March 8, 2008

Baghdad In-Processing and Consultations

After the March 3-4 Conference of Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Leaders, I had to go through the time-honored process of checking into the Embassy.

Like most everything else, Baghdad is a bit different; in fact it is easier. It's just that you don't usually get to roam around a giant Palace in the process. The building was originally the Palace of the King of Iraq. The Baathists enlarged it, adding two wings to it. It is in effect the equivalent of the Iraqi White House. It will be interesting to see what happens to it, given its central location in the International Zone (IZ), once the Embassy relocates to the new compound.

The new Embassy Chancery is a mile or so down the road in the IZ, and like most modern Embassies resembles more a large prison (the barbed wire on the top of the wall enhances the impression) than a traditional Embassy, but this has been a trend for more than a decade, as we have had to raise our security standards for obvious reasons. The degree of collaboration and team work between the the US military and the civilian side is impressive. Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus have set the example, colocating their offices next to one another. All reports are that the level of teamwork in the PRTs is just as good, although there are always going to be a few exceptions based on personalities.

I had useful consultations with the Office of Provincial Affairs, the Embassy office that oversees the PRTs. I also met with the former team leader. I had consutations with the Econ and PolMil Counselors, both old colleagues from the EUR Bureau (Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs). It is amazing how many former Ambassadors we have in this place, and how many are visiting. One such person now visiting Iraq headed our negotiating team last year for talks with the Poles about a bilateral a Status of Forces Agreement. He is doing the same here.

While in Baghdad, I had the opportunity to meet the incoming PRT Deputy for Babil, a great fellow from the same town my cousin lives in Connecticut.

The former DATT (Defense Attache) in Prague, Ed Gallagher, is assigned to the Embassy having retired from the military and then entered the Foreign Service. He showed me around the other day as we drove over to the other side of the IZ to visit one of the few liquor stores. To my surprise it had no visible security, but it is possible that the security is purchased, as one my say.

We drove past the parade grounds where there are two giant crossed swords that hang above the road. What you don't see from the pictures of this scene -- the famous footage of Saddam Hussein shooting a rifle in the air from the reviewing stand -- are the hundreds of helmets of dead Iranian soldiers from the 1980-88 War cemented into the base of the giant crossed swords and also across the roadway over which the parading Iraqi tanks and trucks would drive.

Polish Ambassador Edward Pietrzyk invited Ed and me to have lunch at his residence on Thursday. He was injured late last year in an IED (improvised explosive device) attack that badly burned him. Our quick response force was on the scene in just minutes, about which he still speaks. (The Polish Ambassador decorated about a dozen of the Marines involved for saving his life back in October, 2007.) He has had a remarkable recovery, but still wears special gloves, as his hands were particularly burned. He said that an American General (unnamed), who also suffered similar burns once, took over two years to recover.

The USG helped get the Polish Ambassador's residence located in the IZ after the attack, which is a big improvement in terms of security. Ambassador Pietrzyk has a great attitude and lots of energy, looking for ways that Poland will remain engaged in Iraq after its troop withdrawal in October. We talked about his visiting Babil Province, which is just north of Diwaniyah, where Polish forces are stationed.

This is my last journal entry before flying down to Hilla on Sunday. It is possible that I will stay there until June, if I don't take a weekend off and visit Baghdad before mid-June. Check in periodically for updates.

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