May 31, 2008

Changing of the guard.

Tomorrow early in the morning I fly to Baghdad, or more appropriately to Camp Victory, for the change of command of the Multi-National Division Center-South, which includes Babil Province. Not sure whether I am on the same helicopter as the Governor and the Iraqi Army and Police Commanders. The Tenth Mountain Division is replacing the Third Infantry Division, whose Deputy Commanding General I grew very much to like and with whom I hope to stay in touch.

The other two PRTs (Najaf and Karbala), that had been colocated with us here in Hillah, deployed out to their respective provinces over the last week. This considerably alters the dynamics, reducing the proportion of people located in the REO (Regional Embassy Offices) serving on PRTs.

At this point, we have only two FSOs (Foreign Service Officers) occupying four State Department positions on the PRT. The rest of the PRT are an interesting combination of USAID (one), direct hires, contractors of various kinds, and military personnel on a CA (Civil Affairs) Team and with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Of course, there are LES (Locally Engaged Staff), who are the real core. Just imagine an Embassy in which everyone turns over each year, and all the discontinuity that would create and how much it would increase the value of the local staff.

Well, that is the situation on a PRT or one of the four Regional Embassy Offices, which are located in Basrah, Hillah, Kirkuk and Erbil.

Two key LES will soon depart, having obtained their Special Immigrant Visas to the US. They are very deserving and will soon depart, leaving a big hole that will be very hard to fill. Unlike in the 2003-04 period, when highly educated persons were eager to work on a PRT/REO and there were few other attractive decent paying options, that is no longer the case.

While that is a good-news story for Iraq, as the economy picks up and opportunities grow, it does not make it easier to fill these positions, especially when working for the US can still entail real threats to the life and loved ones of an employee. Those who do choose to work with us, have to have lots of courage on a daily basis.

Bad news and good news...

We were supposed to have lunch with the Babil Governor last Monday, but an IED attack on his motorcade in Baghdad's outskirts and the fall out from that -- one of his bodyguards died from injuries sustained in the attack -- forced him to reschedule. We'll likely meet with him later this week. Our medical personnel in Baghdad and Balad have been working on moving one of the other three to a US medical facility to have a procedure carried out.

Today, several of us from the PRT joined Embassy personnel from Baghdad and the 3rd Infantry Division Deputy Commander traveled to the Euphrates Fish Farm not far from Hillah. The USAID contractor celebrated the completion of a carp fingerling project in which the US is providing the local fish farmers with 6 million fingerlings. These will be distributed in the coming month to the local fish farmers using vouchers.

The hope is that this will energize the fish industry. Like in Central/Eastern Europe, carp is very popular here. In fact, it is more expensive than lamb or beef. At the Fish Farm they served baked carp, and I ate some. It was actually rather good, given that I have never much liked carp -- except at Christmas in Central Europe, where it is almost a religious ritual. That reminds me, however, that I forgot to take some Cipro after we returned to the Embassy. This could be my last posting!