May 18, 2008

Traveling out of Iraq; the meaning of "Iraq"; sandstorms and sandtraps...

My two days (ongoing) of waiting for a helo to take me to Baghdad underscores that traveling here is a bit like gambling: sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you lose. Most people build in a buffer of a few days, if they are traveling from a PRT to Baghdad and then onward for a flight out of the country, so as not to miss reaching their commercial flight.

I know some people who have been stuck in Baghdad for almost a week due to weather or for other reasons. My plan for going back to Warsaw and onward for summer leave is to book a helo ride to Baghdad a few days in advance of my milair flight to Amman, from which I will take a commercial flight to Frankfurt/Warsaw.

If I miss either of the two legs prior to Amman, I will miss my commercial flight. Traveling inside or into/out of Iraq, where the first priority of helos is saving lives and where dust storms regularly prevent all aircraft from flying, can be more risky than flying into Terminal Five at Heathrow. (No offense meant to any Brits, just a measure of comparison.)

Sandstorms in central Iraq have not historically been a big problem, I am told by the locals - unlike Kuwait, for instance, where sandstorms have always been a normal part of the weather. Twenty years ago, there were 3-4 sandstorms a year in Hillah. We have had more than that in the almost two and one-half months I have been here.

We are now, of course, in the midst of a drought, which has parched the earth, especially up north, where it is usually greener. The Hillah and Euphrates rivers are down almost one meter. Still, there is a tremendous amount of water underground.

It is common -- and easier -- to use a bulldozer to reach water than dig a traditional well. They just have to scrape away three or four meters of earth to hit the water table. The desert is speckled with these bull-dozered mounds of earth surrounding pools of water. The locals throw in a pump and irrigate a patch of land around the watering hole and there are these green islands.

In fact, the word Iraq, is similar to the word for artery "irq," which some of the locals claim is a reference to the "underground rivers" that flow through Mesopotamia's heartland. Others claim that the name Iraq comes from Ork -- a coincidental similarity to the bad creatures it the Lord of the Rings. Ork supposedly was derived from Ur, the most ancient city in this part of the world, just a drift downriver.

Prior to March, when the IZ (international zone) started getting shelled regularly, Baghdad was a comparatively nice place to be stuck. There is a movie theater (which I haven't visited) and a large pool area. The food there is comparable to what we get in Hillah, although perhaps a bit better. Life there has became more difficult since March with the nearly daily rocket attacks.

The number of shellings has eased recently, but the recent intense period of attacks resulted in several deaths, including an FSO. Nevertheless, getting to Baghdad is also a chance for consulting with different offices in the Embassy or for making requests -- or delivering on them. When/if I travel there tonight, I have to pick up maps, consult with HR, and of course there is our home office, OPA (Office of Provincial Affairs).

I get to write this journal entry, because I am skipping dinner. I had a large lunch with some visiting Sheiks, who brought with them pictures of Paul Bremer and a previous Regional Coordinator, the precursor in Hillah to the PRT.

The sheiks have a different perspective on the situation, and of course are attuned to the mood and needs of their tribesmen in a way that many elected politicians are not. Tribal loyalties in Iraq today give real meaning to the adage that "blood is thicker than water." And there is an instinctive admiration for a strong leader, which PM Maliki seems to have tapped into. The sheiks almost uniformly applaud Maliki's aim of re-establishing the rule of law and disbanding militias and for having the gumption to take the fight to the Mahdi Army, even while inviting them to take part in the political process. One strongman they did not admire in this part of Iraq was Saddam Hussein. He did little to lift the standard of living in southern or south-central Iraq and he aggressively persecuted the Shia in the wake of the 1991 uprising. Many males from Hillah fled the country around this time.

After an extended talk about this topic and Iran, one of the sheiks today said I needed a robe and traditional headgear to match my beard. My deputy interpreted that as a sign that I can expect to get a robe.

That made me think what it would be like to wear it on my travel through Frankfurt and Warsaw airport and see the reaction of the security officials when I pull out my American diplomatic passport. The ensuing cognitive dissonance might be interesting to observe, but I don't want to risk being yanked off a flight after successfully negotiating the sandstorms and sandtraps of travel inside Iraq.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read every single blog. They're extremely informative and vivid... almost feel as if I'm there myself. Hope you do make it to Poland and that we'll have an opportunity to meet again. Take care! - Stefan