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.

March 6, 2008

Gerash, Jordan.

Here are some photos that a State Dept. lawyer took when we went to visit Gerash on our way to Baghdad.

Walking off into the sunset....

March 4, 2008

Now, some Baghdad observations...

The guy next to me in the ***Cafe, which has a bank of computer terminals is compulsively wiping down his keyboard before using it. Some folks probably fixate on the threats they can deal with as a way of making themselves feel in control. For those of us who long ago recognized that life is like riding a wave, Baghdad presents fewer problems.

We had an interesting session with Gen. Petraeus today. He talks a lot about separating the irreconcilables from the reconcilables amongst the pro-insurgent community. I want us to do more outreach....I like to get out and work with host country officials. These are just a bit different in that they may be thinking about doing you in.

The level of violence country wide is at the lowest levels since early 2004, and nearly half of all the attacks last month occured in the Province of Nineveh, and even there the level of violence has dropped in recent weeks. Anyway, I have an appointment on Sunday (an Iraqi work day) or Monday with the Provincial Governor, as well as the Brigade and Battalion Commanders with whom our PRT is partnered.

The amazing thing for me is that it seems like everytime I walk down a hallway in Saddam's old Palace, I run into someone I know.

I will get a phone tomorrow!

Arrival in Baghdad

Sending this note while I only have 10 minutes before an Embassy reception.

After a day of training in W. Virginia -- where they taught us how to detect surveillance and avoid getting killed -- I drove back to DC and quickly packed and headed to Dulles. Luckily I was able to use frequent flyer miles to upgrade for the flight to London, where I connected to Amman. Our milair flight on Sunday was cancelled and I was able to do some sightseeing in the ancient Roman city of Jerash just north of Amman (see post below), together with a few State Dept lawyers headed to serve in Baghdad.

The Monday morning flight (or late evening) required us to depart the hotel at 3:15am. We flew out of Marka Military (Jordanian) airport on a C-17. These are much more comfortable than the C-130s that were used to fly around the National War College class eight years ago.

I of course, was carrying too much stuff, but managed to haul everything (a duffle bag, suitcase, carry-on and briefcase), but it was a workout. Fortunately the weather in Amman and BBaghdad was pleasant and has not yet gotten hot. On arrival at Baghdad, there is no organized system for transporting folks to the IZ. You have to first get your PPE (personal protective gear) -- a flak jacket and helmet. With some advice from a veteran, several of us got ourselves booked onto a helo only one hour after landing. Often one has to wait many hours, or even until late evening to take a vehicle, called the Rhino because it looks like one. Another PRT leader took me under his wing and led me to the billeting office, where I got a key to a room as well as sheets (but no towel). They don't give them to transients -- that's folks like me.

Anyway, I got to the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) conference organized by the Embassy around noon. Met the new MNC-I Commanding General (LTG Austin) and his deputies, who had already heard of me from folks in the Pentagon. I listened to the interesting discussion butin my modest wisdom that comes with age, I restrained from even asking a question, since it might seem presumptuous for someone who only arrived four hours earlier.

I'll be here for four or five days before heading to Hilla. At that point I may be able to start the blog (in the meantime, Barbara has been adding e-mails to the blog, to capture everything that's needed for a journal).

Best wishes to you all from Saddam's old Palace.

March 3, 2008

The milair flight today was cancelled...

...leaving me a day to do tourism in Amman. Jerash, about 40 mins north of Amman, is the ancient Roman city of Gerasa, which started as the Greek city (!) of Philadelphia. Beautiful ruins, to which the post card I bought does not do justice. (The photo shows Hadrian's Arch). I went there together with two other persons -- both lawyers from State's Legal Advisor's Office -- who are transiting also through Amman to Baghdad.

I wonder at times about spending nearly one and one half year in a place like Babil. That is just one year less than my total time in Warsaw!

I leave very early tomorrow morning - 3:15am. I may miss the first day of the PRT conference -- the reason for my hurried departure from DC -- if I don't get a helo from BIAP (Baghdad Airport) to the IZ.