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.

Polish heroine.

I just received word from Barbara that Irena Sendlerowa died last week. She truly was an inspirational woman, and displayed remarkable bravery in saving many Jews during WWII. I am glad that I had a chance to meet her in my first year in Poland at an awards ceremony that honored her. Each year there are fewer persons who lived through that era. She was a living example that it is possible for ordinary persons to reach inside themselves and do extraordinary things in resisting and persevering against evil. Now she belongs to the history books.

I am still stuck in Hillah...

... waiting for the helicopter that should take me to Baghdad. Three military helo sorties have passed through here but the Embassy-run helos are grounded due to weather. They need clear weather for non-critical missions, and moving personnel around the country for meetings is not a top priority in the bigger scheme of things. If it doesn't pick me up in the next hour, I won't travel until tomorrow.

Am going to Baghdad to attend a discussion in the Embassy on the upcoming provincial elections. A majority of the Sunni parties and also the Sadrist Trend stayed away from the 2005 provincial elections, and thus do not have elected reps on the provincial council. The Sunnis are set to run candidates, but it is not yet clear -- with only two weeks left for the registration process -- whether the Sadrists will participate or boycott.

A few days ago I obtained the release of a Sadrist detainee. We turned over the Sadrist to a sympathizer who sits on the Provincial Council and had to sign a guarantor's statement. The aim is to engage the Sadrists in a dialogue and to promote reconciliation. We have not had a dialogue with the ST in this province up till now. We are hoping that the word gets out about the release.

My helo to Baghdad tomorrow should fortunately leave in the early morning, so I will be able to avoid the highest temps of the day, which will be over 100F tomorrow.

I much prefer cold to heat, and I don't find myself changing my view. If anything a year here may reinforce it.

I am struck at how beautiful the moon is here, apparently due to the lack of humidity. One can really see a lot of detail in the seas of the moon. The dry air does not bend the light rays. There is also less ambient light from cities, especially this time of year.

There are now only a couple of hours of electricity each day in Babil and most neighboring provinces. Just two months ago it averaged eight hours per day of electricity. The demand for electricity, of course, goes up significantly with the hot weather, so two hours of voltage this time of year is the equivalent of 6 or 8 hours several months ago when air conditioning was not being used.