June 5, 2008

When You Get the Urge for Going

The helo that was to have flown me to Baghdad tomorrow (Friday) has been canceled.

That my meetings in the Embassy with various offices get wiped out is not my biggest concern; it's that I now have only one day to make it to BIAP - Baghdad International Airport - that place through which all of us serving in Iraq must pass when arriving or departing.

If you had a whole day anywhere else in the world to make a flight connection, that would seem like more than enough time. Here, however, that's not the case. Some people travel three or four days in advance to hedge against the possibility that their helo flight is canceled for weather or competing priorities. (The flight itself is a big like taking an amusement park ride. The helos bob and weave over the tree tops, never flying in a straight line. If you enjoy those kinds of rides, it's fun; if you are inclined toward motion sickness, this isn't your favorite means of transport.)

But back to the issue on my mind -- getting on that C-130 on Sunday to fly to Amman and then connecting onward to Warsaw. My three months on the ground in Hillah have been rewarding. The job of leading a 40-person PRT comprised of a wide variety of personnel is not awfully different from that of a DCM. The Management and Regional Security Office (RSO) elements in the Hillah Reginal Embassy Office are separate from the PRT, so there is not a unified management structure, and of course the tasks at hand the challenges one faces are not common to an Embassy . . . at least not in a developed and stable country.

In that regard, we were reminded this week about the danger of working here when an EFP hit one of the military vehicles only several hundred meters from our compound. Fortunately no one was killed, but two soldiers were wounded. That it was possible for the terrorists to plant an EFP in such close proximity to an Iraqi Police check point raises concern, of course.

I have just completed going over our personnel and determining when contracts need to be renewed. Fortunately, all of the State Department direct-hire employees (known as 3161s) want to renew their one year contracts. So too do the BBAs -- Bilingual/Bicultural Assistants. These are mostly naturalized Americans, with roots in Iraq or another Middle East country. Without them (and our Locally Engaged Staff (LES)), the PRT's ability to achieve its mission would be severely handicapped.

Today I signed an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the head of the Iraqi Fish Production Society IFPS) through which a PRT-originated project run by an AID contractor (INMA) will provide one million carp fingerlings. The photo below is of the IFPS President and me signing the MOU.

Carpe carp! There are many fish farms in Babil, and they are quite noticeable flying to/from Baghdad, dotting the landscape. The waters of the Euphrates are diverted to fill these man-made fish ponds, which employ lots of folks. Many of the fish farms fell into disuse and disrepair over the last decade as the Iraqi economy declined and as the security situation worsened.

Babil is more secure now, although not enough yet to have the Iraqi Security Forces here assume Provincial Iraqi Control of the security portfolio. With the improved security, we (the USG) are looking to try to catalyze renewed economic activity that will create jobs.

Many of the young men who fall in with insurgents, or help them on a part time basis, do so because it provides an income. If those same young men have constructive alternatives, the lifeline of the terrorists can be choked off. The month of May witnessed the lowest number of US military deaths since the conclusion of the liberation. Overall, acts of violence throughout Iraq are way down. These gains remain fragile, however, and the approaching provincial elections will test whether the political parties are prepared to resist the temptation to engage in traditional (violent) politics. It will not be easy to have a democratic election in a country still in conflict, even if at much reduced levels.

Footnote: At 9:30pm I received a call from the 10th Mtn HQ informing me that I have a helo to the IZ tomorrow. All you have to do is wait a little bit and things change around here -- this time for the better. This may be my last post in Iraq until early August.

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