February 24, 2013

My kiwsahili vocabulary has tripled in size with my learning three rather essential words: asanti (thanks), karibu (you are welcome) and jombo (hello).  Meanwhile, some of our team visited a giraffe park and conducted interviews (I am not at liberty to go into the topics covered). 

On the road to Marrakesh...

I spent February 16-18, a three day weekend, in Marrakesh.  The train ride from Rabat took 4.5 hours, and we passed through Casablanca along the coast.  Marrakesh lies just to the east and  north of the High Atlas.  It is an interesting mixture of the traditional and modern, Berber and Arab and European (tourists and expats), desert and mountains.  The central market, where we ate twice, has street artists performing until the wee hours of the morning.

This is a photo of the square just before 7am, largely empty, but with some water remaining after the end of evening washdown. 
This is the alley from our hotel that leads to the Djeema el-Fna, the city's main square.

From the street the Hotel des Jardins de la Koutoubia is not impressive, but once inside the place is like an oasis. 
The rooftop pool with the Koutoubia Mosque's minaret in the background.
Here is a view from the roof looking down at the courtyard and pool.

A view from the hotel entrance of the Koutoubia minaret through palms in the early morning.

 After buying a carpet  in an old Saadian palace, we were escorted around the city by one of the carpet cooperative's employees (Towfiq).  We visited the old Medersa, the old religious school.  That's me in the doorway.   

February 10, 2013

Casablanca's Mosque and Rick's Cafe

The U.S. Embassy organized a community outing to Casablanca on Saturday, Feb 9.  It was a one-hour drive from Rabat, and we traveled by van.  The day consisted of a guided tour of the King Hassan II Mosque, which our guide proudly noted is the third largest in the world.  It is the length of more than two football fields, with lots of granite, marble and a hand-carved cedar wood ceiling.  With the notable exception of the chandeliers (made in Murano/Venice, Italy), the materials are largely from Morocco.  It took six years to build and opened in 1994.  Very few mosques are open to non-believers; this one is an exception. Including overflow, upwards of 100,000 persons have attended services there.

 Main Hall of King Hassan II Mosque
Below ground, the mosque has an ablution area, where Muslims perform purification by washing their hands, feet, eyes, nose, and ears.  The fountain is in the shape of a lotus.

Our team and Embassy staff by the lotus flower fountain
In adjoining rooms there was a large pool and also separate Roman- and Turkish-style hot rooms.

 Me standing by underground pool, King Hassan II Mosque

Outside we took some team photos.

 OIG Team and Karen Davison (next to Pam Slutz)

Just above us was the minaret, which is the tallest in the world at approx 200 meters.

 Minaret of King Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

After touring the mosque, we visited Rick's Cafe, which takes its theme from the famous cafe in the movie Casablanca.  Upon retiring, an enterprising Foreign Commercial Officer opened the restaurant in 2004.  The real Rick's Cafe, however, was in a studio in Hollywood, and none of the scenes in the movie actually were filmed in Casablanca.  Perceptions and myths, of course, have their own powerful dynamics, and many of us kept asking for Sam, who was absent from the piano.  

Play it again, Sam
The plaque outside Rick's - no longer a place of gambling
After returning from Casablanca, I and a colleague walked around the souk in the old medina (historic city center).  There I purchased an all-wool hooded robe, which many men wear in the evenings to stay warm.  Mine is all black, and makes the wearer look a bit like a capuchin monk from the Middle Ages. I also picked up a few red fez caps.  If I put it on the hotel, however, I will probably be mistaken for an employee, as the doormen wear them.

If this cape were white, it would be politically incorrect.

October 22, 2012

Santiago, Valaparaiso and Valle Nevado, Chile

For family and friends, here are a few reflections and photos on my 21 days in Chile serving as the Deputy Team Leader for the inspection of Embassy Santiago.

This has been my first visit to Chile, and I found Santiago very prosperous and clean.  Because the city sits in a bowl with the Andes just to the east, the air inversion is a problem - one that is likely to worsen as the level of development rises.  Chile already has the hightest GCP/capita ($19000) and is the most internet connected  country in South America.  It has a very open market approach and you can find anything here that you can in the U.S.

I was able to get away for a two day/one night weekend in Valparaiso.  Unfortunately, several of the photos I took at first, including one with a statue of Pablo Neruda and me did not come out well.

This is the outside the human rights museum in the center of Santiago.  The museum's focus is on the events of September 11, 1973, which occured shortly after I started studies at U. Maine. It provides no context to the situation in the country at the time of the coup, and nothing about any foreign role in the coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende.  It was build in 2007 and is very factual.  Chile had a truth and reconciliation commission, but since the first one the authorities (center-left and center-right) have several times increased the estimates of those who were murdered, or "disappeared," and now totals more than 28,000 persons.

These two photos are of the presidencial palace, where Salvador Allenda took his own life after the air force had bombed it and he had sent his staff to surrender; the statue is of Salvador Allende and stands in the square outside the presidential palace.  He gave a moving speechbroadcast by a radio station the military had not taken over, in which he said he would never surrender and that he knew Chile would return one day to democracy.  
Another view of the square inside the human rights museum in Santiago.  The photos on the wall record events from the military dictatorship (1973-89).
Here are some photos from my trip to Valle Nevado, about 90 mins from Santiago.  The elevation is 9-10,000 ft.  While we were there, snow started to fall. It is supposedly the largest ski area in South America and has 29 lifts. The ski season ended more than one month ago, but it was right at freezing while we were there.  Above is another member of our inspection team, Robin.
Robin and our guide, as we wait for some members of our team to return to the bus.

I walked about 1/2 a km up the slopes.  At times there were 50 mph winds and in some spots it was dead quiet and there was no wind or sound.  The ski area is above the tree line, as much from the winds and dry weather as altitude. The melting snow in the spring (Southern Hemisphere) creates odds shapes. 

The dog above is a large version of Kenneth III's dog Lia, very friendly and liked to jump up on me.  She got a several pieces of my baguette. 

On the other side of this sign, the slope drops straight off about 500 fit.-- no ropes and no fence! 

May 6, 2012

Nairobi National Park

This is my first post on the blog I used while in Iraq. I have returned to using Hillas' Histories to record some of my experiences traveling around the world while inspecting U.S. Embassies.  

Our team has been in Nairobi for a few days and I and seven colleagues decided to do a one-half day drive through Nairobi National Park, which is located just outside the capital.  The large, green plain north of Nairobi near the hills, where Out of Africa was filmed, was filled with lots of wildlife, which were sometimes visible with the Nairobi city skyline providing a contrasting backdrop.

We were fortunate to view the following wildlife:  gazelles (both Thomspson and Grant), cape buffalo, impala, a lion, hardebeast (which we saw more of than any other animal), elan (with huge straight horns), ostrich, giraffes, warthogs, vultures, guinea fowl, maribu storks, black heron, egrets, ox-peckers, yellow-throated spur fowl, hammerkopf (a hammerhead bird), long-taliled shrikes, kites, martins, black faced marvet (a monkey) and baboons.  

Below are some of the photos from our outing:

Our group upon exiting the Nairobi National Park.

Zebras grazing alongside the track we were on.  Note the mud on the top of his back.  We watched him roll in a mud hole.

These are Masai giraffe, which have darker mottling.
Giraffes enjoying a stroll down the track -- and not too interested in moving to the side.

Not sure of the implied connection between the road sign and the skull of a cape buffalo, but it caught out attention . . . . and we did not drive off road.  If fact, it was so wet we had to push our van out of a mud hole on the road.  
An elderly lion, favoring his right rear paw, limped down to where our vehicle was parked.  Somewhat haggard, he was clearly beyond his prime.  But, then, he may have thought the same about some of us.

May 16, 2009

Three in Convoy Killed Near Al-Hillah

Below is an AFP report on a May 14 attack on a convoy that sadly resulted in the loss of three persons working as USG contractors. Fortunately, several colleagues in the convoy escaped injury.

Briton, two Iraqis killed in bomb blast (AFP, May 15)

HILLA, May 15, 2009 (AFP) - A British employee of a private security firm and two Iraqi guards were killed by a roadside bomb that hit their convoy south of Baghdad, US and Iraqi officials said on Friday.

The convoy was struck just outside the city of Hilla on Thursday night, a statement from the US military said.

"The car was completely destroyed in the attack in the Nile district, north of Hilla," Lieutenant Karim Qasim of the Iraqi army said.

Neither military provided details of the convoy or the name of the company employing the guards.

Nearly 100,000 guards work for private security firms in Iraq, many of them British.

May 3, 2009

Babil Province reconstruction projects.

This is from the MNF-I website and is a project supported by our PRT.

Renovated Vocational Center Increases Job Training in Babil Province
Saturday, 02 May 2009

BABIL — Community leaders, media and Coalition representatives recently gathered here for the grand opening of the newly renovated $5.4 million Iskandariyah Vocational Technology Center.

Dr. Reyad Hassan, executive general manager of the Iraqi Ministry of Labor, officiated the grand opening with the assistance of newly-elected Babil provincial leaders.

The Vocational Center and Industrial Complex, located 25 miles south of Baghdad, was once the industrial jewel of north Babil province, boasting such facilities as the State Company for Automotive Industries (SCAI), the State Company for Mechanical Industries (SCMI) and Hateen munitions.

During April 2003 all these facilities were ransacked and torched by looters, leaving behind burned out shells of what had been home to 25,000 employees.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the Center’s upgrade, utilizing Iraqi contractors. The three-phase project included renovating seven dorms, a classroom building, an auditorium and mechanical shop. The Iraqi crew, consisting of 200 local workers, finished the project three months ahead of schedule. Of those workers, 50 were recent graduates of the center.

When the Center’s renovations began in 2007, the school was offering a limited curriculum for an enrollment of 30 students. This year the center is expected to train and house 4,000 students in a variety of occupational specialties including hair dressing, sewing, administration, clerical, computer maintenance, masonry, electrical, carpentry, welding, computers, and auto mechanics.

“The renovation project became a reality because of the partnership between city and provincial government leaders, Coalition forces, the Babil PRT, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Iraqi construction crews, along with unwavering support from the local community,” said Col. Jack Drolet, district commander of USACE’s Gulf Region South district, at the grand opening. “The young men and women who come to this Vocational Center will learn skills, laying a foundation for future prosperity. We’re honored to be part of this effort.”

Many look to the Center’s renovation as the first step to improving the local economy. According to Pradeep Patnaik, Babil PRT’s senior economic advisor, the Center “is critical in our efforts to attract foreign investment to Babil province.”
Because the center is able to provide needed training, more than five international firms are considering manufacturing contracts with SCAI and SCMI industries, Patnaik added.

Currently SCAI is building prefabricated housing units, oil refineries, buses, construction equipment, greenhouses, and much more. “We are working with local and international businesses so that there will be enough work for everyone,” Patnaik said. (By Alicia Embrey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

“I feel our history is coming back”

The New York Times has a good article that captures the challenges -- political and bureaucratic -- of how to handle the reopening of the Babylon Ruins. Excerpts:

After decades of dictatorship and disrepair, Iraq is celebrating its renewed sovereignty over the Babylon archaeological site — by fighting over the place, over its past and future and, of course, over its spoils.

Time long ago eroded the sun-dried bricks that shaped ancient Babylon, the city of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, where Daniel read the writing on the wall and Alexander the Great died.

Colonial archaeologists packed off its treasures to Europe a century ago. Saddam Hussein rebuilt the site in his own megalomaniacal image. American and Polish troops turned it into a military camp, digging trenches and filling barricades with soil peppered with fragments of a biblical-era civilization.

Now, the provincial government in Babil has seized control of much of Babylon — unlawfully, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage — and opened a park beside a branch of the Euphrates River, a place that draws visitors by the busload.

April 23, 2009

The ruins of Babylon.

Babylon received USG funding to develop it for tourism, as I mentioned in an earlier post. Here’s an interesting video from MSNBC about the cradle of civilization.

March 31, 2009

Honeybees in Hillah.

This video shows what we are doing in Babil Province:

March 11, 2009

The Slain Soldier of Salah Ad-Din.

Here is a very moving email that Kenneth wrote on his way back home from Iraq this Sunday.

Wheelchairs for Babil Rehabilitation Center.

Since Kenneth has been unable to update his blog, check here for the latest information as to what has been going on in Hillah.

January 9, 2009

Babylon Gets US Funding

The Famous Lion of Babylon. It is not actually indigenous, but . . .

There are many such reliefs of dragons and lions on the ancient walls of the procession way which passed through the Ishtar Gate.

Below is the text of a Bloomberg News article by Patrick Cole, dated January 8. It concerns efforts by the State Department, working through the World Monuments Fund, to help Iraq preserve the ancient city of Babylon, located just two miles away from our PRT. We will be hosting visits in 2009 by officials from the World Monuments Fund and also from UNESCO, which is the entity that has the authority to designate a place a world heritage site. With that often comes UN funding for preservation.

All of this is important to many Iraqi officials who see toursim in the future as an important part of the areas economic development.

It is not hard, of course, to imagine how many people around the world would like to be able to visit one city and see the Tower of Babil, the ruins of Nebudchanezer's palace, including the hanging gardens, the famous procession which passed through Ishtar's Gate (now in a Berlin Museum) and other ancient venues, such as Abraham's home, and the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel.

Babylon Is Targeted in Project of World Monuments Fund and Iraq

By Patrick Cole

Jan. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The World Monuments Fund is launching a project with Iraq to preserve the ancient city of Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar II (630-562 B.C.) built his hanging gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The New York-based nonprofit group, which protects architectural and cultural sites, will work with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to develop a master plan to promote conservation and tourism in the city, located about 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad on the east bank of the Euphrates.

“Future tourism will be one of the tools for economic development in Iraq, and we fear that Babylon could be eaten up by unmanaged development like the paving of roads,” World Monuments President Bonnie Burnham said in a phone interview. “The city has never been mapped, and there have been very dramatic changes to it.”

The U.S. Department of State has given the fund about $700,000 for the project, called “The Future of Babylon,” Holly Evarts, the fund’s spokeswoman, said in a phone interview. The organization is seeking more funding from other sources, she said.

“Iraqi heritage belongs to all humanity,” Samir Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., said in a statement. “In the immense task of caring for its world heritage, Iraq welcomes help from and collaborations with the international preservation community.”

The ancient city, founded around the 18th century B.C., has sustained damage in recent years from Saddam Hussein’s efforts to make it a tourist attraction, from looting after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and from being used as a military base during the Iraq War.

Second Initiative

The World Monuments Fund’s project marks the second initiative this decade to aid Babylon. In October 2003, the fund partnered with the Getty Conservation Institute to set up the Iraq Cultural Heritage Conservation Initiative to help preserve museums, archeological and historical sites in Iraq.

Founded in 1965, the fund has worked to preserve about 500 historical sites in some 90 countries around the world, ranging from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to Route 66, an east-west highway in the U.S. The fund placed the nation of Iraq on its list of 100 most endangered sites in 2006 and 2008.

Others sites in Iraq targeted for restoration by the fund include the ancient region of Sumer and sites associated with the Babylonian, Assyrian and Parthian cultures.

This year the fund will begin teaching board of antiquities specialists in Iraq modern techniques of site evaluation and restoration. It also wants to develop a national database for mapping and managing thousands of cultural heritage sites in that nation.

December 27, 2008

Holidays in Al-Hillah

We had an unexpected visitor to the Al-Hillah Regional Embassy Offices, where the PRT is located. At 8:30am I was informed that MNF-I Commanding General Odierno had arrived and, after a brief ceremony with the military unit that is our neighbor, wanted to meet the PRT within 15 minutes. I set about rousting those not already awake, got the keys to our conference room and we pulled together about 20 people to meet with him. Al-Hillah was one of eight stops Gen. Odierno made that day visiting troops and PRTs.

As you can see from the photos below, he arrived and departed with a Santa hat emblazoned with 4 stars. Many of the contractors and local employees were tickled to be able to have a photo taken with him, making it a special Christmas moment.

Some of us were dressed in old track outfits about to run a 5K race, but he didn't seem to notice -- or was too polite to say anything. In any event, it turns out that Gen. Odierno grew up in Rockaway, NJ, just a few miles away from my home town of Boonton. He graduated a year behind me, same class as my sister. Small world.

I survived the 5K race and ate lots of great food, shrimp and prime rib, both rarely seen in Al-Hillah. All in all, it was a good Christmas, if you have to be away from family. Many persons serving in Iraq have spent multiple Christmas holidays away from home, so I have been fortunate over the years.

December 24, 2008

The "chance of feasts" and "prying to God" -- Christmas cards Iraqi style

I get all sorts of interesting communications from Iraqis in our province, especially during the holiday season. Some of them provide a linguistic twist that provides an extra element of amusement. Take for instance the Christmas e-card below. It is the thought, of course, that counts.

Taking the chance of feasts I want to say



Hoping that the coming year bring the best to all of you,

Prying to God to bless you and your families .

Merry Christmas from Ishtar Gate

To all of my friends, family, colleagues and itinerant blog readers, this post is to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Babylon.

This is a photo of a replica of the Ishtar Gate, at the Babylonian ruins site. The original gate, which is very similar, is in a museum in Berlin. The photo was actually sent to me as a Christmas card by one of our staff.

Today is Christmas Eve, and I have sent the local employees home. None of them are Christian, but they enjoy a free afternoon just the same. It rained fairly hard last night, although briefly, as if the heavens were giving Iraq a good cleansing. it was the first real rain in six months, and the farmers will be happy.

This is my first Christmas away from family in my 30 years of marriage. Even when I was on the Bosnian-Serbian border during Christmas of 1994, I was able to get to Rome for a few days to rejoin the family. There are many soldiers and civilians in Babil for whom this is not the first time to be separated from family at Christmas, so I have been fortunate overall.

Yesterday I received a Christmas card from an Iraqi Police General, which I am sharing below. I found it touching that he would send me such a message in the midst of all his hard work. I think that it reflects the sentiments of many Iraqis who realize all the sacrifices America has made on their behalf and seem more determined than ever to make good on the promise of a new Iraq.

Begin Text:
A special thanks with our greatest appreciation for your hard work and efforts towards the security of Iraq. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year during this special time away from family and friends. We hope that you remember this wonderful time of year not with regret but with a feeling of accomplishment for a worthy cause.

From all the men of all Hillah SWAT we hope that this Christmas away from home will be a joyous one.
End Text.

December 21, 2008

Below is an informative article published today that focuses on agriculture in Babil and quotes one of the PRT's Agriculture Advisors, Patrick Broyles.

Iraqi farmers are back in business, and Iraqis love local produce (McClatchy, Adam Ashton, Dec 20)

BABIL PROVINCE, Iraq — Mansour Abdul Khadim's mix of winter crops gives every impression of abundance, despite the double threat of drought and violence that has plagued Iraqi agriculture since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003.

Rows of red potatoes and green beans grow together in one lot. Winter wheat sprouts in adjacent fields. Tomatoes for the spring already are incubating in mounds of fertilizer.

Khadim is optimistic scanning the fields, not least because the days of government mandates for wheat production appear to have ended. He thinks that will give him more opportunities to earn extra money by selling more-valuable vegetables.

"I am not restrained by any government condition. I am free to use the land the way I want it," said Khadim, 37, whose family has farmed in this rural area south of Baghdad for decades.

Khadim's taking advantage of a drop in violence to rebuild decrepit canals and boost his farm's production as part of a 700-member agricultural cooperative. He's part of a trend that many hope will increase across the country, bolster employment and restore Iraq's status as an historic breadbasket for the Middle East.

As Khadim's farm shows, Babil Province - known not long ago as a part of the "Triangle of Death" - could be a sort of salad bowl for Iraq if the peace holds and farmers are able to invest in their land.

"They could turn Babil Province into an agricultural center like the Fresno valley," said Patrick Broyles, a U.S. Department of Agriculture adviser from Emporia, Kan., who is working in the region around Khadim's farm.

That prospect is about a decade off in the best of circumstances, said several American agricultural experts who have worked in the country since 2003. They're working to support the agricultural sector because it's a vital employer, accounting for as much as a quarter of jobs in Iraq.

The country benefits from a 10-month growing season, good soil and its two rivers, which have supported farming in Iraq for thousands of years — the Tigris and Euphrates.

"The basic system for agriculture is there; it's just in shambles" said Joseph King, a project leader for studies on Iraqi farming conducted by Texas A&M University's Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture

The biggest obstacles that could keep Iraq importing its food well into the future include:

_ A shortage of electricity and fuel that blocks farmers from pumping water out of wells.

_ Poor systems to deliver water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to farms. Khadim's area is served by one main canal constructed by the British in the 1930s, and another, in poor condition, that was built about 30 years ago by a Turkish company. Both need continual maintenance, Khadim said.

_ Depleted seed and livestock supplies that were hindered first by the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and then by United Nations sanctions that followed Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait through the following decade. "Basically with every crop grown in Iraq, there are better varieties that could be grown," Broyles said.

_Inefficient drainage on many farms that allows salt to build up over time, ruining soil.

_A shortage of border security agents to prevent Syrian, Iranian or Turkish imports from flooding Iraqi markets and jeopardizing the health of Iraqi crops.

Those challenges are so severe that U.S. and Iraqi officials are chipping away at them instead of tackling them whole.

"In six months, we're not going to change that," said Edwin Price, director of the Borlaug Institute. "In three years we're not going to change it."

A team from Price's institute studied agriculture in Iraq's provinces over the past year, crafting detailed recommendations for each.

It's focusing on educating farmers more than calling for immediate changes in how Iraqis manage their agricultural sector. One of its projects launched 4-H clubs in southern Babil province, where students chose to work together on raising poultry.

The State Department has a similar strategy. It's investing in Iraq's agricultural extension program to spread knowledge about the latest farming techniques.

"The proof to me will be when everyone is happy with respect to ag income," said a U.S. embassy official who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "Ultimately the goal is to provide enough income so people won't be shooting at each other, or at us."

Price noted a regional demand for certain Iraqi exports - dates, eggplants, cucumbers and okra. He has encouraged farmers to focus on those crops, which can earn them higher incomes - and use less water - than cereal grains. Iraqi lamb is considered a delicacy, too.

Iraqis have a pent up demand for locally grown food. Many Iraqis believe their products simply taste better than their counterparts from Syria and Iran.

"The quality of the ag produce is the best in all the Middle East," said Fuad Husseian, a Kurdish man who is working with Broyles on a contract with the State Department in Babil province.

But Iraqi produce is hard to find in the fruit and vegetable markets that dot Baghdad's streets. Most of the cornucopia of pomegranates, tangerines, cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants at the markets comes from Syria, sellers said.

"Every time retail sellers come to buy from us, the first question they ask is 'Do you have local product,'" said Qusay Abbas Ahmed, 30, a wholesaler in the town of Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad. "After we say no, they start looking around. They prefer it because the Iraqi product tastes better and is fresher, and to tell you the truth, one enjoys eating the product of his own country," Ahmed said.

Wholesalers say they can't get products from Iraqi farmers, who they say have been held back primarily by the electricity shortage. They said it was easier to get Iraqi food during the U.N. sanctions because so few imports were allowed across the border.

Jassim Abu Atheer, 42, owns a wholesale stand in Abu Ghraib and has fruit orchards in the Diyala province east of Baghdad. He said Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture should restore subsidies for fuel and fertilizer to help farmers to pre-war levels. Those subsidies remain, though to a lesser degree.

"Now we are supported with nothing, no seeds, no fertilizers," he said. "If the farmer was to buy what he needed from the market it would be more expensive than the goods that are being imported."

Bloody sectarian violence didn't help, either. The wholesale market in Abu Ghraib was unreachable for some of its customers in 2006 and 2007 because of road closures, the wholesalers said.

Kadhim's province suffered severely during that period, too. Insurgents threatened to kill his parents if they didn't leave their land.

An al Qaida in Iraq cell took up positions along a primary canal, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to fix its leaks. Kadhim and others worked with tribes and the American military to eliminate those cells.

A flourishing agricultural sector could be a key to keeping those cells from returning, said Sayeed Sabaa, a leader of a farming committee on Babil's district council.

He attended a ceremony this week to mark the opening of the U.S.-funded $3.2 million "Central Euphrates Farmers Market," a project that's expected to make it easier for Babil farmers to sell their products.

"We hope to implement this and have people to work here to stabilize the security situation," Sabaa said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report. Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee)

November 9, 2008

Ribbon Cutting in Musayib

Below is a release by MNC-I on the November 5 ribbon cutting that I participated in to celebrate the renovation of the District Council building. One year ago there were tanks in the streets of Musayib. Today you can stroll the streets.

Musayyib opens $85K city hall

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ISKAN, Iraq – Provincial and local government representatives, Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition forces celebrated the grand opening of the renovated Musayyib City Hall Nov. 5.

“We worked hard to get this project done … with the help from the Iraqi Security Forces, Coalition forces, and all of you here today, you have all come together to make this project possible,” said Jabber, council chairman.

The Iraqi Commander Emergency Response Program funded the $85,000 project.

The ceremony opened with versus from the Quran followed by speeches from Jabber, Mayor Ali, Ken Hillas of the Provincial Reconstruction Team and the assistant governor.

“For a local government to work well, a community must believe in its future and in the capacity and determination of its citizens to participate in self rule,” said Hillas. “Democracy is not easy … the strength and effectiveness of the democratic government that this structure houses rests with you, the people of Musayyib. I am sure you will take advantage of its privileges and not allow that to slip away.

“The biggest danger is always apathy and indifference.” Hillas said.
“If your community is to be well and wisely governed, the citizens must be involved. Every woman and man has duties as well as rights in a democracy.”

The renovated city hall reflects the transformation of the city of Musayyib.

“The building has a new look, and now it’s more qualified for the members to work better and get our people in Musayyib all kinds of help,” said Ali.

The grand opening shows how far the local government and security forces have come over the past year.

“God willing, it will inspire others to continue striving to build a better community … and may it be a lasting monument for the faith in the future and the power of democracy,” said Hillas. “I want you to know that you are not alone in this endeavor. The U.S. government…is proud to support the efforts of the government of Iraq in meeting the essential needs of the Iraqi people. You may be assured that our partnership will continue as we build on the gains achieved over the last year.”

November 3, 2008

Man Meets Camel

Recently, an Iraqi camel visited our compound, and I found that we could communicate.

Then we connected, ney, we bonded . . . .

But someone else entered the picture, a soldier with more charm than me.

And just as quickly, the camel's affections were his. Guess I was lucky.

October 29, 2008

From our trip today to northern Babil with the Provincial Council Chair (second from the left).

October 24, 2008

Security Portfolio Turned Over to Babil Province

Gov Salam Saleh Mahdi Al-Muslimawi addresses the crowd at the PIC ceremony
A view from the parade route of the reconstructed walls of ancient Babylon

On October 23, Babil was the latest province in Iraq to transition to Provincial Iraqi control (PIC) of security. The event was cause for a big ceremony next to the Babylonian ruins that received lots of coverage in the Baghdad and regional media (e.g., Al Jazeera) but little beyond that. The handover of security responsibilities in Babil leaves only the province of Wasit in southern Iraq that has yet to make the transition.

At a celebration prior to the PIC signing, Babil Governor Salam Saleh Mahdi Al-Muslimawi said the event was "a gift from God." He was speaking to a crowd of several hundred people gathered for the event that took place next to the ancient ruins of Babylon. Others addressing the crowd include Prime Minister Maliki's National Security Advisor, Mowaffaq Al-Rubaie, Multinational Iraq Corps (MNC-I) Commander Lieutenant General Austin and Provincial Council Chairman Muhammed Ali Hussain Al-Massoudi. After the speeches, Governor Salam and Major General Oates, Commander of MultiNational Division-South, signed the formal document establishing Provincial Iraqi Control (PIC).

In his remarks, Lieutenant General Austin noted the real improvements in security over the last year, during which insurgent attacks in Babil had declined 80%. He stressed the continuing commitment of the Coalition to partner with the ISF in building on those security gains, providing a basis for improvements in essential services for Babil's citizens in the areas of water, sewage, electricity and transportation.

BG Abdul Ameer, 31st Brigade 8th Army, with me after the PIC ceremony

He had a uniform that would have made a British Field Marshall proud

Units from the Iraqi Army, Police, SWAT, and Civil Response Teams paraded before a reviewing stand in celebration of PIC. National Security Advisor Rubaie had several praise singers shout acclaim for the achievements of Prime Minister Mailiki's Government. LTG Austin used the opportunity to announce to the crowd that the province of Wasit, the only one in the south that has not transitioned to Provincial Iraqi Control, would do so in another week. With that, Iraqi Security Forces will have the lead responsibility for security in all of southern Iraq, reflecting the gains of the last year. That "gift from God" was one that both Governor Salam and Minister Rubaie'e recognized as the fruit of a joint effort by Iraq and the Coalition, working as partners in Babil to consolidate security, move ahead on reconstruction and strengthen democracy and governing institutions.

The ceremonies were followed by a lunch for invited guest in the Presidential compound along the banks of the Hillah River within the protected site of the ancient Babylonian ruins, where the province's future and fabled past found reflection in the events of the day. One observer, remarking on the significance of the day, said that it was "the beginning of the end" of the Coalition's mission. That may turn out to be true, hopefully so, but it is not yet a certainty.

October 21, 2008

Iftar dinner in Hilla.

This news may be a little dated, but it was just reported by the US Embassy: PRT Shares Iftar with Iraqis in Babil Province.

Saying good-by to Al-Tufail tribe leader Sheik Al-Shanan at the end of Iftar.

Sheikh Ali Shanan:
"The [PRT's] yearly tradition of hosting an Iftar dinner during Ramadan is an excellent opportunity for members of Babylon's local government to come together with local NGO representatives, tribal leaders and businessmen.”

He added, “Such an invitation reflects mutual respect of the religious rituals and rites of Christianity and Islam. On behalf of myself and all the tribal leaders in Hillah, I extend our thanks to the REO and the PRT."

October 6, 2008

Team Babylonians.

Today I will run a 5km race for the cure to raise money for combating breast cancer in partnership with people in Denver, whence one of our staff hails.