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April 7, 2008
Buying Off the Neighbors
Mood:  a-ok
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
The Green Zone was a temporary place. Most people passed through for short tours of only a few months, and only a handful lasted more than a year. Occasionally, a person would do a two-year tour, and a rare few seemed determined to see the war through to its end. These were the old-timers of the Green Zone. Old-timers had the best stories. They could tell stories of hundreds of Iraqis storming into the Green Zone and protesting in the streets, demanding that the Americans go home. They told stories of driving themselves through the Red Zone before the arrival of the mercenaries. Some of them actually had Iraqi friends whom they visited before the concrete blast wall encircled the Zone. Every one of them had a good story to tell, if someone would only stop to listen.

On a sunny May afternoon, while wandering through the food court at the Palace PX, I ran across an old-timer who had arrived in Iraq three months after the U.S. military captured Baghdad. He had come straight out of college and brought his heartfelt and headstrong determination to change Iraq. He worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in the Palace when he arrived, and eventually switched over to the U.S. Embassy once the Coalition Provisional Authority fizzled away. In the early days of the occupation, he had almost unlimited authority, though he slowly lost that power as the bureaucracy continued to grow in Baghdad and more and more senior foreign service officers began to rotate through the Zone. With each passing wave, this old-timer found himself pushed further and further down the ladder. When I met him, he stood on one of the lowest rungs and had decided it was time to go home.

He was enjoying a coffee from the Green Zone’s newly opened coffee and cappuccino bar, and I had just purchased a Chicken Royale from Burger King. I vaguely remembered seeing him at one of my parties, but he clearly remembered me. He cleared off the plastic lawn chair where he had placed his book bag and offered it up to me. I gladly took it and began to quickly eat my food. I let him do most of the talking, which he wanted to do, because he was leaving in a few weeks. He wanted to explain what he had seen and somehow come to terms with everything that had happened.

To him, the American power structure in the Zone was a blind and many-headed monster lumbering forward because it didn’t know where else to go. He told me about the sheer number of surreal experiences he’d had and how no one could control the occupation. He kept alluding to “crazy” and “unbelievable” stories. He mentioned some of the common rumors of the Green Zone, such as mercenaries being caught with suitcases full of money at the airport and newly minted Iraqi millionaires living in Amman, but none of that was new to me. I pressed him to give me something original.

He took a deep swig of his cappuccino and told me a story from the early days of the occupation, when the Coalition Provisional Authority had tried to recreate Iraq as a neocon vision of America. Things were going badly in late 2004. The Iraqis didn’t seem interested in America’s vision, and with each passing day, the country grew more and more violent. The bad guys had begun to attack American convoys and behead anyone they caught working with the Americans. Every day, insurgents were setting up mortars and rocket launchers across from the Palace and taking wild shots toward the Green Zone in hopes of killing a few Americans. The Westerners living in the Zone were reaching a break point. If they couldn’t save Iraq, at the very least they wanted to make sure they survived their tours.

To bring peace and stability to the Green Zone, the leaders of the occupation decided to issue grants to the communities surrounding the Palace in hopes of fostering economic growth. Publicly, they said that helping local Iraqi leaders committed to democracy would teach Iraqis that violence was not the answer. Privately, they hoped to buy off all the local leaders so they would side with the Americans and push out the insurgents who were shooting at the Palace. Officially, the grants would be awarded for schools, public utilities, and other high-minded projects, but the Americans would not ask a lot of questions. No one would go back and check on the progress of the projects funded by the grants.

When this man I met at the coffee shop went to pick up a briefcase holding $2 million that the Coalition Provisional Authority had set aside for the grant program, he decided to get a little bit more bang for his buck. He knew that although the Iraqi government had officially pegged the Iraqi dinar to the U.S. dollar, he could obtain a much more favorable exchange rate on the black market. Thus, he made some connections with local Iraqis who had connections to the darker underside of Baghdad. These shadowy Iraqis exchanged his $2 million for $2.2 million worth of Iraqi dinars, and he doled out the money to the Iraqi community leaders who lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the Palace.

When he returned to the controller’s office inside the Green Zone, the young man had a slight bead of perspiration rolling down his forehead. He had collected proper receipts and supporting documents to back up every penny of the $2.2 million, yet he knew that the controller would ask why there were receipts totaling $2.2 million for a $2.0 million disbursement. However, the controller had a much more surprising question. According to the official records, the U.S. government had only handed him $1 million. The young man argued with the controller, trying to explain what had happened, but the controller wouldn’t listen. In the end, the controller only accepted $1 million worth of receipts.

Sitting in front of the coffee and cappuccino shop nearly a year later, the young man had a dumbfounded look on his face. He could have been a millionaire, if he’d only known that the U.S. government didn’t know how to balance its checkbook.

Posted by alohafromtim at 1:23 PM EDT
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January 11, 2008
Fire's Cool
Mood:  lyrical
Now Playing: Jack Johnson
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
It started off as a joke. Greg wanted to build a fire because, as Beavis and Butthead taught America, “fire’s cool.” Then his idea started to take shape and mature. The thought of sitting around a campfire drinking beers and telling stories seemed as American as apple pie and Barbie dolls. Who wouldn’t want to pass an evening around the campfire with a few friends?

In late October, Newt and Greg began gently lobbying to obtain the proper approvals to build a fire. At first, the Mission’s EXO staff balked at the idea because they were afraid that the fire could get out of hand and burn down the compound. The idea of a small fire getting out of hand seemed ludicrous. The exterior of every house in the compound was concrete. Between the houses, the GSO had laid concrete sidewalks, and between the concrete sidewalks, there were large swaths of barren dirt where nothing could grow. Even if a fire got out of hand, it couldn’t go anywhere.

Nevertheless, in an effort to appease the EXO staff, Newt built a fire pit and agreed to place small stones around the pit. Then, Greg found an extra hose, which he ran from a leaky spigot to a spot near the pit. He also put a bucket full of water near the end of the hose. As an added incentive to win over the EXO, Newt suggested that he could burn all the downed tree limbs and extra pallets littering the compound. The fire could actually be used to clean up the compound while at the same time providing a much-needed social gathering point. In the face of this logic and attention to detail, the EXO eventually gave in to the proposal.

The fire was an instant success. People who normally didn’t stop by my house would walk over whenever they saw the fire. Employees with guitars would occasionally bring them by so they could string out a few bars of popular songs and encourage others to sing along. On the nights when we didn’t sing along to the guitar, I would roll out large speakers from my house and play classics from the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Marley. I would even play mellow world music from Africa that rolled through the hearts of African TNCs working in the compound and foreign service officers who had served at least one tour in Africa. One American even tried to make s’mores to help us relive our childhood. To make the fire pit even more homely, I eventually surrounded it with lawn chairs, though so many people came out on some nights that there weren’t enough chairs to go around.

We quickly found out how fun it could be to burn pallets, deadfalls, and clippings. Although we had promised to keep the fire very small, the desire to see things burn eventually outweighed any moderation we had. Every night, we quickly went through all the clippings so we could focus on the larger branches and pallets. On some evenings, we stacked five, six, or seven pallets on top of the fire to make it extra-large. The pallets were exceptionally dry and threw off flames that danced in the night sky.

One evening when we were particularly interested in burning as many pallets as possible, someone noticed that the flames reached higher than the highest T-wall in the compound. The bad guys on the other side of the river could easily have spotted the flames and taken aim at our little fire. I laughed off the thought of the baddies having enough skill to hit our little fire. If they were that good, they would have been hitting the Palace every morning in an attempt to kill as many Americans as possible. All the same, for the rest of my tour, I tried to keep the flames lower than the nearest T-walls when we built the fire.

I always knew that the risk of mortars aimed at the fire wasn’t as high as the risks generally associated with being outside of a reinforced building during a war. Stray bullets in Iraq had a nasty habit of continuing onward for great distances until they hit something. The bad guys and the average Iraqis shooting off celebratory rounds seemed to aim their guns in such a way that the bullets would fly over the walls of the Green Zone and land in my compound. I never heard of a stray bullet hitting anyone working inside the Green Zone, but people found bullets inside the compound on a regular basis.

One night, some friends and I were gathered around the fire, and we heard the sounds of random gunfire in the distance. Then we realized it didn’t sound so random. The shots appeared to be coming from Assassin’s Gate, one of the nearby checkpoints, roughly a half-mile from my compound. After a few minutes of small-arms fire from somewhere near the checkpoint, the Americans at the checkpoint would open up with the large 50mm guns, which generally brought a quick end to the fighting.

“There’re busy tonight, but we’re giving them hell,” a soldier passing the evening with us proudly proclaimed.

I had grown accustomed to the sound of gunfire. When I first arrived in Iraq, the sounds of small arms were as common as a rooster calling in a barnyard in the morning. Every morning, starting around 7 A.M., the sound of submachine guns rang out in the air, and the gunfight would go on for perhaps 20 minutes before I heard the sound of American reinforcements. A large collection of large-caliber machine guns would ring out, and shortly after that a helicopter would rush in to provide air support. After the first month, the sounds of running gun battles diminished, but gunfights such as these still happened frequently enough to force me to tune them out.

That night around the campfire, the sounds were louder and more frequent than normal, but it wasn’t unusual enough to make us go inside. We continued to sit around the campfire, drinking beers and telling stories. Calmly having a beer while listening to the gunshots reminded me of listening to African beasts roaring at night, only this time I knew that people were dying rather than wild antelope. It was one of those surreal moments where my friends and I were having a calm evening as the world around us continued to fall apart. Thankfully, we were on the inside of the concrete blast walls surrounding the Green Zone. We were safe and could listen to the war from a distance, like hearing a marching band somewhere on the other side of town.

While we were enjoying ourselves, the world suddenly lit itself on fire. The sounds of gunfire grew louder and louder. Within seconds, it sounded like every gun in Baghdad had suddenly sprung to life. The gunfire came from every direction, and the large-caliber American machine guns at the checkpoint responded with round after continuous round. It sounded like we had moved into the middle of a shooting range.

Above us, a beautiful rainbow of streaking colors began to fill the sky. Everywhere we looked, we saw colors filling up the sky until it almost seemed as bright as an early morning haze. It looked like the night videos of Baghdad from the first Gulf War, where the antiaircraft weapons lit up the night sky. However, in this case, they were tracer rounds fired from rifles and semi-automatic pistols. Bullet manufacturers had brushed little bits of phosphorus onto every third or fourth round, and it burned brightly after they were fired to help the shooters figure out where their bullets were going. For every streak of color we saw—and they littered the sky—there were two or three other bullets traveling in the same direction that hadn’t been marked with phosphorus.

For the first five seconds of this, no one knew what to do. We all stared at each other or up at the night sky. We had fallen into the dangerous position of being spectators rather than participants in the war. Our bubble of confusion finally broke when a tracer round raced toward our fire and flew perhaps 40 feet directly above us.

“Incoming!” shouted Kaufman, a former soldier who normally acted as cool as Magnum, PI.

All of us snapped to attention and began to fly like rabbits scared from a brush pile by a hunting dog. We leaped up and kicked our chairs in every direction. Everyone quickly surveyed the open surroundings to find pockets of safety where they could hide from the rain of bullets dancing through the sky.

“Run for my house!” I commanded while making the quickest 30-yard dash I had ever made in my life.

I covered the distance in seconds, yet it felt like an eternity. In my mind, I could feel one of the bullets flying through the night sky toward my back. I could see myself lying face down in the dirt with blood oozing out of my body as I slowly drifted toward my death. I could see myself dying and hating myself for taking all those risks by coming to Iraq.

On the sprint to my house, I passed two people who weren’t moving as fast and urged them on with a simple one-word command: “Run!” The gunfire only grew louder and louder, and we had to make it to safety. The house, with its thick concrete walls, could provide the protection that I so desperately needed, yet it seemed so far away. Someone later told me that they heard bullets bouncing off the concrete houses and sidewalks, but I didn’t hear anything other than the sound of my heavy breathing.

As I crossed the threshold of my house, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then, I quickly leaned alongside the edge of the door and shouted words of encouragement to the other people making a dash for my house. Within seconds, four more people had made it to the safety of my house. We all looked at each other in disbelief, because there were at least 12 other people who had been around the fire, yet didn’t make it to my house.

I poked my head around the edge of the door to see what had happened to the others and spotted two people huddled on my neighbor’s porch. They had chosen to reach the partial cover of the porch, which was closer to the fire, rather than taking the risk of running all the way to my house. The marginal amount of shelter offered by the porch wouldn’t truly protect them; eventually, they realized this, and instead of staying curled up in a ball, they stood up and watched the light show dancing above the streets of Baghdad.

I later learned that most of the other people around the fire had run down the sidewalk and found an even lesser degree of protection by ducking into a small space between two houses. Eventually, someone in a nearby house opened his door to see what was happening. When he opened the door, the group raced into his house.

From my house, I could only assume that the other people were huddling on porches and along the sides of blast walls throughout the compound. I realized that they were probably scared, because I was scared from the relative safety of my hard house. I wanted to reassure them and let them know that if they wanted to take a risk, they could run to my house.

I grabbed two large outdoor speakers that were left over from a party I had thrown the week before and quickly connected the speakers to my laptop. Then, I pushed the speakers out my front door. I quickly raced through my collection of MP3 files and tried to find something funny or loud. I eventually picked “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones, which always reminded me of Vietnam: it seemed fitting. Listening to that music while bullets were raining down on the compound made me feel like somehow I was “in the shit” and earning my stripes.

On the nearby porch where two of my friends were waiting out the rain of bullets, one of the men shouted, “Turn it up!”

“Hells yeah!” shouted the other.

Inside my house, everyone began laughing. We were mocking the whole idea of war by turning the moment into yet another fairytale Green Zone moment. None of us would have ever predicted that our response to gunfire would be to turn on loud music associated with a war that had ended roughly 30 years earlier.

When “Paint It Black” came to an end, I turned on “Flight of the Valkyries.” Again, everyone in my house laughed so hard that they began to cry. Outside, I heard my two friends cheering in approval of my music selection. We were taking one more step away from reality.

I was poking my head around the doorframe to check up on my friends when I saw something that made my many fears seem foolish. Shaun, a Marine who had seen much worse during his tour in Iraq, was taking a leisurely walk across the compound. He didn’t have on any body armor, yet he didn’t seem to care. The gunfire didn’t faze him, and he seemed to be mocking all of us by walking so calmly when we were hiding.

“Good music,” he said when he spotted me.

“I’m just doing my part to prevent the war from getting us down,” I responded.

“Rock on.”

After 20 minutes, the gunfire came to an end. The insurgents never came over the walls; the soldiers at the checkpoints didn’t have to shoot anyone; there was no major effort to kill Americans in the Green Zone. The Iraqis were simply celebrating. Their national soccer team had won an international game against the Syrians, and to celebrate their victory, they had taken to the street and fired bullets into the sky.

The next morning, people found handfuls of bullets inside the compound. The Iraqi drivers and GSO staff, who were staying in an unprotected trailer, had bullets pierce the walls and ceiling of their trailer, but luckily no one was hurt. In fact, as far as I know, no one inside the Green Zone was injured. However, I could only assume that out of the 7 million people in Baghdad, some Iraqis must have been hurt, and probably a small number had been killed.

 


Posted by alohafromtim at 3:42 PM EST
Updated: January 11, 2008 3:44 PM EST
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January 7, 2008
Meet Us Out Back at Sunset
Mood:  down
Now Playing: The Sound of Silence
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
Living inside the Green Zone, I didn’t get to see very much of Iraqi culture. In fact, anyone living in the Zone could easily forget that they were in the Middle East. A young man who had studied Arabic for years and volunteered for a short tour in Iraq once told me that if I had gone anywhere else in the Middle East, I would have heard the Muslim call to prayer, but he rarely heard them in Iraq. If I listened carefully, five times a day I could hear the distant sound of men calling the faithful of Baghdad to mosques for prayer, but the calls were often drowned out by the sound of my compound’s generators, helicopters flying overhead, or my music.

I had expected to see many Iraqi women wearing headscarves, officially known as hijabs. Some Iraqi women on my compound did wear a hijab, but many wore simple business casual outfits, and some wore what seemed to be designer clothes. Almost a fifth of the women often wore clothes that would have been more appropriate for an evening on the town than a day in the office. Clearly, the women I met did not fit the stereotypes that I had created in my mind for a Muslim country, and while I knew that my ideas were based on a very limited study of the region and Islam, I had the sense that my female Iraqi coworkers were not stereotypical Muslim women.

I had expected to see Iraqi men and women occasionally stopping what they were doing to pray to Allah during the work day, but if they did pray in the middle of the day, they did so in private. Religion was not something my Iraqi coworkers wore on their sleeves; for the Muslims on my compound, it seemed to be something more subtly ingrained into their souls. Interestingly, for those Iraqis who weren’t Muslim, religion seemed to be the root cause of the escalating violence in their country, and therefore it wasn’t something they liked to discuss in public.

Late in my tour, I witnessed Iraqis celebrating Ramadan, a religious holiday recognized by most people who live in the Middle East. During that time, all Muslims were fasting during the daylight hours, and the normally bustling lunchroom was empty. Each day for nearly 10 months, I had seen Iraqis loading up their plates with what might have been the best meal they received each day, especially considering that they could eat all they wanted for free. During the month of Ramadan, most of my Iraqi coworkers avoided the cafeteria, which left it without any sense of spirit. I felt like the cafeteria had almost become a private dining room for the Westerners, the TCNs, and the small handful of Christian Iraqis. Going to the empty cafeteria provided three daily reminders that Muslims in Iraq were celebrating Ramadan, but the Mission’s management also sent out an email to all the Westerners reminding us that it would be impolite to eat in front of Iraqis during Ramadan.

During that month, I also noticed small changes at the restaurants inside the Zone. Although Iraqis continued to serve food to Westerners, most restaurants decided to stop serving beer. I also heard countless rumors that some of the liquor stores were closed, and because the restaurants weren’t serving beer, most people on my compound believed the rumors, even though they weren’t true. Ultimately, the lack of alcohol at the restaurants didn’t really affect us, because we were told to limit our use of the motor pool service at sundown when Muslims broke their fast and had their first bites of food. This put a damper on any effort to visit a restaurant at dinnertime.

Most of the men on my compound also noticed Ramadan’s influence on the Fashion Channel, one of the few English-speaking stations on my compound’s satellite system. At the start of Ramadan, our cable provider temporarily pulled the plug on the Fashion Channel. In its place, they put up a short message stating, “During the Holy Month of Ramadan, the Fashion Channel will not be available.” The station normally showed beautiful women walking down catwalks throughout the world, and nearly every man in the compound guiltily admitted to watching the channel from time to time. I can even remember watching it with a bunch of other men in the same way that we might have looked at women in a strip club.

Those who watched the Fashion Channel more than they should have also knew that late at night they could watch Midnight Hot, a 20-minute burst of lingerie shows with women who had more robust breasts than the typical twiggy models. From time to time, Midnight Hot even included women in lingerie that let their perky nipples stick out, and sometimes the women were completely naked, though only for a few seconds. Every man who knew about the channel jokingly considered it a sanitized version of “Arab porn” that somehow got through government censors. The cable provider knew that while fasting, Muslims were supposed to refrain from sexual contact and lust, so the Fashion Channel and its suggestive programs had to come down for the month of Ramadan.

While much of Ramadan involved sacrifice, one of my Iraqi coworkers said it was also a time when Muslims tried to be friendlier to their neighbors. He also said that he had to avoid gossip and harmful retorts. I am not an Islamic expert, but to me, Ramadan seemed to be a time of the year that could help bring together the various members of the faith. Sadly, during Ramadan, the rates of violent attacks in Iraq went up. One of my Islamic friends dryly joked that clearly, the devoted insurgents had decided to ignore a few of the more important principles of Ramadan.

One day in the middle of Ramadan, Sabir, an Iraqi who managed my compound’s motor pool, came up to me and said, “The Iraqis working tonight are going to break the fast together around 6:30 P.M. Meet us out back behind the dining hall at the GSO trailer.”

“You want me to join you?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“Please,” he said, and then walked away.

The GSO trailer was the kind of mid-sized trailer found in any American trailer park. When my agency first moved into its little corner of the Green Zone, it had started by converting two existing buildings into makeshift cottages, but after a rocket attack against the al-Rasheed Hotel nearly killed some of the Americans living in the hotel, my agency decided to accelerate its plans to move people from the hotel to its new compound. While the agency raced to design and build reinforced concrete hard bungalows that could safely house its staff, the agency purchased a number of trailers, installed them in its compound, and encouraged people to move into them so they wouldn’t be living in the high-profile hotel.

The trailers were modest, but they also offered a sense of privacy that couldn’t be found in the modified metal shipping containers where most State Department employees lived like canned rats. The GSO trailer was similar to the other trailers in the compound, but it also included a small kitchen. The trailer sat in the far corner of the compound with the other trailers; once all the Americans who were on long-term assignment had moved into the hard houses, the trailer area became largely abandoned, except for the night-shift Iraqis who passed their hours in the GSO trailer. While the rest of the compound slept in modestly safe concrete houses all to themselves, each night four to six Iraqis would sleep in the GSO trailer with its paper-thin metal siding.

When I arrived at the GSO trailer to break the fast with my Iraqi coworkers, I saw 10 men sitting around cheap imitation Persian rugs that they had pulled out of the trailer and laid on the ground. They had also grabbed a number of cushions from unused sofas in the nearby trailers, which had been abandoned since the Westerners and TCNs moved into the hard houses. On the rugs, the men had placed a variety of food and drink: rice, breads, dates, baklava, chicken, beer, and fruits. The door to the GSO trailer remained open so the men outside could playfully mock the Iraqi who was inside cooking more food. The cook would occasionally shout something back, and everyone laughed. I smiled because I knew it must have been funny, even though I didn’t know a word of Arabic.

“Sit, sit,” one of the Iraqi men said to me.

I sat down with my legs crossed, trying to keep my feet out of sight. During my crash course in Arabic culture provided by the State Department before I left for Iraq, I had been told that Arabs considered it rude to show your feet. I didn’t know if it was true, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

The Iraqis lay lazily around the food, eagerly passing it from one to another. Whenever one emptied his plate, one of the other men would pass on more food. I tired to take small servings, but they wouldn’t let me. The objective was clear: we had to eat every scrap of the bounty lying before us.

I felt lucky to have this moment with the Iraqi men from GSO. I had tried to show every Iraqi a great deal of respect, and whenever I could, I tried to help them. When they wanted advice on how to deal with their American supervisors, I gave it to them. When they wanted help preparing their visas and dealing with the convoluted government travel regulations, I tried to help. However, I could never give back as much as they were giving to my compound. They risked their lives every day for a few hundred dollars a month. The luckiest didn’t make more than $2,500 per month. Somehow, even though I might sometimes have stumbled when interacting with them, I had clearly made some friends.

While we ate, occasionally senior leaders from the Mission would bark out orders on the radio. “GSO, GSO, this is Shamrock. Do we have any bottled water? The dining hall is almost out.”

The men laughed and made mimicking, mocking voices, but no one responded to the call.

“GSO, GSO, this is Shamrock. I say again, do we have any bottled water?”

One of the men finally gave in and responded, “This is GSO. Could you repeat your request?”

All the men laughed. They had heard her clearly the first time, but they wanted to prod her gently to repeat herself. She did, much to the amusement of the other Iraqis, and then two men walked off to respond to the call. They walked away with their heads hung low as the rest of the men laughed and made noises, like schoolchildren mocking a classmate who had just been called to the principal’s office.

Most of the Iraqis didn’t like their American supervisors. They knew that Iraqis living and working inside the Zone were not considered as important as the Americans, yet they still wanted to be treated fairly and with respect. When they didn’t receive it, the Iraqis generally bit their tongues and accepted it. What else could they do? They didn’t want to lose their jobs. The unemployment rate had risen to nearly 50 percent, and most of those jobs paid a third of what they could receive while working for Americans, or sometimes even less. The Iraqis felt that they had no other choice, yet the pain of working for heartless foreigners cut deep.

The worst example I saw of the disrespect shown by the Americans toward Iraqis happened on December 15, 2005, which was the day the Iraqi people voted to elect their permanent government. (I only wish that I could remember this details better.) Unlike the other two historic voting days during my tour in Iraq, the December 15th elections were relatively peaceful. I had heard continuous gunfire during the previous two votes, but I rarely heard the sounds of gunfire or car bombs on December 15th. Two Army soldiers who worked on my compound told me that the extremely complicated security precautions developed and refined during the previous two votes made it very difficult for the bad guys to kill anyone. I also felt that the insurgents had given up on attacking voters during the elections. The risk of getting caught or killed by Americans or Iraqi security forces, who were out in force, scared off all but the most fervent insurgent.

From 6 A.M. until roughly 7 P.M. that day, everyone living inside the Green Zone was instructed to wear body armor whenever leaving a hardened structure. As soon as that security restriction ended, I slipped back into my normal routine. I even decided to walk outside my house and carry my dirty clothes to the laundry building, even though the occasional sound of celebratory fire pierced the early evening night air. If not for the elections forcing me to pay attention to the sounds of violence and my fear that the day would take a dramatic turn for the worse, I wouldn’t even have noticed the sound of gunfire that night.

On my way back from the laundry room to my house, I saw the Iraqi supervisor of my compound’s motor pool. Sabir was a large man. At around 6 feet 4 inches in height, he towered over most of the other people working on the compound. He also had a healthy appetite. He had gained a considerable amount of weight and grown a belly the size of Homer Simpson’s due to multiple healthy servings at my compound’s cafeteria. Despite his size, he had a soft and gentle soul, and he rarely spoke more than a few sentences at a time. He often told little jokes to both the Americans and the Iraqis at just the right moment to keep everyone’s spirits high. He served as an older brother for most of the other Iraqis working in the motor pool. He did everything he could to protect them and never said a discouraging word to them in front of other people.

I found Sabir to be a model employee. He had worked for the Americans for almost two years without any problem. His English was excellent. He frequently worked extra hours without any pay. He understood the intricacies of the bureaucratic nightmare created by the Americans and could worm his way through the system whenever he needed to get something done. He also bit his tongue whenever an American treated him poorly, which happened often. He said he allowed the Americans to treat him poorly because he knew that they were living in a prison, and even a prison as nice as the Green Zone would eventually drive a person crazy.

With my laundry basket in hand, on the same night that Bush and other American leaders were celebrating, I didn’t really want to stop and have a long chat because I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. It had been a hard week, and I simply wanted to get some sleep, but when Sabir muttered a rather sheepish “hello” to me, I slowed down enough to notice that he was moving rather slowly through the shadows. His feet were dragging with each step, and his shoulders, usually broad and bold, had rolled downward so far that he seemed like a little boy who had lost his puppy.

“Sabir, what are you doing here? I thought you had today off?” I inquired.

“I had nowhere else to go,” he replied softly.

“I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

“I couldn’t stay home.”

Earlier that day, Sabir’s best friend had given a party. His friend, Ahmad, and his friend’s family were secular Iraqis who were worried about Iraq becoming a religious state similar to neighboring Iran. They viewed the elections as a mechanism to help prevent that from happening. The constitution had given the Kurds and the Sunnis the power to band together and block the actions of the Shiite majority, who by the nature of being the largest ethnic group in Iraq could simply push the other two groups aside if the government had only given power to a simple majority.

With the new parliamentary elections, the family felt that their place in Iraq would be secured, and they also fervently believed that the secular Ayad Allawai would gain enough popular support on election day to become the permanent prime minister. They were wrong. Allawai’s Iraqi National Accord party only received 14 percent of the vote, well behind the leading Shiite and Kurdish parties. On September 15, 2005, Allawai became largely irrelevant. However, Sabir’s best friend would never learn what happened during that historic election; he had died that morning.

While Sabir’s friend and his family were celebrating the elections in the courtyard behind their house, a stray bullet flew into the courtyard and then into Ahmad’s body. Although the bullet didn’t kill him instantly, the family couldn’t take him to the hospital or call for an ambulance. Due to the intense security measures imposed by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government, no one could drive an automobile that day. Without any way to get immediate medical assistance for Ahmad, the family frantically called Sabir, perhaps hoping that his connections could help the family overcome the roadblocks, security checkpoints, and driving restrictions imposed for the elections.

Sabir had no magical powers. When he received the phone call, he did the only thing he could: he walked for over an hour to reach Ahmad’s house. By the time he arrived, Ahmad had died. Sabir, after seeing his friend’s dead body, chose to do what he could to help his friend’s family. He went to get ice to preserve the body and inquired about coffins that could be used for the burial.

In the midst of handling these unpleasant tasks, he called his American supervisor and asked to have the following day off so he could continue to help his friend’s family. His boss said no and told him to arrive for work as usual the following morning. In an effort to control his anger and block off his feelings of grief and sadness, Sabir had walked to my compound, sent a night-shift driver home, and decided to work as much as possible for the coming days. He didn’t know what else to do.

As I looked at him, I wanted to reach out and hug him. I wanted to explain how I understood what had happened to his country. I wanted to explain that my country had to accept responsibility for the instability in the country that had killed his friend. I wanted to explain to him that even though his boss was cold and heartless, she wasn’t a typical American. I wanted to say so much, but I couldn’t. What could I say to a man who had just lost his friend to a meaningless stray bullet?

All I could say was, “I am so sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Sabir muttered. Then he shuffled off into the darkness, toward the fleet of dusty armored cars that had not been used in weeks.

Posted by alohafromtim at 6:00 PM EST
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December 27, 2007
Hurry Up and Wait
Mood:  not sure
Now Playing: Nothing - darn it
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
I needed to visit Jordan to examine some documents and then fly out to Italy for a short regional rest break, a one-week vacation given to every foreign service officer working in Iraq. I had grown sick of taking the Rhino bus run out of the airport and had gotten into the habit of securing space available (Space A) helicopter reservations on the same evening as the Rhino Run. If I caught the helicopter, I felt lucky and avoided the bus. If I couldn’t get on the helicopter, I would take the Rhino as a backup plan.

Earlier that morning, I had eaten a questionable burger prepared by the so-called French chef in my compound. He had an uncanny ability to prepare unpleasant food, but I was trying to recover from a hangover, which negated my usual ability to reject questionable food. Three hours after I had finished the burger, I was lying down on the ground waiting to vomit.

I lay on the ground for perhaps an hour before the Iraqi driver who had been selected to take me to the helicopter pad swung by my house to see why I hadn’t met him at the plaza, the normal meeting point for people who were going to take a shuttle ride. The driver, L looked at me and quickly decided that I had to make myself vomit to get the food out of my system. I agreed with him, but said I couldn’t do it. Realizing that I had to throw up if I had any hope of catching the helicopter and avoiding the Rhino Bus, L concocted another plan. He told me that he knew an old-fashioned cure-all that had always worked when he was a child: he would give me a little bit of milk, which he promised would make everything okay. By okay, he meant that it would force me to vomit, and it did. I had never learned that home remedy; I wondered if I had somehow missed out on this trick as a child or if it had never left Iraq.

In that post-vomit bounce, I felt energy streaming through my body once again and was certain that I could take the helicopter. I jumped up, despite the slight woozy feeling in my stomach, and took off for my helicopter ride. L joked at how foolish and pathetic I had looked lying down on the ground waiting to vomit. He also found it curious that one of my friends who passed by my house decided to wait and see me vomit. L thought that a good friend would have given me the milk immediately.

By the time we got through all the checkpoints and arrived at the helicopter pad, I had lost all my strength. I could no longer stand up. I couldn’t carry my large book bag that had all the clothing I needed for the official and unofficial portions of my trip, and I definitely couldn’t carry the heavy body armor I needed to get onto the helicopter. I asked L to take me back to the compound, but he didn’t want to do it. He pleaded with me to wait down near the flight line until the last bit of food poisoning had worked its way through my system. I told him that I couldn’t make it. He was disappointed, but he agreed to my wishes.

On the drive back to the compound, L decided to take me to his house and introduce me to his children. He had somehow found a small house inside the Green Zone that could be rented at a reasonable rate. Because the rest of Iraq had become too dangerous, L had given up his old apartment for the luxury of living inside the Zone. Despite their close proximity to so many Americans, L’s children had rarely interacted with an American. They were shy around me, yet L was clearly very proud. He talked about his children on a regular basis, and even though I was very sick, he wanted me to meet them. I tried to be polite, but I couldn’t leave the car and interact with them; I was too sick. I also felt very odd. The children looked at me as if I were some type of alien. I didn’t belong in Iraq, and they knew it, even if they could explain it to me. I was a yellow apple surrounded by red apples. I felt uncomfortable, like a human placed behind a cage at a zoo.

Thankfully, the stopover at L’s house was short. He took me home, where I crashed and rested for a few hours. Later that evening, he stopped by to see if I had recovered enough to make the Rhino Run. I hadn’t fully recovered, but I forced myself to get up. Getting in and out of Iraq was incredibly difficult, and rescheduling activities in Jordan and Italy would have been nearly impossible. I had to get up and start moving. I had to take the Rhino.

Every night, the U.S. military organized an armored land convoy that we called the Rhino Run to shuttle civilians back and forth from the airport to the Green Zone,. To make it as safe as possible, they made the run at night, which gave the Humvees supporting the convoy free authority to shoot any car or person who tried to approach the convoy. Anything moving on the road to the airport at night was violating the law and therefore could be shot. To help keep the bad guys guessing, the military also varied the departure time; if the convoy went on a set schedule, the bad guys would quickly figure out when to set up an ambush.

That night, I had the luxury of catching an early Rhino bus run. I left my compound at 10:30 P.M. and arrived at the staging area by 10:40 P.M. The staging area was nothing more than a large parking lot with a handful of picnic benches and overhead lights that shone down on the parking lot. By the end of my tour, the military had installed a small enclosed waiting area to protect people from the elements, but during most of my tour, I had to stand outside waiting for someone to take my name so I could sign up for the Rhino Run.

By 11:00 P.M. an Air Force sergeant, who for some reason was responsible for organizing a land movement, showed up with a clipboard. He jumped up on top of a picnic table and gave his short explanation of what would happen that night. The Rhino Run would leave the staging area in approximately 30 minutes. Each person would be given a seat in one of the three armored buses based on a certain priority. Wounded soldiers had top priority, followed by all other soldiers, Department of State employees, United Nations officials, and finally contractors. Although I worked for USAID, the military viewed my agency as an extension of the State Department, so I was always able to secure a seat, although they often turned away at least a handful of lowly contractors.

When the sergeant said State Department employees could sign in, I quickly grabbed my bag and walked over to the soldier who took my name and Social Security number. After that, I moved over to the large semi trailer that would carry our luggage to the airport. The armored bus didn’t have enough space for both people and gear, and I think the military didn’t want people trying to protect their baggage if an insurgent attacked the convoy. Most of the time, I volunteered to help load the trailer. I leaped up and stood inside the trailer, and when people would toss their bags up to me, I would slide them to the back to make room for the additional gear that would come. The task wasn’t fun, but it was more enjoyable than standing around waiting for permission to enter one of the Rhino buses.

By the time the trailer was loaded, the Rhino buses arrived. The military had ordered these custom-made armored buses specifically for ferrying people up and down the road between the airport and the Green Zone. By the summer of 2004, this road, sometimes referred to as Route Irish, had become one of the most dangerous roads in the world. The bad guys took daily potshots at the SUVs ferrying Westerners back and forth between the airport and the Zone. When the Americans started upgrading to heavily armored vehicles, the bad guys started using IEDs, RPGs, and car bombs. Eventually, the military ordered the Rhino buses—massive heavily armored shuttle buses that could supposedly survive a car bomb. Sadly, even they weren’t strong enough to offer the protection needed for embassy employees. The road had gotten too deadly. Thus, the military shifted all personnel transportation activities to the dead of night, when they could completely control the road and use their technology advantage to quickly spot and kill anyone approaching the convoy.

I climbed into the bus where I’d been assigned and signed another check-in sheet, presumably because having my name on multiple sheets would help the military verify that I had been on a bus if it was hit. I donned my body armor and then waited. We had to sit on the bus until everyone with permission to take the bus had properly signed in and put on their armor. We also had to wait for the State Department RSO to come on board and explain what would happen during the trip.

Eventually, a RSO decked out with an M-4 and Oakley shades leaped up into the bus to give his standard speech. For the rest of the trip, we had to turn off our cell phones because the baddies could tap into cell phone calls to identify where we were on the road. Everyone had to wear their body armor at all times. If someone didn’t have their armor, they couldn’t ride the Rhino. If the bad guys attacked the Rhino, only soldiers could use their weapons to defend the bus, but only after receiving permission from the RSO. Additionally, if the bad guys damaged the Rhino, we had to stay inside the vehicle, because it would be the safest place to be during a firefight. We would only leave the Rhino if the RSO swung by and opened up the door. If he did that, we would likely be jumping into another Rhino bus.

After his speech, we sat and waited for the Humvees and air support to arrive. When they arrived, we began our trip. We moved from the familiar roads of the Green Zone near the Palace and PX to the outer edges of the Zone, then zipped past the last checkpoint, past the last Army tank, past the last soldier, and entered into the Red Zone. I always knew that the Red Zone was the most dangerous place in the world for a Westerner like me. I knew that out there, my life meant little, and the protection provided by the U.S. was far less than what I would receive in the Green Zone. Everyone on the bus thought the same thing. That was why most people didn’t talk on the bus: there was this ominous sense that we were taking a risk. I, on the other hand, would talk to anyone who wanted to chat, or take a nap if no one wanted to talk. I wasn’t indifferent to the risk, but I knew that the odds of dying were very low, and if something did happen, I couldn’t do anything about it.

The trip from the Green Zone to the airport took roughly 30 minutes. When we arrived at Camp Stryker, an Army base near the airport, the Rhino dropped us off at the Stables, a support center for people moving through the airport. The minute we arrived, someone from the State Department entered our bus and instructed us to get off the bus, unload the semi truck, and then get a bunk assignment. In the dark, people pulled their gear off the truck and slowly shuffled into the barren tent where they would get their bunking assignments.

In the early days of my tour, everyone had to sleep on simple cots in a large canvas tent. In the winter, we were given toilet-paper-thin wool blankets that provided no warmth against the cold desert nights. Most of the time, the heaters and air conditioners in those tents didn’t work either. Thankfully, by the end of my tour, high-grade foreign service officers slept in four- to six-person trailers, and those who were still forced to stay in a large tent were given two blankets, a foam pad, and a pillow each. These were small changes, but they meant the difference between sleeping for four hours or tossing and turning for four hours with little hope of going to sleep.

The tent assigned to State Department employees was approximately a quarter-mile from the Stables. Because I didn’t want to lug my gear out to the tent, I left my large backpack in the Stables and then took a small book bag with my valuables to my assigned tent. People often got lost on the way to the tent because the State Department tent looked just like the thousand other tents in the camp: 60 to 80 feet long, surrounded by sandbags, and filled with cots. In truth, as long as you didn’t go into a tent with a bunch of soldiers, no one cared where you slept.

The next morning, I had a slight cough and felt like the four hours of rest hadn’t helped a bit. A dust storm had pushed in during the night and interrupted my sleep. When I stepped out of the tent, I could see less than a quarter-mile. With questionable visibility, I knew there was a chance that the military or Iraqi flight traffic controllers could close the airport. Nevertheless, I went ahead with the hope that the airport would remain open. I went to the bathroom in a port-a-john covered with combative graffiti written by soldiers and Marines that questioned everything from the other branches of the military to homosexuals to the President’s intelligence. I took a shower in a small trailer that lacked towel racks or shelving. I walked roughly three-quarters of a mile to a large cafeteria where I could eat greasy, yet filling high-calorie food. Then I rounded up a driver to take me to the airport.

When I arrived at the airport at 10:00 A.M., I quickly passed through the first security checkpoint outside the building, entered the building, and slid into purgatory. Unlike most other airports in the world, BIAP didn’t have any signs telling travelers if their flights had arrived or were delayed. Passengers sat in uncomfortable plastic chairs in the outer area, waiting for a person to come up to the inner security checkpoint and shout out the name of the flight that was ready to depart. At that point, everyone got confused and started to ask the people sitting next to them if they had heard the announcement. If they missed the announcement, they missed their flight. If a traveler went up to the security guard or tried to find an airport employee to ask for information about a flight, no one could provide any information. Passengers simply had to wait.

The minute hand on my watch slowly crept toward my scheduled departure time, and for some miraculous reason, the dust storm began to break. It looked as if I would actually be able to leave, but for some reason, no one was calling my flight number. I kept calling my agency’s travel specialist inside the Green Zone. Could she confirm that my flight had left Amman and was en route? Did she know if the flight would land? If the flight wasn’t going to arrive, could I get on a military flight to Amman? The transportation office couldn’t answer any of my questions. As each minute ticked away, my chances of bolting and making it to the military terminal in time to catch a seat on a C-130 cargo plane to Jordan diminished.

Eventually, I decided to give up on my commercial flight and take my chance with the military. When I arrived at the military terminal, the dust storm had begun to pick up once again, but the pilots were optimistic that they would still fly. I checked in my bags, which were placed on a pallet to be brought onto the plane with the other gear. I received a confirmed space on the flight and was told to stand in a waiting area because I would get onto the plane within minutes. After I had waited in this holding area for 20 minutes, the military canceled the flight. The dust storm had gotten too bad.

The dust storm continued on and off for three more days. Each day, all flights were canceled in the morning. Although the weather always improved by the afternoon, my carrier refused to fly to Baghdad in the afternoon because of the risk that their plane could get stuck on the runway. They didn’t have any insurance to spend the night in Iraq, so they refused to take the risk. On the fourth day, the weather was perfect, but my carrier didn’t fly, and I couldn’t catch a military flight to Jordan. Thankfully, on the fifth day, I finally caught a commercial flight out of Baghdad.

For each of those days that I remained trapped in Baghdad, I had to entertain myself with the limited options at Camp Stryker. There was nowhere else to go. I couldn’t get a flight out of Iraq, and because the dust storms interfered with helicopter support for the Rhino Runs, I couldn’t get back into the Green Zone. Each day, I tried to get on a flight out, but each day I failed and then struggled to reschedule my reservations out of Iraq and then out of Jordan.

Thankfully, on the second night, one of my colleagues from USAID arrived. James and I could help entertain each other in this purgatory. Each morning, we would get up to see if we could catch a flight. If a dust storm was blowing, which it normally was, we went right to the Internet café tent and began to rejuggle our travel reservations. If our flight didn’t get canceled until later in the day, we began the process of getting ready to go to the airport, only to give up later in the day.

Much like prison life, our time at Camp Stryker quickly broke down into routines. Each morning, we got breakfast at the military DFAC at the far end of the base. After breakfast, we spent some time in the military Internet café. After that, we went to the morale and welfare tent, where we could watch movies, read books, and play foosball, ping-pong, or video games. Most of the time, we decided to play video games. Our personal favorite was Simpsons Hit and Run. The game worked like Grand Theft Auto: you could drive around the city, push cars out of the way, run over mailboxes, and crash through thin fences and other obstacles. However, the game designers had interspersed jokes from The Simpsons and had developed loose storylines that added focus to the game. It wasn’t high art, but it filled the morning.

After lunch, we played more video games. From time to time, I would play a sports game or perhaps take a break to check my personal email in the Internet café. Most of the time, I kept returning to Simpsons Hit and Run. I had grown so addicted to the game that shortly after I left Iraq, a friend gave me a copy of it. I played in a vain hope of reliving the empty fun that I had passing the time with James, but it wasn’t the same. I quickly gave up.

After dinner, James and I would normally go over to the movie tent. For the first few evenings, we merely watched the scheduled film. Most of the films centered on tough men in heroic situations, such as Kurt Russell in Backdraft. Usually, no one joined us in the movie room, so on the fourth night, James and I decided to make a request and watch Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Watching a movie mocking military thinking to pass time in the middle of a war zone because I couldn’t catch a flight somehow seemed very appropriate.

After four days and five nights of living at the camp, the weather cleared. On a beautiful sunny day, James, myself, and the other people trapped inside the dusty concrete blast walls of Camp Stryker made our way to the airport. I waited at the airport for four hours before climbing into the plane, then waited for another hour on the runway because the military had temporarily closed the airspace above the airport. Eventually, the plane took off and made its way to Jordan. My vacation had finally begun.

Posted by alohafromtim at 5:31 PM EST
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December 20, 2007
Visa
Mood:  amorous
Now Playing: The sound of silence
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
No one wanted to stay in Iraq, including the Iraqis. They were always looking for ways to get out. There were constant rumors of Iraqi women looking for American men. They supposedly wouldn’t ask questions about potential suitors’ personal habits and would promise to faithfully dote on their future spouses if Americans would marry them and take them out of Iraq. Office water-cooler conversations among men in the Zone often centered around identifying which Iraqi women were looking for men. Whenever I talked to Iraqi women, especially those who were supposedly interested in marrying an American, I felt very uncomfortable. They were friendly, attractive, and smart, but I didn’t want to give them any false impressions. If I had met them on the streets of Washington, I might have tried to date them. In Iraq, I tried to avoid them. I simply couldn’t trust myself.

For those Iraqis uninterested in marrying their way out of Iraq, the American visa lottery offered a small glimmer of hope. Each year, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program gave visas to 50,000 people randomly drawn from the pool of applicants throughout the globe. It was designed to encourage people from countries with historically low rates of immigration to America to join the "melting pot." Anyone who applied directly through the State Department website didn’t have to pay upfront fees, which was nice, considering the massive odds against winning a visa.

One of my Iraqi coworkers briefly mentioned that he wanted me to review his visa application before he gave it to a company that had agreed to submit it for him. He also needed me to show him how to use the Mission’s digital scanner so he could ensure that his digital photo fulfilled the technical specifications. While reviewing the State Department’s requirements, I learned that anyone could submit an application free of charge. When I told my Iraqi friend about this, he didn’t believe me. He said that for the last few years he had used a company that charged him $10 per submission, which he thought was a good deal, since other companies charged $50 per submission. He refused to believe it was free when so many people were collecting money to submit the applications. Eventually, I convinced my Iraqi friend that I was right and warned him that he was paying $10 with no proof that the application package was ever forwarded to the State Department. By using the free method provided on the State Department website, at least he would receive a confirmation.

After I helped my friend, over the next few days other Iraqis came to me looking for the same assistance. They’d heard that I knew of a free website that provided confirmation receipts, and they wanted me to explain how the website worked. Eventually, I decided to email almost every Iraqi I knew in the compound to explain how the program worked. They were extremely grateful. They told me that no one else had ever tried to help them apply for visas, and they were afraid that if they did ask, their American employers might disapprove of their actions. Meanwhile, all of them were passing on sensitive contact information and expressing their desire to move to America, and the employees at the application processing companies could have easily given this information to insurgents.

I knew that I had to help my Iraqi friends, but I hid it from the other Americans. I had a deep-seated fear that my bosses would tell me to stop helping them because the Americans didn’t want to lose their highly skilled Iraqi workforce. In fact, one American even told me that she couldn’t respect an Iraqi who chose to leave the country rather than help convert it into a peaceful, functioning democracy. I asked her if she would stay in her country if she had been marked for death by an insurgent. She didn’t answer, but she didn’t change her initial statement. According to her, the sympathetic Iraqis needed to stay, or else the Americans wouldn’t be able to do their job.

Posted by alohafromtim at 3:08 PM EST
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December 13, 2007
Amman
Now Playing: Goober & the Peas
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
Jordan didn’t really exist. Everyone I knew went through Jordan, yet no one ever went to Jordan simply to visit it. The country was a nebulous place somewhere between Iraq and the States. It was a modern-era way station for those of us going to and from the Green Zone.
 
Most of the civilians traveling through Amman never really knew the people or the country. Most travelers stayed in massive five-star hotels where even the bellhops spoke impressive English. The rooms were luxurious, with impressive views of the original seven hills settled by ancient Middle East tribes. The hotel bars served fine European beers on tap and hired Russian waitresses who were always friendly, dedicated, and gorgeous. The hotel restaurants offered fine food that never disappointed, and even offered urban specialties such as sushi. Visitors to these hotels knew they were in the Middle East because of the art hanging in the hotel lobby and hallways, yet because most Westerners never left the hotel except to visit the airports, they visited a sanitized version of the Middle East.
 
Although no one I knew ever traveled to Amman to see the city’s archaeological sites, eventually most people got stuck in Amman for one reason or another and could take short sightseeing trips. During the spring and summer, dust storms could easily close down the Baghdad airport, stranding would-be travelers in Jordan. The Iraqi government also shut down the airport during the days surrounding the elections, and from time to time the U.S. military closed the airspace around the airport for unexplained and unspecified “military operations.” These closures gave travelers a chance to see Petra with its ancient temples carved into the stone cliffs, the ever-shrinking Dead Sea where anyone could float, or the ancient Roman ruins scattered about Amman. Travelers who were able to visit these sites did so without any organized plans. The five-star hotels or the embassy usually helped organize these last-minute tours, and in a show of gratitude to their tour guides, most Westerners tipped generously; after all, where else could they spend their money?
 
Those who got stuck in Amman quickly grew tired of eating at the same hotel restaurants, and the more adventuresome travelers would ignore the RSO’s warnings about the threat of kidnapping and search out bars and restaurants in the city. Although Jordanians were by and large Muslim and poor, and the city did not have the same number of fine eating and drinking establishments that one could find in a city of similar size in Europe, Amman still offered more than one would have expected. The city had sisha patio gardens, Italian restaurants, and Starbucks. During many of my trips through Jordan, I visited an Irish pub with thick wooden bench seats and paneled walls. Roughly 60 percent of the clientele were Westerners, and they didn’t seem inhibited by the traditional expectations of a conservative country. People were throwing back shots, arguing about the war, and acting like they were in the States rather than Jordan.
 
Jordan had also become a wayfaring point for Iraqis. After the first Gulf War, some Iraqis moved to Jordan to seek out better economic opportunities than what existed in Iraq. When the second war began, a similar wave of Iraqis moved to Jordan. However, as the second war dragged on into its second and third year, many Iraqis began to truly worry about the future of their country. The economy grew worse and worse, and the daily sectarian violence unnerved even the strongest supporters of the Americans. Thus, many Iraqis who had the means chose to move to Jordan and joined the mix of foreigners passing through Jordan because of the war.
 
During the beginning of the second Gulf War, Jordanians were generally hospitable toward Iraqis. The Jordanians had accepted waves of Palestinians at various times during the last 50 years, and thus were somewhat understanding of the Iraqis. Who wouldn’t want to get away from the violence and bloodshed in Iraq? However, as the war dragged on, more and more Iraqis fled to Jordan. While some of these Iraqis were educated and had money to support themselves, many did not have the means to pay rent or buy food. They had come to Jordan in hopes of escaping the war and finding jobs, but the influx of poor Iraqis swamped the local social services and depressed wages.
 
The Jordanians were not as forgiving to Iraqis who didn’t have money to pay their own way. During my final trip to Jordan, I met an Iraqi friend who had somehow convinced the U.S. government to let him work temporarily in Jordan. He had left Iraq because it had gotten too dangerous for him to work with the Americans, yet his skill as a travel agent had ingratiated him to his bosses and allowed him to somehow keep his job. He had money, but the Jordanians were not accepting of him because they assumed that he didn’t have any money. Whenever we traveled together, I had to enter the restaurant or bar first to ensure that the waiter would promptly seat us or that the bouncer would let my friend in without patting him down.
 
Underlying the calm, familiar Western-esque settings in Jordan, a threat of violence and suspicion of violence followed every Westerner. The State Department RSO warned us to stay on guard at all times. During my year in Iraq, a group of insurgents had kidnapped a handful of Chinese workers who had worked in Iraq and were passing through Jordan. There were also rumors that insurgents were passing between the Jordanian and Iraqi border, which meant that the insurgents were also operating in Amman. Dark thoughts such as these normally stayed in the background, but from time to time, they would percolate to the surface if someone in Amman asked too many questions or seemed to be watching us too carefully.
 
The fears I lived with in Iraq sometimes led to irrational moments that make no sense in hindsight. One night, I went to Mecca Mall with one of my colleagues who happened to be passing though Amman on the way to a rest break in Namibia. Mecca Mall was a massive multi-storied mall with cell phone stores, big box department stores, and even specialty lingerie stores. After we wandered around the mall for two hours, we jumped into a taxi and told the driver that we wanted to return to the Four Seasons Hotel. The driver, who didn’t know any English, muttered something in Arabic but seemed to understand. As he pulled away from the mall, the driver almost immediately turned the wrong direction. My buddy and I tried to ask the cabbie where he was going, but he didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak any Arabic. In the end, I just kept saying “Four Seasons” in hopes that he would understand. It didn’t help.
 
At that point, the driver pulled out a cell phone and began talking to someone in Arabic. My buddy instantly grew suspicious. He reached up and yanked the driver’s cell phone from his hand. The driver shot back an angry scowl, yet didn’t fight back. He just looked very confused and exasperated. He wanted to communicate with us, but couldn’t. He also desperately wanted his cell phone back, but he wasn’t going to get it back. My friend had grabbed the cell phone because he thought the cabbie might have been calling his accomplices to help him kidnap us. However, in the end, the cabbie was simply a young man who didn’t know how to find the hotel, and he apparently had been calling a friend to get directions. He clearly didn’t know why the two Americans would take his cell phone. The cabbie didn’t live in a war zone, and he didn’t understand how as Americans in an Arab country, most of us were highly suspicious of everyone.
 
Despite all of these growing complexities, Jordan was a safe place for Americans until almost the end of my tour. In November 2005, an al-Qaeda-related cell attacked three major hotels in Amman—the Radisson, the Grand Hyatt, and the Days Inn. Although the hotels were used by many travelers for various reasons, they were filled with Westerners and diplomats connected to reconstruction and diplomatic initiatives in Iraq. Although it is impossible to know the exact motive of the suicide bombers, I always assumed that the desire to kill Westerners connected to Iraq was the primary motive for the attacks, which killed 60 people and wounded over 100.
 
I learned of the attacks after returning from a local Green Zone bar with a pack of friends. We had been drinking for hours and were in a very agreeable mood, yet as we pulled into my compound and heard the first whispering of the attacks, almost everyone grew pale. Our first thoughts were of friends who might be traveling through Jordan, and then our thoughts turned inward. All of us passed through the same hotels on a regular basis. Any one of us could have been at the hotels during the attack. Any one of us could have been among the dead.
 
We rushed back to my house and turned on CNN International. We looked at images from the damaged hotels, especially the Radisson, where the bombers had caused significant damage to the inside of the hotel lobby. These were images of places where all of us had been, now devastated and splattered with blood. Although we lived in a war and heard explosions all the time, those explosions happened on the other side of the concrete blast walls. We never saw those explosions when they happened, and when we saw them on CNN, the sites weren’t familiar to us, even though they might be only a mile or two from where we lived. The hotels in Amman were places that everyone knew very well, which made the attacks dangerously close and unsettling. It brought the war much closer to us than we would have liked.
 
Sensing the grim air settling upon the group of young diplomats sitting in my house, my friend Jeff leaned over and said, “We’ve got to turn this off. It’ll eat everyone up inside.”
 
With that simple suggestion, I quickly turned off the television and turned on the stereo. I went to my liquor cabinet and starting pouring shots. It was a Thursday night, the only night when we didn’t have to worry about getting up early the next day for work, and I refused to let the war stop us from having a good time.

Posted by alohafromtim at 4:11 PM EST
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Amman
Now Playing: Goober & the Peas
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
Jordan didn’t really exist. Everyone I knew went through Jordan, yet no one ever went to Jordan simply to visit it. The country was a nebulous place somewhere between Iraq and the States. It was a modern-era way station for those of us going to and from the Green Zone.
 
Most of the civilians traveling through Amman never really knew the people or the country. Most travelers stayed in massive five-star hotels where even the bellhops spoke impressive English. The rooms were luxurious, with impressive views of the original seven hills settled by ancient Middle East tribes. The hotel bars served fine European beers on tap and hired Russian waitresses who were always friendly, dedicated, and gorgeous. The hotel restaurants offered fine food that never disappointed, and even offered urban specialties such as sushi. Visitors to these hotels knew they were in the Middle East because of the art hanging in the hotel lobby and hallways, yet because most Westerners never left the hotel except to visit the airports, they visited a sanitized version of the Middle East.
 
Although no one I knew ever traveled to Amman to see the city’s archaeological sites, eventually most people got stuck in Amman for one reason or another and could take short sightseeing trips. During the spring and summer, dust storms could easily close down the Baghdad airport, stranding would-be travelers in Jordan. The Iraqi government also shut down the airport during the days surrounding the elections, and from time to time the U.S. military closed the airspace around the airport for unexplained and unspecified “military operations.” These closures gave travelers a chance to see Petra with its ancient temples carved into the stone cliffs, the ever-shrinking Dead Sea where anyone could float, or the ancient Roman ruins scattered about Amman. Travelers who were able to visit these sites did so without any organized plans. The five-star hotels or the embassy usually helped organize these last-minute tours, and in a show of gratitude to their tour guides, most Westerners tipped generously; after all, where else could they spend their money?
 
Those who got stuck in Amman quickly grew tired of eating at the same hotel restaurants, and the more adventuresome travelers would ignore the RSO’s warnings about the threat of kidnapping and search out bars and restaurants in the city. Although Jordanians were by and large Muslim and poor, and the city did not have the same number of fine eating and drinking establishments that one could find in a city of similar size in Europe, Amman still offered more than one would have expected. The city had sisha patio gardens, Italian restaurants, and Starbucks. During many of my trips through Jordan, I visited an Irish pub with thick wooden bench seats and paneled walls. Roughly 60 percent of the clientele were Westerners, and they didn’t seem inhibited by the traditional expectations of a conservative country. People were throwing back shots, arguing about the war, and acting like they were in the States rather than Jordan.
 
Jordan had also become a wayfaring point for Iraqis. After the first Gulf War, some Iraqis moved to Jordan to seek out better economic opportunities than what existed in Iraq. When the second war began, a similar wave of Iraqis moved to Jordan. However, as the second war dragged on into its second and third year, many Iraqis began to truly worry about the future of their country. The economy grew worse and worse, and the daily sectarian violence unnerved even the strongest supporters of the Americans. Thus, many Iraqis who had the means chose to move to Jordan and joined the mix of foreigners passing through Jordan because of the war.
 
During the beginning of the second Gulf War, Jordanians were generally hospitable toward Iraqis. The Jordanians had accepted waves of Palestinians at various times during the last 50 years, and thus were somewhat understanding of the Iraqis. Who wouldn’t want to get away from the violence and bloodshed in Iraq? However, as the war dragged on, more and more Iraqis fled to Jordan. While some of these Iraqis were educated and had money to support themselves, many did not have the means to pay rent or buy food. They had come to Jordan in hopes of escaping the war and finding jobs, but the influx of poor Iraqis swamped the local social services and depressed wages.
 
The Jordanians were not as forgiving to Iraqis who didn’t have money to pay their own way. During my final trip to Jordan, I met an Iraqi friend who had somehow convinced the U.S. government to let him work temporarily in Jordan. He had left Iraq because it had gotten too dangerous for him to work with the Americans, yet his skill as a travel agent had ingratiated him to his bosses and allowed him to somehow keep his job. He had money, but the Jordanians were not accepting of him because they assumed that he didn’t have any money. Whenever we traveled together, I had to enter the restaurant or bar first to ensure that the waiter would promptly seat us or that the bouncer would let my friend in without patting him down.
 
Underlying the calm, familiar Western-esque settings in Jordan, a threat of violence and suspicion of violence followed every Westerner. The State Department RSO warned us to stay on guard at all times. During my year in Iraq, a group of insurgents had kidnapped a handful of Chinese workers who had worked in Iraq and were passing through Jordan. There were also rumors that insurgents were passing between the Jordanian and Iraqi border, which meant that the insurgents were also operating in Amman. Dark thoughts such as these normally stayed in the background, but from time to time, they would percolate to the surface if someone in Amman asked too many questions or seemed to be watching us too carefully.
 
The fears I lived with in Iraq sometimes led to irrational moments that make no sense in hindsight. One night, I went to Mecca Mall with one of my colleagues who happened to be passing though Amman on the way to a rest break in Namibia. Mecca Mall was a massive multi-storied mall with cell phone stores, big box department stores, and even specialty lingerie stores. After we wandered around the mall for two hours, we jumped into a taxi and told the driver that we wanted to return to the Four Seasons Hotel. The driver, who didn’t know any English, muttered something in Arabic but seemed to understand. As he pulled away from the mall, the driver almost immediately turned the wrong direction. My buddy and I tried to ask the cabbie where he was going, but he didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak any Arabic. In the end, I just kept saying “Four Seasons” in hopes that he would understand. It didn’t help.
 
At that point, the driver pulled out a cell phone and began talking to someone in Arabic. My buddy instantly grew suspicious. He reached up and yanked the driver’s cell phone from his hand. The driver shot back an angry scowl, yet didn’t fight back. He just looked very confused and exasperated. He wanted to communicate with us, but couldn’t. He also desperately wanted his cell phone back, but he wasn’t going to get it back. My friend had grabbed the cell phone because he thought the cabbie might have been calling his accomplices to help him kidnap us. However, in the end, the cabbie was simply a young man who didn’t know how to find the hotel, and he apparently had been calling a friend to get directions. He clearly didn’t know why the two Americans would take his cell phone. The cabbie didn’t live in a war zone, and he didn’t understand how as Americans in an Arab country, most of us were highly suspicious of everyone.
 
Despite all of these growing complexities, Jordan was a safe place for Americans until almost the end of my tour. In November 2005, an al-Qaeda-related cell attacked three major hotels in Amman—the Radisson, the Grand Hyatt, and the Days Inn. Although the hotels were used by many travelers for various reasons, they were filled with Westerners and diplomats connected to reconstruction and diplomatic initiatives in Iraq. Although it is impossible to know the exact motive of the suicide bombers, I always assumed that the desire to kill Westerners connected to Iraq was the primary motive for the attacks, which killed 60 people and wounded over 100.
 
I learned of the attacks after returning from a local Green Zone bar with a pack of friends. We had been drinking for hours and were in a very agreeable mood, yet as we pulled into my compound and heard the first whispering of the attacks, almost everyone grew pale. Our first thoughts were of friends who might be traveling through Jordan, and then our thoughts turned inward. All of us passed through the same hotels on a regular basis. Any one of us could have been at the hotels during the attack. Any one of us could have been among the dead.
 
We rushed back to my house and turned on CNN International. We looked at images from the damaged hotels, especially the Radisson, where the bombers had caused significant damage to the inside of the hotel lobby. These were images of places where all of us had been, now devastated and splattered with blood. Although we lived in a war and heard explosions all the time, those explosions happened on the other side of the concrete blast walls. We never saw those explosions when they happened, and when we saw them on CNN, the sites weren’t familiar to us, even though they might be only a mile or two from where we lived. The hotels in Amman were places that everyone knew very well, which made the attacks dangerously close and unsettling. It brought the war much closer to us than we would have liked.
 
Sensing the grim air settling upon the group of young diplomats sitting in my house, my friend Jeff leaned over and said, “We’ve got to turn this off. It’ll eat everyone up inside.”
 
With that simple suggestion, I quickly turned off the television and turned on the stereo. I went to my liquor cabinet and starting pouring shots. It was a Thursday night, the only night when we didn’t have to worry about getting up early the next day for work, and I refused to let the war stop us from having a good time.

Posted by alohafromtim at 4:11 PM EST
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December 10, 2007
Want to Take a Dip in Uday's Pool?
Mood:  smelly
Now Playing: Coldplay
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
The U.S. Army had made the fine people at KBR responsible for running various exercise facilities throughout the Green Zone. Although most Americans enjoyed working out at KBR’s large, warehouse-like gym near the Palace, I never went to that gym because getting there required calling the motor pool and asking them to shuttle me back and forth just so I could work out. I also didn’t want to work out in front of the muscle-bound soldiers, who made my scrawny 170-pound frame seem meaningless.

Thankfully, USAID had built a small exercise area in my compound: the basics, crammed into three small bedroom-sized rooms inside a larger building. They had installed a complete set of mechanical weights and one set of free weights for those who wanted a more intense workout, but most people preferred to use the running machine, bike, or elliptical machines. There were two running machines in the gym, but someone broke the first one shortly before I arrived. During the 12 months I lived in Baghdad, the GSO was never able to obtain the parts and find a repairman willing to come to the Green Zone to fix it.

I decided to work out five days a week to stay thin, largely because I ate too much greasy food in the cafeteria. Some people worked out as part of a promise to turn over a new leaf and lose weight while in Iraq. Other people used the gym as a way to relieve stress. Everyone on my compound had different reasons for using the gym, but sometimes it was just a social place. On most days, my friends and I would pick an exact time to meet at the gym and work out together. I often had long debates with colleagues while I ran on the running machine and went through a hard 30-minute workout on the elliptical machine.

The gym was also a place where Marines would try to pick up one of the handful of women on my compound. Unlike in the large gyms elsewhere in the Green Zone, when a Marine walked by my gym, he could safely assume that he would be the beefiest man in the area. He also had a high probability of finding a young woman in shorts or perhaps a workout bra who had nowhere to go until she finished her workout. I never saw a Marine succeed in picking up a woman at my compound’s gym, but they kept trying every day until the Marines finally left our compound in early summer.

My workout routine changed considerably once KRB opened Liberty Pool, a large pool complex right next to my compound that had once served as Uday Hussein’s personal playground. It goes without saying that Uday was nuts. The Iraqis I worked with said that Uday murdered people at will and tortured with zeal. He routinely ordered his guards to snatch young women off the street so he could rape them. Supposedly, he had once been a strong candidate to succeed his father, but he’d fallen out of favor when he killed one of Saddam's favorite bodyguards with a club and carving knife. Shortly after that incident, assassins opened fire on him as he was driving through Baghdad, and the attack left him permanently crippled. From 1996 until his death during an American raid in 2004, Uday had to walk with a cane. A number of Iraqis also told me that his lust for violence grew after the accident because he was frustrated that he could no longer make love to women.

After the assassination attempt, Saddam had built a large pool complex to help Uday relax and recuperate. The complex, which the Americans renamed Liberty Pool, put most public and private swimming pools in America to shame. Saddam had built three pools and a large supporting building that had an almost Nazi-esque architectural style. The small pool, which was perhaps 20 feet in diameter, was designed for children and had a small elephant-shaped slide. The diving pool was more oval in shape and was perhaps 60 feet from one end to the other. The main pool was the shining jewel of the complex: a gently curving L-shaped pool under a sweeping big-top-style tent, with a water slide on one end and a large Olympic-style diving board on the other. The depth varied from four feet to over 15 feet, depending on where you swam in the pool.

When the Americans took control of the Green Zone, they also took control of Uday’s pool. During the early days of the occupation, Americans, British, Australians, and a host of other international visitors flocked to the pool to escape the deadly summer heat. The sides of the pool attracted the handful of young women posted to the Zone, though they had to respect the strict rules of modesty that forbade two-piece bathing suits. Still, young men came to watch the women, though many also came to jump off the diving boards and forget the pressures of the war as they dove deep underwater.

This magical little playland temporarily disappeared in the fall of 2004. During September and October of 2004, insurgents lobbed rockets and mortar shells into the Zone on a nearly daily basis. Security officers considered the highly exposed pool a significant security risk, and they worried that people would not be able to get out of the pool quickly enough to reach a concrete bomb shelter during an attack. I also heard that an unexploded mortar shell had crashed into one of the pools, causing extensive damage. Eventually, the State Department decided to close the pool complex.

During my first five months in Iraq, Uday’s pool taunted me. I could see the tips of the circus-style tent that covered the main pool poking over the wall of my compound, and “old-timers” who had arrived in Iraq three or four months before me occasionally talked about the fun parties they had near the pool in late 2004. Rumors constantly circulated through my compound about when KBR would finally open the pool, but no one had any reliable information. Even in the days leading up to the official opening, I never believed it would open.

On the first night that KBR opened the pool, I easily convinced my friends Kirk and John to walk over to the compound with me. We went out my compound’s front gate, or CAC, and turned left to walk the 50 yards to the Liberty Pool CAC. As we strolled on that warm summer evening, I realized that it was the first time I had ever walked outside a secured area in the Green Zone without my body armor. Even though I was still within sight of one of the security guards from my compound and the Iraqi security guards from the nearby Iraqi president’s compound, I felt a little exposed, like a child kicking off the training wheels for the first time. More than once, I looked up and down the street, which was lined with 10-foot-high concrete T-walls, to make sure some random driver wasn’t racing down to kill or kidnap Americans like me who were walking around without any soldiers or personal security detachments (PSDs), which was the fancy name in Iraq for mercenaries.

My fears were totally irrational. Although thousands of Iraqis did live inside the Green Zone, I had only heard of two violent attacks against Americans inside the Green Zone. The first involved a stabbing, which might have been a lover’s quarrel. The other attack, the coordinated bombing of a restaurant and shopping area, had happened many months earlier and seemed like a distant, prehistoric memory to me because it had happened before my arrival. In hindsight, those short steps away from my compound without body armor don’t really compare to the steps that soldiers were taking every day or that my friend Kirk would take later that year when climbing into the back of a five-ton truck in downtown Fallujah with a squad of young Marines at his side.

On the first night we visited Liberty Pool, my friends and I had the place completely to ourselves. We wandered around the pools, which were softly illuminated with underwater lamps. We played short games of pool and foosball. We wandered around the exercise rooms of the main building and checked out an outdoor bar on the roof that could be rented for parties. We passed by an outdoor movie theater that would show movies every night of the week, and we wandered through the covered seating area next to the pool, which eventually would host countless small parties, karaoke nights, cover band concerts, and simple evenings of drinking a few beers and taking a few dips in the pool. In the middle of Baghdad, KBR had created a mini-oasis that made me feel like a spoiled Englishman living in India before the Second World War. On most days, I was highly grateful for that escape.

During the summer of 2005, I visited the complex at least twice a week to work out. For some reason, during the hottest months of the year, Kirk, Pennell, and I started to play basketball at the complex after eating dinner. KBR had bought a second-rate movable basketball hoop and installed it in the former parking lot. At first, we played simple games of Horse and Tip, simply to burn off a few extra calories. Eventually, we started inviting other people so we could play two-on-two. That was when the games became grudge matches that brought out my vindictive childish side. I didn’t have an outside game, and I couldn’t make a lay-up to save my life, but I could position my body and push off better than Bill Lambert in his prime. I used this skill to thug my way around the basketball court. It didn’t matter who was playing. I would often try to manhandle my friend Serbia, a man with at least four inches and 40 pounds on me; I also tried to shove around Jaws, a Marine built harder than a brick house.

Despite my thuggery, Kirk often won through finesse and grace, accompanied by a wicked outside jump shot. When he took his shots, he often forgot to focus on where he was moving his body and where I was moving my body, and from time to time he would get slightly dinged up. Twice, I actually hurt him: once, he twisted an ankle, and the other time, he split a bone in his arm near the elbow. However, I didn’t feel that bad for him. After the injury, he kept playing because he didn’t want to lose, despite the fact that he had hurt himself.

In addition to playing sports at the pool, Americans would bring beer and simply lounge around the pool. Once a week, the manager of the pool scheduled a DJ who would spin loud, thumping hip-hop in an effort to get everyone to dance. Those who wanted a more refined evening could visit the pool on salsa night and dance with women who were more than willing to pull men out on the dance floor. For those people who did like to play sports, KBR had set up pool tables, table tennis, and a foosball table.

This whole complex formerly owned by Saddam’s son had become an American playland. Everyone who went there forgot about the war. They walked around the complex like Englishmen in a former colony. Except for the occasional reminder, such as the holes in the tarps where the stray bullets had cut through, going to the pool meant leaving Iraq.

Posted by alohafromtim at 3:02 PM EST
Updated: December 10, 2007 3:08 PM EST
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December 6, 2007
Labid
Mood:  lazy
Now Playing: The Shins
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
Labid worked in the motor pool. He had the look of an accountant, particularly when he wore his glasses. Sometimes he even acted like an accountant, especially when he double-checked his logs or meticulously cleaned the mud off his vehicle at the end of the day before going home. When I heard that he had been selected to travel to Washington, DC to attend a State Department defensive driving class, I gave him lots of tourist information about DC. I had lived there for five years before coming to Iraq, and I knew the city better than anyone else I had ever met. I wanted to make sure he had the chance to truly enjoy the city. Although it wasn’t hard to gather the information I had collected, he was extremely grateful that I had taken the time to gather it for him.

Because he started to trust me, when the USAID travel agent began making minor mistakes on his travel schedule, Labid came to me to fix it. He felt that the travel agent wasn’t giving him the same respect that she would have given an American, and for some reason, Labid felt that I could help resolve it. I did what I could, and even though the problems might have ironed themselves out without my assistance, I helped reassure Labid that at least one American on the compound cared.

Those little interactions created a bond between us. He felt comfortable with me and believed that I would watch out for him. During the following months, he and I would occasionally have lunch together in the compound dining hall, and when he would drive me around the Green Zone, he and I would talk about what the Americans were trying to do in Iraq. He remained unfailingly committed to America, despite everything that had gone wrong in Iraq. I tried to warn him that America cared about Iraq, but sometimes its attention span was short. Labid wouldn’t listen to me.

“What do you think will happen to all the Iraqis that work for USAID after all the Americans finish the new embassy complex and move everyone into a single compound?” I asked one day to help prove that the U.S. government frequently forgot about those who worked for them the minute they were out of sight.

Labid stopped the car and looked at me in shock. “What do you mean?”

“Will they need a motor pool any more? Will they need the full team of mechanics? What about the landscapers hired to maintain the USAID and State Department compounds? All the Americans are going to live in one compound and probably won’t need as many people. They won’t need drivers to shuttle them from one end of the Green Zone to another. Even if they are going to keep some Iraqi drivers, they won’t need as many as they have now. Plus, the State Department already has a bunch of contracted KBR employees that provide those same services.”

“No, USAID can’t get rid of us. We have worked for them for over two years.”

“It won’t matter,” I said flatly.

“They know we work hard. They know that we risk our lives coming through those checkpoints every day.”

I reminded him of how the compound had fired dozens of GSO employees without even a week’s notice. USAID had needed to cut back on its administrative expenses, and the GSO employees were the easiest people to fire. They were disposable. Most Americans didn’t know their names, let alone how to pronounce them. Nevertheless, Labid didn’t believe me. He couldn’t let go of his unflappable faith in America. The Americans had liberated his country. The Americans had given him a job. The American president promised that he would stay in Iraq until the very end. America was a great country that would never turn its back on him.

Slightly more than a year after I left Iraq, insurgents or perhaps militiamen identified Labid as an American sympathizer. On Valentine’s Day 2007, they drove up in a car and shot him near one of the Green Zone checkpoints. After shooting him, they stood over his bloody body and watched his life slowly slip out of him until he died. Then they drove off, leaving Labid’s body in the street.

The Iraqi community in the Green Zone is small, and word of the killing spread quickly. Eventually, all the Americans working for USAID heard what had happened, but that night in the USAID compound, the Americans went ahead with their planned Valentine’s Day celebration.

I learned of Labid’s death from a press release put out by USAID. The press release didn’t list Labid’s name, but I emailed my American friends living in the Green Zone to get the full details. They told me the grisly details, but they didn’t tell me everything. I learned about the party that went on as scheduled from an Iraqi refugee who arrived in the States a few weeks after Labid died. None of my American friends wanted me to know that life in the Zone had continued as usual. They only told me of Labid’s death and commented that his death was a reminder of how bad Iraq had gotten, but by leaving out the other details of the story, they failed to show how sick the Green Zone had become.

Posted by alohafromtim at 4:59 PM EST
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December 4, 2007
Sick Day
Mood:  happy
Now Playing: The Thermals
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
In addition to the risk of serious injury from car bombs, mortars, rockets, and stray bullets, everyone living in the Green Zone ran the risk of succumbing to a whole host of routine, everyday injuries. People broke their arms playing basketball, pulled muscles while working out in the gym, and even came down with the occasional case of food poisoning. No one would ever dream of seeing an Iraqi doctor, so thankfully Americans living inside the Zone could turn to either the health unit in the Palace or the Ibn Sina Combat Support Hospital.

The State Department ran a small health unit inside the Palace to handle routine matters that usually led people to visit their family doctors in the States. If a foreign service officer or contractor needed to get a few shots for a planned rest break to Latin American, the health unit could help. They also conducted physicals that foreign service officers needed to receive before starting their next assignments, dispensed simple medications such as antibiotics, and treated minor injuries ranging from pulled muscles to bad headaches. Although the Green Zone health unit served the largest American embassy in the world, the State Department didn’t assign a doctor at the post for most of 2005 because they knew they could rely on the military to provide soldiers with medical expertise that could fill out the health unit’s roster. During most of my visits to the health unit, I never saw a civilian.

For anything more than a stubbed toe, Americans generally chose to visit the Ibn Sina Combat Support Hospital. Shortly after the occupation began, the military converted the large dilapidated Ibn Sina Hospital inside the Green Zone into a modern emergency medical facility.  Then, the military assumed control of the hospital and made it the home of a large U.S. military combat support operation. While the military doctors at the hospital always placed coalition soldiers at the top of the priority list for non-emergency care, they were willing to help anyone associated with the American embassy or military. During my occasional visits to the hospital, I even saw military nurses and doctors help Iraqi day laborers who had hurt themselves on construction projects inside the Green Zone. I also heard that the hospital staff even treated wounded insurgents captured in the greater Baghdad area.

Waiting for non-emergency service at Ibn Sina Hospital was a long, boring experience. Toward the end of my tour, I went to the hospital and waited for hours to see a doctor about a serious ear infection that had inflamed my ear and nearly filled it completely with fluid. After signing into the hospital and taking a number, I had to wait for over two hours before I even met the triage officer. He quickly looked me over, took my vital signs, and made sure that I wasn’t going to immediately die; then he sent me out into the waiting area for another thirty minutes before a nurse practitioner or doctor could see me.

The doctor who examined me agreed with my initial self-assessment and concluded that I had an ear infection. Since he was a military doctor, he also felt inclined to explain the worst-case scenarios and explained in clear terms how painful those scenarios could be. For example, he told me that eventually the pus building up inside my middle ear could simply burst out and come dribbling down the side of my face. According to the doctor, if that happened, I would be in a lot of pain. Despite all the doomsday scenarios that gave to me, the doctor wanted me to tough it out because there was little he could do in Iraq other than wait to make sure the eardrum healed on its own. Then, with a carefree smile, the doctor told me not to worry and prescribed some medication that he admitted probably wouldn’t help very much. He told me I could get the prescription filled free of charge at the hospital pharmacy.

At the pharmacy, I had to take yet another number and wait in yet another line before receiving my drugs, but because I had a doctor’s prescription, thankfully the pharmacy gave me my drugs free of charge. It seemed that no one really cared about how much medicine went out the front doors of that hospital or how much it cost. Every military doctor I met in Iraq had no reservations about handing out medication like candy. The doctor who examined my ear infection wrote me a prescription for antibiotics and threw in some super-antihistamines just for fun. During another visit, a doctor gave me a two-week supply of strong painkillers even though I only needed a seven-day supply. The overmedication of illnesses seemed out of control in the hospital. Whenever someone in my compound had a sore neck or back, at least three coworkers would offer a few pills from their stashes of super-sized ibuprofen or mildly addictive codeine.

Many people living in the Zone had also begun to accumulate stashes of sleeping pills, which that sometimes could get from the hospital. No one wanted to become addicted to them, yet everyone seemed to rationalize that from time to time they needed a deep sleep to get through the noisy night and truly refresh themselves for the hard work they had to perform. Some people used the pill so much that they even created little rules for taking them, such as limiting themselves to no more than two nights in a row and no more than six pills in a month. If they ran out or broke their rules, it didn’t really matter. They could always get more pills.

I tried my best to avoid the hospital and medication because I wanted to be as lucid and mobile as possible during my tour. I didn’t want to be hurt and unable to move if the bad guys decided to attack the Green Zone. Nevertheless, I eventually did hurt myself so seriously that I couldn’t walk due to a Frisbee-related incident that required a trip to the hospital.

My friends and I had gone behind the American chancery to play a quick game of Frisbee on the impeccably manicured lawn. In a gesture oddly reminiscent of British aristocracy in India or Ghana, the Americans hired a large contingent of Iraqi servants who maintained the lush field of grass and small patches of flowers despite the sultry summer weather. I found it disappointing that the Americans almost never used this little patch of green inside the dusty brown Green Zone, so I lobbied my friends to play occasional games of cricket and Frisbee behind the chancery.

On once such evening, I made a lunge for a poorly thrown disc, which I easily caught. However, when I quickly snapped into the upright position so I could toss it back, I felt something crack, and then sharp throbbing pains shot down the length of my back. I tried to stretch and work out the pain, but it didn’t work. With each passing minute, my back grew tighter and tighter. Within an hour, I found it difficult to walk. The next morning, when I woke to get ready for work, I couldn’t bend my back at all. I tried to get out of bed, but the pain kept me from moving. I eventually had to roll out of bed and slowly work myself upright using the wall for support. Tears were rolling down my cheeks from the pain and the fear that I would come out of a war zone permanently crippled, not from a mortar or bullet, but from a game of Frisbee.

It took me 30 minutes to get dressed, and another five to gain the energy to walk to the central plaza of my compound so I could call the motor pool and order a ride to the hospital. When I arrived at the hospital, I waited patiently in line behind a collection of soldiers.  I sat in a hard wooden chair for nearly two hours, trying desperately to fight back the occasional tears that rolled down my cheeks. Once the doctors had finished seeing all the soldiers, I finally saw the triage nurse and the doctor, who concluded that I had a partially herniated disk. They loaded me up with painkillers and told me to take three or four days off from work and come back if the pain didn’t subside in a week.

I told the doctor that I was almost ashamed to come to him after hurting myself playing Frisbee, since so many soldiers and Iraqis passed through the hospital with life-threatening injuries. The doctor shrugged it off. He told me that people got hurt all the time and it didn’t matter if I was a soldier with a missing arm or a child with a broken toe. He was too busy to care who his patients were or why they were there.

Posted by alohafromtim at 1:54 PM EST
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May 3, 2007
Checkpoints
Now Playing: Sloan
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris

My first real “brush” with death occurred inside the Green Zone passing through a checkpoint on the way to the Al Rasheed Hotel. The hotel was one of the few facilities inside the Green Zone that didn’t feel like a military facility even though it was heavily protected by coalition forces. In the early days of the war, civilians from the Defense and State Departments often stayed at the hotel because it the U.S. government had placed many reconstruction experts in the nearby Baghdad convention center.

Because Westerns spent so much time at the hotel and the convention center, in October 2003 insurgents attacked the hotel when Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz came by for visit. He walked away from the attack unscratched. Unfortunately, one soldier died and 15 other people were wounded. After the attack, the State Department and USAID began moving all of its personnel out of the hotel. Nevertheless, the carpet salesmen, bootleg DVD sellers, and small restaurant owner working inside the hotel continued to sell their wares to the Western travelers passing through the hotel. Because the U.S. military continued to run a dining facility inside the hotel, the merchants could also continue to peddle their trinkets to Americans who wanted to buy souvenirs inside the relative safety of a coalition-protected building.

Early in my tour, I decided to visit the hotel and buy a painting to liven up my dull white hard house. To get to the hotel, I called up the motor pool and asked for a driver. Then, to get out of the lovely concrete-walled prison that I called home, I had to put on my "battle rattle," which at that point consisted of the often recalled Second Chance battle amour and matching black helmet. It always bothered me that during the beginning of my tour I had to go through this large hassle to go anywhere inside the Green Zone, but by the end of my tour, I could walk the streets of the Zone without any armor at all. 

On the way to the hotel, my driver tried to strike up a conversation. He wanted to know how difficult it would be obtain a visa to America. I told him that it would be very difficult, but not impossible. It wasn’t until after I left Iraq that I learned just how hard it would be for him to move to America.  In 2006, the U.S. admitted only 202 Iraqis. Considering that an estimated 2 million Iraqis had been internally displaced and another 2 million had left their country due to the war, the odds of my driver ever obtaining a visa to the U.S. was very, very slim.

While talking about America, I felt that we were beginning to make the type of person-to-person connection that were supposedly very common in the foreign service. My driver began to feel comfortable around me and even tried to make a few jokes about all the American women he could sleep with when he arrived in America, and I pretended that there were so many perfect women in the America that he wouldn’t know what to do when he arrived. We both knew were we wrong, but we had a good time created a male fantasy world out of America.

Perhaps because we had distracted ourselves with the thought of sleeping with countless women, we didn’t approach the military checkpoint with the attention and carefulness that it deserved. My driver had gone through hundreds of checkpoints since the war began and had probably gone through that specific checkpoint at least a hundred times. I had been in Iraq for perhaps two months and had also gotten used to checkpoints. I no longer flinched at the sight of soldiers with guns staring into my face to see if I had any hostile intent. I no longer cared about the occasional marginally obtrusive searches where the soldiers opened the door quickly looking for anything that might have been out of the ordinary in the car and then carefully matched my face to my ID badge.

As we pulled up to the checkpoint, my driver and I were both were smiling. There were perhaps six soldiers milling around the barricades designed to force cars to slow down and weave to the left and right before moving on to the hotel parking lot. The soldiers stood a few feet away from the road talking amongst themselves and turned slowly to acknowledge our presence. My driver rolled down the automatic windows so the soldiers could check our badges. My driver and I reached down to grab our ID badges and hold them up for inspection. My badge lay on the outside of my clothing. My driver’s badge had accidentally tucked itself into his buttoned shirt. To get it out, he had to reach into a gap between where the buttons meet on his shirt.

“Whoa shit!” one of the soldiers shouted out as he quickly snapped his rifle up to a firing position. 

The barrel sprang upward until it faced directly at the driver. The tip of the barrel stopped a mere foot from my face, and even though it wasn’t pointed at me, my heart raced wildly. From the corner of my eye, I could see the other soldiers following suit and raising their guns up to their shoulders, even though they didn’t know why the first soldier had reacted so wildly. In least than five seconds, every barrel from the unit of soldiers had swung up and were pointed straight at me. My driver didn’t even notice what was happened. When he finally pulled his ID badge free, he looked up and presented it to the soldiers. His instantly face grew white.

“Shit, man,” the soldier said to me. “I thought I was going to have to shoot your Iraqi.”

He said “your Iraqi” like the driver was my possession. He talked of my driver like he was an object or perhaps in indentured servant. My driver wasn’t a person. He was a disposable backdrop that they had almost shot because his badge somehow got tucked into his shirt.

“What?” I stammered in response to the gun pointing at my driver.

“I thought he was going for a gun.”

“Trust me, sir,” I said in a lighthearted manner in an attempt to calm everyone down.  “We would never fuck with a U.S. soldier.”

“Tell your Iraqi to be more careful next time.”

The guard waved us through and didn’t even care that I had just had my first near-brush with death in Iraq, even though in hindsight or from the perspective of people living in the Green Zone and out in the Red Zone, this little incident was barely worth mentioning. Still, I found it very unsettling. I could have been shot. The incident wasn’t like the abstract sound of mortars and rockets that everyone told me would be the only thing that could kill me. I saw a gun barrel inches from my head. I heard the sound of fear in the voice of a young solder whose finger lay on a trigger. If he had been slightly more jumpy, I might have been shot, and even if the bullet didn’t hit me, I would have hit my Iraqi colleague.  Then, I would have seen what an American bullet does to an Iraqi when fired at point blank range.

It would have been nice if that incident near the hotel had been my only frightening experience at a check point. It wasn’t. In late November, I had my second incident at a check point. It happen as I was returning to Iraq after taking a short one week rest break in London. When I arrived at the Amman airport to catch my flight back into Iraq, I found out that I would take the last leg of my trip with two colleagues from my compound who were also coming back from short rest break they had taken in Africa. Greg was an unlucky econ officer who always seemed to take the Rhino Runs into the Green Zone because he couldn’t weasel his way onto a helicopter. Will served as my compound’s Deputy Executive Officer and seemed to know everyone in the Zone. All three of us got along very well, so when we landed at the Baghdad airport, we decided to hang out together while waiting for a helicopter that could take us into the Green Zone.

Will was one of those men who could befriend anyone. He spent most of his life in Canada where openness and hospitality are a way of life. That warm almost Midwestern persona allowed Will to make friends at the airport. One of those friends worked for the State Department and shuttled diplomats around the airport. Will convinced him to hand over his keys to his van so the three us could drive from Camp Stryker to Camp Victory on the other side of the airport.  We wanted to visit the massive Victory PX with its odd assortment of trinket shops and the much beloved Burger King.

Camp Stryker and Camp Victory were two of the seemingly endless series of military bases that surrounded the airport. The Americans had created all these facilities to support their operations in Iraq, and these camps had become the largest new U.S. military complex since the Vietnam War. The bases had become small self-contained cities. The spaces in between the bases were very lightly defended.  The road we took looked like it belonged in Texas or Oklahoma. Although a fence or wall almost always ran along one side of the road, the other side generally reached off into the dusty distance – a no-man’s land where insurgents probably set up remote controlled mortar and rocket launcher. Off in that distance I could see houses, though the open space between the road and houses would be perfect for grazing cattle or building a campsite. Looking off into that dry landscape, I felt pangs of memories from hikes I had taken in eastern New Mexico, in rolling flat endless land stretching eastward away from the mountains.

I rolled down the window to feel the wind blow over my face. Like I child, I stuck my hand out of the window and surf it up and down in the air. I let myself be taken away by the sound of Led Zeppelin and Jethrow Tull coming over the radio. The three of us were no longer in Iraq. We were on a road trip.

Making our way around the airport, we eventually hit a small checkpoint. In the distance we spotted a lone soldier standing at a break in a concrete wall. He stood behind a small j-barricade waiting for us to move closer. Will saw him and eased off the accelerator. We moved closer to the checkpoint and reached a point where the soldiers had erected a concrete barricade. We had to weave into the other lane to close the distance to the guard. This weaving pattern was quite normal around checkpoints. They were designed to slow drivers down so car bombers couldn’t rush the checkpoint.

All of us were tired from our long trips back into Iraq. We didn’t notice the red warning sign roughly 40 yards in front of the guard demanding that all drivers come to a complete stop before proceeding. The soldier did remember the sign. He also noticed that we weren’t slowing down and were coming right for him.  He assumed that we were a VBIED.  The soldier slid down behind the jersey barricade and raised rifle to his shoulder. Although I couldn’t see his fingers, I could see that he had wrapped his left hand around the trigger. The world began to slow down. I realized that he was getting ready to shoot.

“Shit,” I shouted.

“Fuck,” Will replied as he snapped out of the daze and brought the van to a screeching halt.

At this point, the soldier realized that we were simply a bunch of fuckups who nearly got shot because we didn’t pay careful enough attention to the signs that warned that “deadly force is authorized” at that checkpoint. Rather that calling us forward right away, he motioned for us to stop. We stood in the same spot for nearly five minutes as cars from the other direction continued to go in the other direction. As each minute went by, the seriousness of the situation faded away. Greg and I began to mock Will for not stopping at the stop sign. The situation almost became comical when Will tried to apologize to the soldier using with Italian-like hand gestures because we weren’t close enough to actually talk to the soldier to explain what had happened. The soldier wasn’t amused. 

When the soldier eventually waved us forward, he shook his head in disgust and asked, “Didn’t you see the sign?”

“Yes, sir,” said Will. “I just thought that I had to come to a complete stop up near you and not back near the choke point.”

“You’re wrong.  You should have read the sign.”

“Sorry.”

“You have got to be more careful out here.  I almost shot you.”

To help tech us our lesson, the guard directed us to a small parking lot where another specialist had the lucky duty of searching suspicious vehicles to make sure they weren’t carrying explosive or contraband materials. Clearly we weren’t dangerous, but the guard wanted to wait in the hot sun as the inspector examined our vehicle. Unfortunately, the owner of the van had packed it full of boxes that I never gave a second thought until someone started searching the van. We had no idea what was in them. I am still shocked that no one asked us to open all those boxes, but then again, we were Americans.  No one ever carefully searched Americans.

Not a single checkpoint guard actually shot at me during my tour in Iraq. However, other Americans living in Iraq were not so lucky. For the most part, I don’t feel too sorry for most. Most of the time, they were drunk. People who drove drunk toward a checkpoint were asking for trouble.

The first drunk check point story I heard occurred after the first big party that I threw.  Unlike most parties in Iraq, it was a blow out. With perhaps a 100 people stopping by throughout the course of the night, the party became a new benchmark for wild evenings inside the Green Zone. The evening had an intoxicating feel that kept people coming and coming, including Crazy Jill. She was a friend of friend that I had back in the States. I had never met her before that party, but I really liked her stateside friend. I assumed that I would feel the same way about Jill. When she arrived, she seemed pleasant. From time to time, I checked up on her to make sure she was having a good time. She seemed happy and always had a drink in her hands. Throughout the evening she kept dancing and talking to tons of young boys who were mesmerized her beautiful firm breasts.

Sometime around midnight, Jill had to leave. Her designated driver for the evening decided that it was time to drive back to the Palace, where both of them lived in tiny metal trailer. Jill didn’t want to go, but she eventually relented. However, when she arrived at the Palace, she didn’t stay for very long. She called up a mercenary she had met a few weeks earlier and told him about the party. He agreed to drive both of them back to my house so they could enjoy the party.

I didn’t see them when they are arrived, but I noticed that Jill was milling around the party. I asked her how she got back to my house, and she told me that she found a nice guy who agreed to bring her back. After the fact, I learned that this nice guy completely ignored Jill and went straight to the small tiki bar that I had placed outside of my house. He began drinking Jack Daniels straight without any mixers. He keep drinking and drinking and didn’t seem interested in talking to anyone. He seemed content just watching the party and drinking his Jack Daniels.

When they left my compound at 3:20am, he slid behind the wheel of his car. Jill hopped into the passenger seat. Because the mercenary was drunk, he was driving a little too fast and erratically. He weaved slightly as he moved down the mostly empty streets inside the Green Zone. He also forgot to turn on his headlight.

When the Marines manning the checkpoint near the Palace saw the mercenary’s car rapidly and erratically approaching the checkpoint, they pulled their weapons up high.  The lead guard quickly turned his flashlight on and off to get the driver’s attention. It didn’t work. The Marine, realizing that he didn’t have much time until the car barreled into the checkpoint, fired a warning shot above the car. The mercenary still kept driving toward the checkpoint. Then, the Marine put a bullet into the engine block to bring the car to a halt. The car had so much momentum that it wasn’t coming to a quick stop. Thus, the Marine fired the third shot into the windshield between the driver and passenger seats. Jill latter told me that she heard the bullet fly past her ear. The Marines were getting ready for the next shot, aimed at the driver’s head, when the damage to the engine finally began to take effect and the car came to a slow halt.

After the car came to a complete halt at the foot of the checkpoint, the Marines slowly moved toward the car. They shouted at the mercenary and Jill, instructing both of them to get out of the car and lay down on the ground. Jill quickly complied. The mercenary wasn’t as cooperative. He was upset that the Marines had fired at him and damaged his car. To make matters worse, he was carrying a weapon, even though he was totally hammered. A State Department RSO latter told me that the Marine had to “take him down” using their large telescopic clubs.

The next morning, the Ambassador kicked the mercenary out of the country.  The State Department considered kicking Jill out of the country, but they wanted to get more information about what happened. At first, Jill didn’t want to talk to them. She didn’t want to get the mercenary in trouble. Because she wasn’t providing enough information, RSO came to me to get more information.

When the two RSOs assigned to the incident came to talk to me, I expected the worst. I didn’t know anything about the checkpoint incident. When they called, they didn’t explain what they wanted to talk about when they called me, but I assumed that the party had gone a tad bit too far and had upset some delicate rules of diplomatic decorum. I assumed that my short stint in the foreign service was over. I felt certain that they were going to fire me.

While waiting for them to arrive, I frantically tried to clean my house. It looked like the worst frat house I had ever seen. Empty beer cans were everywhere. The floor was covered in mud tracked in by party through the course of the night. Crushed potatoes chips, cookies, and popcorn littered the ground, proving an extra layer of grim to the floor gave off a sound of stick tape in response to every footstep. A handful of broken liquor bottles lay on the ground in front of my house and inside the kitchen, giving the whole house the smell of a dank country bar. I tried my best to clean up what I could before they arrived, but I needed hours to properly clean it. In the end, I pushed most almost everything into my bedroom, hoping that they wouldn’t search the whole house.

When the two RSOs entered my house to interview me, they sat down on my couch with stern serious faces. Then, they smiled warmly and then began the interview by saying, “That was a great party last night.”

I couldn’t believe it. They were at the party! They had been getting drunk with me and actually wanted to see me throw more parties. They didn’t even care that someone left my party totally smashed, drove drunk through the Green Zone, and then got shot up at a Marine checkpoint. That was the mercenary’s problem, not mine. Unlike the States where the owner of a bar could be held accountable for the action of a drunk driver, that wasn’t the case in Iraq. Still, I couldn’t believe it. I just assumed that I would have to take responsibility for the incident at the checkpoint. I didn’t. On that day, I learned that I was operating under a totally different set of rules then one could have ever suspected. I felt that I had become untouchable.

Sadly, checkpoint accidents happened a tad bit too often. During that same week that the drunk mercenary nearly got killed, the Marines fired upon another vehicle carrying two U.S. Military personnel when their vehicle failed to obey a check point stop sign and directions of the Marine manning the checkpoint. The marines shot out the vehicle’s engine, but fortunately there were no injuries. After another one of my parties in late October, the same thing happened. I also had another friend who the Marines had to fire upon when the driver made a mistake and accidentally overshot the stop sign.  I am sure that countless other incidents like these occurred during my tour.

In all of these incidents, the Marines acted correctly and within the parameters of their post orders and followed the military’s "use of force policy." However, to help prevent future accidents, right after Jill’s little incident, the Marines installed speed bumps in front of their checkpoint. My friends and I called them “Jill bumps” in honor of her actions.


Posted by alohafromtim at 4:36 PM EDT
Updated: May 3, 2007 4:37 PM EDT
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February 27, 2007
Bump, Set, Spike, Kill
Mood:  spacey
Now Playing: The Stills
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris

I lived in a multicultural world. There were more than 50 Americans on my compound, and we had a handful of highly paid development experts from other Western countries, such as Canada and Australia. My agency had also pulled in roughly 10 individuals that were locally employed at other overseas USAID Missions, such as a computer network administrator from Serbia and an accountant from the Philippines. To fill out the staff, USAID had hired approximately 100 Iraqis who performed a wide range of duties ranging from mechanics to administrative assistants to junior program officers. To add a dash of ethnic excitement, my compound’s security force came from a variety of third world countries, such as Zimbabwe and Nepal.

There were clear rankings of hierocracy in this multicultural world created inside the Green Zone. Westerns were on top, followed by non-Westerns, followed by Iraqis.  The Americans had created a rigid and rarely broken cast system. It defined every aspect of our daily lives.

Westerns were treated the best. The American government gave them the best salaries, and Mission also had dished out other perks that weren’t totally apparent. For example, Westerners had access to more check cashing facilities in the zone than non-Westerns, and they had access to additional security-related information, even though most people never accessed it. Perhaps more importantly, if the insurgents stormed the Green Zone and the Americans decided to evacuate the country, Americans were on the top of the list, followed by any Western country on the coalition of the willing.

The non-Westerns, who sat on a lower step of the cast system, came from a variety of developing country, ranging from Nigeria to the Philippines. The non-Westerns, often referred to at Third Country Nationals (TCNs), had a hard time interacting with each the Westerners even though all of them were foreigners in Iraq. At the dining room, the TCNs would typically eat only with other TCNs. The same would hold true for parties and other social function. Someone one told me that the TCNs didn’t feel comfortable with Americans because in overseas missions, they were often treated as second class citizens. Although that role now fell on the Iraqis, the TNC felt trapped in that same second-class mentality even though they were no longer on the bottom.

Despite this artificial boundary, inevitably some TNCs and Westerns would build strong friendships. For example, I meet two Serbians who became good friends with me. One of them was a tall cowboy-like square-jawed man nicknamed Serbia that played basketball with me and two of my friends perhaps once a week. The second was a skilled woman with connections throughout Europe, who eventually became close enough with me to confide in me regarding a difficult relationship she had with a mercenary who had once lived on my compound. My relationships with these two TCN, however, were the exceptions.

Most of the time, the TNC would stick together no matter how difficult it was for them to overcome the cultural differences and create lasting friendships. I found that particularly odd because every one of them had more experiences with Americans than with people from the various other TCN nationalities on my compound. The Nigerians had spent more time with Americans in their lives than with Peruvians, yet the Nigerians would always seem to choose the Peruvians over the Americans. The TCNs always become inseparable.

I often remember crashing a weekly TCN party where the Filipina hostess played loud karaoke music. She would encourage every TCN in the compound to partake, yet in the corners of the room I saw Africans and Eastern Europeans who didn’t feel very comfortable. They had no desire to get up and dance, but just like the Westerns, they were simply looking for someone to pass the time with after work. Thus, they chose to stay at the karaoke party rather than go home or chose to attend an American party.

Despite the wide diversity of interesting well-education Iraqis on the compound, Americans placed them one step lower than the TCNs. Sadly, the cast system seemed to discourage Westerns and TCNs from interacting with the local workforce. The danger associated with working for the Americans also limited Iraqis’ interaction with individuals living on the compound. In the early days of the occupation, the more adventuresome Iraqis often stayed after work hours to enjoy the occasional parties hosted by Americans. As the war grew more violent, Iraqis were hesitant to stay after hours because they it was simply too dangerous for them to drive home at night. Similarly, because of the violence, American diplomats could not simply drive out into the Red Zone to visit an Iraqi’s house or met someone at a restaurant. Eventually, my agency passed a rule stating that Iraqis were not permitted to stay on the compound overnight unless they were performing official business and had official approval. The rule effectively restricted “after-hour” interactions with the Iraqis to the motor pool drivers and two handymen who would fix plumbing and electrical emergencies. Moreover, my agency and the State Department didn’t want Iraqis to get into the habit of abusing the safety offered by staying inside the Green Zone. If they let even one Iraqi stay in a western compound, eventually every Iraqi working for the Americans would have to be given the same treatment.

Symptomatic of the disrespect given Iraqis at the lower social standing, the American didn’t issue body armor to Iraqis. In contrast, the Americans issued body armor to every Westerns and TCN the minute they stepped onto the compound. When mortars landed in the Green Zone, the Westerns and TCNs grabbed their body armor and ran for cover. When they reached the shelters, they met Iraqis who weren’t wearing any armor at all. When the threat of violence was high and random gunfire became common, the security officers dictated that every Westerners and TCNs had to wear their body armor whenever they walked outside of a hardened structure. The same restrictions didn’t apply to Iraqi. If Iraqis were hit, clearly the Americans viewed it as a lesser loss that would not have major repercussions.

Eventually, the guilt coming from this obvious third class treatment settled in on the Mission. The Mission gave the Iraqis the option of taking body armor with them when they were moving around the Green Zone on official business. Most Iraqis viewed the offer as an insult. Every day they lived in the Red Zone without protective body armor. When they moved through the check points, looking over their shoulders to see if someone might be approaching with a car bomb, they didn’t have any body armor. They didn’t have body armor when they walked to the marketplace as insurgents and militiamen walked down the streets with AK-47s. Wearing body armor in the Zone seemed pointless compared to the risks they took every day. That is why every Iraqi I knew rejected the offer to wear body armor.

The Iraqis weren’t on the lowest rung of the cast system. Below the Iraqis were the cooks and dish dogs in the cafeteria. They came from India, Pakistan, and Nepal. For most of my tour, no one interacted with them – not the Westerns, not the TCNs, not the Iraqis. They had come to Iraq to make money, and although the few thousand dollars they made in Iraq was nothing compared to the money that other non-Iraqis made, for them it was a fortune. They saved almost every dime, and even if they wanted to spend the money, they couldn’t. The American Embassy refused to give them the identification badges needed to more freely in the Green Zone or to access the few basic comforts such as the PX or the gyms. The cooks could only go to and from their little compound in the Green Zone to my compound. Each morning they got up before dawn, climbed into a dirty van, and drove to my compound to cook our breakfast. At night after the last dishes were cleaned, they climbed into the back into their van to return to their home with the knowledge that they would repeat the same dull existence the very next day.

That monotony came to an end when Serbia bought a cheap volleyball net and tried to get others to play with. The net had the quality once would expect to find from a set purchased at K-mart for less than twenty dollars for family picnics or Cub Scout events. The thin stabilizing wires were barely as thick as dental floss. The telescoping poles would only raise the edges of the net slightly above seven feet, leaving the middle of the net to drooping down to roughly six feet in height. The vinyl volleyball was barely better than a red utility ball used in grade schools throughout America.

When Serbia and I tried to organize the first game, our demanding work schedules got in the way and we couldn’t play. The two or three people who turned up to play went home without giving it a second thought. When Serbia and I tried to reschedule the game, it found it even more difficult to convince people to come out and play. Most of them wanted to go over to Uday’s pool or stay in their houses and watch television, yet somehow Serbia and I convinced roughly six people to come out and play with us.

There weren’t very many spots in the compound where we could play. Most of the compound was either concrete or hard gravel. We eventually settled on a small spot of grass behind the dining hall near the Mission Director’s house. The space was barely large enough to set up the court, yet we had no choice. We made due with what we could find and then pulled out a garden hose to mark the edge of the court. Just beyond the lines were various dangerous pitfalls, such as a raised sidewalk, a small pipe, and a concrete wall. The hose placed around the court served more as a warning track than a boundary to mark fair and foul.  Taking a wrong step outside the court could have resulted in a twisted or broken ankle.

The first game started off slow. With only three people on each side, we spent a lot of time chasing after the ball as each one of us had to relearn the basics of volleyball. We had an odd collection of Westerns and TCNs, who normally didn’t spend time with each other, and we had slight language barriers that we had to overcome. Still, by the time we finished the second game, everyone was having fun. We were laughing at our mistakes and trash-talking in an attempt to make the games seem more important than they truly were. As we got louder and louder, we began to draw a small crowd. At first, a few people that were walking past the court on the way to their house slowed down to look at the game. Then, a few of the people living in the nearby houses came out to take a look. We invited all of them to play, and a few did. All in all, I considered it a successful evening.

The second time we played, we had eight people. The third time we played, we invited a few people from the State Department and some soldiers to join us. We had also begun to draw a small crowd of fans who didn’t want to play but enjoyed laughing at us while we dove into the ground in pointless attempts to make plays that Olympic stars couldn’t make or failed to make basic moves that even a child should have made. On that third night, one of the men from the kitchen staff, who had watched the previous two games, motioned that he wanted to play. His English was very rudimentary, but we knew he wanted to play and were glad to let him join in on the fun. Within an hour, perhaps half of the kitchen staff had begun to play with us. The faceless servers began to show their personalities. We laughed at their mistakes and they snickered at ours.

The next time we played, I invited the Iraqis who worked at the motor pool to join us. I had often seen them playing soccer at night, and I assumed that they might also like volleyball. I was right. They loved volleyball. They loved it more than the Westerners and TCNs who had set up the net. They were also much better than everyone else.

Eventually we had so many Iraqis, Pakistani, Nepalese, Indian, Europeans, Americans, and Africans playing that whole teams worth of people would have to wait while the players on the court player their match. We began to make creative teams from those waiting to play, such as “Team America” or “Team Dish Dogs.”  Teams of Iraqis played against teams of TCNs. Civilians took on military men. Mixed teams played against mixed team. Everyone wanted to play and seemed to like the idea of creating a special little team that would somehow be able to beat the winning team who ruled the court.

I joined the foreign service to introduce myself to different cultures. I wanted to see the world and grow, yet during the first seven months in Iraq, I rarely interacted with Iraqis or even the other non-Iraqis in my compound. My interactions with Iraqis were limited to the occasional conversations in the lunchroom or with drivers taking me to the PX. I knew some tidbits about a lot of Iraqis on my compound, yet without personal experiences to help unite us, I felt like I didn’t have any real Iraqi friends. Friendship needs something beyond casual interactions to help form a special bond. For some reason, I felt like those volleyball games did that for me. Despite all the cultural and language barriers, when I played volleyball, I had fun, and more importantly everyone else also had fun. For the briefest of moments, I feel like some of those cultural barriers fell. All of us were simply trying to get through a horrible experience and perhaps have a little fun along the way. .


Posted by alohafromtim at 10:29 PM EST
Updated: May 3, 2007 4:21 PM EDT
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February 16, 2007
General Order No. 1
Mood:  down
Now Playing: Dave Brubeck Quartet
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris

Americans like me, which never made me feel comfortable when I when shopping for booze and especially when I had to kill time sitting in front of one. However, my greatest fear involved the EXO. If he had driven past the White House seeing my friend and I sitting on the corner with a case of booze without any helmets, cell phones, or working radios, I would have been in deep trouble. Needless to say, when S returned with the van, I let out a great sigh of relief.

Toward the end of my tour, I had grown very comfortable going to the liquor stores, especially the White House. Sadly, most liquor stores inside the Green Zone were closing during the final months of my tour.  The stores had given in to the same pressures that forced liquor stores outside of the Green Zone to close. Strict Muslims had threatened liquor store owners, and even though the profitability of running liquor stores had kept them in business for many months, eventually the thought of dying convinced them that they had earned enough money to ride out the rest of the war.

The White House closed without any warning. In early December I drove up to the White House only to find that the owner had sold off the countless cases of booze and stacks of bootleg DVDs and moved everything into the small white blockhouse. As I went into the blockhouse to see what remained, I felt like I had slipped into someone’s secret hiding place. The blockhouse had grown dirty with only the single light bulb dangling from the ceiling. The light didn’t even work. Only a few dusty bottles of wine remained. The owner smiled at me in hopes that I would buy one of the bottles. I felt that I buying for a crazy man as he leaned in close and motioned at the booze without saying anything. I left without saying anything.

Seeing what had happened to the White House and with the many rumors floating throughout the Green Zone of the American Ambassador soon-to-be-issued decree closing down all the liquor stores, I quickly drove to McDonalds to see what I could buy. Unfortunately, the store had completely emptied its outdoor beer storage area. The door to the caged area that normally stood locked and filled with cases of beer swung gently in the breeze and piles of garbage stood where the beer case were once stacked nearly 8 feet high.  I didn’t even bother to go inside to check if the owner had any more bottles of wine or liquor. I heard that he had a small stash for preferred customers, but I didn’t want to disappear into a dark back room far from public eyes. I never wanted to be backed into a corner anywhere inside the Green Zone.

I drove over to the only other liquor store that I knew, the IZ Liquor Store, and found that, thankfully, it had remained open. Until that day when I found out that the other two stores were closed, I rarely went to the IZ Liquor Store for my drinking needs, partly because it has an infamous history. Before I arrived in the Iraq, insurgents snuck into the Zone and blew themselves up at the Green Zone Café, which shared the same compound as the liquor store. After the attack, most westerns stayed away from the Green Zone Café and the nearby liquor store partly out of fear that perhaps the insurgents would stage another attack.  The State Department also forbade anyone from going to the café after it reopened. Perhaps I was naive, but since the State Department ruling didn’t specifically mention the liquor store and I needed a lot of beer for an upcoming party, I decided to take a risk and go there to fill my shopping needs.

In an effort to improve security after the suicide bomber attacks, the Green Zone Café and IZ Liquor Store hired a handful of poorly trained guards that would stand at the gates to their walled compound. Whenever someone approached the compound, the guards, who wore an old style of camouflage body armor dating back to the Vietnam war, would stand up and check to make sure everyone in the car had some type of U.S.-issued ID badge. Even a simple IZ ID Badge would work, which the U.S. gave to Iraqis working and living inside the Zone. Presumably, the owners rationalized that if the U.S. had giving someone a badge, they had already done a cursory level of screening on the badge holder. Additionally, even though I never asked the guard to make sure, it seemed that they would only let a car into the compound if it had at least one western.

The guards never seemed prepared or properly trained for their jobs as security officers.  They didn’t carry a rifle or sidearm, even though the rest of the Iraq had enough weapons to open a small armory. The guards did check the underside of very vehicle for bombs using a small mirror, yet I never saw the guards open the hood and check in all the little nooks and corners surrounding the engine block that could serve as great places for hiding a bomb. Despite their apparent lack of this skill, the guard always said hello, even if they didn’t seem to know any other words of English. My drivers, some of whom were devote Muslims and didn’t drink, never said more than a few words to the guards, which lead me to believe that my drivers didn’t respect the guards. Considering that my drivers saw more soldiers, thugs, and terrorists than I would ever see in a lifetime, if they didn’t respect the guard, I couldn’t respect them either.

Driving across the small courtyard from the gate to the liquor store always reminded of how dangerous Iraq could be. Overhanging the small courtyard stood the ruminants of the awning that the insurgents blew into small pieces when they attacked the Green Zone Café. The walls of the compound were still blackened from the blast. Whenever I went to the liquor store with an old-timer, they shuttered slightly when they saw the blast mark.  Old-timers always seemed to remember exactly where they were when the Green Zone Café and a nearby outdoor market had been attacked in 2004, almost like baby boomers who knew where they were when they learned that Oswald killed Kennedy, only this memory seemed much, much darker. Every old-timer mentioned how they had spent many hours at the café and seemed to feel very lucky that they weren’t there on the day it was attacked. Many mentioned how they were on the way to the café or had just left. They also said that the Green Zone felt much smaller after the attack. Nothing was safe anymore. 

The liquor store itself was perhaps 40 feet long and 100 feet deep. Just like the other liquor stores, the owner had stacked a large assortment of beer, hard liquors, and wine stacked from the ground to the floor. However, unlike the other liquor stores, the owner seemed to understand that offering a wide variety would attract in a wide collection of customers. His selection of wines included bottles from France, Argentina, and South Africa, and California. His beer selection ranged from bottled MGD to pilsners from South Africa. To be blunt, he made my hometown liquor store in the States seem lame.

I should have received a frequent drinker’s card for the amount of booze that I bought from the IZ Liquor Store during my final few months in the Zone. While some people bought a case or two at a time, I bought 5 to 10 cases each time I went, along with an assortment of wines and hard liquors. One day, I bought nearly $400 of alcohol because I heard yet another rumor that the U.S. ambassador intended to make the Green Zone go dry. If true, the prohibition of liquor sales would bring a quick end to all the parties at my house, which I couldn’t accept. The owner of the IZ Liquor store tried to reassure me that he would never stop selling alcohol, yet with the demise of the other two major liquor stores in the Green Zone, I felt that I had no choice but to stockpile a stash of booze to make it through to the end of my tour.

The rumors never came true. The booze never stopped flowing in the Green Zone. On the night that I left Iraq, I had to give away the many bottles of hard liquor and cans of beer that I had left. .


Posted by alohafromtim at 11:10 PM EST
Updated: May 3, 2007 4:24 PM EDT
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February 11, 2007
Sir, yes sir!
Mood:  blue
Now Playing: Joan Baez
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris

Even though I lived in war zone and heard the sounds of war on a daily basis, I didn’t interact with soldiers on a daily basis. During my first few months, I only interacted with soldiers when I entered Iraq through military base surrounding the Baghdad airport or passed through one of the various checkpoints inside the Green Zone.

Because my life in the Zone involved going from the USAID compound to Saddam Presidential Palace, the heart of the State Department’s present in the Iraq, I often had to drive pass a checkpoints manned by troops from the embassy’s Marine Security Guard Battalion. The checkpoints generally had less than 10 Marines. The main guard stood in front of large stop signs with writing in English and Arabic that warned travelers that the Marines could use deadly force. The Marines standing near the signs checked the IDs of everyone who wanted to get close to the Palace. A second group of guard generally sat a few yards back in a machine gun nests. If someone tried to force their way through the checkpoint, the Marine in the machine nets could open fire and lay down a intense hail of bullets.

Most of the time, the young Marines manning the checkpoints seemed miserable. I could sense that they didn’t understand why they were checking ID badges of people rushing to the PX or driving home slightly intoxicated after going to a party. They wanted to be out in the field fighting insurgents. Their job satisfaction slipped even lower during during the sweltering summer month when they had to stand on top of black asphalt as the temperatures climbed to slightly more than 120 degrees. In an effort to keep them happy in the waning days of the summer of 2005, someone had gracefully installed mobile air conditioners. I always wondered what the Iraqi who went through the checkpoint thought looking at Americans running mobile, outdoor air conditioners. My Iraqi coworkers lived in houses with less than 8 hours of power a day, while Americans soldier worked in front of outdoor air conditioners that had an endless supply of electricity.

Because I lived on U.S. government compound next to the official U.S. chancery, I also occasionally saw Marines walking through my compound making routine security checks. Although the hub of the State Department's activities in Iraq occurred within Saddam's old President Palace, the chancery, which was formerly a Baathist residence, had become the official seat of the U.S. presence in Iraq. To keep up the facade that allowed the Iraqis and the Americans to pretend that the Americans had not erected their seat of power in an abandoned palace once used by Saddam Hussein, the Marines had to guard the chancery, even though the ambassador probably never stepped foot inside it.

Unlike my compound’s contracted security guards who carried simple M-16s and pleasant smiles, the Marines generally had sterner faces, more intimidating presences, and frequently carried weapons that carried a larger punch in a close combat situation.  Some walked around with M-4, though many walked through my compound with shotguns or high powered rifles slung over their shoulders. Even though my compounds’ guards were heavily armed, I always felt better knowing that the Marines also patrolled my compound. They were professionals, and in a firefight, they could probably inflict more damage that the contracted security guards.

Early in my tour, a few of my friend were sitting on Kirk’s porch drinking beers while the Marines were making their rounds. Seeing my friends enjoying a jovial evening while the Marines walked slowly through the compound wearing 20 pounds of body armor, I felt a little spoiled. I think everyone in the group felt the same way, but it was Kirk who actually tried to break down the barrier that existing between the military and civilians inside the zone. He called the Marines soldiers over and offered them some soda and snacks. They gladly accepted. These two Marines were happy to talk to someone besides the other Marines in their platoon. They were also glad to see that one member of our group, Tamara, was a woman. They tried to impress her by explaining how powerful their weapons were. Tamara could care less. Kirk on the other had, had already drank a few too many gin and tonics, and the idea of learning more about these weapons fascinated him. 

“You are one mean motherfucker with that gun, but what is that?” Kirk asked while pointing to a telescopic baton.

“This is an asp,” the Marine said quickly expanded it with dramatic effect. 

Everyone jumped back slightly in fear, but the action only encouraged Kirk. “Wow, you’re an asshole.”

He meant it playfully. Still, everyone in the group, including the two Marines, were taken aback by the comment. They didn’t know what to do until Kirk continued his diatribe and explained how being an asshole made the Marines way tougher than Army soldiers. At that point, everyone began to laugh again and make fun of the other services.

Standing there with two young Marines, I realized that back in the States I probably won't have had any real connection with them. I had only fired a gun once in my life, and when growing up I had constantly told my friends that I would never join military. In fact, I hated the war, did not trust military leaders, and avoided the young Marines who I meet in bars throughout Washington, DC. In Iraq, I learned that a lot of differences of background and points of view melt away during a war. We were all simple Americans trying to get through our tours in Iraq.

Despite these ties that existing in Iraq that could bring civilians the soldiers together, there were unavoidable differences too. Soldiers had a different perspective than diplomats. Most soldiers eventually spent time in the fields. Most days, nothing happened, but there were days that everything turned against them. Every day, or so it seemed to them, one or two soldiers died. If they didn’t lose a friend, someone got hurt. . The stress from thinking about death and maiming weighed heavily upon them. I, on the other hand, slept in an air conditioned hard house dinking gin and tonics

In early March, I had the opportunity to watch soldiers in the elements rather than inside the surreal Green Zone. I had the luck of spending hours with Army soldiers in one of their bases near the airport. I had arrived back in Iraq after a short rest break in Egypt and ended up stuck out at a military base for 14 hours while waiting for a midnight bus run from the airport to the Green Zone. Normally, I would catch a helicopter back to the Green Zone, but the military had closed down the helicopter terminal because of the weather. In the days preceding my return to Iraq, the weather had turn cold and unusually wet. It had rained so much that the military air terminal, which sat in a small dusty depression next to the runway, had turned into a small pond. The rainwater had no where to go, so it simply rushed into the area and completely flooded the waiting area. The water damaged all the electrical equipment so the military decided to close the terminal, and because there were no helicopter flights, I had to pass the days with the many soldiers unfortunate enough to work and live at Camp Stryker.

Camp Stryker was a dull, dry, and dusty camp right next to Baghdad International Airport. Because of the rain, the camp had become a large muddy swamp filed with knee high muddy ponds. The seemingly endless rows of canvas tents covered by large plastic tarps were resting in small depressions were inundated with water.  The rain water had filled in every low spot surrounding the tents and turned them into mud pits. The walkways between different areas of the camp were nearly impassable. I resigned myself that to fact that I had to kill about 12 hours in the mud hole. I had no idea how the soldiers could live in that environment. At least in the Green Zone, I had a hole where I could have escaped the mud.

Being to newbie to Camp Stryker, I didn’t know where to find the morale-welfare-recreation (MWR) tent with its movies, video games, and ping-pong tables and due to the mud didn’t want to go wandering through the mud pits. I felt lucky that I could even find the mess hall and the bathrooms. Thus, I decided to stay in the staging area for the bus run to the Green Zone. I climbed on top of a nearby large concrete bomb shelter and proceeded to read my copy of Don Quixote. It didn’t lift my spirits, though somehow it felt right to sit in the middle of sea of mud, in the middle of a bogged down war, reading a book about a man who chased windmills.

When the joys of chasing windmills came to an end, I decided to hunt out the large military exchange that supposed lay at nearby Camp Victory. Soldiers and civilian veterans of the Green Zone constantly said that the PX at Camp Victory was much, much larger that the small 7-11 sized PX inside the Green Zone. I heard that one could buy almost anything at the Victory PX, even huge slabs of steak. In the early days of the occupation, before the insurgency had gotten so violent, people could drive from Baghdad to Camp Victory to buy a steak or visit the Burger King. By the time I arrived, the violence had gotten so bad and the IEDs so deadly that Americans living in the Green Zone could only get there by scheduling a ride on a helicopter or hopping on a military shuttle bus that drove around the airport every night. Since those were unrealistic options, people only went to the Victory PX when they had to kill time flying in or out of BIAP for their rest breaks.

Camp Stryker and Camp Victory were on opposite sides of the airport, so I have to jump on a shuttle bus. The bus ride from Camp Stryker to Camp Victory took almost an hour, but since I didn’t have anywhere else to go, I didn’t mind riding inside the converted school bus driven by an Indian working for KBR. When I arrived at Camp Victory, I felt that the long trip had been worth the wait. For some reason, the Camp Victory PX wasn’t muddy. The sun shown brilliantly on the large central plaza dotted with small gazebos.  In one corner of the plaza, the military erected a small bizarre where soldiers could buy souvenirs, carpets, and paintings. On the opposite side plaza, there were a number of small buildings, which housed an odd array of businesses spanning from a barber shop to a company that could help soldiers buy a car. The main store had tons of junk food, clothing, stereos, books, magazines, video games, shoes, bicycles, games, and much more. And, in the far corner of the plaza, I found the Burger King. I stood in line for five minutes to order a Double Whopper with cheese.  Sure it was gluttonous, but it felt good to have a little reminder of home sliding down into my tummy.

After finishing my tour of the super PX, I stood in line waiting for the next bus back to Camp Stryker. When it finally came, I was the only civilian on the bus, and no one paid any attention to me. I slid into a seat and glanced aimlessly at the rows and rows of tents that covered Camp Victory. Once we left the base, I stared at the landscape as the bus made it way past the abandoned buildings filling in the spaces between the bases. During that bus ride, I had begun to see more of Iraq than I had during the previous three month, though not a single Iraqi lived anywhere near the airport.

Partly because I sat by myself and didn’t draw attention to myself by trying to talk to a soldier, a pack of young soldiers who jumped on the bus as a bus stop sometime after I left the PX didn’t take any note of me. They began to talk freely about what made a good soldier, what they wanted to do after finishing their tour, and other typical things that come up when soldiers try to kill time in Iraq. The conversation eventually drifted to stories about what happened during their trips out into the Red Zone, a name for anywhere in Iraq other than the Green Zone or a U.S. military base. One of the soldiers, a young specialist with a slight western drawl, complained about a recent trip to local school. Their captain had sent them out to conduct a public relations mission. The soldiers thought the trip would be easy because all they had to do was stop by the school and hand out candy. Things went fairly well, but eventually a young boy stuck his tongue out at a sergeant and called him a homosexual in a thick Arabic accent that almost made the word incomprehensible. The sergeant, who not surprisingly didn’t enjoy hearing a young boy question his American manhood, tried to grab the boy. The boy, who obviously did not want to get into a fight with a large American with an M-4, dashed away from the soldiers as quickly as he could. The sergeant called out to the rest of the unit to catch the boy. The narrator of the story followed the order and quickly dashed after the boy. After catching up the boy, the specialist leapt onto him like a linebacker catching a quarterback at the Super Bowl. The two rolled to the ground, and when the specialist righted himself, he began to give the young boy a serious thrashing that would have given old-fashion Catholic nuns reasons to shutter.

When the specialist got to this point in the story, he had grown quite loud and animated.  He almost sounded happy about what happened. That is when a major leap up from behind me, and moved up to the group.

“Who’s you sergeant major, son?” the major barked.

“I don’t know sir,” the soldier said with downcast eyes and dropping head.

“You don’t know?” The major said with disbelief. “I don’t know what’s worse, that pathetic lie or your story.”

The major firmly reminded the soldier that beating a young Iraqi boy was not a funny matter. He also pointed directly as me and warned the specialist that no one on the bus knew who I was. There was even a chance that I could be a reporter. The major did not want a story about Army grunts beating up your Iraqi boys appearing on the front page of the Los Angeles Times or the Washington Post. He explained that the U.S. military has had enough bad press regarding its treatment of Iraqis.

Everyone on the bus remained silent for the rest of the trip. The soldiers would occasionally glace at me to assess how I had reacted to the story. I wanted to be upset, yet somehow I felt more upset that someone in Washington had forced young kids like that specialist to go into Iraq and fight in a country filled with people who didn’t want them there. At the same time, I felt glad that everyone felt guilty. They had to remember how difficult it was to be one of the good guys while fighting a violent insurgency in a country sliding into a civil war. When I walked off the bus, I glanced down at the specialist’s nametag, just to keep him worried that I might actually be a reporter who would contact his commanding officer. Childishly, I wanted to teach him a lesson.

Every one of the soldiers wondered what I was doing on the bus and who I would talk to about what I had heard. It was at that moment that I realized how easy it was for young men in a foreign country and losing buddies on a regular basis to go too far and forget the military’s rules of engagement. I realized that a soldier could easily cross the line from tackling a young boy who mocked a sergeant and punishing him with an older brother style beating to torturing a nameless Iraqi thrown into a prison and accused of working for the terrorists.  However, I felt just as bad realizing that I had somehow judged those soldiers by giving them a harsh stare down. I felt that I didn’t have the right to judge them. I was a foreign service officer living and drinking inside the Green Zone. .


Posted by alohafromtim at 10:02 PM EST
Updated: May 3, 2007 4:26 PM EDT
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February 5, 2007

Now Playing: Frank Sinatra (again)
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris

Sorry if these posts aren't quite daily.  I am trying to go back and organize my notes and thoughts into a more comprehensive fashion.  That, sadly, might take some time. 

 

I had been in Iraq for perhaps a week. While taking my daily morning shower, I hear a thump off in the distance. I couldn’t be certain that I had heard anything. It was so soft, and I was still slowly easing out of my morning grogginess. I stopped, tried to focus, and determine if something had in fact made a noise. A few seconds later I had my answer. The second explosion instantly sapped the last hint of grogginess from my body. It shook my concrete house so hard that I could hear the glass windows reverberating and nearly cracking from the deafening sound waves. The explosion was perhaps 1/4 mile away from my house, which was petty far away but still a little too close for comfort.

Shortly my compound’s security officers realized what had happened and the slight shock of hearing explosion so early in the morning began to wear off, the compound’s emergency siren wailed and my government-issued CB repeatedly warned me to "duck and cover. Duck and cover. Duck and cover."  A few second later, the compound’s public announcement system, which we called the Voice of God because no one knew exactly where the speakers were in the compound, warned us to find shelter.

Because I was a newbie and had only been in Iraq for a few days, I religiously followed every safety instructions given by my compound’s security officer, but this time I didn’t know what to do. The explosion happened while I was in the middle of taking a shower. I stood there naked, with the hot water beating down on my back, trying to decide what to do. The idea of running through my house looking for my body armor seemed preposterous, especially since the government has built my house so it could survive mortar and rocket attacks. Although I didn’t like the idea of dying in a mortar attack, I was more worried that I would slip on the wet tiles in my bathroom and crack my head open. The idea of lying dead in my hard house for a day before someone came to find my naked body didn’t seem appealing.

Eventually, the fear of dying in a mortar attack eventually outweighed my other concerns. I remembered the story of the State Department employee who recently died in a shower near the airport. A mortar had landed right on top of him. I didn’t want to end up like that dead diplomat just because I was worried that I would look silly running naked through my house. Thus, I jumped out of the shower and raced into my bedroom. I quickly go on my hands and knees and pulled out my battle rattle, which every night I place under my night stand so I could quickly find it in an emergency.  I threw on my armor and then raced back to the bathroom because my security officer told me it was the safest room in the house.

Once I made it to the bathroom, I stopped and looked at myself. I looked very silly. Water was still dripping off my body, and I was only wearing two things - my helmet and my body armor. Out of shame, I quickly grabbed and jumped into my my boxers. To make maters worse, once I finally got all geared up for action, minus my clothes, the all "all clear" message came over the radio. The booms weren’t mortars or rockets. Apparently the insurgents, a term that I've never really liked, attacked the nearby Australian Embassy using vehicle born improvised explosive devices (VEBIED), which was the military’s fancy name for a suicide car bomb. The insurgent launched five more major car bomb attacks that day. The attackers never even got close to their intended targets, but they still killed about 20 Iraqi. 

Standing in my boxers and battle rattle, I found it a little hard to believe that the bad guys were attacking Americans and killing innocent Iraq right outside the wall of the Green Zone, less than a few miles from where I stood.  I heard the explosions, and I even felt the shockwaves from explosions. Because my house sat on the edge of the Zone, most large car bomb and nearby mortar attacks made my house and office shake, and the car bombs that morning were no different. Still, unless an attack could happen right in front of me, I would never see it.  Everything happens on the other side of the concrete walls surrounding my compound and the Green Zone. The explosions were "background noises" to my life.   

After living in the Green Zone for roughly two weeks, I had already found a new sense of normalcy. The idea of throwing on body armor at every explosion no longer made sense.  My fears were tempered by the decision to respond only when the threat was near and real. When I explained this to people back in States who never lived in the Green Zone, they found it hard to imagine how anyone could tune out the war and ignore the sound of VBIEDs, gunfire, mortars, and rockets. To those of us living in the Green Zone, it was the only thing that made sense. Occasionally, while drinking a beer or sipping a late night gin and tonic, somebody would mention how messed up the war had become and acknowledge the violence surrounding our small pocket of America in downtown Baghdad, yet most of the time, we simply reacted when the attacks were close enough to demand a response and then went on our way right after the attack. We had to tune it out or we would lose it.

One a mild evening in late March, I was sitting outside with my friends Kirk, Aaron, and Tamara when we heard a mortar attack in the distance. We barely heard the thud over the sound of our music, so we knew the mortar landed far away. Thus, we tuned it out. We were hanging out on the porch of a hardened house in my compound trying to have a laid-back evening, and we didn’t let the war take that from us. We continued to sit outside enjoying the mild weather, drinking red wine, and listing to music. Tamara and Kirk had just finished playing a game of chess. Aaron and I were debating how the U.S. could have ever believed that it would bring about the societal-level changes in Iraq that the neo-cons had indented. The confining walls of the Green Zone had seemed to melt away for a few moments.

We heard another boom in the distance. The insurgents fired another mortar rounds at the Green Zone. They landed perhaps a mile away from us. Aaron calmly got up and went inside the hardened house, but the rest of us didn't move. The explosions continued as we sat on Kirk’s porch.  Boom, boom . . . boom!  The rounds still weren't very close. They were almost a mile away. They hit somewhere near the convention center. We also noticed that the explosions were getting softer. Whenever the subsequent booms got softer with each hit, they generally would continue to move in that direction.  Thus, in this case, we knew that we were safe because the shots were continuing to move away from us.

On that day, we were lucky. They insurgent didn’t hit anything near us. The closest I ever came to being hit by a mortar happened on another simple evening when my friends and I were trying to forget the war. Pennell and I slipped over Kirk’s house after working out in the compound gym. We decided to watch High Fidelity with John Cusak. All of us had seen the movie before, but in Iraq, we always seemed to watch movies that we had seen before. For some reason, when we watched them together it was like we were sharing some happy piece of our old lives from before Iraq that we wanted to relive with our new friends inside the Green Zone.
 
The mortar attack began just as we reached a really funny scene in the film, which was would be followed by a quick assuming sex scene. All of us where in good spirits and were almost giddy as we watched the film because each of us knew the best parts. We say on the edges of our seat waiting for the jokes we loved. When we heard the first soft boom in the distance, we all looked as each other with uncertain look.

Pennell finally asked the question that all of us had on our minds.  “Was that a mortar?”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” I said dismissively.

Then, we heard a second boom. It closer, perhaps a mile away.

“Shit,” Kirk said calmly, “Should we get up?”

The third boom was very loud and very close. It sounded like a dumpster hitting concrete after tumbling from the edge of a high cliff. The explosion shook the house. The thin glass windows rattled like how my childhood bedroom windows in Michigan rattled whenever lighting struck too close to the house, but this time I expected the windows to crack. Without missing a heartbeat, all three of us leap up and dashed for the bathroom, the hard house’s tornado-like storm shelter. It didn’t have any glass windows, which could shatter if a mortar hit the house. It also supposedly had thicker walls, though I never believed that story. After I left, my concerns were vindicated when I saw a picture of a mortar that cut through a hard house roof like a hot knife through butter.

On the way to the bathroom, the safest spot in the whole house, Pennell swung buy the DVD player and hit the pause button. He didn’t want to rewind the film to get back to the sex scene when we would come back out to watch the rest of the movie.

When all three of us were finally safely inside the bathroom, we tried to control and breathing and let our hearts settle down. We laughed slightly at how hard each one of us had run. We also snickered wildly at Pennell’s determination to pause the movie rather than focus solely on getting to the relative safety of bathroom. However, the evening’s surreal funny moments were only about to begin. Kirk had grabbed his security radio on the way to the bathroom. A few minutes after the explosion, it slowly began to squawk.

“That was close.  Perhaps 500 meters,” said one of the compound’s contracted security officers.

“That was much closer. Perhaps 50 meters. Probably closer,” corrected another contracted security officer.

By my estimate, it was perhaps 25 meters from Kirk’s house, yet I didn’t correct the security officers. We had always been told to never mention distances on the radio. If the insurgents listened to the conversations, in theory they could adjust their weapons to hit my compound. I was dumbfounded that my compound’s security officers would break this basic rule, a rule they had taught to me.

The radio chatter got even more surreal as the security team tried to determine what to do. USAID’s top security officer was in the compound on a short visit, and he was using the radio to call the State Department Regional Security Officer (RSO) in charge of protecting the compound.

“Snake, Snake, this is Rabbit, over.”

Silence.

“Snake, Snake, this is Rabbit, over.” 

More silence. 

“Snake, Snake, this is Rabbit, over.” This time Rabbit didn’t sound very happy.

“Rabbit, Rabbit, this is Snake, over,” the RSO finally responded.

“Perhaps you should tell everyone to stay under cover.”

After a long pause, Snake responded by making an announcement over the radio. “Attention USAID compound, attention USAID compound stay under cover. I repeat. Stay under cover until the all clear is given.”  Everyone on the compound had already heard the interchange between Snake and Rabbit, so I didn’t understand why Snake had wasted his time repeating what Rabbit had said.

“Perhaps you should make that announcement over the loud speaker,” advised Rabbit.

After a brief pause, the compound’s Voice of God gave its warning, “Attention, attention USAID compound. Duck and cover. I say again, duck and cover.”

“Snake, Snake, this is Rabbit. What’s your location, over?” 

Silence.

“Snake, Snake, this is Rabbit. What’s your location, over?”  Snake didn’t sound happy.

As this Laurel and Hardy routine continued on the radio, Kirk took a look at himself in the bathroom mirror. His stubble had grown a little too pronounced. He slowly ran his hand across his cheeks before reaching for his shaving cream.

“Gents, I think I need a shave.”

“I wish I could tape all of this,” I said while laughing gently. “No one back home would ever believe that this is what happens in Iraq.”
 
After a few weeks of arriving in the Zone, I, like almost everyone else in Iraq, had grown slightly caviler about indirect fire attacks. If it wasn't close, generally it was not a real threat, thought the security office clearly didn't agree with the carefree attitude that most people have developed. Still, Most westerners ignored the security office because many RSOs seemed clueless, and perhaps more importantly, we all knew that unlike a direct firefight, we couldn’t do much about mortar or rocket attacks. Either they hit you or they didn’t. Mortar and rocket attacks were simply background noise to everything that was happening in Iraq.  .


Posted by alohafromtim at 9:29 PM EST
Updated: May 3, 2007 4:28 PM EDT
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February 4, 2007

Now Playing: Frank Sinatra
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris

The sound a soft Jordanian woman’s voice woke me from a light sleep. I had nodded off on my flight into Baghdad. I struggled to wake up and listen to what she was saying. She warned the passenger that our plane, a small two engine prop job piloted by South African bush pilots, was about the begin its decent. She promised that the final leg of the flight from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad, Iraq wouldn’t be that rough, but it would be a little disconcerting for new comers. The pilots would make gradually tightening circles directly over the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) until the G’s from the ever-tightening spiral pushed the passengers downward into my slightly uncomfortable seats.  She advised that passengers could use the small vomit bag tucked into the back of the seat in front of them if they had any trouble with the pressures that would push down on them, pulling them down toward Iraq.

I tried to listen to her, but I couldn’t really focus. I had heard it all before. My future colleagues in Green Zone had warned that the flight into BIAP would be a little rough.  From time to time people got sick on the flight and had to use the vomit bag, but supposedly most people didn’t have any trouble. I also knew that I had it lucky. Most government employees entering into Iraq flew from Kuwait City to Baghdad on military C-130 cargo planes. The large C-130s didn’t have any of the nice creature comforts, such as pretzel and fruit juice, that I enjoy during my two hour flight to Baghdad. The poor souls on the C-130s had to sit side-by-side in the cargo hold wearing full body armor. They shoved yellow foam ear plugs into their ears to protect themselves from the almost deafening smalls of overworked engines echoing throughout the cargo hold. During the final 30 minutes of the flight, the military pilots, generally reservists who preferred the challenge though not the pay of flying big birds in and out of BIAP rather than flying simple UPS cargo jet in and out of faceless large cities back in the States, took control of the stick and weaved the plane erratically, perhaps even playfully, in an effort to throw off insurgents who might have picked up a spare ground-to-air shoulder-fired rocket launchers after the Saddam’s fall. After the roller-coaster approach toward BIAP, the pilots would go into the same spiral move that my bush pilots would make, only the rumors I heard said that the military pilots always made spirals much tighter. A tighter spiral meant more G’s, which made the experience much worse for the passengers. 

As my plane made its final downward spins into BIAP, formerly know as Saddam International Airport, I peered out the window to look at Baghdad. I recognized the bend in the Tigris where the American presence had taken hold – the Green Zone. I could make out some larger buildings yet nothing seemed distinctive. I didn’t know any of the landmarks that I would eventually get know intimately. During the year that I would spend in the Green Zone, I would get to know almost every inch of the 4.5 square mile stretch of land in the center of the capitol of a country engaged in dangerous, bloody conflict.  That tiny speck of land lining the Tigris would become my home, and during rest breaks, I would even come to miss it.

Back in Washington, the Green Zone had been sold to me as the ultimate gated community. My superiors told me that it was a place where I could safely do my work. I never believed that. I had watched the news and read the papers every day since I joined the foreign service and considering volunteering for a tour in Iraq. I knew that Baghdad was the most dangerous place in the world, but as I looked at the city through the small oval windows of my plane, it looked like any other city.  It looked safe.

When the plane came to rest and the engines slowly came to a halt, I quickly unclipped my seatbelt and began my way toward the front of the plane. As I stepped down onto the tarmac, my heart beat slightly stronger as I realized that I the shuttle bus that would take me to the terminal had not arrived. The airport staff wasn’t in hurry. The 1970’s era bus seemed to be creeping forward like a caterpillar. I looked around to see if anything, anything looked threatening. All I could see was a terminal without any airplanes. Off in the distance, I could see helicopter flying away from the airport. The war seemed eerily calm. I had expected to hear something almost from first second I landed.

I felt a little sheepish as realized that nothing would happen to me at the airport and then took my first tentative steps away from the plane. I had been told that the airport was safe, largely because it was nearly completely surrounded by massive U.S. military bases. The airport was also guarded by trained, professional Nepalese mercenaries who had joined Global Security, a for-hire private army specializing in static security. There were many companies like Global Security providing some of the basic security work that would, or in my mind should have, been handled by the U.S. military in Iraq. During those first few days, I quickly realized that the military simply couldn’t be everywhere in Iraq. I was going to have to get comfortable with the collection of Nepalese, Zimbabwean, el Salvadorian, Nicaraguan, and other third world nationals who would control my security, and ultimately my life, at the airport and within the Green Zone.

The small school bus-like transfer shuttle arrived and took us to the BIAP terminal. We quickly lined up before the only immigration official working that day. He was a middle aged man with a think black mustache who spoke relatively accent-free English. I laid down my diplomatic passport, which normally would get me expiated access in almost every country in the world. In Iraq, it didn’t mean anything. In fact, the immigration official didn’t even know what it was. When I laid down my military Combined Access Card (CAC) ID badge, the official sat up slightly, double checked that the face on the card was in fact mine. Then, without much further consideration, he stamped my passport and waved me through.

The CAC served as the main form of identification for US officials traveling through Iraq. The State Department required every American working for the embassy to obtain it before traveling to Iraq because it granted Americans access to military bases and facilities throughout Iraq. However, it was not the only form of identification that I carried at all times. Every day, I also carried a U.S. Embassy Baghdad ID badge, a State Department ID badge, an ID badge for my compound, and my U.S. Agency for International Development ID. Although the CAC generally trumped all other cards, from time to time the other badges were more important. As a result, industrious vendors inside Iraq sold various types of card holders that could be used to either show multiple cards at once or to quickly bring the relevant card to the forefront.

As a diplomat, I waltzed past the custom office by merely flashing my diplomatic passport. As I entered the waiting area, a vast holding tank for westerns eagerly looking for the mercenaries hired to whisk them to their semi-secure compounds in and around Baghdad, I tried to get a sense of my new world. Although I was clearly in an airport, the place seemed hollow. The waiting area lacked any amenities. There were no candy stands or newspaper racks. They were no working clocks, and the big board announcing the arrival times for flights remained locked in time. It still had the un-updated flight information for the last day before the war broke out. In a Twilight Zone-like moment, I felt like I could reach back in time and relive the moment of an Iraqi waiting for a brother or sister to slip back into their country on the eve of the war.

I quickly pushed through the waiting area loaded down by the two bags that contained everything that I needed for my tour. I stepped out of the terminal so the four people traveling with me could get cell phone reception on the flimsy IraqNA cell phone provided to every American working on my compound. My companions needed to call the driver, who worked for the massive defense contractor KBR, to come by in his lightly armored SUV and drive us to a nearby military base. They warned me that I had to think like a soldier and assume that I would have to wait for up to an hour or two for the driver to come and pick us up. Thus, I plunked my bags and body armor down on the ground. To kill time, I began talking to three other Americans who also worked for my agency and who just happened to have arrived at the same day that I did. One of the men, a tall clean shaven man, worked on large scale infrastructure projects. Another man worked as an investigator searching out contractor fraud and abuse. The third man, a contractor, worked a construction supervisor for my agency’s compound.

While we were waiting, the construction supervisor spotted an Iraqi off in the distance.  The Iraqi spotted us, threw out a friendly wave, and come over to talk to us. His name was G, and he was the first Iraqi I had ever met. G was a short hairy men. He must have been about thirty-five or forty years old, though I must admit that I always had trouble guessing the age of Iraqis. During the last twenty years, they had lived through three wars, one dictatorship, years of economic sanctions, and the beginning of a civil war. The weight of these burdens lay heavily on the face and bodies of almost every Iraqi I met.

Like most Iraqis working for the Americans, G had a good college education and his English was very impressive. His voice carried a slight hint of a British accent, and he had overfilled his vocabulary with American slag phrases that had worn out their welcome in the States nearly ten years earlier. Before the war, he owned a small travel agency. His experience in the travel agency helped him secure a job as a travel specialist guiding U.S. diplomats back and forth from Iraq to the various neighboring Arab countries.

G felt that he understood Americans, and knew how to make them laugh and keep them feeling comfortable. After asking my name and learning that I had just arrived in Iraq for the first time, G pointed to a set of brand new escalators laying near the entrance to the waiting area. They were wrapped in grey tarps covered in dust. He jokingly told me that he didn’t have enough electricity in his house for more than five or six hour per day, yet the Americans had spent perhaps a million dollars to buy expensive escalators for a spartanly used airport and then let them sit outside for months still in the thick canvas wrappings. 

As I began to develop a witty response to G’s observation, a black lightly-armored SUV pulled up.  An aging Texan approaching Social Security age leapt out of the truck and quickly introduced himself as our KBR “taxi” driver. As he chucked my bags into the bag of his SUV, he explained that everywhere I went during my year in Iraq, I would run into KBR employees like him. He heard one rumor that there was more KRB employee in Iraq than soldiers. KBR’s army of contractors cooked food, maintained cars, ran dry cleaning facilities, and even shuttled diplomats like me around the airport.

As we pulled away from the terminal, the Texan KBR driver said that he would take us over to the “military side of the airport” so we could sign up for a helicopter into the Green Zone. For months, diplomats had been traveling between BIAP and Green Zone in large heavily armored buses. Unfortunately, in the weeks before I landed in Iraq, the bad guys had gotten pretty good at planting roadside bombs and exploding car bombs along the road between BIAP and the Green Zone, which was commonly referred to as Route Irish. Until the military could regain control over the road, everyone had to take the “air bridge,” which consisted of Army Blackhawk helicopters that flew civilians into the Green Zone. Most people loved the air bridge because it was safer and quicker than the armored bus. Unfortunately, the air bridge ended a few weeks after I arrived. Apparently Ambassador Negroponte became livid when he couldn’t arrange for a helicopter because all of them were being used to ferry Americans back and forth from the airport. That day, he demanded that military restart the bus runs.

The KBR driver never stopped talking during the ride to the military air terminal, which military personnel called the PAX. He shared his thoughts about Saddam Hussein, the invasion, and the military’s failure to plan for the post-invasion occupation, and similarities between Iraq and Vietnam. He also pointed out major landmarks, such as the CIA headquarters in Iraq, the prison facility that held Saddam Hussein, and a checkpoint that had been attacked by a car bomber. My driver seemed to have forgotten that one of his passengers was an Iraqi, but maybe he realized that holding anything back from an Iraqi would be pointless. Iraqis always seemed to know more about what the Americans were doing than the Americans did.

When we pulled into the PAX complex, I quickly felt like I had moved into a prison. Rows of blast walls and high barbed wire fences encircled the dusty compound. Soldiers and contractors wandered around aimlessly without any purpose. A few slightly damaged wooden picnic tables occupied the center of the courtyard when men sat smoking cigarettes and telling stories.  On the far side of the compound, the military installed a row a green outhouses, and along the flight line line it had erected three large air conditioned tents near the airfield. Two of the tents were filed with very uncomfortable seats and large televisions constantly tuned into Fox News. The third tent served as the “ticket counter” for helicopter flights into the Green Zone.

When I walked up to the ticket counter, a specialist told me that he might be able to squeeze me onto the last Blackhawk flight into the Zone, but as soon as he left the counter, I heard the sound of two helicopters starting their engine.  The specialist said he would try to stop the helicopters. He dashed out to the flight line, but he didn’t have a chance. They took off before the specialist left the tent. I asked if he could call them back, but he only smiled wryly. Apparently military chopper pilots don’t swing back for diplomats. 

Thankfully, the British “flight counter” was still open. The Brits had a more aggressive soldier who called down to the flight line to reserve a few seats for myself and my new colleagues. He ran out to the flight line and talked to the ground crew to let them know that we were coming. A few minutes later, the British soldier escorted me down to the flight line.  I was rushing down to the BIAP runway with bags in toe when in the distance I spotted the two British helicopters, a Puma Mk 1 and some type of smaller helicopter loaded with weapons, that would ferry me into the Green Zone. As soon as they touched down, the door gunner on the Puma frantically waved for us to jump into his helicopter. Ducking slightly to keep our heads well below the whirling blades and keep our belongings from flying away, I worked with my colleagues to our belonging into small storage area in the middle of the Puma. 

As soon as we finish tossing in the last of gear and the final person jumped into the helicopter, we took off for the Green Zone. The small gunship helicopter ran shotgun slightly behind the Puma and occasionally communicated to our door gunner, whose eyes constantly scanned the rooftops of Baghdad with the keen understanding that the Puma had very thin armor and could not survive a direct hit from anything larger than an assault rifle. He sat on a small wooden crate, which he kicked from one side of the helicopter to the other whenever we wanted to look out the opposite door, which he left open during the flight. We flew very low to the ground and weaved around a lot in an effort to confuse anyone trying to line up the helicopter in their gun sights. 

The sound of the helicopter blades whirling above me and the air rushing in through the open side door made my ears ring. One of my colleagues smiled slightly as he watched me gaze out into the rooftops. He leaned over and shouted in my ear that I needed to carry earplugs with me whenever I flew into or out of BIAP. I nodded slightly in agreement. As he pulled away from me I noticed that he, and everyone else, had jammed small yellow foam pads into their ears. I also noticed that everyone else had put on their body armor. In the rush to get onto the helicopter, I had forgotten to put on my gear. It lay safely packed in my bag protecting my belonging while I rode in a thinly armored military helicopter to my new home in the heart of a war zone. .


Posted by alohafromtim at 1:01 AM EST
Updated: May 3, 2007 4:31 PM EDT
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January 3, 2006

Mood:  a-ok
I have survived my one year tour in Iraq. I am going home today.

Posted by alohafromtim at 1:34 AM EST
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January 1, 2006

Topic: Political Rant
The end has almost come. Assuming that everything goes according to plan, I will board a plane tomorrow and Iraq for good. This will probably be my second to last entry on this blog.

There were many things that I chose not to write about in this blog. There have been wild parties that makes most of the parties that happen back in the States seem lame. I have watched some of my friends slowly creep toward personal collapses, and I know people who suffered near complete breakdowns. I have witnessed the behavior of senior leaders in the reconstruction and felt totally appalled. I have watched people do stupid things, such as throwing rounds into a fire, and simply shrugged it off. I have listened to Iraqis tell the stories of a country tearing itself apart and stood powerless before them with nothing to help ease their pains or keep them safe. I have seen some of the best and brightest people I have even known work tirelessly to help the Iraqi people. I have also seen Iraqis doing everything they can to survive this war, protect their families, and help their country.

I have many stories to tell, yet there is one thing that bothers me more than anything else. I have watched the reconstruction fail right in front of my face. The history and the future of the multi-billion dollar investment in Iraq's future failed to deliver on many of the important promises made to the Iraq people, and the reconstruction was probably the easiest component of the American misadventure in Iraq.

In late November 2005, the Bush Administration stated in its National Strategy for Victory in Iraq that our "strategy is working," which stands in sharp contrast to my assessment. The Administration stresses that "much has been accomplished in Iraq, including the removal of Saddam's tyranny, negotiation of an interim constitution, restoration of full sovereignty, holding of free national elections, formation of an elected government, drafting of a permanent constitution, ratification of that constitution, introduction of a sound currency, gradual restoration of Iraq's neglected infrastructure, and the ongoing training and equipping of Iraq's security forces."

No matter how pessimistic I have become, the Bush Administration is correct that positive things have happened, but the details behind these positive statements make the "successes" seem far murkier and very questionable. Perhaps more importantly, the details make the prospect of helping "the Iraqi people build a new Iraq with a constitutional, representative government that respects civil rights and has security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order and keep Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists" seem long and at times even unlikely.

Security. Almost every time that a dictatorship falls, a period of anarchy ensures. It happened in East Timor. It happened in the Congo. It happened in Iraq. Unfortunately, the military (or perhaps just senior Administration leaders) failed to plan for this highly enviable outcome. In fact, senior political leaders pushed people out of the way who questioned the plan or made comments that attacked the logical behind the basic plan.

To make matters worse, as the Guardian wisely noted in December 2005, "the US occupation has made at least one major political mistake every year. Big Blunder 2003 was the dissolution of the Iraqi army. Big Blunder 2004 was the failure to dismantle militias - out of fear of upsetting the Kurds and the main Shia religious party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri)." These failures added fuel to a dangerous, violent fire - the insurgency - sweeping through the country.

Military might alone cannot bring these forces back under control. These difficulties in the security arena have made the US turns its attention, and much of its hopes, toward bringing the divergent forces into the political process and giving people the belief that avoiding violence and supporting the reconstruction will bring them some tiny bit of hope.

The Reconstruction. The reconstruction has failed. It failed for many reasons. It failed because the initial plans for Iraq did not even include any significant reconstruction funds. It failed because the plans for the $18.4 Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund (IRRF) were not based on realistic assessments of the work that needed to be done. It failed because completed projects are not sustainable. If they aren't sustainable, everything falls apart the minute the reconstruction teams leave.

The Americans simply could not overcome these basic problems of the reconstruction in face of the massive challenge in front of them - rebuilding a country that endured three massive wars in twenty years, three decades of totalitarian rule, and the punishing effects of economic sanctions.

Politics. The typical American view is that the elections are like a magic wand that will produce peace and prosperity. This may be so, but Iraqi elections have yet to produce a viable, trustworthy government. Consider the El Salvador elections in 1982 that went off well in terms of numbers; their civil war there went on for another decade. Will that happen in Iraq? While the political process can bring an end to the violence, it won’t happen overnight even if it goes well.

Perhaps the most disappoint aspect of the political process is how little we know about the fate of this country. It could still slip into a full blown civil war. It could somehow hold itself together. It could become a Shiite religious state tightly aligned with Iraq, which definitely isn't want the Bush Administration would want. I find it disconcerting that pushing three years into this adventure – after all the lives that have been lost – we still don't know what will happen.

I could go on and on about what I think about the American adventure in Iraq, but I need to get to work and my comments are just one take on it. Thus, I think I will leave my comments as a three legged argument. The security situation remains bad. The reconstruction failed. The results of the political process are inconclusive. With the American government now determined to begin the lengthy pull out process, is it too late to fix these three problems to ensure that some good comes out of this war?

Whatever happens now, the fate of Iraq is now in the hands of the Iraqi people.

And in other news . . . I want to wish the best of luck to all my fellow Iraq bloggers out there. Keep blogging.

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:12 PM EST
Updated: January 1, 2006 11:27 PM EST
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Mood:  rushed
To celebrate New Year's Eve, I had a friend in the military that rigged up a plastic flamingo on top of a large pole on top of my house. As the final seconds of 2005 ticked away, he slowly eased it down to the ground so it landed right at midnight. Perhaps a minute before midnight, the night sky suddenly filled with tracers. Some Iraqis had decided to ring in the New Year with celebratory fire. Thus, I had to push everyone into my house so they wouldn't get hurt, but my military friends stayed at their post and eased the flamingo down to the ground. They have seen enough crap happen in Iraq that a little celebratory fire doesn't stop them.

Posted by alohafromtim at 8:29 AM EST
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December 30, 2005

Mood:  accident prone
Topic: The US Military
For nearly 12 months, every time I went from my compound to the Palace, I had to pass through a Marine checkpoint. During that time, I have seen the Marines beef up the checkpoint. At first it was simply a bunch of Marines who were supported by two machinegun nests perhaps 30 yards from the checkpoint. Then, they added speed bumps. Shortly after that, they added a lot of jersey barriers. Then, they added thick metal wires that could be used block off the road in an emergency.

The Embassy closed the check point because the felt that the Green Zone was safe enough that they could no longer justify keeping the Marines there, and they are apparently relying on nearly security contractors to provide the level support that they believe is adequate. All the same, I would rather have a small group of Marines serving as a line of security around the Palace than relying on a bunch of security contractors who can't speak English.

And in other news . . . according to early election returns, Iraqi voters choose sectarian parties rather than one of the handful of nation-wide parties. Nine out of 10 Iraqis in the Shiite Muslim provinces of the south voted for religious Shiite parties, according to the early results from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. Nine out of 10 Iraqis in Sunni Muslim Arab areas of central and western Iraq voted for Sunni parties. Nine out of 10 Iraqis in the Kurdish provinces of the north voted for Kurdish candidates.

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:41 PM EST
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