Our Man In Baghad Returns Home

Our Man In Baghad Returns Home

Heading back for Thanksgiving in a couple of days, after a stop in Jordan. I didn’t even have time to get into trouble here. But not to worry, I’ll figure a way to do so. And I’ll be back in B early next year in any event. I can do much of the work from home with a daily hour Baghdad telecon, plus phone meetings with the Embassy and business center board.

A friend of mine wrote from Luanda that an average meal costs $50 and his decaying apartment $3,500/month. For that kiind of money here you can have Saddam himself serve your food (be sure to hire a taster) and clean your toilet (have your taster sit on it first).

A tragic development is that my printer no longer speaks Chinese. It has been fixed. The English voice every time I print is plain annoying.

Street smarts. While at my desk on Friday I heard a loud “WWHHHARRRRRRR!!!!” It was not a scream in pain, but a throaty burst of deep anguish. The rooms of my Kaleej hotel, like many buildings here, are set about 3 feet back from the outside wall, forming a shallow terrace. The false front, usually featuring arched openings, protects the rooms from the direct sunlight and heat. My old room overlooked a courtyard between the Al Kaleej and Ba hdad Hotels (the “g” is missing from the sign). Peppered with temporary buildings and decorated with razor wire and a stylish assortment of blast walls, the yard features five machine gun nests pointed inside. I hope nothing ever happens in the yard, these guys will shoot each other.

My new room overlooks Sadoon Street, featuring nine barricaded emplacements, all mercifully pointed outward. Once Sadoon was one of the busiest thoroughfares. At the second wwhhaaarrr!!–only one cry is too ordinary to capture attention–I rushed out onto my fourth floor terrace to see what was up. On Friday, unless you are planting bombs or are an American working against a deadline, you are in a mosque, with family, on a picnic, or just outta here. So the streets were nearly empty. I watched a dissheveled man stagger down Sadoon, arms tucked into armpits, bellowing again and again. The few people nearby did not take notice. I was too far away and walled off, and it was too dangerous for me to try to go out anyway. In less than two minutes a police van with a loud siren pulled up, grabbed him the way passing trains used to grab mail sacks off of extended hooks without slowing down, and rocketed away. Across Sadoon I saw a dad on a roof, holding his toddler son, watching it all unfold, the dad indifferent.

Electron night results. I bought a charming electric alarm clock at the PX that wakes me when it chooses and keeps time with the consistency of Bush’s Iraq policy. Maybe the two are related. The problem is that its (the clock’s, not the President’s) back-up battery maintains the clock when the electricity cuts out, but at a more leisurely pace than Greenwich suggests. The electricity goes out 5-15 times/day, much worse than before, despite the fact that since I last was here, all but one of our old generators have been replaced by new ones. Most electrical lapses are restored promptly, but our generators have to be hand started, and sometimes in the evening or during the night the process takes a long time. Each night I try to trick the clock by advancing it the number of minutes I think it will lose. The clock is winning by losing, and I am losing by advancing. Like its relative’s Iraq policy.

Noses are red, violence are blue. I got it wrong, really wrong, when I suggested that from my limited time “out” I thought things might be cooling down. Yes, there is less traffic on the streets. Because there is more terror aimed at keeping people off them. Business has largely shut down. Owners either close their shops and factories or visit them infrequently. They not only change the times and routes that they occasionally travel to work, but now they change their cars, too. Ammar’s neighbor decided to go against the grain. With a couple of “friends” he discussed plans for reopening his business. He was shot the next day.

Did you know it is American policy not to count Iraqi deaths? Ammar is a Shia. He owns land away from Baghdad. Several months ago he went to see it and found that it had been usurped by people who now fish farm on it. They knew who he was. They simply warned him not to come back unless he fancied a haircut with an ax. Nor can he visit his parents’ house. They are in Amman now with Ammar’s wife and children. Despite the fact that the Shia and Sunni neighbors are good friends of long standing, anyone–any gardner, passer-by, maid, driver, or person with a grudge–could do him in. Ammar is a bit dramatic, but I guess that comes of being kidnapped twice.

By the way, kidnappings are up ten fold over about a year and a half ago, and that doesn’t even include the recent heist at the Ministry of Education. Mohammed, a Sunni, says that delivering goods anywhere is impossible. An associate of his is a Sunni vegetable dealer. His major market always had been in a Shiite neighborhood. The associate dare not drive his produce to market now. So, he brings his vegetables to a Shia in a secret garage. The Shia buys at deep discount, transfers trucks, and takes the produce to the market. Both are at great risk. A dope deal in reverse. Raid says that the labor pool extends as far as neighborhood boundaries. You can’t look for the best workers or even ones with the skills you may need, but can only hire whoever does not have to travel to work, whatever skills he may possess. The other reason things do not appear so bad is that the focus of the violence is now so internal that Americans are less a part of the picture.

Contact cement. Limited mobility and long work long together tends to set friendships quickly and fix them fast. People I could barely recall remembered me, how long I had been gone, and what I had been doing when I was here. It is less flattering than it seems. It is the environment and the limited opportunities for socialization.

Duane is one of those. We had talked for about fifteen minutes at a birthday party for an Iraqi here in May or June. Then we both left, he for an Iraqi FOB. I came back days before Duane. Duane specializes in solving problems in danger areas for Sandi. A retired Navy officer with three grown kids (two military and one studying undertaking–nice–none will ever run out of work), he has tried two HVAC businesses, real estate, and retirement. Nothing floated his boat. Now he moves form one job and company to another, at least until May. That is when Duane’s wife graduates medical school in Florida, for which his contracting jobs pay. Then she will become a hospital administrator (she already has whatever other degree she needs) and he will move back. Duane has little use for American companies and even less for the Iraqis with whom he works. His life will begin again after May, so he says.

I have a friend at State, a refugee from the Big Four. By her own description a rich girl and a passionate conservative, she came to Baghdad in 2003 when ideals were high and the situation loose. She went home deflated in early ’06. She could not stay away, for many of the same reasons that I came back. She is irritated all the time now. When she first came she could go out on the street, meet people, buy food and goods, even go out to eat/drink. Now she feels–and is–far more confined than I. Because she watched this place in Dante-ian descent, she understands why she cannot go out. Still, she finds the path from friendly and even hopeful relationships between Americans and Iraqis into interactions punctuated by suspicion, fear, and danger intensely depressing.

Like a lot of the “officials” here, she was indifferent not just to Rumsfeld’s fate, but to pronouncements of any sort from Washington. She hopes for any change for the better, but remains skeptical that it will happen. She finds it easier to talk to outsiders than openly where she lives/works. She feels people insdie the IZ are so isolated they still don’t get it. Most rotate out at the first opporunity and just haven’t seen what she has.

Her conservatism is tarnished as she grows sick and sicker of our presence and of the mess we have made of our ideals and Iraqi lives. Mostly, she talks about quitting, but cannot bring herself to do it. I could repeat the story for a friend at USAID, who has finally admitted that they have done nothing in three years. She has left on an extended vacation and it is rumored she will not return–sort of like Mike, the missing scrap iron PSD.

You know, of course, that we are building the world’s largest embassy in Iraq. It is almost complete–at least the outside. It has top priority as a construction project. Cutting and running under the Dems? I don’t think so. With all the space in the IZ [“Green Zone”], a large source of government income for the U.S. is leasing of “villas” to corporate and other interests who want to be close to action. All straightforward venality, no corruption, I’m sure. Leave that to the Iraqis.

I’ve heard some novel Ministry corruption schemes, one perhaps involving several people I know. Meanwhile, out of a $34 billion budget, Iraq has about $15-18 billion unspent in 2006. Is this good or bad? I’m thinking folks here might could use it. I also calculated that given what we have spent, if we had just given $30,000 to every man, woman, and child in Iraq in 2003, we’d have been farther ahead.

What has four legs and flies? The chafing dish in the Ba hdad Hotel (most buffets are all you can eat–ours is any you can eat). Also Raqi, a two month old doberman pup that Tamra, Nael, and Jason have adopted and I named. Every time I go the the IZ, I pick up a dozen Stars and Stripes for Raqi’s “trainings.” I told a puzzled guard at the Embassy gate I was reading Raqi’s toilet. He didn’t get it, but then again he doesn’t speak English. It was a blow, since I have always found that non-English speakers are my best audience. Raqi doesn’t get it either. He still pees and poops on my rug.

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By | 2006-11-28T13:09:00+00:00 November 28th, 2006|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Anonymous November 28, 2006 at 10:12 pm - Reply

    I must admit that your fortitude is admirable. It must be heartbreaking to see a country being totally destroyed and its people turned against themselves in the name of “freedom.” Today I heard our fearless leader proclaim that it is up to the Iraqis to make their country work. Our forces go in, without plan or supplies, with disregard to warnings about the possibilities, make a total horror of the place and then it’s up to the local govt to fix it all. What khutzpah. I also love those in the Jewish community, like Olmert, who insist that the “war” was good. From my perspective it has been a disaster for Israel and everyone else, except the criminals and lunatics. Ralph, Yasher Koakh. Paul Shane

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