they can get back into power. Religious fundamentalists, who are really just xenophobes, want the infidels out of their holy land and make convenient allies for these guys.

If you are "working with the Americans" people will come to your house and do bad stuff to you. If you don't quit right away then they will come back and kill you. If you move so they can't find you, but keep doing something they don't like, then they will kill your family. This happens all the time, I've heard more first and second hand stories of this than I could have imagined.

One guy had a contract to paint schools. Paint schools. That was considered "working with the Americans". So guys showed up at his house and gave him a warning. He ignored it. He came home one time later and there was a guy outside his house with an RPG, the guy then blew up his house right in front of him and said next time he was dead. So ... he stopped painting schools.

A gal I know out here, who used to work in the GZ, came home one evening and her parents said that some people had come looking for her because they had heard that she was "working with the Americans" and made the usual threats. My friend came home, heard the news, packed her bags and flew to Amman.

Similar things happen to people working on power, phones, oil, etc. the insurgents are trying to bring the country down across the board, just to make it hard for everyone and make the coalition look bad. The hope is we'll leave, create a vacuum, and then they can rule by force and exploit the country's resources for themselves again. It worked for the last 30 years so they don't have to use a lot of imagination to hold this vision. Democratic elections are an anathema to these thugs.

So ... what do you do about it? Well, no one can call 911 on these guys; the police forces aren't effective yet. And what reporting opportunities there are regularly get compromised (people placing lots of bad tips; or insurgents calling in a house that they previously packed with explosive -- police run in, they blow it up, killing the police). But one thing that is interesting to note is that the Iraqi's themselves don't fight back.

Try this sometime: go to someone's house in say, Texas; knock on the door and tell the father that you followed his daughter to work and that you are going to kill her, and them, if they don't all do what you say ... you wouldn't make it off the front porch. If he really believed you then you'd be deader than a possum on the Interstate. Now, sadly, in the Bay Area you might get a firm talking to by some hippie in Birkenstocks while his wife tells him to calm down and invites you in for dinner so you can discuss your differences... but in any straight-thinking part of the planet this just doesn't work. You would not live long enough to carry out your threat.

Why is it so different here? Well, all those who stand up to threats were pretty much killed under Saddam's regime ... or were part of the regime. Those that are left just aren't the type, apparently. People naturally cower to power here. It took an Iraqi American to explain this to me. He's seen both sides. It was his brother's neighbor who's house got blown up. His brother saw the guy with the RPG in the bushes out front waiting for his neighbor to come home ... and did nothing.

If you saw a guy outside your neighbor's house with an RPG, what would you do? Okay, let's assume you couldn't call the police. Then what? You'd call your neighbor on his cell before he got home, right? Not here, apparently you're too afraid of being an informant. Where I come from, you'd help your neighbor take the guy out before he could do any damage or hurt anyone. Not here. Not now. Not with the people who are left.

So, what do we do? We keep peace as best we can. We bolster the Iraqi police and military in any way we can. We make sure the election goes on as planned. If the Sunni's decide not to vote then they can be the Shiite's punching bags for a term, they'll play ball eventually. Once the police here start operating effectively, and can really take the offensive in this battle, things will change. It'll take time. But it'll happen.

I for one am looking forward to being back someplace where a serious threat on someone's family has a more reasonable response than submission.

Posted by rick at 09:54 AM

January 07, 2005

about town

The surrealism of this place continues, as witnessed by these photographs. As I mentioned, we have a fleet of German cars (BMW, Mercedes) here. I managed to latch onto a full size Mercedes, I had spotted that it had been lightly armored (maybe level II, hand gun only) when no one else had noticed, so I snagged it. It's a little, uh, "tired" but it works; all the cars are a little beat up here.

Driving around Baghdad, inside the GZ, only adds to the surrealistic effect (video).

You kind of have to see it to feel it, but this place is wacky-wack. I don't groove on it as much as I did when I was out here last, there was a greater sense of optimism when the coalition ran things and, frankly, things ran better. Also, given the worsening security situation some things have definitely backslid. Remember the Green Zone café from the June trip (pics)? Well, a suicide bomber hit it and the market inside the GZ in the fall, they're both shut down now. Carry out only.

Posted by rick at 12:29 AM

January 05, 2005

fcuk 'em

You know, I'd run scared for the airport but:
1) the airport road isn't the best place to be right now, and
2) that's just what the idiot, and his backers, wanted to happen when he detonated his car yesterday.

I think I can make a real positive impact here with just a few more meetings, with at most one of them outside the GZ. I've pulled on a string and I think it leads to something rotten, if I shine a light on it might be fixable. If I leave it alone then things will continue the way they are ... which means broken.

I'm looking to head out of here in a week or so anyway to Amman, or even further west, I can work from there for a while.

The more locals I meet, the more I'm encouraged to stay. We're really making a difference, and our presence is appreciated, and everyone's worst fear is that the vocal minority (mostly religious nuts and FRL, former regime loyalists) will actually make us back out. On the other hand, the more we turn things over to the Iraqis it seems the worse things get -- corruption has been institutionalized here for decades, people live by it, and I think I'm witnessing it first hand. Not to mention that fact that there aren't any real experienced managers here, but we've got to let them run things anyway. So we do. They screw it up a bit, we try to nudge it back in line; they steal some, but leave enough on the table for things to work.

Anyway, while sitting outside about an hour ago, a rocket (a local guard said mortar, but it whooshed with increasing audio frequency and sounded like a rocket) flew right nearby. We heard the whooshing noise for a good 5 seconds (which is a LONG time to hear something like that). It must have landed not that far away. We all ran for different cover, then came back out 5min later and went back to chatting. "Big sky" theory works. Fcuk ‘em.

Posted by rick at 11:10 AM

January 04, 2005

a bad day at work

Well, I mentioned that two coworkers died yesterday. One was on his way in from the airport, just arriving. The other was on her way back in the same car on an errand. We've got a skeleton crew here for the holidays, so guess who got picked to be the level-headed guy to help inventory her personal effects?

Today's day at work was easily the most uncomfortable thing I've done as part of a job in my entire life. I was in a way honored I guess to do it, and I was happy to be part of the process, in a situation like this I'll help anyway I can, don't get me wrong ... but it's just so wrong in so many ways. We violated her personal space; I reduced her life here to an inventory spreadsheet; we boxed her effects to be next opened by her parents... It all had to be done, and we treated it with the solemness and care it deserved, yet I feel like I need a shower.

No word yet as to when I'm out of here, my enthusiasm for this project ebbs.

Posted by rick at 09:32 AM

January 03, 2005

two coworkers killed

It's been announced now. Two coworkers were returning form the airport to the GZ yesterday around 3:30pm local, in a two car armored convoy, when a "svbied" (suicide, vehicle born, improvised explosive device, aka "car bomb") managed to roll up next to them and detonate. They were on a flyway and their vehicle was blown over the side and landed upside down on the street below and burst into flames. All four people in the car, my two coworkers and their two PSD's, were killed instantly. We heard the explosion from here, not knowing it was one of ours. One of the people killed I knew and liked, she had been here the longest of all of us; I saw her leave on her way out, she sits (sat) two desks behind me.

I gotta tell you, getting the Iraqis a working billing system for their national phone company just doesn't seem so important anymore. I'm not one to let terrorists win through their actions but I don't plan on taking any rides out of the GZ anytime soon, nor do I plan on taking a car to the airport anytime soon. The embassy and USAID workers all "have" to take a helicopter flight to get to/from the airport -- I expect to be put on their transportation plan and get "withdrawn" to Amman, at least for a while. We'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, as I sat down to write this, another explosion rocked the trailers, this one much louder than most. Looking around outside it appears that another gate, closer than the airport one, was hit by a car bomb, it should be on the web in about an hour.

Posted by rick at 10:08 PM

More on this later

In the news:

"A car bomb exploded late Monday at a U.S.-manned checkpoint to the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area that houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices, U.S. Embassy spokesman Bob Callahan said. U.S. troops surrounded a burning SUV at the scene.

Three bodies were seen burning inside the destroyed vehicle. The nationalities of the victims were not immediately known.

Iraqi police Lt. Khalid Mohammed said the bomb targeted a U.S. nonmilitary convoy and there were casualties at the checkpoint, which is the main Green Zone exit for trips to Baghdad International Airport west of the city. American contractors and diplomats commonly make the journey along the dangerous airport road in SUVs. "

You can google the news, and see a video at tv.reuters.com, but I can't say more at this time.

Posted by rick at 10:25 AM