April 2, 2008

Bombings, Babylon and the Bloody Sands.

It has been busy the last two weeks, and I had forgotten that I wrote much of this journal entry on March 13, the day before the first rocket attack on our compound in several months. Another occurred on March 17 and then again -- with more accuracy -- on March 28. We were very fortunate that no one was killed or injured. I have edited and updated the entry.

On March 20 I had the chance to participate in festivities marking Babil's designation as Iraq's cultural capital. It was one of the few "representational" activities in which I have had to engage. PM Maliki was there, and he gave a rather inspiring speech about the need to respect the rights of fellow citizens and about the change that has and is taking place in Iraq's political culture. One phrase -- about each person's freedom being tied to that of his neighbor -- could have come out of a US civics lesson. Although the festivities took place next to the Babylonian ruins -- the most important part of which (the Ishtar Gate) can be found in Berlin -- I did not have a chance to tour the ruins. Embarrassingly, my personal security detail rivaled that of the PM. I learned with surprise from some of the staff that TV viewers that evening saw a dark suited, tall, bearded man exchanging greetings with PM Maliki and assumed that it was . . . . a visiting Iranian official. As an American diplomat, I would prefer to be mistaken for something else.

It is quite impossible for PRT members to move around in a low profile fashion. We always move in a convoy of several vehicles with lots of guns and gunners. There is no alternative, given the present situation, but it is a sore point for the local population.

Another interesting site only a few minutes drive away is Abraham's birthplace, Borsippa. Together with Kish, another ancient ruin site, the tourism potential for Babil Province is not small, if the security situation were to improve significantly. I hope to have a chance to visit these two spots in the coming weeks, in shallah. The Governor last week signed MOUs with some Australian firms to build hotels and housing in Hillah. He wants to develop the tourism trade and I give him credit for thinking ahead. We are working with him to train staff on tourism and investment promotion activities. Not unsimilar to the kind of activity that took place in Eastern/Central Europe right after the fall of communism.

I have met often with Governor Salam -- three times in my first two days for a variety of reasons. He lived for many years in Iran and has an Iranian wife, in addition to his Iraqi wife. We stay in close touch; he is a "hands-on" Governor. All the activity in the south, including Babil, has limited our ability to move around, so the PRT does more work nowadays by phone. Today's announcement by Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of an opposition Shia poliitical movement (with its own militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi), may open the door to resolution of the ongoing violence in the southern part of the country, most notably in Basrah but also in Baghdad. Today there was a memorial service for one of the Americans who was killed last week in a rocket attack on the IZ (International Zone).

Babil sits astride the main north-south transportation artery along which goods are moved by truck from Kuwait to Baghdad. Babil was under a curfew for the last few days, but that was lifted today -- to the great relief of our local employees. They are a great group and very dedicated. These folks risk their lives to work for the USG.

We have had a few dust storms in the last two weeks. After each, dust coats everything in the office. It makes no difference if your windows are closed. This stuff is so fine it seems to get through anyway. Its almost like a fog and you can taste it in the air.

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