First off, the Internet is great, You-Tube is interesting, and Michael Moore is indeed a "little b*tch" as the Iraqi in the third clip so nicely puts it.
Circumvent the Old Stream Media and its particpants' political agendas and get your news from the sources. Having been to Iraq twice I can say that this series of clips is a far more accurate representation of what is going on there than anything you can get from your TV or a newstand. Not exactly unbiased, but no more biased than, say, NPR. Certainly it's a viewpoint that is largely absent in the National discussion.
It is also interesting to note how the theme music underlines the alienation of today's youth from main stream media as well. I might be old by the time things change, but at least the generation behind me is moving in the right direction.
Note, langauge and violence (and not the Hollywood kind either).
I got back to the US last week, and I have to say that it is good to be home.
The food is great. The people are great. But the best part of all is that no one is trying to kill me. The slight agoraphobia that I experienced last time I left Iraq didn't appear this time, but I have to say that this whole country looks so incredibly vulnerable. I'm just amazed at how anyone can walk into a crowded room of people without even so much as passing a metal detector.
I know it's normal, and I know that this is how it should be, but somehow I don't think it will be this way for long. We're going to have to tighten our security within our borders, and I think security will a big growth industry over the next decade or two.
In any case, it’s great to be back. Since I returned, I’ve been a glutton for all things missed while I was away -- now I’m full and am getting back to work. Hit me up for a slideshow and stories sometime…
Petra has been inhabited since several thousand years BC. At a crossroads between the East and the West, with a local water source, it was a rich trading empire during the Iron Age. The soft sandstone mountains allowed the Nabataeans to carve out elaborate tombs for the richest amongst them to ascend to their afterlifes (note the staircase theme common on many of the tombs). With access to Greek and Egyptian cultures, columns can be seen along with obelisks in the architecture.
Eventually invaded by both the Egyptians and the Romans, the city later fell into obscurity with the fall of the Roman Empire. Interestingly enough, a relief in Egypt by Ramses the III says of this land: "I plundered the tents of their people, their possessions, their cattle likewise, without number. They were pinioned and brought as captives, as tribute to Egypt. I gave them to the gods as slaves in their houses." Mankind once took pride in the success of their warfare, for better or worse we play things much more gently now.
In any case, after the fall of far away empires, and because the city was since largely in disuse by any other than nomadic Bedouins, the original structures were not built-over by newer ones so the city was effectively insulated from the progress of time.
In the early 1800's an intrepid western explorer disguised himself as an Arab scholar and braved these xenophobic lands. His approach to the city was through the narrow siq (canyon), where one suddenly emerges before a monument whose presence is so unexpected it almost shocks the viewer (as seen in the picture above). This is the same route the tourist takes today. The amazing artifacts, and the quality of their preserve, were largely the reason it was chosen for the filming of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
It is also a hiker's paradise. To see all of it you must not only walk a lot, but you must hike up several peaks. You can see in the following pictures me at the Temple of High Sacrifice, on the sacrificial alter, no less, and at the top of the Monastery Peak (video), a climb of 808 steps with a brisk donkey ride business below.
Although I jogged/hiked the peaks, I was not above taking a ride on a ship of the desert (video) just for fun one time in the lower area. The camels here are exceptionally well looked after, as are the horses and donkeys. There is a very large push by the locals to ensure quality health for their animals -- a refreshing site to see such healthy creatures in a role in which they are sadly often ridden to death.
The views are so large and sweeping, and there is so much to see, there is no way you can fit it all into frame for a picture -- so I panned around in these videos from the amplitheatre and from the temple of high sacrafice above it to help convey the idea. In all, an amazing place.
PASSING NOT ALLOWED
DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED
(repeat in Arabic)
In the cover of darkness.
"Form a single line here, ID's out I need to see both sides, bags go in the truck and then wait on the bus. ...
R&R or end of tour?"
"end of tour"
sign next to seat: "gun port operation. Slide lever forward, break outside glass. Place barrel through port before firing"
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We've got 5 gun trucks and two OH-58's with us. If anything happens stay in the bus, unless it is on fire, we'll maneuver another bus around to pick you up or take you in our vehicles. Things have been quiet these last couple of nights so we're hoping for a smooth ride. "
"CALLSIGN3, CALLSIGN2, radio check"
"CALLSIGN2, CALLSIGN3, 5 by 5"
"CALLSIGN3, CALLSIGN1 (that's us), moving out"
(callsigns anonymized as comms are monitored and this is the biggest target)
"All Pax, all Pax, headgear on"
15min high speed drive with a view of an armed/armored Humvee only three meters ahead. Clear view of soldier in gun turrent, with helmet and goggles and a .50cal, and the occasional checkpoint but not much else ... other than the occasional rumble and shadow of our gunship escort.
"Welcome to camp Stryker. Get your gear off the gear truck and line up over there for transport to the tents ... sir? Sir? Are you staying in the tents?"
"No, I'm meeting my security detail"
"You're meeting a security detail? (pause, look at my badge) Okay, 2nd tent on the left, talk to the lady inside, someone will come get you"
PSD: "Bentley? Great, come with me."
Move in armored SUV's with PSD's to Camp Victory, eat at mess hall, sleep in a group tent for a few hours, with personal bag tied to cot under my head, get up the next morning for the final leg of the transport to the civilian terminal.
"Passport and ticket?", show, repeat several times.
Checked baggage hand check. Pay for weight overage, cash only.
Most thorough body search ever, I'm not sure but I think we might be engaged now.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, sorry for the late departure. We will circle-climb to a safe altitude and then start our flight to Amman. We expect to arrive in 1 hour and 20 minutes."
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Amman. Please stay in your seats until we are finished with our taxi".
My personal bag has US$60,000 cash in $100's, I'm the employer's mule this trip ... nothing to declare.
"Adlie, Habibi! AsSalaam Alaikum"
"Hello Mr. Rick! Welcome, welcome. The car is over here"
"Checking in? ... room X ... he will take your bags"
Close the door, cash in the safe, concealed bullet proof vest off for the last time ... possibly ever. Shower. Food. Gym.
It's not home, but it's a world away from where I was. The pressure is off. I'm safe in Amman.
Every day I get in the queue (Too much, Magic Bus)
To get on the bus that takes me to you (Too much, Magic Bus)
I'm so nervous, I just sit and smile (Too much, Magic Bus)
You house is only another mile (Too much, Magic Bus)
Well, there are no more chopper rides out of here, but there's something that, combined with the procedure, I've decided is even safer: The Rhino Bus
Hey, if it's good enough for Rumsfeld, Myers, and even Saddam Hussein (in shackles), it's got to be good enough for me. I won't go over the procedure here but let's just say that we are so heavily guarded/escorted that it might actually be kinda neat to watch someone try to take us out. I will be going silent this evening before my ride to the airport, taking a flight from BIAP to Amman tomorrow morning, and showing up in Amman tomorrow night (the 8th) local time.
One thing I do know for sure is that ... I'm outta here!
...Every day you'll see the dust (Too much, Magic Bus)
As I drive my baby in my Magic Bus (Too much, Magic Bus)
As I mentioned in the last entry I've been meeting a local hire at one of the checkpoints. We realized the other day that the 14th of July Bridge checkpoint is both closer to our camp and to his house so we figured we'd try it instead.
At the first checkpoint, the procedure is that I walk out the side marked "exit" and about 3/4ths the way (~75 yards) through the checkpoint I meet Mohammed and walk him back in the side marked "entrance".
So I pull up to the new bridge/checkpoint, ask the guard what the procedure is, and he says to park my car here, on the right side of the bridge, and walk across, just follow the signs. No problem. I park the car and start walking across the bridge, on the right hand side, though I can't help feel pretty exposed walking across the Tigris. The signs say "do not leave sidewalk". Pretty much every sign here is followed with "deadly force authorized" so I follow them much more than back home.
I get to the other side of the bridge, walk past a 15' tall guard/gun tower with two guards in it, and past a barricade, and ... I'm in the Red Zone. Shit. I'm outside the GZ. I turn to go back in and the sign says "do not enter or you will be shot" in English and Arabic. K... I'm standing in downtown Baghdad, cars whizzing by, sticking out like a sore thumb.
I look for the entrance, it's on the other side of the traffic circle and there is a barrier running down the median so I have to walk *farther* into the RZ to get to it. Shit. No PSD's. No car. On foot. In downtown Baghdad. There has to be a better way. I look back at the guard tower with the machine guns sticking out of it, and thankfully a soldier inside waves me back. I approach, with my hands in plain view, past the sign that says I will be shot, and tell him the situation. He says to walk behind his tower to the opposite side of the bridge. I do, jogging across a dirt field, this takes me to another tower, again, hands out, explain the situation, told to walk behind his tower too ... and I'm back in the GZ.
What happened was I walked over on the right hand side of the bridge, the side on which I parked, and then the signs said do not leave sidewalk so I never thought of crossing to the left. I should have walked over on the left side of the bridge and this wouldn't have happened. Well, military zones aren't exactly idiot proof and there was no way I could have known which side to walk on ahead of time, so I took the one that I parked on. Also, at each checkpoint, you are intentionally in a maze of barriers that you can't see far past, so no one can see far in, so it's not like you can see the whole thing ahead of time. Quite the morning adrenaline rush.
Anyway, I met my guy and we walked back. All's well that ends well. I leave tomorrow; I'm seriously considering not going outside between now and then.
I've only got a couple of days left before I withdraw to Amman, I'll be heading to BIAP soon on the Rhino Convoy (more in another post, I'm now convinced that it's safer than by helicopter).
Currently the most dangerous part of my day is meeting a local I recently hired at one of the checkpoints. This involves me having to go most of the way through the checkpoint and escorting him back in. In theory, if a bomber hits while I was out there, and checkpoints are favorite targets, I could get hit. On the flip side, there are plenty of military guys out there too, who spend whole shifts out there every day for an entire tour of duty --- so I still have it cush in comparison.
Walking back to my car, knowing I'm on a plane soon, and doing the routine check for bombs before I get in it, or touch it, it suddenly hit me how strange it would be to check my car like this at home -- but, it's such a habit now, that I can't imagine *not* doing it.
That's when it hits you: This place is nuts. And it makes *you* nuts.
I'm way more "agro" than when I left, I can feel it in my IM/e-mail or phone calls with friends and family back home. A psychologist who teaches the 1 week anti-terrorism training course, which many of the people here attended (but not me), said that this place really does make you nuts. Then he gave a great personal example: he got in a fender-bender shortly after getting back from Iraq. The other driver said "hey, we gotta exchange info" and the psychologist said "the fu** we do!" and drove off. The police picked him up later on hit and run charges. Now, this is a professional with a PhD, has a steady job, pays his taxes, etc. and is a professionl shrink and he was nuts when he got back and didn't even know it.
Anyway, if you see me spend a couple of minutes looking around/under my car before I get in it, just kick me in the head or something.
This from yesterday's Stars and Stripes, via Associated Press.
The article is a little weak, in that it doesn't count for any increase in the number of contractors in country, but neither does the original report from which it draws: note this is the same report that slams the CPA for spending money in Iraq to improve the infrastructure before there was in infrastructure in place to account for the money being spent (yes, it is a chicken and egg argument; thus a poor one).
In any case, not a bad time to be going.
As is usual for me, I'm sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when BAM! something hits the roof of the work trailer I'm in ... hard. It was really loud. Then we hear whatever it is bounce around and fall off the side.
Wtf? Sit still for while, to see if there's anything more coming. Nothing. So go outside and start looking around. We figure it was a stray bullet. One of the local guards is looking around, he heard the gun fire then heard it hit the trailer and he thinks it's a stray bullet too. I even stood up on the sandbags to look on the roof, er, with my Kevlar helmet on, looking for it. No luck.
I spent some time playing Physics 101, and a little web research, and figured that a rifle bullet shot straight up (with a muzzle velocity of 2000-3000 fps) comes down at only a few hundred fps (due to wind resistance), it might be going faster in a shallower arc but it's still much slowed by the time it's lobbed over the walls of the camp, given the height of our walls, and a rifle bullet is light compared to a handgun bullet ... so the short story is that I think our roof is "bullet proof" (when the bullets are lobbed, not from direct fire) and I think that was empirically demonstrated too.
The press is increasingly the tool of the "insurgents". In fact, look at the article and photo run by several news agencies and tell me what you think: a very special effect
Aiding and abetting or just pure incompetence? I think it's more like corruption: they make money by showing things blowing up ... and to spin the story to make it sound as significant as possible. Showing all the cars that didn't blow up doesn't sell their papers.
So, here's the real question: why do we pay for news? It used to be that it took a lot of money to send people around the world with cameras, send the film/photos back home with a story, print it on paper, and deliver the papers back out around the world. Then it took a lot of money to run a news station and broadcast nationwide, or internationally, to everyone's living room. But now? If you pay for news, the news is already spun to be a tempest ... with no mention made that it resides in a teapot.
Welcome to the new millennium where you can trust the internet and your own intelligence more than the big news agencies. Let me be the first to predict the demise of, and coin the term, "old stream media".
(update: I just googled "old stream media" and there were 9 hits; so I guess I was only one of the first).
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.
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.
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..."
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
While typing this we had another smaller one, but I haven't seen it on the web yet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Security is a funny subject. The more secure you make things the more inconvenient they can become (e.g. having a password on your computer that you have to change every month might make your data, and your company's network, more secure, but it's not convenient to you). I never really mind stuff like that, I tend to treat security more seriously than most. Case in point, I got a security briefing when I first got here, it went like this:
Him: "...and we've got a 7pm curfew"
Me: "great, so is there a bed check?"
Him: "No, no, it's nothing like that it's an honor system. We try not inconvenience people."
Me: (disappointed) "Oh, so if I'm in the trunk of a car no one is going to start looking for me until late the next morning?"
Him: "...uh, I guess, I uh..."
Me: "so I've got all the downsides of a curfew but none of the upsides?"
Him: "...you know, no one has put it this way before..."
Likewise we've got the same security contractor as before for all of our transport outside the GZ. They, as before, have two types of cars: armored SUV's and thin-skinned (not armored) sedans. They say the SUV's draw too much attention and that you are better off in the sedans. This is BS. First of all, the American SUV's draw too much attention but Japanese SUV's are not all that uncommon here. Second of all, the best of both worlds would be an armored sedan (duh), but those have all been snapped up.
We've got two cars down right now. Both SUV's. One was hit by gunfire (AK-47 drive-by on BIAP road). The other by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). In both cases the passengers were fine. In both cases one or more people in the car would have been killed if the vehicle was thin-skinned. It's not that hard to look in a vehicle, SUV or sedan, and see that it's a bunch of non-Arabs (the UK security guys don't look local). I'll take an armored SUV over a thin-skinned sedan anyday. These thing take a licking and keep on ticking. Check it out.
I met with my counterpart in the Iraqi government for the first time today; this was at their Ministry outside the Green Zone. When I was here in the summer we regularly traveled outside the GZ to go home. In the current security situation, however, going outside is more of a big deal. The transport was the usual: armored (at least sometimes) car, plus a chase car, each with a "driver" and a "shooter". When we got to the Ministry, however, the "shooters" came in with us ... to make sure we come back out. Our guys are about as subtle as you can be; they wear their body armor under street clothes, just have a Secret Service like ear piece for communications, and only carry a side arm (no rifles). Still, each is clearly the type of guy who if you met in a bar and got off on the wrong foot would gladly put his cigarette out in your face. They wait outside the conference room and do their best to blend in, they're not really good at it. Two guys with bulging shirts, guns, earpieces, with their eye on everyone in the room don't exactly blend.
That's when I had a thought: I want these guys to come with me to my meetings when I get back to Silicon Valley. Somehow I think their presence could only make my presentations more convincing.
I've never had my own goon-squad before, it's kinda fun. It's like I'm an evil villain or something and have armed henchmen; one step closer to the ultimate goal I guess.
Was actually pretty nice.
I didn't find a gym. In the US I can pretty much social-engineer my way into anything. Here you don't screw around. A sign as simple as "no parking" in front of a building will be followed with "deadly force authorized", there is no sneaking your way into anything here. It's approach slowly, ID (on lanyard around your neck) out, hands in plain sight, no fast moves, be polite. After the Basra suicide bombing all the guards are a little on edge.
Speaking of that bombing, it cost me my food. Last time I was here we ate at the Baghdad palace cafeteria, now the US Embassy is hogging the whole thing. So we we're eating at the camp of a large military contractor a short car ride away. I went by yesterday for breakfast and my badge no longer worked -- "active duty personnel" only now. So I went to the Pizza Inn for breakfast (yeah, there's a Pizza Inn here, it's doing great business over by the PX). It's not clear yet what we'll do for food going forward.
I drove around yesterday in what would be a nice big 7 series BMW back home, but is a beat-to-death car here that hasn't seen a service interval in years. We've got a bunch of German cars, and all of their dashes are lit up like X-mas trees with "service interval" or "check engine" and "headlight out" "taillight out" "ECU" "wiper fluid low" "..." every service indicator is lit. What's weird is that every time you get in the car you have to check the wheel wells and under the vehicle (for bombs), a procedure I'm happy to follow. I hopped into a Mercedes here the other day and noticed the door was kinda heavy. A brief inspection showed that it was lightly armored, the guy driving it for the last two months didn't even notice. I swear that opening a car armoring shop here would be like having a license to print money, armored cars go for $100k and up, many costing over a quarter of a mil -- and there is no end to demand in site.
We'll have our own gym finished in early Jan, meanwhile I found a nice run that takes me up two levels of security. So, aside from finding a gym, that's about the best x-mas present I could have gotten.
I'll actually need to get to work today (it's 4-something a.m., jetlag denies me sleep right now), we had Friday off and Saturday was X-mas so I haven't done much yet. I'm not particularly optimistic about this place anymore. I understand that our counterparts are difficult/impossible to get ahold of, meetings are hard to schedule, and enthusiasm is low. We'll see what I can make of it.
Oh yeah, we had a nice X-mas dinner here at camp. I brought in a bunch of food from Amman on my way over (like 10 kilos worth) that was pre-bought for me, and everyone had scrounged around here too. We had roasted chicken, beef kebabs, stuffing, mash potatoes, cauliflower, wine, egg nog (kinda), Christmas music from someone's i-pod. It was a nice evening.
When we were onto dessert we heard the booom ... booom .... booom of far off mortars. A newly arrived contractor had just gone outside for a smoke and ran back in terrified, "that was really close!", she said. The rest of us shook our heads. "Nah, those were far off, when they're close you'll feel the air pressure in the trailer change", I replied, thinking I was being helpful. She didn't seem helped. The mortars continued, someone turned up the music until we couldn't hear them anymore.
'Twas the night before x-mas and all through the camp
The rain had turned the normally dusty dirt damp
The sandbags were stacked by the trailers with care
But the roofs were unprotected, with hope that no mortar falls there
The contractors were nestled all snug in their beds
While visions of completed exit reports danced in their heads
And my imaginary girlfriend, and I in my briefs,
Had just settled down for a long fitful sleep.
When out in the camp I heard such a clatter
I ran from my trailer to see what was the matter
When what to my wandering eyes should appear
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer
The sleigh was on fire, and four "engines" were out
And above the din I heard St. Nicholas shout:
"Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer, Now Vixen,
you guys got to pull for Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen
We're taking too much small arms fire with you guys screwing around
We need some altitude so we can get the fuck out of town.
If we land we'll be on TV with our heads cut off, I'm not taking that fall
Now dash away dash away dash away all"
Then I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight
"You guys are nuts to be here, I'm going back to the North Pole for the night".
We have a 6-day work week here, and Muslims treat Friday like Christians treat Sunday, so today is our offday. It's 10am local (11pm CA) and I just woke up. My goal on my off day is to find a place to workout.
When I was here over the summer the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) ran the Baghdad Palace. We had access and could use the pool out back too. Behind the palace, at a military complex, is a huuuuuge weight room as well -- it was great.
Now the US Embassy has taken over the palace, and the pool, and the gym and we *don't* have access. Like they need all that to themselves.
There was another gym by the PX, but they moved it to put in a Burger King. The new location reportedly isn't up yet. My employer is building a gym for our camp, but it's not up yet... I might go nuts. This is not a good time to be denied my usual stress relief.
Anyway, I've got a day to find a way to work out (finding another gym, talking my way into the embassy, finding a loop around the embassy to run...) -- will report back tonight.
Back in camp (my employer has a compound inside the green zone).
This place has changed.
The good news is that things have been really quiet for the last week or so (with, uh, one exception today; more on that below), the bad news is that this is understood to be that they're saving it up for X-mas and that the security situation has gotten worse in general.
Mortars have been a problem lately and it's been getting worse, two camps near us were hit since I've been away and some people were killed. The Green Zone isn't so green anymore, there have been car bombings, suicide bombings, shootings, and other violence inside here since I left as well. Not a good sign.
The BIAP trip was uneventful ... for me. However apparently today one of *our* security details was hit with machine gun fire on its way out to the airport -- I think that's a first.
Other good news is that we're going to build the ablative armor I talked about in a previous post (I was talking about our bomb shelter and how it was reinforced everywhere ... except the roof -- a problem during mortar season), the bad news is that it won't be here until after the X-mas mortar shower. The good news is that my trailer is a pretty small target to hit (like, no chance, this place is seven square miles) the bad news is that I'm living in a tiny little trailer. I need to write that down and look at it again. I'm living in a trailer. I think I'll grow a mullet.
That would be so cool. I'm growing the mustache and goatee anyway, the mullet would be the icing on the cake.
Wow, I'm sleep deprived. I'm off to diner then bed. My e-mail isn't really working yet (web interface only) so I'm putting off getting to everyone until it is working and I've had some sleep.
We have a 6-day work week here, and Muslims treat Friday like Christians treat Sunday, so today is our offday. It's 10am local (11pm CA) and I just woke up. My goal on my off day is to find a place to workout.
When I was here over the summer the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) ran the Baghdad Palace. We had access and could use the pool out back too. Behind the palace, at a military complex, is a huuuuuge weight room as well -- it was great.
Now the US Embassy has taken over the palace, and the pool, and the gym and we *don't* have access. Like they need all that to themselves.
There was another gym by the PX, but they moved it to put in a Burger King. The new location reportedly isn't up yet. My employer is building a gym for our camp, but it's not up yet... I might go nuts. This is not a good time to be denied my usual stress relief.
Anyway, I've got a day to find a way to work out (finding another gym, talking my way into the embassy, finding a loop around the embassy to run...) -- will report back tonight.
and not just for that last post. I'm in Amman, Jordan, right now. It's a beautiful and safe city and we get to stay at a nice hotel ... for about 5 hours. It's 3:46am and I need to check out by 9am and head back to the airport for the flight to Baghdad.
Which means after I land I'm back on BIAP road (see prior post from last trip about the "shooting gallery") for the trip to the Green Zone. If there ever were a highway to hell this might be it. Although the US Military allegedly has it all under control now (on my way out this past summer we went past tanks and checkpoints several times on our way to the airport) it's probably the most dangerous part of my trip.
Which is to say it's not that dangerous. Think of it this way: when I was a kid I wanted to join the Marines and fly F-14's off an aircraft carrier. I'd still do that given a chance. But being in the military is dangerous, on the other hand being a civilian contractor here means that you've got the military between you and the bad guys. My job is a walk through the park compared to the guy sitting on top of the Humvee with the .50cal on this same road all day every day working to keep me safe. Thanks guys.
I'm in Frankfurt, my flight got in at 11am and leaves at 8:45pm, so I hopped the train to downtown Frankfurt and have been cruising around. It's cold out but the Christmas season is in the air -- and the Germans do it right. The whole downtown walking area is covered with food stands with some of the tastiest looking treats I've seen, mistletoe vendors walk the streets, the trees and wreaths are perfect, it's just like you'd expect. What a great tradition-filled way to celebrate the winter solstice, it's been going on (bringing evergreens into your house, the yule log, feasting etc.) in this area for about 4000 years (long before the Christian church co-opted it with a wildly inaccurate statement of their figure head's b-day; the bible says little about the actual date and the information you can find points to a September/October time frame -- about 5 years BC, go figure).
I especially like the whole Santa Claus tradition, though only a couple of hundred years old it's the fusion of a Dutch tale and a German one and makes for a nice tradition ... and no one had to get nailed to anything for it either.
Man am I tired, I'm going to sleep like a (yule) log on the plane. More from Jordan.
Okay, the departure date is 12/19 -- tomorrow, Sunday.
I fly SFO to DC, spend Monday a.m. at my temporary employer and Monday p.m. at DoD processing. Then Monday night to Frankfurt, arrive Tuesday a.m. Cruise around Frankfurt for the day then depart in the p.m. for Amman, Jordan, arriving in the middle of the night. This is where the regular part of the itinerary that you can book off of expedia end. The next morning it's a special charter flight into Baghdad.
Last time I primarily worked on Performance Indicators for the ITPC (Iraq Telecommunications and Post Company), basically the phone company and post office in one. The indicators I emphasized were things like "number of employees per thousand customers" and "revenue per employee" -- all of which were several times worse than any other national phone company. The Baath party turned the ITPC into a nepotistic make-work project.
This time I'm working on their billing system. It used to be that if you were a Baath party member a certain level or higher you got a phone, and it cost a nominal fee per year. Billing was done by the postman: he hands you a bill, you hand him payment, he hands you a receipt, he turns it all in at the end of the day. With the current security situation people were knocking over the postmen so they stopped billing.
Now there is a new billing system coming in. I wasn't involved in the bidding process, and neither was my employer, so I don't know what it is or why it's the one we're getting, but it has to be implemented. I don't even know if they can do usage tracking with their current switching equipment (I tend to doubt it), so there's plenty of challenge here. What I do know is that it's good for all of us if their phone company gets back on their feet so that you-and-I can stop effectively paying all the bills for it.
What about Connexed? It'll roll along just great w/o me physically here. I've got a 7pm curfew in Baghdad, so I'll be online all the time with the gang anyway. We've got 20 people on board in various capacities, albeit mostly part time, and every base is covered. I've gone 18 months w/o pay, it's my turn to get a check for a little bit so I don't starve to death. We just finished our product and got our first sale, it'll take the dev team some time to shake out the bugs. Once things are running smoothly we'll add more accounts, the vacation time for partners and investors will be over, and we'll go back out on the fundraising and business building trails.
Monday: employer in a.m., DoD processing in p.m.
Monday night: DC-Frankfurt
Tuesday: hang out in Frankfurt for the day
Tuesday night: Frankfurt-Amman, Jordan
Wednesday: charter flight to Baghdad
You can reach me via e-mail with username "blog" at this domain, or Y! IM username "rickbentley68".
Back to Baghdad
Well, a couple of weeks ago I got offered to go back to Baghdad with a 12/15 departure date. The last time I was there we had recommended that the ITPC (Iraq Telecommunications and Post Company) be privatized -- MCI or whomever could roll in and have everything working in a relatively straightforward manner. Not too surprisingly, however, those in the Iraq government would like to keep it government owned (Rick's first law of governments: they always get bigger) so they would like to do this themselves.
Well, we're here to serve, so my project this time would be to straighten out their billing systems -- which really means put in a new one. They used to bill through the Post Office, the mailman walked around and collected cash from people and gave them a receipt. Given the security situation that hasn't worked for over a year, so the whole thing needs to move to a prepay model (go somewhere, pay your money, and the phone gets turned on).
This time we live *in* the Green Zone have even have a PSD (personal security detail) while traveling around inside the GZ, it's a lot safer than the situation last time when we were living outside.
I'm looking forward to going and, since the trip is over the holidays, where not much gets done anyway, it wouldn't be too disruptive to Connexed (startup #2 that I'm working on). However I heard today that the trip might be postponed, I hope to know more soon. I'll keep you posted.
I usually try to be politically neutral, especially on this blog, but today I'd like to open with a statement: Michael Moore is a smart man ... in only that he makes money off the idiots that pay to watch his drivel. As one commentator noted about Fahrenheit 911: "it's so misleading, you can't even call it wrong". If you believe anything in the documentary, without at least doing a modicum of research on the web or elsewhere, you will fail to meet the qualification of an independent thinker.
Iraq was not a country at peace with it's neighbors, with food for all, before the current occupation as the movie implies. Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, they attacked half of their neighbors in the last two decades. These were expensive wars that, coupled with the resultant sanctions and Saddam's corruption, bankrupted their country. We came in and are helping setting it back on track. As I've said before, this is the most generous, and thankless, thing we have done since we gave France back to the French.
My housemate in Iraq was working on their banking system. 15 years ago the bank of Iraq, with copious oil revenue, was the 13th strongest bank in the world. Now their currency, until we recently bolstered it, was worthless. In 1989 it took three US Dollars to buy one Iraqi Dinar, now it takes 1,500.00 Iraqi Dinars to buy one US Dollar (over three orders of magnitude of devaluation in a decade in a half). So my housemate had a chance to ask the banks "uh, hey, guys, WTF happened here?". They produced several letters written by Saddam Hussein that said "give to my son Uday the sum of $900 million dollars (equivalent)", "give to my son Quessa the sum of $800M"...
The Husseins took the money and spent it. Saddam had 27 palaces at last count. Since so many of his own people were trying to kill him, he didn't want people to know his travel schedule, so he had meals for 100 people prepared for every palace 3x a day. He also didn't want people to be able to track where he was, so he didn't want whether or not the locals got fed to indicate if he was there or not -- so he had every uneaten meal destroyed instead of given away. This while most of his people were below the hunger line.
So, then the UN came up with the Oil for Food program. This is often called the "Oil for Palace's" program. Some of the other people I was working along side with had the opportunity to help unravel the multiple layers of fraud that came along with the program. It quickly becomes clear why France and Russia didn't want us to go in there, if nothing else we'd expose all their corruption. Not to mention the fact that the UN was taking a commission on every sale, and pocked over a billion dollars themselves off the scam (the books the UN keeps are secret).
Think I'm crazy? Think this is Western propaganda? Here, look at what Al Jazeera says about it:
I heard a lot of great stories when I was in Iraq, I'll start posting them here while they're still fresh in my head. One of the better stories I heard contained what might be the best quote I've heard in my entire life.
There is a group of solidiers called Gurkhas, they traditionaly hail from Nepal and serve with the British Army. They are universally considered to be bad asses.
One of the military guys I was having lunch with was out in the red zone, with a Gurkha with him, when a firefight broke out. He was running and ducking for cover when the Gurkha said:
"Don't worry ... my job is to make sure you die last".
back in SF, it seems really wierd now. The agoraphobia has mostly worn off but I can't help but look at every person/vehicle/situation from a security standpoint -- and everything I see looks poorly secured.
Our society has been largely free of terrorism and the fact is that we're not prepared to deal with it. A cop who shows up 15 minutes after a call to file a report is not how many other parts of the world handle security. I don't think we're ready for rifle toting soldiers on the streets, armored cars, and an occasional military vehicle on the corner, but that might be our future. In between now and then I predict that we will be shouldering more and more of a security burden out of our own pockets.
In any case, on that cheery note, I'm having a picture/movie night at my place this Friday at 8pm. I'll be showing pictures and video clips of Baghdad on the big screen TV. Everyone is welcome, I'll hope to see you all there.
(btw: I can't seem to reach my outgoing mail server these last couple of days, but can recieve fine. I owe many of you e-mails that will have to wait until I'm home).
So I get off the plane in Frankfurt at 6-something a.m., breeze through customs (my bag is checked straight through to SFO so I'm only lugging my daypack), follow the signs to the train, take the train to downtown Frankfurt, walk out of the station and start heading for the old part of town. I'm trying to sort out which way is which, while keeping an eye out for a good hotel with Internet connection, and looking forward to a day practicing German, when a girl walking by says something to me that I don't make out. So I stop and say (in German) "Sorry, I'm from America and my German isn't so good.". To which she replies (in English) "oh, do you want a blow job?".
Well, the answer to this question is generally a rapid: "yes". But this is obviously the wrong context so I'm trying to sort out my reply in German when she says "I do a good job, 10 Euros". Okay, so much for replying in German "No thank yo—" wait, 10 Euros? That's like $12. I mean ‘dinner-and-a-movie' back in the States is...never mind "No, no thanks. Later."
Quite a slap in the face after the land of Burkas -- it's been a while since I've seen a local woman without at least long sleeves, if not a headscarf, who would even remain in the room while so much as a tangential reference to sex was made. Anyway, guess I'll be practicing German in a different part of town (in fact I already have and am now typing this from a bench in a open stone plaza in the middle of old-town Frankfurt having fumbled my way through most of the morning with rusty language skills; no luck "wardriving", looking for free 802.11, yet but I'm still trying -- wait, got one, uploading blog).
Which brings up the next topic, I've intentionally kept this Blog in the informal voice, and made no pretenses at professional airs, with the intention of keeping this as entertaining and informative as possible (in the vernacular: ‘keeping it real'), but there are a LOT of people reading it. The site has been averaging over a hundred visitors a day. It's also interesting to note the domains from which the traffic is coming, two of the top 15 most active domains belong to well known Bay Area venture funds -- so much for it not crossing over into my professional life. I guess I should leave out stories that involve things like German hookers.
Of course, now that I'm out of Baghdad, I'm sure most of you will get bored and wander off anyway -- at least until I do something else kinda stupid and crazy (... which, admittedly, usually doesn't take very long...). I just hope that I've only offended those that I meant to, and entertained the rest of you to your satisfaction.
I'll be posting some epilogues here shortly after I'm back. I made some observations in Iraq, and have a few stories left, that I haven't had a chance to post but that I think are worth sharing. I'll make the odd posting on life in general going forward too -- but before everyone disappears I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for taking the time to read my ramblings. Your attention has been flattering and I won't take it personally as the traffic drops back down.
There was a VERY big, >1000lb, bomb blast today that targeted a US convoy:
6 killed, 33 wounded, a real mess.
Our security team has recommended that everyone still in country work from home -- no travel unless absolutely neccessary.
Extra glad to be heading home now.
Safe arrival in Amman, went to the Dead Sea today, going to go hang out with the gang tonight (there are about a half dozen of us here from the same project), and then hop a 3am fligth to Frankfurt.
The ride to BIAP was (in)tense. We took a private car, like on the way in, and not one of the big armored buses I had been seeing around. The PSD's told us not to talk to them once we started moving. We were in a really big American SUV that was armored to the moon and got a long briefing before we left on what to do in situations like "there is someone outside with a gun who wants you to get out of the car" etc.
Anyway, I had picked up a hunk of marble from Saddam's Secret Bunker (see previous blog) that was heading for the landfill. The tour guys told me that if I didn't take it that it would end up as trash, they said I'd have no problem getting it home too. So I lugged this crazy thing around the Green Zone, cleaned it up, found a box, etc. and tried to ship it via APO (the military mail system to which we have access), which involves a few hundred meters of lugging this thing in itself. Well, the APO won't ship "sand, rocks, or bricks" and I guess this was a rock. So I decided to pay through the nose to check it on the airlines. All the locals thought I was insane "why you want this? It is junk. There is stuff like this everywhere. Nobody want this." I told them I thought it would look great on my mantel. They still think I'm crazy for lugging this thing around in the heat.
...It got confiscated at the airport. They took my rock. I'm still bitter. They took another guy's deoderant. They're apparently making up rules as they go along. Whatever. Have fun with the rock. I think they're going to use it as a door stop. Grumble.
Anyway, it's good to be someplace where stuff doesn't blow up. Though I admit to feeling a little agoraphobic walking around outside w/o body armor or a security detail. I assume this feeling will wear off soon.
So, I was on my way to the CPA for breakfast and had decided to take the shuttle bus for a change when there was a big BANG! At first I thought maybe we had a big backfire or something but the way the bus driver reacted it was clear it was a bomb/missle/mortar/whatever.
So, since we weren't 100% sure we kept on to the CPA. When we got there they had the sirens going so it was clear that we weren't going to have breakfast. So we turned around and came back.
Cell phone rumors say it was a missle or mortar that hit the hospital. E-mail rumors say it was a car bomb outside the North gate by the Police Station.
Anyway, within the hour I leave for BIAP, down the shooting gallery, which apparently now they only do with military escort. I think I'll be in one of these new armored buses that I see driving around, they look like something from a futuristic Stallone movie, but I don't know yet.
Then it's a quick hop to Jordon. I'm going to spend the day at the Dead Sea (first time for me on the Jordan side) and the night in Amman. Next I've got a 3am flight to Frankfurt, so I won't bother with a hotel in Jordan, and then I'm going to spend a full day in Frankfurt practicing German on Fraulines and generally playing Ugly American Tourist (or not). Finally it's Frankfurt direct to SFO, back on Wed.
I'll try to post something from Amman but don't know that I'll have the opportunity, it might have to wait until Frankfurt.
I'm really going to miss this place, the overt insanity is refreshingly engaging. When's the last time you wore body armor to work accompanied by armed escort, had sandbags piled around your office, got used to helicopters buzzing 50' overhead, were surrounded by tanks and armed Humvees/soldiers/civilians on a regular basis, spent some time thinking about which way the bombs were falling so you could plan your meals, and spent your off days visiting bomed out buildings and palaces?
For me the last time was June 14, 2004. I'm looking forward to the next one.
I had my usual breakfast at the Palace/CPA today and took about a half hour afterwards to look around. I saw Saddam's old movie theater, which now has regular movie nights for the troops, Bremmer's office, and a bunch of other neat stuff.
So, I'm walking back to The Camp, not even 5 mintues outside the Palace, when I hear BOOM .... **BAROOOOOOOOOM**! Something big landed right on the Palace/CPA, or at least right near it. I got my ass back to camp and into the shelter/laundry-room (with the f'n door open as always, so now I sit in a little alcove in the back behind a 2nd concrete wall).
(update) I found out later that it was three rockets, one hit the roof, one landed by the pool, the thrid didn't explode (so they blew it up later). The one that hit the roof blew out some windows and no one was hurt from any of them.
I'm suddenly glad that I'm leaving tomorrow morning. They closed the CPA for lunch, which is fine with me, I was going to have it somewhere else today anyway...
Okay, so I thought Uday's Palace on the Tigres was something to behold -- until I took a tour of Saddam's secret bunker yesterday.
In a building in Baghdad, with an administration building as a façade (complete with some real offices in the floors above ground) three stories underground, and another three stories deep, Saddam build a secret bunker. A lot of Soviet design techniques were employed, it was fitted with Scandinavian air recirculatory systems, furniture, cooling systems, and other stuff, and it wasn't even discovered until we had troops on the ground.
Side note: I've got a soft spot for Scandinavia but it looks like Sweden and Finland were all too happy to sell him all the gear he wanted.
A guy from the State Department does an unofficial tour every Friday at 4pm. This wouldn't exactly pass OSHA standards as you're walking through a bombed out building, followed by a huge military bunker, in the dark -- I used my digital camera's LCD as a flashlight. I was wishing for something other than the shorts and tennis shoes I wore, shoes with a steel shank would have been nice but I walked gingerly.
Apparently we knew there was something important there, we dropped two 2,000lb bombs on it (see pictures), but the bunker was so well built it was left completely intact. After the power went out, and the backup generators ran out of fuel, the sump pumps stopped and the bottom two stories are flooded. I'm glad I'm taking my chlorquine becuase the mosquitos that breed there now were all too happy to see us.
There is a secret escape tunnel that leads out even deeper below the water table but it was designed to essentially be a water proof tube. We walked through it to the circular staircase on the other side.
Our tour guide was in charge of interviewing people about the bunker and he reconstructed their SOP's. Most of the doors in the building are fake. If you do open the right door you are faced with a small alcove you step into. Once the door behind you closes you have the opportunity to present your credentials for the next door to open. No credentials and you don't leave alive. Next you take off all of your clothes and leave them behind, take a mandatory shower, and put on clothes that are issued to you on the other side. This way no listening devices or weapons could be snuck in.
On the inside you walk a circuitous route that takes you down three stories without really feeling it, it's an intentional illusion. There are several officer's quarters, furnished by Ikea, with some of the chemical suit equipment still left behind (yeah, he wasn't planning for chemical war or anything...). Locals keep breaking in at night and stealing stuff, so there are more things gone every week.
You can see Saddam's briefing room from where he issued statements for television release, you might remember this room from TV -- I did. There's a picture of me banging my fist on the table like I own the place at the link below. It's crazy to be there after seeing it on TV so many times and just be allowed to wander around.
When you come back up out of the bunker, you come out of one of six doors (five are fake), and into a bombed out section of the building. Walk about 30 yards to the other side, however, and you are in what used to be a very large domed entertainment room. There is a hole at the top right by the chandeler where a 2000lb bomb entered. The entire dome interior is one flattened wasteland now ... and we got to walk right through it. 2000lbs is a lot of boom.
It leaves you speechless.
Of course, I will now trip every chemical sniffer at every airport on the way home for bomb residue, but it was completely worth it. Look at the pictures, it is surreal -- even for this place. I'm still kinda stunned.
The CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority), and all the reconstruction that it generates here, wouldn't function without the help of the local Iraqis. They fill a variety of roles from food service to translators to associates at consulting firms to the members of new government that is taking over.
You notice that there are no pictures of the Iraqis that I work with on the website. Well, those that work with us, or for the new government, are generally considered to be collaborators. Iraqis that work with us are sometimes killed. Some of them don't come to work some days, or show up hours late, because they were being followed. One of our IT guy has a typical algorithm: he always takes two buses, or two cabs, or some combination of the two to get to and from work. That way it's not so obvious where he's going. If you call someone on their (company supplied) cell phone at night, and they are out with other people, and they have to speak English on the phone you could get them killed. I've called people who have jabbered Arabic at me for a while until they could get away from other people to talk to me (usually their car, I hear them drive in circles in the background while they talk).
First I assumed this was because they are working with the occupying power, but when I ask "well, this will bet better after June 30th, right?" every one of them has told me no. It seemed logical to me that, after June 30th, when an Iraqi government is in place, that it will be okay to work with an Iraqi government. Nope. Okay, so now I assumed that this was because the new government isn't viewed as legitimate. Nope, not that either.
It's because no one here trusts the government. Government in Iraq has for so long been an entity to be feared that working for the government is a short path to some potentially serious problems in the post liberation environment -- which is still a very chaotic and nearly lawless environment. Security is the object most desired by those I talk to, more than power, or water, or anything else.
None of them tell their friends where they work. Some tell their family, usually just their parents and not their siblings. One guy who works with us is from a town far away from Baghdad. Everyone at home, including every member of his family, thinks he is working in Amman. He goes home every month or two, drops off some money, tells them lies about Amman, and comes back to Baghdad to work.
I find talking with the locals extremely interesting, especially those in a socio-economic group parallel to mine. I recently met some very charming locals who are about my age etc. and I got a chance to ask about Iraqi culture (for a 30's something single). It used to be: go to dinner, go to the club, go to a friend's house for a party. Now it's stay home because it's not safe to go outside. Movies? Music? It was, at least, pretty much like America. In fact, American movies are very popular here. Titanic was such a hit that it was overplayed and there was a cultural backlash to it, just like in the US. They never heard of Kill Bill, so there's some selective censorship or at least filtering going on, but they're generally in the mainstream.
There is, not surprisingly, some visible anti-Semitism here. People are still suspicious of you if you've been to Israel. "I hate Israel" is a typical comment if it comes up. I try to portray a more balanced view of the US than a super power who, in between gulf wars, just sits around and funds Israel's conflict with the Arabs; I even once tried to explain some of the teachings of the great American Philosopher and Poet, Eric Cartman, (South Park reference) but I think they don't get it.
Our taxi driver likes to joke around about girls. But he has never heard of a thong before. I downloaded a picture for him last night; I think it will melt his brain. The guys joke about sex like in any culture; the women, even the most liberated ones, wouldn't consider making even a crack about it. It's still a very conservative culture that way.
An Iraqi man is allowed up to four wives. This is starting to sound pretty good, but it turns out that each wife typically wants her own house. I suggested that one big house, with one big bed, might be a better way to go. People tell me it would cause "discord". I guess I can see that, these things tend to obey the Pauli Exclusion Principal (the Physical law that states that two objects can't occupy the same space at the same time).
So maybe it's not as good as it sounds. Also, well educated Iraqis of any social standing only take one wife, with the possible exceptions of a man who's wife can't bear children, or a guy who is old and successful picks up a wife 30 years younger than him -- it's kind of like a trophy wife but you get to keep the first one too.
Anyway, the culture here is nothing short of fascinating. It's the same, yet completely different. Our IT guy was marveling at some of my technical gadgets and says, with open envy, "we don't have such things here". I said you will soon. He said "maybe ten years". I said "let's work hard together and do it in five". He said that it would take longer: "my people don't want to know about things on the outside".
Yeah, but, dude, you get four wives...
I just went and saw Uday's main Palace today. It's over by the Tigris, at the edge of the Green Zone ... and it's where his lions are.
They were mostly in the shade and out of site but one of them was sitting out for us to admire. There were some carcasses of antelope or something in the cage with them, so they're definitely eating. I hear that most places are afraid to take them since they have a taste for human flesh (people who displeased Uday, and the odd Russian hooker, are reported to have been routinely used as cat food).
But that's not the "wow" part. We also got to walk through his palace -- or what's left of it. It was hit so amazingly hard. I've got some incredible pictures I'll post of things like:
1) the hole in the roof the missile came through
2) the blown out section of the first and second floor that the missle blew up
3) the charred remains of two rooms in every direction.
here's one: knock knock
Whatever they dropped on there wasn't just supposed to go boom, it was supposed to burn out the whole place (and kill everyone inside). Too bad he wasn't home. There isn't a scratch on the grounds outside the building but the building itself took at least a few direct hits and is totaled.
Talk about precision: "I'd like to take out the entire inside of *that* house, quickly, without warning, from my chair on the other side of the world -- could you handle that for me please?"
I'm in awe, it really brings meaning to "projection of power".
Morris, a local who works with us that drove us over there, saw Uday's palace for the first time. In fact, most Iraqis that are here have never been allowed into what is now the Green Zone before. Morris was upset that all this wealth was concentrated in one place while the rest of the country struggled, he was also upset that we blew it all to crap. I pointed out that the palace itself, and the junk in it, was nothing compared to all the money hoarded elsewhere. In any case, he had a great time running around and taking pictures next to all the tacky statues and stuff.
I still need to finish my post on the locals and what they think of all of this, but it's bedtime now.
What I want to know is: what happened to the A-Team? I mean, maybe I'm just a product of the TV generation but can't we get an old black van, weld steel armor all through it, and drive it down BIAP road as a decoy? Then when the bad guys roll up on it ... the back doors pop open and "B. A." (as played by Mr. T, who says things like "I pity the fool" and "you ain't putting me on no airplane") appears with big gold chains and a 50 cal machine gun. Meanwhile Murdock and Face are dropping bundled stick of dynamite out the windows, fuses lit by cigar, and blowing up all the chase cars.
Maybe there is hot air balloon, or a motorcycle with machine guns on it, or something else in there too.
See, closing the road, or moving in more troops as a deterrent, kinda works but it just pushes the problem around; the bad guys go somewhere else. We want a decoy type of operation so that we can catch/kill them. Maybe we should just have a super armored SUV, that doesn't look so armored, driving up and down the road. When they come under attack the Apache gunships, who are laying in wait just behind the horizon, pop up with hellfires and put an end to all that noise.
< /rant> I'm working on another posting about the locals who help us out, and the risks they take to do so. I'll hope to post it soon.
I somehow managed to leave town w/o a web publishing tool (my kingdom for a copy of dreamweaver right now) otherwise I'd add more comentary to it.
The signs are kind of amazing and sometimes surreal. I've got a special place in my heart for the Hummers, but I think I want an ASV now. Click around a see what catches your eye.
Well, the last two companies that I've started have in one way or another been related to the security industry, so I've always got security solutions on my mind. This place is a security candy store complete with display window. I've seen satellite based vehicle tracking devices (old and crappy by today's standards, the military apparently runs a bit behind the latest on the market), electronic and video solutions, and all kinds of other really neat high tech stuff. Of course, however, most of the focus is in on physical security and, though I never thought I'd find physical security that interesting, there are some solutions here that really have a satisfactory feel to them upon examination.
Razor wire and physical barriers really are effective means of keeping cars and people where you want them. There are two basic types of physical barriers around here: concrete and dirt filled. The concrete barriers have a certain elegance to them in and of themselves. They are about 5' wide, and 2' thick at the base, but then quickly taper up to about 10 inches thick, which they remain all the way to their top, which can be between 3' and 10' off the ground. There are re-bar loops at the top (so clearly the inside is re-bar enforced) so that you can grab them with the prongs on the scoop of a bulldozer, or a crane, and move them around. The nice thing about them is that even if you slammed into one with a car and knocked it over that it would still be 2' high (the thickness of the base) and high center the vehicle. Elegantly simple and effective. The dirt filled barriers are just wire reinforced bags that are about 5' in diameter and sit about 5' high -- then they fill them with dirt. Once it's filled it's not going anywhere and you're not driving anything through it. Line them up and throw some razor wire on top and you're not walking through it either.
The most elegant solution I've seen, however, is in the entrances to the green zone. They've created a nice long driveway, if you will, that you have to drive up to get in. It's probably 200' long and 20' wide. There are 3' tall concrete barriers every 30' or so, one blocking the left half of the driveway, the next blocking the right, and so on, so you have to drive very slowly along this serpentine route to get in. There are, of course, guards with M-16's, machine gun nests, and all that stuff along the way so that if you decide to try to break through you won't get very far without attracting lots of fast moving lead. Well, the neat part is what's at the end of the driveway ... a guard dog? ... a machine gun nest? ... a row of Hummers with .50 cals on the roof? ... a platoon of crack soldiers with M-16's?
Nope .... just an M1 tank.
With it's barrel pointing right down the driveway.
Gate crasher? Boom. Problem solved. No one is crashing that gate; the tank has a firing solution something akin to shooting a hippo squeezed into a barrel. Of course, the tank sits behind several rows of dirt filled barriers with it's cannon sticking over the top just because, uh, I dunno, no one is going to get to it anyway. But I guess it can't hurt. Oh, there is a second tank behind it in case the first one breaks.
Crude, but effective, and I freakin' love it.
"For security reasons, there are no security reports. "
We did get a report this moring that I haven't seen on the web (until just now, see below) which says that the "shooting gallery" in yesterday's blog, aka BIAP Road, was the site of the killing of four civilians in a two car convoy. It was apparently two cars containing four PSD's and three contractors. The technique employed was a rolling barricade to slow them down and then small arms fire and RPG('s) were used to take out the armored transport.
"Assailants also ambushed two civilian sport utility vehicles, favored by Western civilian contractors, on the road to Baghdad's international airport. An Iraqi Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said two or three people were killed but he had no further information. "
I heard some officers in the mess hall just now talking about the security of that same road. I told them I'm flying out on the 14th and if they could get it taken care of by then that I'd really appreciate it.
as of this a.m. I was leaving tomorrow; as it now stands I'm leaving on the 14th. We'll see how it stands on the 14th.
This fine with me, like I've said I like this place. It also means I get to postpone "the shooting gallery" a little while longer. The shooting gallery is the term of endearment for the drive from Baghdad to Baghdad International Airport.
Both the Green Zone and the Airport are currently defined as Military Garrisons, you can see a good picture here:
See that curved dark line that connects them? That's the shooting gallery. If you're on that road then you're part of the occupation and the extremist outliers are out to get you -- you're fair game.
The PSD's only take armored cars on it, and they drive pedal to the metal the entire way, I'm not kidding, they don't slow down for anything. There are often fires off to the side of the road, burned out hulks of cars, and all kinds of crazy stuff. The PSD's will never get near a military convoy on it as they're an even jucier target than the rest of us. Of course, it's also your first introduction to Baghdad on your way in ... and it does a great job of setting the tone of "this place is nuts".
Okay, now the goal is to see exactly how much fun I can have between now and the 14th and put it on this blog.
I'll put up some new pictures soon too, I've got some good ones that I haven't had time to deal with.
As a whole, this place gets really bad press. If you believed the media at home: everyone hates us, we messed the place up, we should pull out and it'll all be better.
These are all untrue, I guess that we-messed-up stories sell better than success stories but we've done a lot of good here that for whatever reason I just don't see in the papers. In fact, I'd say that our presence, and subsequent generosity, is the nicest, and most thankless, thing we did since giving France back to the French.
I'll address these three myths separately:
Myth #1: Hate. The fact is that some people do hate us. Just like there are some people in the south that go to Klan rallies and hate black people, there are people here who will always hate us -- regardless of how much we do to change their minds there will be no talking to them on this subject. They'll hold rallies that make for good foreign news clippings and there is nothing that will change this other than decades of education and tolerance. However, just like southern racists, they are in the minority (and generally looked down upon as ignorant as well).
Saddam Hussein had his boot right on the necks of the Iraqi people and there is absolutely positively no way they would be free of him or his eventual legacy (his sons) with out our help. The UN would have danced around this problem forever and the vast majority of the people here understand this and by and large they are very grateful for our intervention. Now, a lot of them are temporarily put out that we are occupying their country, that we get around more easily (coalition country citizens cruise through checkpoints while locals wait in line to be searched), live in the nice houses, and drive the nice cars, while they're still struggling. But this is a temporary annoyance and not a fundamental conflict of cultures or criticism of our actions; as their standard of living continues to visibly increase, and our presence decreases, this will become a self-resolving problem.
Myth #2: We messed the place up. Iraq has not only suffered from recent economic sanctions and subsequent military actions, but long before that it suffered from a nearly complete lack of capital improvement. The Baath party was brutally efficient in making sure that all of the country's wealth went into lining their own pockets. Hardly a Fil (lowest denomination of Iraqi currency, equivalent to a penny) went into doing anything for the country's infrastructure. Just look at every large building project in the last 20 years: Saddam's palaces and monuments. If you look at the telecommunications infrastructure it's a 1970's time warp. We didn't mess this place up; it was broken and looted long before we got here. Now, we did fail to provide adequate security after military operations ceased, but on the other hand all the people managed to do was steal from themselves. Furthermore, the post-liberation rioters looted a bunch of stuff that was all 30 years old and (should have been considered) fully depreciated anyway. Our arrival was simply the catalyst for a long overdue infrastructure upgrade to this place.
Myth #3: We should pull out and it'll all be better. The ONLY thing holding this place together is the US Military presence. If we pulled out now there would immediately be mass chaos and looting, and much worse, and this would persist until another ruthless dictator was finally able to assume power. More troublesome is that instead a dictator it could be a "religious" leader that would seize power and turn this place into an Iran-like Theocracy. Iraq would then plunge back into the dark ages and things would be worse than ever from a human right's perspective. No matter who took over, dictator or theocrat, in the resultant chaos of a sudden US Military pullout, the subsequent retributions would make the naked pyramids of Abu Gahrib look like fraternity hazing.
Iraq is going *much* better than the US press would have you believe. We have dumped BILLIONS of dollars ($18.7 and counting) right into this country that is the size of California. Our impact is huge and positive. The project I'm working on, however, is an IPF.
What's an IPF? Well, first you have to understand what a PF is. An old boss of mine introduced me to the term. When a project is going so incredibly poorly that you not only have no idea how to get it running right again and you really wish you didn't even take it on in the first place -- you suddenly realize that the project you are working on has all the traits that you'd expect of an commercial Pig F*ck. Just imagine all the hassles you would have with that: pigs running everywhere, animal right's organizations after you, massive legal problems, contestants/customers that you'd rather not deal with running around with their pants down...
The only thing more messed up than a PF is an IPF: an International Pig F*ck. It's the same thing but with more language and legal issues.
Well, this is an IPF. I won't get into the details of the job but let me say that I was sitting at my desk yesterday, minding my own business, as I am wont to do, when someone walks in and says "we're over budget, everyone is going home, you leave Sunday".
It's starting to sound like they really mean it too. I might be here just long enough to take some cool pictures, get used to an 11hour time difference and wearing a flack jacket, and go home. I'll keep you posted, but one thing is for sure -- when I do leave I'm gonna miss this place.
Three of them immediately come to mind:
1) "The Italians". Before I arrived there was a group of Italian security folks that worked with us, a lot of the guys around here knew them personally. They decided to go on R&R for a while but all the flights to Amman were booked -- so they decided to drive. They planned to go during the day, and avoid the hot spots, so they figured it would be okay. Here is where the series of errors began:
a. They booked a taxi with a guy they didn't know.
b. The taxi showed up four hours late, so now it's a night drive, but they went anyway.
c. They left their guns here because they wouldn't be able to take them into Jordan.
Well, there is a price (~$10k) on foreigner's heads around here. If you're a taxi driver this is a lot of money, like a few life-fortunes' worth. Apparently the Taxi driver's showing up late was an intentional ploy so that they couldn't see the wrong turn he took later in the dark. In any case, they were captured. The captors released a video tape in which they had put a hood over one guy's head, put a gun to his head and said that they were going to kill him. The guy reportedly said "I'll show you how an Italian dies" while taking off his hood ... and they shot him. Story is here: Washington Post Story
2) Mess hall chatter. The mess hall is a fascinating place here, not only because it's in the middle of a palace but because it draws a complete cross section of the coalition members here in Baghdad. There are soldiers and diplomats and consultants all sharing a table for 15 minutes, it makes for really fun networking. One day you'll hear all about the currency issues, the next day you'll hear about what it's like playing with military hardware. Well, most soldiers I've talked to eventually asks "have you been to the red zone?" (outside the green zone). They're in a pretty unique situation because they "get" to go outside, most people here haven't. And I say "yeah, uh, I live there". They look at you really funny after that. I tell them all about the security we do have, from the Iraqi guards in the semi-private neighborhood where we live, to the UK private security that drives us. They still look at me funny, clearly expressing that this doesn't sound like much fun to them. When I explain to them that I'm not allowed to have a gun, every one of them, from the enlisted guy who had to drop out of school because his guard unit got called up for the first time since WWI, all the way up, has said "I wouldn't take that job".
3) IED. Improvised Explosive Device. One of the guys I work with was heading home one day when the car he was in drove by an IED. This one was apparently a howitzer shell buried in the street with a guy off to the side who detonated it right as they went by. He explained it to me like this "it was all in slow motion. I saw the back window of the car in front of us blow out, and the three Iraqi children in the back seat get blown into the front seat." The car next to them was destroyed as well. The car he was in was well armored so it survived the blast, though it was heavily damaged and a tire was blown out. The private security guy floors it and just starts pushing cars out of the way left and right. They get clear, abandon the damaged car and hop in their chase car, and take off. But not before they snapped a few pictures of the car they were in. I saw them the other day. There were big holes in the sheet metal that clearly would have gone all the way through the door, except you could see the Kevlar weave behind it that stopped it. There was a big impact point in the glass on one of the rear seat windows right at head height that the lexan stopped. Some ride home.
So chew on this: not all of our vehicles are armored. In fact, most aren't. When you ask about this you're told that "well, the SUV's are armored but they really stand out. These sedans are better at blending in." Okaaaaay, why not just use armored sedans then? In fact, I think most armored cars are sedans. The answer is that this place is fresh out of armored cars. I'm going to come back and open a car armoring shop -- you could over charge everyone and never run out of business.
Well, there are rumors today of this project being over budget and everyone going home soon. If it takes them as long to get me home as it took them to get me here then I'll be here until the winter...
I don't mean this rhetorically, as in "this is nuts, what am I doing here?". Nor do I mean it existentially, as in "what is my purpose in life?". Those are good questions but ... they're kinda on the back burner for now. What I mean is what many people are asking me: why am I in Iraq right now.
Well, it goes like this. The background is that I'm currently working on my second startup. We've got a good team and we're building a product/service that we think is very relevant and we expect it will do well. The problem is that we are what people call not only "pre-revenue", we're not making money yet, but also "pre-product", we can't even start making money yet -- this puts us pretty much outside the current investment arena. So, we've already done the whole MRD/PRD/specification process and the dev team is hard at work. I could stay in Si Valley and try to raise funds, which would probably be fruitless at this stage of the company's life, or I can take this opportunity to have an adventure and get paid too (I haven't been paid in a year and this gig pays just a little bit more than being a startup CEO of a venture backed company -- and we're not even venture backed yet). So, by the time I get back we should have something that I can run with and I get to eat for a little while too.
The foreground is that the Iraqi Telecommunications and Post Company (ITPC), think Pac Bell, is about to go from being a ward of the state to a player in a free market environment. Until very recently, if you were a member of the Baath party you got a phone. It cost you $5/year. If you were a member of the Baath party and knew the right people you got a job at the ITPC too. The ITPC existed to provide limited phone coverage to party members and to give people jobs ... and for the higher ups to embezzle from as well.
Now that's all changed. If things go the way we expect, they'll be spun out and forced to fend for themselves. They have no corporate structure, they have no department heads (they don't even know what the departments should be, in fact they've never done any sales or marketing since people came to them for phones) they have no accounting practices beyond a budget (and that's recent), they don't know what a set of financials should look like, they need to (re)build the technical side almost from the ground up, they don't have a billing system ... and at their projected burn for the next year is 2x their expected income.
It looks a lot like a startup, actually.
So, I'm trying to sort out which way is up, which is interesting as the infrastructure in the past here made releasing financials punishable by death, so there isn't much laying around you can pick up to start with. Next I'm trying to illustrate the difference between where they are and where they probably like to be (RPU should be higher than the $5/yr Baath party discount, phone lines per populations should be higher than it is, they should have Quality of Service metrics...).
In 1989 it took three US dollars to buy one Iraqi dinar, now there are 1,500 dinars to a dollar. This country used to be defined as "middle income", it's rich in natural resources and it used to have a modern infrastructure -- before the Baath party diverted all development funds to their own pockets and alienated the country from the rest of the world by invading Kuwait, and then generally being a pain afterwards. It'll be interesting to see when it's all over how this whole thing ends up. There is a culture here, left over from the former regime, that bullying and embezzling is they way to get by, so the whole thing could just end up a mess again. On the other hand there a lot of people who really want to see their country return back to its status of middle income (instead of its current status of impoverished), hopefully it is this group that will win. All we can do is advise.
So, I'm sitting at my desk minding my own business when I hear a "boom". No one else really seemed to notice, I thought it might be a door closing or something, and then I heard another "boom". I kind of stop and look around and am just thinking that it's nothing when we all hear a big BOOOM. You could actually feel the air pressure change in the trailer, the whole place really shook. So we leave our thin-roofed trailers for a bomb shelter where we sit and wait. After a few minutes it's decided that the shelling has stopped (it was mortar fire) and we go back to work.
5 minutes later they start again. We go to the shelter. We go back to work. 5 minutes later repeat.
While I'm sitting in the bomb shelter I'm examing its construction trying to form an opinion as to how sturdy it is. It's got four concrete walls for support and it has sandbags on top of a concrete roof for protection, it used to be a laundry room -- in fact it still is a laundry room, so I sit down on top one of the dryers. Okay, I'm not a physicist or anything (or wait, yes I am) but wouldn't you want those sandbags a few feet *above* the roof? That way when the mortar round blows up on it, all the energy is absorbed up there instead of by the roof itself. This is how most seriously armored military vehicles work, it's called "ablative plating". See, if I lived here (oh wait, I do) I would go to Home Depot, get some 4x4's and plywood, and build a workbench-like structure on top of the shelter and put sandbags on top of it. I could do it in an off day. I'd do it here but there's no Home Depot and by the time I got permission to do it I'd be back in the States.
Side note: there's a big f'n sign on the bomb shelter door that says "KEEP DOOR CLOSED AT ALL TIMES". No shit, you're inside, stuffs blowing up outside, the big steel door has to be closed to do you any good. Guess what. It's open. So I walk across the room and close it. Someone comes in and opens it and leaves it open behind them. I walk over and close it again. The most senior person here is sitting right next to it and she doesn't even budge to close it, nor make any effort to make sure other people do the same. Great leadership and fundamental understanding of the purpose of the door (not to mention the meaning of the sign). The two security guys go in and out and leave the door open behind them too. I close it. Grumble.
So.... now what. The shelling has stopped and it's lunch time. I can go to the CPA/Palace to eat, or I can stay here. The upside to the CPA is that it's got all the food. The downside is that it's the target that the mortars are aimed at. I figure that the thing is built better than a brick house -- it was built to be a target by bigger stuff than mortar rounds -- and waddle on over for lunch.
At lunch I sit next to career Army guy who tells me that what we heard were all mortar rounds. The third one in the first round (Mr. BOOOM) sounded big to me because it was close to me. To him, at the CPA, they all sounded like 40-60mm mortars, which he tells me are medium sized. I ask about the construction of the Palace commenting that it seems to me that the roof, even though the ceiling is 30' above us, look like it could take a direct hit and shrug it off. He says that at medium sized one would. A big one, however, more like 120mm, he thinks would at least punch a hole. Great.
Anyway, we're eating lunch when we hear "all personnel retreat to the basement" come over the loudspeakers. Given the crowd this takes about 10minutes to get down there. After we'd been down there for a while a MP yells "turn off your cell phones". I turn to the person next to me, pretty much everyone here is a military expert in one way or another, and say "wait a minute, you mean someone's built a guidance system for a mortar round or rocket that homes in on public communication frequencies?" and he says "no, they home in on you back at the base and improve their aim that way. We did this way back in Vietnam". "Oh, just signal strength and direction?", I ask. He confirms with a nod. Mine's off.
About a half hour goes by and we leave the basement. I get back to work and see what all the fuss is about on the Internet. A new President of Iraq was named today. It wasn't the US's first choice, actually, but I guess some people are cranky about it anyway. That's when the shelling started. Later a car bomb went off and blew up a Kurdish political office. That's when we went down into the basement. Apparently that was a really big boom, and killed a lot of people (mostly/all Iraqi's) but in the CPA/Palace I didn't even hear it.
Story is here: http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=540&e=1&u=/ap/20040601/ap_on_re_mi_ea/iraq
The location of the car bomb, btw, is right near where I live outside the Green Zone.
Conclusion: this is insane.
At the same time I still kind of like it, again, in a really messed up way. It's very good at ... keeping you alert.
I've got some pretty serious GI distress right now. I'm told this is normal when you first show up, but combined with the jetlag it's really knocked me out. I'll write more when I'm back on my feet.
On the upside I'm told that Uday's lions are here in the Green Zone. There are some relatively new cubs too. I'll have to be sure to check them out at some point. I hear that they're nice and big -- after all they grew up on human flesh (Uday would often throw would-be rivals to his lions). We actually work right by his Pleasure Palace, it's now being used by the CPA and I'm assured that none of Uday's many women are to be found there.
Speaking of women ... there aren't any. Well, there are a few but would be suitors literally line up just to talk to them. I saw this really annoyingly good looking guy the other day (you know, the kind of guy you wish would leave the party so that you could get some attention again) dropping all of his game, going way out of his way, seriously chatting up a woman that I don't think he would have imagined dating back in the US. Yeah, I'm being superficial but it's a fascinating phenomenon. I wonder how long that guy has been here and if his fate awaits me.
I will note that I got a pleasant surprise by the chow line when I saw a figure come into the CPA from the outside wearing fatigues, flack jacket, helmet, M-16, side arm, etc. -- just like the other hundreds of people milling about -- when the helmet comes off, long blond hair falls down onto her shoulders and the fair features of her face are revealed. My conclusion for the day: chicks carrying guns are hot (assuming they're not really mad and pointing the gun at me). Either that or I've been here too long already.
Oh, btw, it turns out that I CAN GET MAIL/PACKAGES. Even better, it only costs regular USPS rates to send me stuff (hint, hint). I can't post the address here but e-mail me and I'll send it to you.
I'll post more when I get them, so check the link reguarly.
Friday (today) is the equivalent to Sunday in Iraq, everyone has the day off (the contractors have a 6 day work week here). At 4pm yesterday someone tells me that if I don't schedule a ride into the Green Zone with security by 3pm that I might not be able to get one. Well, I immediately asked for one and was immediately denied because it was after 3pm (and they have a car shortage). So today I'm stuck inside all day, my housemates all split at 7am. No gym/food/people/pool on my off day. I'm stuck at home with some power bars I brought and some juice my housemates have in the 'fridge.
I started looking around the outside of the house (through the windows) and realized that I didn't see any security. I was wondering if maybe they thought the house was empty, I slept from 11pm to 11am last night and I'm brand new, and kinda took Friday off. Then I saw some local guy planting something next to the entrance we use. I was just about to call security when I heard someone in the house. Did I mention that I'm not allowed to have a gun here? Anyway, it turns out it was just my housemates coming home on the afternoon run and the guy outside was a gardener or something (security knew him). I ran outside (but not outside the courtyard) to try to catch a ride back with the PSD's but they were already gone. So I'm still stuck here all day.
Oh well, like a housemate just said: it's better to be stuck inside than stuck outside.
here are the best ways to reach me:
2) skype, username = rickbentley. Download the client from www.skype.com, you will need mic and speakers, or a headset, for your computer. We can talk live for free, at better quality than a normal phone too.
3) yahoo IM, username = rickbentley68. Download the client from www.yahoo.com. If you have a webcam on your computer we can video chat as well.
In fact, those three (with the possible exception of my cell phone) are the best whether I'm here or in the US. Three more options, AFTER checking the time difference note below, are:
4) 00964 (Iraq country code) followed by 790-191-957 -- it's my Iraqna cell phone. Incoming calls are free to me. You have to pay international rates, dial 00 from your phone first; this will put you in touch with a long distance operator. Then both confirm the dialing instructions for Iraq (it might only be one leading 0 for you) and the rate you will be charged -- if it's worth it to you then call me (again, AFTER, checking the time difference).
5) My cell phone. It's off. If the shit hits the fan here I'll turn it on. Otherwise it's off. If you leave a message I won't listen to it until I'm home. What could you really say that's worth $2.99/minute, my roaming cost, anyway? 976 numbers charge less than that (er, so I'm told).
6) If you really feel the overwhelming need to leave me a v-mail you can call 415-358-5883. Your v-mail will be turned into an e-mail and sent to me.
PLEASE NOTE THE TIME DIFFERENCE:
I am 11hrs ahead of CA (pretty much the opposite side of the world). My jet lagged self only has between 10pm and 7am my time for a chance at some sleep. This means to please only call me between 6pm and 9am CA time. In fact, it's probably best for you to call me as late as possible CA time -- given the tense situation on the ride to the green zone I won't be playing Chatty-Kathy on my cell phone, so 6pm is probably too early (but at least I'll be awake). I have to leave this cell phone on 24/7, so if people start calling me when I'm asleep I'll have to change the number. Thanks.
I'll look forward to hearing from you all, again the top three (e-mail, skype, IM) are the best way.
Okay, maybe there is something wrong with me but the surrealism of this place has a certain appeal. I kind of like it in a really messed up way.
Just imagine that your office is a trailer with sandbags piled around it to the roof. In a ring around that are 10' tall concrete barriers with spikes and razor wire and armed guards. Two or so miles on a side outside of that is enough concrete, steel, and razor wire to keep an entire country at bay. Uh, literaly. Inside there are military personell with guns everywhere. Almost all the Humvees are armored, and when they roll out of the Green Zone they are armed to the teeth -- at least 4 rifles, plus the 30/50 cal on the roof, with their business ends pointed outwards. It makes for a very menacing site. The whole place reeks of diesel fumes, mostly from the generators but also from all the amazing hardware.
Black attack helicoptors routinely fly 50' overhead, big green Chinooks (large two blade copters) too. Tanks are stationed at every gate. Everyone (who isn't from the US/UK/Australia/...) coming in from the outside is thoroughly searched. Things are locked down here tighter than a gnats rear-end. The US military *can* be very efficient.
No one says "take care" or "have a nice day" or any of the usual pleasantries, they all say "stay safe". Inside the Green Zone you are as safe as a baby in his mother's arms. Outside you are an easy to identify target in your armored SUV -- speed and unpredictable routing are the real defenses here, despite the fact that each door must weight at least 100 lbs with all the armor in it.
You're not allowed to leave the Green Zone w/o a PSD (Personal Security Detail; 4+ armed guards in multiple cars). You are not allowed to leave the Green zone after dark. You are not allowed to leave the green zone w/o a flack jacket with front and back trauma plates. You're given a helmet but then told not to put it on as it just ID's you as a target and not a shooter (I joke with the PSD's that I'll carry it on my lap to protect my nuts, 100% return on laughter with that one so far). We're staying in a mansion outside the Green Zone with armed guards 24/7 around the outside. We have a "warden" and are under lock down. We're not allowed to leave unless we're getting back into the armored SUV with the PSD on a pre-arranged schedule.
Back in the Green zone it's like being on a US Military Base. The best way to blend in, aside from wearing camos and carrying a M-16, or maybe khakis and a short sleeve collard shirt, is to put on a pair of shorts, a gray t-shirt, cut your hair really short, and go for a jog, or walk with some weight room gloves on as you're heading to/from one of the gyms. Lots of military around -- they live (until June 30) *and* work here. I can go to the pool anytime I want, and it's big enough to swim laps, but the work load will make for a tight schedule. there is a Memorial Day party coming up at night in the Green Zone, but if I don't get out after dark then I have to spend the night inside the Green Zone (not a bad thing, it's so warm out you can sleep anywhere, just pick a section of grass or whatever and lay down).
The damage to the buildings is, in some places, amazingly brutal. There are sections of sidewalk that were simply crushed when an invading tank had to make a turn somewhere. Manhole covers are often missing. Other places are completely unscarred and look as palacious as they did two years ago.
In my initial analysis, 99% of my risk factor is the trip from the house to/from the Green Zone, waiting in line at a check point is a shitty place to be. The way out is faster and not so bad. The other 1% is probably the risk of being hit by a fast moving Humvee while walking around in the Green Zone or accidentally stepping into an open man-hole.
I'll have some communication updates tomorrow. I've GOT to get to bed.
Will write more later but am on the ground, in the Green Zone, in Baghdad. Interesting ride from the airport in the armored vehicle with the two PSD's, wearing a vest with trauma plates, driving 90kmh the whole way.
Anyway, I'm in "the camp" where my employer has some trailers surrounded by sand bags inside a big concrete wall. I'll be working here and not the palace as I was originally told.
I went to the CPA (Coallition Provisional Authority) and got my CPA badge, so I can go eat in the mess hall now -- it's set up in the palace's main dining area. Marines are everywhere, armored Humvees, an occasional tank ... kind of a wild place.
I went for a 40min run through Amman. It's much like any other large Arab city (warm even at night, signs look like they're written in chicken scratch, people are polite and the streets are safer than most US cities).
Side note: it's funny that us westerners ended up with the Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals but, because of the way they write the numbers here (it's kind of a cursive script) us westerners can't read them -- so they print them twice. One in a sans-serif type of font and once in the local cursive. Funny that even for the same number system we do things so differently that it requires repetition on all the signs.
Anyway, I ran down the main drag. It lacks the attraction of the walk along the Nile in Cairo, but is familiar otherwise, and the auto pollution was palpable (CA really does lead the world in emissions controls). I saw a bunch of embassies, business class hotels, and Hummers with 30 and 50 cals on the roof. Many of the hotel guards here carry this really cool machine pistol that fits in a hip holster; it wasn't an MP5, the stock rotates 180 degrees instead of collapses straight in. I think that, given the language barrier, I don't have much of a chance of finding out what it is by asking (I'll try to discreetly take a picture and figure it out from there).
BTW: I have cell phone coverage here, and I probably will in Iraq too. BUT don't call me as it's $2-3/minute. http://www.t-mobile.com/international/coverage.asp
If you feel the overwhelming need to call me on my cell you better paypal me when the call is over (or be telling me that I won the lottery), don't leave me a voice message on my cell as I for sure won't be checking those. e-mail is the best way to reach me. if you can't e-mail me but still want to leave a message leave it at 415-358-5883 -- this will turn your v-mail into an e-mail and I'll get it that way. You can send faxes to that # too ... if, uh, you don't have a scanner (or can come up with some other good reason to use a fax).
Gotta get up in less than 4 hours (again), goodnight.
I arrived in Amman a couple of hours ago from Paris. I had zero time in Paris to even get outside and breathe the air as my connecting flight was tight. I was hoping to cab to the Champs to grab a bite and snap some pics just for kicks - but I suppose it's just as well, my tolerance level for Parisians is notoriously low.
The flight to Jordan was uneventful. Upon landing, on the near side of customs, there were local coordinators there to meet travelers like myself. I had noticed in Paris that the travel information given to our contact in Jordan was still for my defunct Frankfurt connection, so I figured there would be no one to meet me as I came in on my Paris connection. I was all prepared to get to the hotel myself when I saw a gentleman holding up a sign for me, so I got a ride direct to the hotel (Hotel Intercontinental Jordan).
I was surprised to see that my T-mobile phone, which has coverage no where in the US, has coverage here in Amman (I need to activate on their service to make calls but it's receiving SMS just fine. correction: I don't need to activate, it's just T-mobile international service and works as soon as you show up). The SMS/GPS tracking device I'm carrying with me from my Televoke days hasn't reported location yet. I don't know if that's because it hasn't gotten a GPS lock or that its SIM card isn't activated on this system, I'll wait until Baghdad to start to figure that out.
It tuns out that the King's Brother is getting married and the wedding party is staying at this same hotel as me. So not only is it crowded here but there are soldiers/guards/metal-detectors/etc. everywhere. Other than that Amman is a pretty low key place. It's definitely safe to go walking/jogging/etc, something I'll be doing shortly. I won't get to see the city at all in the daytime as I leave the hotel at 5am tomorrow for my flight to Baghdad. I'm surprised to see that it's a daytime flight, I was told they only flew in at night. Hopefully I'll be online in Baghdad in less than 24hours, look for an update then.