Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Screw It!!! My First Week in Baghdad (Part I)

I haven't received official clearance to post from here yet, although nobody seems to be clear on who would provide said clearance anyways. So for now, operating under the old Army adage "It's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission," some observations from my first week in Baghdad:

- On my first day in country, MNSTC-I gave me the day off to
reset my sleep schedule. So when not passed out, I decide to walk around the Palace grounds a bit to orient myself. I took in the sunshine, the breeze blowing through the palm trees, the birds chirping . . . the crack of small arms fire in the distance. It was likely coming from a range on one of the American posts just outside the International Zone, but it is still a little disconcerting to hear it for the first time in this environment.

- On Thursday morning I inprocess with an E-5 who used to work with the Special Forces teams up north, so we end up having lunch with some of her buddies. One thing I like about the Palace is that it has a distinctly "Wild West" feel to it, especially the internet cafe/coffee lounge. As percussion heavy World music plays in background, U.S. military personnel wearing body armor sip lattes and meet with Iraqi officials in Italian suits; khaki-clad Foreign Service Officers sit beside officers from any of the dozen foreign militaries I've seen in the Palace; brawny security personnel wearing ear pieces chat casually with former Special Ops guys now making a fortune as private security contractors; and sunglass wearing "OGAs" (Other Government Agency) sit quietly reading the newspaper. Oh, and the best part is that we're all visibly armed and caryring extra clips of ammunition!

- One piece of good news: when I meet him face-to-face, Ambassador Khalilzad appears to remember me from our one meeting last summer in DC. I guess it pays to be short yet loud and obnoxious!

-- Friday afternoon at the office, I hear a low rumbling sound, as if furniture were being moved in an office above us. One of my co-workers asks me if I'd heard that, and said it was an explosion. One of the military guards outside the office says that particular rumble was just construction work in another wing of the Palace, but like the small arms fire, this gives me something to think about.

-- On Saturday I make my first trip outside the International Zone, as the Ambassador travels to the Al Huriyah Youth Center to view the rehabilitated facilities and deliver a set of remarks I've drafted. Before departing, I scramble to ensure I have certain necessities in the event of a worse-case scenario: extra magazines, field dressings, quick clot, etc. We are met at the cetner by Nic Robertson of CNN, who has the exclusive video rights to the event, although there are numerous Iraqi press there, and one strikingly beautiful blonde reporter from the AP.

Ambassador Khalilzad begins touring the youth center, visiting with a group of young boxers, then some weightlifters, and finally we proceed into the wrestling room, where fourteen teenage boys are practicing takedowns. The wrestling coach sees my interest in the wrestlers, and puts his hand over his heart, an Arab gesture of friendship. I speak with one of the directors of the youth center, and decide right away to try to obtain American sponsorship for the wrestling team. (If interested, email either me or my brother for details). A soccer team is brought into the room, and the Ambassador delivers his remarks from a stage at one end of the room. Although the speech turns out to be a bit more formal than the occasion required (my fault, not the Ambassador's), the audience of sixty Iraqis applauds enthusiastically.

-- Sunday morning, I have breakfast with Senator John McCain. (Real story and picture to follow at a later date).

-- Sunday afternoon, Ambassador Khalilzad gives a speech at a ceremony celebrating the inauguration of the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team. Whereas yesterday he was mobbed by the media after finishing his remarks, today it is a throng of local politicians who surround him, desperate for the opportunity to shake his hand and be photographed with him.

-- At 0600 Monday my roommate and I are awoken by an explosion that later turns out to be the detonation of a weapons cache discovered in a raid on a kidnapping ring in NE Baghdad. Later in the day, there is a controlled detonation of a rocket that failed to detonate within the IZ. (I can't give precise locations for the obvious security reasons). Perhaps the only thing worse than having the shell detonate in your trailer, I imagine, is to have it not detonate, and then watch helplessly as the Emergency Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team blows the round -- and all of your possessions -- anyways. Sure, you're safe and sound, but is a life without your Sony PlayStation (or other gadgets) really worth living?