Sunday, April 30, 2006

Interview with Vice President Al-Hashimi

Yesterday Al Jazeera interviewed Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. Al Hashimi is the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the three main Sunni parties that comprise the Al-Tawafuq Front, which is the Sunni bloc in the Council of Representatives. Vice President al-Hashimi, while never a member of the Ba'ath Party, opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was at least a sympathizer of Sunni Arab insurgents, and is known to reject the Iraqi constitution.

Given his personal and political history, his comments on the continued need for a U.S. troop presence, sympathy for Kurdish concerns, and declaration of the Iraqi political process's legitimacy illustrates just how significant the political progress in Iraq has been. [My apologies for providing excerpts without a link to the entire interview. This transcript was sent to me via an email from the Embassy's press office].

Al Jazeera: Dr. Tariq, we welcome you. At the beginning, it is our duty to offer you our sincerest condolences for the loss of your sister and before her your brother. Do you accuse any side? [In the last month, terrorists have assassinated both his brother and his sister in separate attacks.]

Al-Hashimi: In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate, I was hoping that you will congratulate me for this honor that Almighty God has bestowed on me personally, on Al-Hashimi family, and on the Iraqi Islamic Party. I believe that with their martyrdom within a period of two weeks, Almighty God has support this blessed God-inspired project. I was hoping you would congratulate me for this great honor and I ask almighty God to have them rest in peace, not to deprive us of their support on Doomsday, and to let us meet again in the everlasting abode, God willing.

On U.S. troop withdrawals
al-Hashimi: . . . The current problem is about the security vacuum. The stand of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Al-Tawafuq Front and all the nationalists is to ask the Americans, the British, and others to announce a timetable for the expeditious withdrawal of forces. But this must take place after the armed forces are restructured on a national and professional basis. Otherwise, there will be a security vacuum. This security vacuum will lead Iraq toward a civil war particularly that the first signs of a civil war are there through the sectarian sedition, may God curse those who ignited it.

On Militias and the Pesh Merga
AJ: Mr. Tariq al-Hashimi, you spoke about the militias. However, many ranking political leaders do not view the Peshmerga, for example, as armed militias and reject the principle of dissolving them or incorporating them into the Iraqi army. What is your stand on this?

al-Hashimi: Dear brother, I believe that Kurdistan has a special status not only in terms of constitutional, administrative, and legal frameworks but also within the framework of the armed forces. We cannot compare the Peshmerga to the militias that were active on 22, 23, and 24 in what took place in Baghdad [This is a reference to the wave of retribution killings, likely by Shi'a militias, in the wake of the bombing of the al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra on 22 Feb.

On the legitimacy of the Iraqi political process
AJ: Will the decision to join the political process make you a target for the resistance in Iraq, particularly in the wake of al-Zarqawi's tape?

al-Hashimi: . . . The political process that Al-Tawafuq Front has joined is the result of an extensive popular mandate in which Al-Tawafuq got around 2 million votes and won 44 seats in the House of Deputies. In addition to this, a vote took place on the usefulness, justifications, and legitimacy of the participation of Al-Tawafuq Front in the forthcoming government. The results were positive. We have a popular mandate and legitimate term of reference and we are satisfied at the soundness of our course. The blood that was shed and the martyrs who had fallen are the tax we pay and show that the people support our God-inspired project, Inshallah.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Friday Night at Saddam's Pool

I had yesterday morning off, and was able to do my PT (Physical Training, for non-military types) in the AM rather than before bed. So last night I decided to smoke the first of the cigars Marya sent me, using the cutter and acetylene torch of a lighter provided by my father, by the pool at the Republican Palace.

If there is one thing I wish I could see in this lifetime, it would be Saddam Hussein's reaction to having his private pool turned into a recreation center for American soldiers and diplomats.

Saddam's pool is (forgive the metaphor) an oasis amidst the concrete and concertina wire that surround the Embassy complex. Across the service road behind the Palace, on the south side, it is about 50x20 yards, with an inoperable fountain in the middle right, and two off-limit diving boards. (And yes, it is ironic that for safety reasons they won't let you use the high dive in a war zone). There is a grassy area of roughly equal size filled with picnic tables and a performance stage for bands or other MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) events. Since it is just behind the KBR dining facility, this area is a popular location for people to meet for lunch or dinner.

As I reclined in a lawn chair enjoying the cool Spring weather, a group of tattooed Marines played volleyball under the lights in the pool. From the gazebo behind me, came the crack of billiard balls crashing into one another on the two pool tables. In other areas poolside, people were engaged in games of table tennis, horseshoes, chess, and Spades.

There are two different types of cages in the grassy area beside the pool: one for a family of 8-10 tropical song birds, and another for hitting golf balls. On most nights a movie is shown poolside, but instead, last night was karaoke, as people absolutely murdered a series of country and Broadway standards. (I know understand why karaoke is typically restricted to locations where alcohol is served as well).

The assault on my eardrums aside, last night was a pleasant release from the stuffy confines of my office and trailer. Unfortunately, becuase this was my first cigar in several months, the nicotine had a stronger effect on me than expected, upsetting my stomach a bit. However, by the time I was finished, the DFAC was open again for "Midnight Chow" (which actually runs from 2200-midnight), so I was able to grab some soft ice cream to settle myself down.

I'm quickly learning to make do with the few small pleasures to be enjoyed here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Dinner at the al-Rashid

One of the things I liked best about being stationed in Korea in the mid-90s was that on almost any night you weren't out in the field, you could go off post into Tongdaechon and sample the local cuisine. (Even in the field, every unit had a Korean family that followed you around from one assembly area to the next selling Korean cuisine from the back of a truck. You have never truly enjoyed Ramen noodles until you've had them in 20-below weather).

So it is frustrating that security conditions prevent me from going out on the economy for an authentic Iraqi meal.

However, after the Council of Representatives meeting concluded Saturday evening, I was planning to catch a ride back to the Republican Palace with a Colonel who'd been attending the session as well. Since he was parked across the street from the Baghdad Convention Center in the al-Rashid Hotel's lot, we decided to have dinner at the hotel.

The al-Rashid is best known for two events. First, in January 1991, it was the location from which CNN filmed its amazing coverage of the air campaign against Baghdad during the First Gulf War. More recently, in October 2003, it was the hotel at which Paul Wolfowitz was staying when insurgents fired six rockets at the hotel, killing an American officer travelling with the Deputy Secretary.

But today the al-Rashid stands squarely within the International Zone, which while reducing the bustle you'd expect at one of Baghdad's two modern hotels, means it is relatively safer than it was for either Peter Arnett or the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

To get to the restaurant, we had to navigate a maze of corridors on the first floor, passing a variety of shops selling Persian rugs, jewelry, faux Babylonian/Sumerian sculptures, and of course, pirated DVDs. We passed through the lattice screen at the entrance into the main dining room. The restaurant was dimly lit, with lamps covered by shades in the shape of minaret domes. Geometric patterns were carved into the white walls, and the room was furnished with brown carpeting and chairs. Two large stuffed birds stood against the far wall, and throughout the room Mesopotamian-looking pottery and cookware was laid out for decoration.

Because all the reporters who live at the al-Rashid were still at the Convention Center, the Colonel and I had the restaurant to ourselves. When we arrived, Iraqi dance music was blaring from the speakers in the ceiling. However, after ten minutes, the waitstaff realized we were their only patrons and switched the radio to an American Easy Listening station.

This absolutely killed any sense of authenticity I hoped to experience.

We split bowls of hummus and baba ganush as appetizers. The Colonel ordered the lamb kebabs, and upon the waiter's recommendation I ordered the "Iraqi Mixed Grill." Although it was not on the menu, the waiter asked if we would like French Fries as well. I was afraid this would kill the Arabian nights feel to the meal, but the poor server seemed so proud to offer us the fries, I couldn't say no. (They were actually pretty good, especially with spicy Jordanian ketchup). The mixed grill ended up consisting of beef and chicken kabobs, two slices of lamb, and some type of ground white meat that was likely pork.

The food was good, but not quite the quality of any Lebanese Taverna back in the DC area. (It may have tasted better with a nice Cab Sauv accompaniment, but thanks to General Order #1, we stuck to bottled water). The final charge was $48 for the two of us, plus tip. In the end, it was a little bit disappointing given how eager I am to experience something authentically Iraqi.

I will definitely be back to the al-Rashid, however. I think I saw about $1,000 worth of trinkets that would look good in our house, and if Marya puts in an addition this summer, we'll need some new rugs with which to decorate.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Iraq's Council of Representatives Convenes

Yesterday, after more than three months of negotiations, the Iraqi Council of Representatives finally convened and selected the leadership (President, Vice-Presidents, Speaker and Deputy Speakers) of the new permanent government.

I had to run over to the Convention Center where the assembly was meeting in order to provide Ambassador Khalilzad with an updated draft of his press remarks, and was able to stick around while the Representatives met. Unfortunately, the Iraqis seem to have a small hang up about allowing armed Americans to sit in on sessions of their parliament, so I was not able to attend the actual vote. (Adnan Pachachi, the acting Speaker at the outset of the meeting, actually made all of the armed Iraqi bodyguards exit the assembly hall as well). Consequently, I was forced to wait for three sweltering hours in the Convention Center's atrium with an assortment of politicians, advisors, clerics, reporters, and security personnel.

Regardless, I still felt as if I were sitting outside of Constitution Hall in Philadelphia circa 1787.

Outside the Convention Center, a large Iraqi flag comprised of red, white, and black stripes flapped in the breeze. Inside, the marble walls of the atrium were covered with tile mosaics, each of which prominently featured images of doves, including the mosaic on the west balcony depicting Iraqi soldier charging what looked to be dragons (although it is possible they were just badly drawn wolves). One wall was covered by a giant poster that read:
It was decorated with U.S. and Iraqi flags on either side, drawings of children's faces, and little handprints and hearts.

A cross-section of Iraqi society milled about, as politicians sought fresh air while waiting for the next vote to be called, and advisors or media trying to obtain a meeting with an Iraqi leader on break from the proceedings. As is Arab custom, the men kissed one another on the cheek when greeting. It is interesting how thoroughly "Western" some Iraqis look with their designer suits and brief cases. Yet there was also a large contingent of sheiks wearing traditional tribal dress, as well as a number of Shi'a clerics wearing turbans and robes. Women varied in their dress from colorful modern pants suits (a la Hillary Clinton), to black headscarves and robes from head-to-toe, to some variation in between. (When the meeting finally broke up around 1830, a higher propotion of the women exiting the assembly hall were dressed conservatively. They were likely the mandatory 1/3 female representatives from the Islamist parties).

Everybody scattered around tables, speaking into cell phones, fanning themselves with whatever paper they could find, smoking cigarettes, and drinking either bottled water or coffee and tea flavored with cardoman. At one point, somebody's cell phone rang out in a familiar tune: Da-Da-dum, Da-Da-dum, Da-Da-Da-Da-Dum. It was "Jingle Bells!" I wonder if they knew what the ringtone was when they purchased it, or if any other of the Iraqis were aware of the tune's significance. (At least it wasn't "The Dreidle Song," I suppose).

On the north end of the atrium, dividers were set up to create a separate press room on the second floor balcony outside the assembly hall. Whenever a politician came out to speak to them, there was a great commotion as the Iraqi and Arabic press fought for position around the Representative, and then went dead silent as he began to speak. As the results of the votes were announced, the Iraqi media erupted in applause. As with the Iraqi reporters who immediately began shouting praise when it was announced that Saddam Hussein had been captured, it is refreshing to see them take such a passionate interest in their own politics (as opposed to the detached cynicism and hollow protestations of impartiality by the American media).

I also was able to see several of liberated Iraq's founding fathers up close. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI (arguably the most pro-Iranian party in Iraq) walked right past me, surrounded by a phalanx of nervous looking security personnel. (Al-Hakim's brother was the target of a successful suicide bombing outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf in 2004 that killed hundreds of Shi'a worshippers). He wore a black turban signifying that he is a Shi'a cleric descended from the Prophet Muhammed, and wore a black robe over a coat that matched the gray in his beard. All the Iraqis stood as he walked by, and he smiled meekly at the deference paid to him.

As the session broke up, the outgoing Prime Minister, Ibrahim Ja'afari passed by. His speech closing the session had received thunderous applause audible from the atrium. He smiles wistfully, looking both tired and relieved, as if a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Public opinion polls over the past three years have consistently shown him to be the most popular single Iraqi leader, and at least one Iraqi gentlemen is eager to have his picture taken with Ja'afari.

I notice a stocky man in a dark brown suit surrounded by uniformed police and army guards approaching my table (because of its central location, not becuase of its occupant). I later find out that it is Adel abd al-Mahdi, the Shi'a Vice-President (and chief rival candidate to Ja'afari throughout the government formation process).

However, as al-Mahdi walked by, I was distracted by a tribal sheikh in flowing robes who walks behind me. He was at least 6'6" (about eight inches taller than the other Iraqis) and cuts a striking figure straight out of central casting for "Lawrence of Arabia."

His presence seems to perfectly capture the surrealness and excitement surrounding the clash of modern democratic politics in a society with a long tribal tradition.

Inshallah, yesterday was the start of a new political tradition in Iraq.

UPDATE: For a good, quick summary of what actually happened inside the assembly hall, see the link below from an excellent Iraqi blog, Iraq the Model.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Quotes of the Day (VI)

As a uniformed officer, one of the subjects that I can not comment upon directly is the controversy over assorted retired flag officers calling on Secretary Rumsfeld's resignation.

For now, I'll let one of the generals speak for himself.

"What bothered me . . . [was that] I was hearing a depiction of the intelligence that didn't fit what I knew. There was no solid proof, that I ever saw, that Saddam had WMD."

General Anthony Zinni, on "Meet the Press," April 2, 2006

"Iraq remains the most significant near-term threat to U.S. interests in the Arabian Gulf region. Iraq probably is continuing clandestine nuclear research [and] retains stocks of chemical and biological muntions . . . .Even if Baghdad reversed its course and surrendered all WMD capabilities, it retains scientific, technical, and industrial infrastructure to replace agents and munitions within weeks or months."

General Anthony Zinni, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, February 29, 2000

Don't worry, General. As they say, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds."

Friday, April 21, 2006

Thoughts on Iraq Politics

Although I probably stated at some point that I would not comment on Iraqi politics, I just wanted to share a few non-controversial thoughts about the government formation process here since it has been in the news so much lately.

In political science (comparative politics specifically), there is a system for elections known as “consociational democracy” in which a party must gain a certain percentage of an ethnic minority or minorities’ votes in order to gain office. An example of this would be in, say, Bosnia, a party would have to get ten percent of all Muslim, Croat, and Serb votes in order to win an election. The idea behind this system is that it prevents a government from being formed along strict ethnic/sectarian lines, and is therefore useful for preventing or healing the wounds of a civil war in a country divided between two or more ethnic groups.

When I first came across the concept of consociational democracy while preparing for my general exams at Harvard, I thought this is one of the reasons they don’t let political scientists actually run governments.

Yet for a country with deep divisions such as Iraq, this scheme actually sort of makes sense. For although the Shi’a represent roughly 60% of Iraq’s population, they can not simply impose a prime minister and government on the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities without reaching some sort of compromise. (In fact, the Shi’a “United Iraqi Alliance, or UIA, only has 130 of the 270 seats in the Council of Representatives, so although they have the right under the constitution to select the Prime Minister, they need backing from both the major Kurdish and Sunni parties). Thus, Iraq has by default a consociational system, ensuring (at least in theory) that all ethnic/sectarian groups will have some input into the composition of the new government.

However, the downside of such a system, as made painfully clear over the past three months since the election results were announced, is that it can take a long time for a workable compromise to be reached. So on the one hand, it is remarkable that for the first time in Iraq’s history, its major ethnic/sectarian groups are sitting down and negotiating with so much at stake, instead of massacring entire villages in order to establish might is right. On the other hand, while the politicians dither, unauthorized military formations such as insurgents and religious militias wage a low-level war of attrition in the streets.

For the past two weeks, the problem has largely come down to who the UIA selected to be its nominee for Prime Minister, specifically the sitting PM, Ibrahim al-Ja’afari. I won’t go into detail regarding Ja’afari’s strengths and weaknesses. But although he consistently polls as the most popular individual politician in Iraq, the Sunnis and Kurds have been adamant that they will not accept him. So his nomination was essentially dead upon arrival, and the process of government formation became deadlocked.

This political standstill has been perpetuated by a Catch-22 within the UIA. Ja’afari has refused to withdraw as the PM nominee until voted out by his party, and the Da’wa Party has refused to vote him out unless he withdrew. This is the Iraqi political equivalent of a married couple trying to decide where they want to dine out on Saturday night, only each says they have no preference and that where ever the other wants to eat is fine with them. (Okay, not exactly, but you get my point).

Taking a step back, the larger problem is that the Iraqi representatives who are negotiating for and ratifying a government are not strictly accountable to the Iraqi people. In the fall of 2004, it was decided that the seats in Iraq’s parliament would be distributed according to a system of proportional representation (similar to Europe and Israel) rather than by direct election of representatives (what we do in the US and Britain). The reasoning behind this at the time was that it would be easier to provide security for candidates if they could campaign centrally as part of a list rather than if they had to disperse to the provinces to canvas for votes. Also, at the time, few were willing to settle the difficult questions of land ownership in and around Kirkuk. (If somebody buys me a beer when I return to the States, I can explain how I was on the losing side of the interagency argument against this system).

However, proportional representation encourages the backbenchers in any party list to be more responsive to the party leadership than the popular constituency that voted for them. If not, they will find their name in a lower position on the list for the next elections, or left off the party list altogether in the next election.

Conversely, if the leaders that are taking three months to form a government while sectarian violence gains momentum in the streets of Baghdad had to answer directly to the people now or during the next election, there would likely be a greater sense of urgency to form a government.

So that is why it is taking so long to form a government in Iraq. Again, it is important to emphasize how significant that the Shi’a, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish leaders are talking after Saddam spent the last thirty years setting them against one another. A government will be formed soon, and then the challenges of actually governing will make the formation process look like the easy part.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bombs and Bullets

Occasionally, I feel a bit guilty that I'm serving my tour in Iraq in the relative safety of the Green Zone. True, some people who are forward deployed never leave the safety of their Forward Operating Bases (they're called "Fobbits"), and I bring more added value to my current position than I would have as a Civil Affairs officer digging wells somewhere in rural Iraq (not to minimize the importance of the CA mission). It is just that I recognize that there are a lot of young Americans putting themselves at far greater risk in this common endeavor than I am.

Which is not to say that things don't get interesting here in the International Zone (IZ) from time to time.

Three weeks ago, in what was my second week here in Iraq, I was awoken at 0524 by what sounded like thunder. I didn't think much of it at the time, and rolled over to try and enjoy my final 30 minutes of sleep. It was only when I left my trailer that morning and saw that there was not a cloud in the sky that I realized it had been an explosion caused by indirect fire that woke me up, rather than an impending storm. Later that morning, a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device, a.k.a. "Car Bomb") killed two Iraqi Army soldiers and an Iraqi civilian at one of the gates of the IZ.

That evening, the percussion of an explosion actually stung my ear drum and shook my trailer. It felt close enough that the Colonel across the hall put on his Kevlar and body armor before running outside to investigate where the round landed and to see if anybody needed medical attention. I stayed in the trailer because my wife was due to call in the next five minutes, although I certainly wasn't going to tell her what all the commotion was about outside.

The next morning, I heard conflicting stories about where the mortar fire had landed. One person said that it was inside my trailer compound, another said it impacted on the bank of the Tigris just outside the compound. Either way meant it landed within 200 meters of my trailer.

Since then, I've been woken up by some form of indirect fire roughly every 2-3 days, although it is rarely close enough to do any more than stir me awake.

Three days after those first explosions, Secretary Rice visited Baghdad, accompanied by the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Since I officially had little to do with the trip, I had free time in the middle of a rainy Sunday to go to the gym. While changing in my trailer, I heard a loud "POP" and saw plaster spraying from the ceiling above my roommate's bunk. (In case I have not already mentioned it, I'm living with an Australian Major). I went to see what happened, and saw a hole in the ceiling roughly one-inch in diameter.

At first, I wondered if some sort of atmospheric pressure brought about by a thunderstorm in the desert could have caused the cheap materials of the trailer to crack. But when I looked more closely at the bed, I saw that a bullet had passed through his blanket and sheet and embedded itself in his mattress! Although it was likely a one-in-a-million shot, it was fortunate that this incident occured when the bunk was unoccupied, rather than wounding the Major.

Of course, later that night, another loud explosion rocked the trailers, although I never heard a report as to its source or point of impact.

Again, I have it much better than many of my friends serving in forward deployed units. But these events in my second week here were useful reminders that I am in a war zone, and can't take anything for granted.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Boycott Hilton!

Not Paris (although it would be nice if she went away, too), but the hotel chain. Claiming "business reasons," the Capitol Hilton is kicking the Fran O'Brien's steakhouse off its premises, thus ending their tradition of hosting Friday night steak dinners for wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans recovering at Walter Reed and their families. (See the article below).

When I was at the Defense Department, these same wounded soldiers were brought to the Pentagon on the last Friday of each month for lunch. A notice was put out in advance, and everybody would leave their cubicles to line the corridors to greet them. For about twenty minutes, young soldiers missing limbs or bearing bad facial scars paraded through the halls, as more than a thousand DoD employees tried to shake their hands, thank them for their service, or offer a blessing.

Although the wounded smiled valiantly through these occasions, I personally found it difficult to fight back tears myself.

I will keep my ears open for any petitions or drives to save Fran O'Brien's. But until then, or if they let the restaurant close, I will never stay in another Hilton hotel again.

Saving America’s Steakhouse
Calling on Hilton to be the kinda corp it claims to be.

By Shoshana Bryen

Few Americans would argue that American soldiers should not receive the thanks of our nation for their service, and fewer still would argue that, if returning to our country less than whole and in need of help, soldiers should not receive the support of America's corporate giants.

Hilton Hotel Corporation, then, has something to answer for.

Every Friday is Veterans' Day at Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steakhouse in Washington, D.C., where owners, Hal Koster and Marty O'Brien, bring soldiers — primarily amputees — recovering from their wounds at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital to the restaurant and treat them and their families to a full steak dinner. It is often the first place soldiers appear in public after losing limbs and it is a coveted part of their therapy. You can see the progression — new attendees hang out mainly in the private party room; regulars migrate to the bar in the main part of the restaurant, mingling with patrons and buying drinks.

But Fran O'Brien's is located in the Capital Hilton Hotel and the lease ran out in December. The owners had been asking for a new lease since the fall and management had been assuring them it would be renewed. Two weeks ago, they were given until May 1 to vacate.

There are two possible scenarios, and neither says much for Hilton.

Scenario number one says Hilton is worried about a lawsuit. The hotel is in violation of Americans With Disabilities Act. Hilton has not made the basement restaurant ADA compliant — part of the lease negotiation was to have been for the replacement of a non-working escalator in the Hilton lobby with an ADA-compliant elevator. Since there were no negotiations, there is no elevator. The soldiers have been using a steep stairwell or the service elevator. Perhaps Hilton doesn't know that there have, in fact, been several accidents, but the soldiers, being soldiers, are more interested in dinner than lawsuits.

ADA noncompliance is illegal, but more importantly, it is shameful when the chief victims are veterans who have been injured in service to our country. But the compliance issue is the better of the two possibilities.

Scenario number two is that Hilton is uncomfortable with so many wounded soldiers passing through its lobby on the way to the restaurant and worries about the impact it will have on the hotel guests.

Hilton's website proudly boasts of its corporate philanthropy and starts its paean to itself with, "We at Hilton recognize our responsibility to corporate citizenship wherever we do business." How better to be responsible corporate citizens than to continue to house Fran O'Brien's and the wounded soldiers it serves?

Hilton has been inundated by calls and e-mails from Americans who are appalled to see veterans treated shabbily by a corporate giant. The Capital Hilton's website Monday — for a few hours — announced the eviction of Fran O'Brien's as "strictly a business decision" and that the hotel had offered to host a dinner for the troops on May 5. But by evening, the notice was gone and the website had its usual advertisement for the restaurant.

Col. Jonathan Jaffin, at the time commander of the medical corps at Walter Reed, wrote of the dinners:

The benefit to these soldiers and their families is incalculable... While the steak dinner is in itself a treat for those who have been eating in a dining facility... the meal is so much more than a dinner: it is a night out, a chance to get away from the hospital environment for a few hours, an evening to do something as normal as going to a restaurant for dinner. Even more, it is a tangible demonstration of the support, respect, and even love that Americans feel for our troops.

Hilton Hotels should be doing everything it can to ensure that our soldiers have a safe, friendly, ADA-compliant Fran O'Brien's as a "tangible demonstration of the support, respect and even love" that a corporate giant can show to our troops. Anything less is unworthy of a major American corporation.

— Shoshana Bryen is director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a proud supporter of the Fran O'Brien's Friday-night dinners.

Happy Birthday Daddy!

An even better present!!!

Monday, April 17, 2006

David Interlude (V)

Today is my birthday, so as a small treat to myself, I'm posting some recent pictures of David. Again, if I'd known he would turn out to be so damn cute, I might not have been able to make the same choice I did back in October.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

On Troop Morale

See below for an interesting editorial from Thursday's Washington Post on troop morale by a Marine who served two tours here in Iraq.

Especially interesting is the description of how two anti-war Congressmen were unable to respond to a question from a wounded Afghanistan veteran. Although I have great respect for John Murtha's service in Vietnam, his statement that he wouldn't sign up for today's military suggests that he is simply out of touch with reality, as reenlistments by soldiers who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan have easily exceeded the Army's goals.

Similarly, it is disappointing -- if not surprising -- to discover that Jim Moran has ignored the veterans from his district. In March 2004, Rep. Moran -- my representative in Congress, actually -- screamed at and evicted from his office a group of officials from the American Legion. (He also famously declared "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war in Iraq, we would not be doing this."

Washington Post
April 13, 2006
Pg. 21

Troops In Support Of The War

By Wade Zirkle

Earlier this year there was a town hall meeting on the Iraq war, sponsored by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), with the participation of such antiwar organizations as CodePink and The event also featured Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a former Marine who had become an outspoken critic of the war. To this Iraq war veteran, it was a good example of something that's become all too common: People from politics, the media and elsewhere purporting to represent "our" views. With all due respect, most often they don't.

The tenor of the town meeting was mostly what one might expect, but during the question-and-answer period, a veteran injured in Afghanistan stood up to offer his view. "If I didn't have a herniated disc, I would volunteer to go to Iraq in a second with my troops," said Mark Seavey, a former Army sergeant who had recently returned from Afghanistan. "I know you keep saying how you have talked to the troops and the troops are demoralized, and I really resent that characterization. The morale of the troops I talk to is phenomenal, which is why my troops are volunteering to go back despite the hardships. . . ."

"And, Congressman Moran, 200 of your constituents just arrived back from Afghanistan -- we never got a letter, we never got a visit from you, you didn't come to our homecoming. The only thing we got was a letter from the governor of this state thanking us for our service in Iraq, when we were in Afghanistan. That's reprehensible. I don't know who you two are talking to, but the morale of the troops is very high."

What was the response? Murtha said nothing, while Moran attempted to move on, no pun intended, stating: "That wasn't in the form of a question, it was a statement."

It was indeed a statement; a statement from both a constituent and a veteran that should have elicited something more than silence or a dismissive comment highlighting a supposed breach of protocol. This exchange, captured on video (it was on C-SPAN), has since been forwarded from base to base in military circles. It has not been well received there, and it only raises the already high level of frustration among military personnel that their opinions are not being heard.

In view of his distinguished military career, John Murtha has been the subject of much attention from the media and is a sought-after spokesman for opponents of the Iraq war. He has earned the right to speak. But his comments supposedly expressing the negative views of those who have and are now serving in the Middle East run counter to what I and others know and hear from our own colleagues -- from junior officers to the enlisted backbone of our fighting force.

Murtha undoubtedly knows full well that the greatest single thing that drags on morale in war is the loss of a buddy. But second to that is politicians questioning, in amplified tones, the validity of that loss to our families, colleagues, the nation and the world.

While we don't question his motives, we do question his assumptions. When he called for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, there was a sense of respectful disagreement among most military personnel. But when he subsequently stated that he would not join today's military, he made clear to the majority of us that he is out of touch with the troops. Quite frankly, it was received as a slap in the face.

Like so many others past and present, I proudly volunteered to serve in the military. I served one tour in Iraq and then volunteered to go back. Veterans continue to make clear that they are determined to succeed in Iraq. They are making this clear the best way they can: by volunteering to go back for third and sometimes fourth deployments. This fact is backed up by official Pentagon recruitment reports released as recently as Monday.

The morale of the trigger-pulling class of today's fighting force is strong. Unfortunately, we have not had a microphone or media audience willing to report our comments. Despite this frustration, our military continues to proudly dedicate itself to the mission at hand: a free, democratic and stable Iraq and a more secure America. All citizens have a right to express their views on this important national challenge, and all should be heard. Veterans ask no more, and they deserve no less.

The writer is executive director of Vets for Freedom. He served two tours in Iraq with the Marines before being wounded in action.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Passover in Iraq

Why was last night different from all others?

Because I attended the Second Seder held here in the International Zone, and consequently was able to disregard General Order #1 and have a styrofoam cup's worth of red wine.

The first night's seder was held at Camp Victory on the other side of Baghdad, for which no transportation was available. (Not surprisingly, they do not have a regular shuttle bus running from one Coaliiton base to another in Iraq). The service was held in a conference room in Saddam's Palace, led by a Navy Rabbi, Commander Schranz.

There were only seven servicemembers present (including the rabbi), but the light turnout may have been because the Embassy did not publicize the event for non-military staff. I only found out about it because I bumped into a chaplain coming out of the mess hall on Wednesday. So unfortunately, it was not as interesting as the seder I attended while stationed in Korea in 1995, which included U.S. military personnel, a busload of El Al empolyees and their families, and a group of Korean Lubavitchers.

But they had enough Passover materials for roughly twenty, which included boxes with Haggadahs, matzah, yarmulkes, macaroons, cans of matzo ball soup and gefilte fish (extra gelatinous), and an AT&T calling card. The rabbi had a package with all the material necessary to complete a plastic seder plate, while the KBR dining facility provided the hard boiled eggs and lettuce. For our main course, we had self-heating boxes of Chicken and Potatoes or Beef Stew and Vegetables, which were actually not that bad so long as you don't think too much about the preservatives that keep the meals shelf stable.

The service itself was slightly uneven, which is understandable given the somewhat slapdash manner in which it has to be put together. Also, it was frightening to realize that next to the Rabbi, my Hebrew comprehension was the best of the groups. And like all Seders, it ran too long, although mercifully not until midnight.

But for whatever its shortcomings, the familiarity of the ceremony and feast was comforting, and made me feel a little less isolated. When we came to the part of the Four Sons, I couldn't help but think of David, and how my wife and I would answer his questions about the Exodus and Pesach.

Finally, the Haggadah contained a message about freedom that is important for me to keep in mind when the sacrifices of being separated from my family seem unbearable. The opening prayer read "We relive in words and symbols the ancient quest for liberty, that we shall become infused with renewed spirit and inspiration and understanding. May the problem of all who are down-trodden be our problem; may the concern of all who are afflicted be our concern; and may the struggle of all who strive for liberty and equality be our struggle."

I would like to believe that this is precisely what we are doing in Iraq today.

Ch'ag Sameach!

Monday, April 10, 2006

What I Meant to Post Yesterday

The following appeared on Ed Morrissey's "Captain's Quarters" ( on Friday, and is what I meant to post yesterday in commemoration of Iraqi Freedom Day. My heart goes out to Ms. Carlson and her entire family for their loss, and I encourage everybody who supports the troops to check out Families United and their activities, even if the deadline on their letter has passed.

Guest Post From A Gold Star Mother
CQ is honored to lend its platform to Merrilee Carlson, whose son Michael died in the service of our country in Iraq. Merrilee is the chair of Minnesota Families United, which wants to get the media to use the anniversary of the liberation of Iraq on April 9th to focus on the good works performed by Michael and his comrades.

Update: I was quite remiss in not linking to Patrick from Ankle Biting Pundits for arranging this blogosphere effort. Sorry, Patrick!

My Son Died to “Liberate People from Oppression” in Iraq

I was recently on captainsquarters reading your commentary about Jack Shafer’s study about slanted journalism. As for me, I don’t know what the reasons are, but I do now that many Americans have seemed to lose our resolve in the War on Terror, at least partly because of a steady diet of media negativism.

My son, Michael, served and died in Iraq fighting for a cause he believed in. I know for a fact that he believed the cause was honorable because he told me so when he wrote a personal credo that explained,

“I want to carve out a niche for myself in the history books. I want to be remembered for the things I accomplished. I sometimes dream of being a soldier in a war. In this war I am helping to liberate people from oppression...” Read more about Michael, including his entire credo here.

The mainstream media may have lost faith in the mission, but I haven’t forgotten that Michael – who’s friends called him Shrek – died to “liberate people from oppression.”

It sure would be nice to have the media use Iraqi Liberation Day on April 9th to remember all of the good things Michael and our troops have done in Iraq.

Towards that end, I’ve joined with other families (you can read more here) to send a letter that encourages the media to remember this historic milestone.

April 9th is just around the corner, so I hope that you’ll sign our letter –


Merrilee Carlson, Shrek’s Mom

Gold Star Mother and Chair of Minnesota Families United

St. Paul, Minnesota

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Iraqi Freedom Day

Today is the third anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, officially dubbed "Iraqi Freedom Day" by the Iraqis. I wanted to post something inspirational about liberation from tyranny and the march of freedom in the Middle East. But I have just spent the past three hours in the television studio with Ambassador Khalilzad, who conducted separate interviews with ABC News, Wolf Blitzer/CNN, ITN, and Brit Hume/FOX, and quite frankly, I'm exhausted.

And I wasn't even the one on-camera.

The irony of this is that three years ago on this day, I was in another television studio discussing Iraq. In the spring of 2003, while completing my dissertation, I worked part-time as a military analyst for New England Cable News, America's largest 24-hour regional news network. I had done a number of live analysis, taped segments, and even viewer call-in shows on Operation Iraqi Freedom, and on April 9, 2003, I was scheduled to be the on-air analyst from noon to five.

At about 1000, I turned on the television to catch the latest news from the front, and to figure out what I would need to cram on in order to sound semi-intelligent. But to my surprise, the Marines had already entered central Baghdad, and the images filling the screen were of Iraqi crowds celebrating, and of a few Iraqi men trying to attach that length of rope to the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. I was sitting transfixed at this amazing sight for less than a minute when the phone rang, and the producer from NECN was asking me if I could come in early to do live commentary.

I probably got my old Chevy Cavalier to do over 90mph as I rushed to the studio, afraid that I'd miss the statue being torn down. When I got there they rushed me to a seat next to the anchor's desk, offered me a slice of pizza as they affixed the earpiece and microphone, and in less than a minute I was live on the air. Although the statue was still standing, the Marines had driven a M-88 up to its base and wrapped its steel cable around the neck of the statue. Knowing that this moment was being recorded for historical posterity, I frantically tried to think of something historic to say when it came down (yelling "TIMBER" actually crossed my mind. Unfortunately, I wimped out, and quietly said "And there it goes" when it was uprooted, preferring to let the images speak for themselves.

Suffice it to say, it never crossed my mind back then that I would be in Baghdad myself three years later.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Living The Good Life -- My First Week in Baghdad, Part II

On Tuesday, 28 March, I was invited to a farewell barbecue Ambassador Khalilzad hosted for the departing Italian ambassador, His Excellency Gianludovico de Martino de Montegiordano. (BTW, what an awesome name!) I managed to snag this invitation because I'd convinced the Embassy's Protocol office that since I'd written a draft of our Ambassador's toast, I needed to be present when he delivered it. This worked. I should have tried this same ploy when I wrote the President's toast for his state dinner honoring Prince Charles last November.

At the cocktail hour before the dinner, I was the only guest drinking mango juice (which is quite good, by the way) instead of Italian red wine, until a three-star general who shall remain nameless ordered me to have a beer with him. But I still felt awkward about being the only guest in puke-green ACUs rather than a coat and tie. I can't get into the specifics of the guest list, but it included three ambassadors, two Iraqi cabinet ministers, and generals from two countries that I recognized.

Although the meal at the Ambassador's residence was delicious (barbecued chicken and lamb with roasted vegetables and garlic), it was quickly surpassed by the next day's lunch at President Talibani's house. When I visited Iraq last spring with Secretary Rumsfeld, I was so impressed by the beautiful scenery around Masoud Barzani's mountain retreat that I joked that I would like to retire to Kurdistan. After enjoying President Talibani's hospitality, this does not seem like such a crazy scheme after all.

As we arrive at the Presidential compound outside the International Zone, President Talibani warmly greets the Ambassador, and we are escorted into a marble-walled greeting hall, approximately 20'x50'. About twenty guests sit on couches and chairs along the walls, as waiters bring us hot tea. Ambassador Khalilzad and Talibani make small talk on a variety of topics for about fifteen minutes before we are escorted into the next room for the meal. On a long table, platters with at least a dozen different courses lay spread out before us. There were three separate rice dishes, including Kurdish rice with pomegranetes. There was lamb shanks, sliced lamb, lamb kebabs, and lamb in a green wheat pasta sort of like risotto. There was also some sort of native Iraqi fish (whose name unfortunately escapes me), a tomato-based soup with lamb and okra (whose name unfortunately escapes me), and an Iraqi variation of rice wrapped in grape leaves (whose name unfortunately escapes me), which unlike vinegary-Mediteranean grape leaves, had a delicious tomato flavor. There was also an assortment of breads to be had. Unfortunately, I was only able to sample about a half-dozen of the dishes before I was stuffed.

After the meal, we returned to the social hall, where waiters offered the guests cigars, tea, and an assortment of sweets. President Talibani asked Ambassador de Martino why the Italian smoked his cigar without the band whereas he left his on. Even though I was not smoking, I interjected that perhaps the Ambassador was like me, who when smoking such excellent cigars, leaves the band on in order to remind himself of when to stop lest he burn his fingers. President Talibani laughed heartily at this thought (even if what I really wanted was for him to offer me a box to take back to the Green Zone with me. Oh well).

Although I did not get to sit in on the political discussions that followed the meal, this was easily the highlight of my first week in Iraq, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come . . .

Friday, April 07, 2006

The First 100 Hours

I just posted a summary of my first 100+ hours on the job, but for some reason the software stuck it on March 28, the day I composed it, rather than today, when I published it.

Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to remain more current with my updates so this does not happen again.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Jill Carroll Retracts Her Statement

My apologies for not posting in a while. Unfortunately, there is still some confusion over exactly whom I'm supposed to receive clearance from to publish this web log. Once I get permission, I will begin posting on life in Baghdad's nternational Zone. For now, operating under the time-honored Army tradition of "It's easier to beg forgivenss than ask permission," some thoughts on Jill Carroll.

One of the perks of being in the Ambassador's office is that we knew about her release a few hours before it hit the media. This good news was a welcome relief from some of the other daily frustrations stemming from Iraqi politics. At the same time, the first images to hit the airwaves about Ms. Carroll's release focused on the interview conducted at the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters, in which she claimed that she had never been threatened, and a propaganda video made by her captors in which she called the terrorists "mujahaddein" (essentially freedom fighters) and said the war was based "on a mountain of lies."

As the story below indicates, these statements were coerced, and Ms. Carroll only made them in order to gain her release. As a U.S. servicemember, I would be bound by the Code of Conduct never to make such statements under any circumstances. As a private citizen, I can not fault her too much for doing whatever is necessary to stay alive. Some people from my office were able to meet and spend time with Ms. Carroll, who they said was extremely nice and doing surprisingly well considering her ordeal. (Although she was surprised that the Iraqis still had not formed a government during he 87 days of captivity).

It is a blessing that she was released unharmed, and the answer to everybody at the Embassy's prayers.

One further thought: CNN interviewed a "counter-terrorism" expert who stated that her propaganda video revealed the enemy in Iraq is growing more sophisticated, and hence more powerful. This is absurd. If all they wanted was a dramatic propaganda video, they could have obtained this within the first week of kidnapping Jill Carroll. Instead, they made a specific demand for the release of all women from U.S. detention, with which we refused to comply. Having failed to obtain their stated objective, and realizing that holding Ms. Carroll was causing a significant backlash with the Iraqi public, they released her. The British raid that freed the Christian Peacekeeping Team hostages may also have influenced their thinking, but either way, they were acting out of a position of weakness, not strength.

Carroll Disavows Statements Against U.S. By MATT MOORE, Associated Press Writer

Protected by the U.S. military and far from the country where she had been held hostage, Jill Carroll strongly disavowed statements she had made during captivity in Iraq and shortly after her release, saying Saturday she had been repeatedly threatened.

In a video, recorded before she was freed and posted by her captors on an Islamist Web site, Carroll spoke out against the U.S. military presence. But in a statement Saturday, she said the recording was made under threat. Her editor has said three men were pointing guns at her at the time.

"During my last night in captivity, my captors forced me to participate in a propaganda video. They told me I would be released if I cooperated. I was living in a threatening environment, under their control, and wanted to go home alive. So I agreed," she said in a statement read by her editor in Boston.

"Things that I was forced to say while captive are now being taken by some as an accurate reflection of my personal views. They are not."

Carroll arrived in Germany on Saturday on a U.S. military transport plane on her way back to the United States and was expected in Boston on Sunday. The Islamic headscarf she wore as a hostage was gone, and she instead wore jeans and a gray sweater.

The 28-year-old journalist — a freelancer for the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor — was seized Jan. 7 in western Baghdad by gunmen who killed her Iraqi translator. She was dropped off Thursday — 82 days later — at an office of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab organization, and later escorted by the U.S. military to the Green Zone, the fortified compound in Baghdad protecting the U.S. embassy and other facilities.

In the statement, Carroll also disavowed an interview she gave to the party shortly after her release. She said the party had promised her the interview would not be aired "and broke their word."

"At any rate, fearing retribution from my captors, I did not speak freely. Out of fear, I said I wasn't threatened. In fact, I was threatened many times," she said. "Also, at least two false statements about me have been widely aired: One — that I refused to travel and cooperate with the U.S. military, and two — that I refused to discuss my captivity with U.S. officials. Again, neither statement is true."

The remarks have drawn criticism from conservative bloggers and commentators, but the Monitor said "Carroll did what many hostage experts and past captives would have urged her to do: Give the men who held the power of life and death over her what they wanted."

Carroll has said her kidnappers confined her to a small, soundproof room with frosted, opaque windows.

After a day in seclusion, she left Balad Air Base near Baghdad on Saturday on a plane also carrying several wounded soldiers. Carroll smiled and peered with bemusement through the cockpit window at the dozens of television cameras on the tarmac at Ramstein Air Force Base.

"I'm happy to be here," she said to Col. Kurt Lohide, the U.S. officer who greeted her.

Carroll, who had studied Arabic, attracted a huge amount of sympathy during her ordeal, and a wide variety of groups in the Middle East, including the Islamic militant group Hamas, appealed for her release.

Aside from the short interview aired on Iraqi television upon her release, Carroll had otherwise not shown herself in public prior to her brief appearance Saturday.

The kidnappers, calling themselves the Revenge Brigades, had demanded the release of all female detainees in Iraq by Feb. 26 or Carroll would be killed. U.S. officials did release some female detainees at the time, but said it had nothing to do with the demands.

In the video posted Friday, her abductors said they freed Carroll because "the American government met some of our demands by releasing some of our women from prison."

Also in the video, she called on President Bush to bring American troops home.

"Tens of thousands ... have lost their lives here because of the occupation," she said in the video. "I think Americans need to think about that and realize day-to-day how difficult life is here."

She said the insurgents were "only trying to defend their country ... to stop an illegal and dangerous and deadly occupation."

In her statement Saturday, she condemned her captors, although she did not address the war in Iraq.

"I will not engage in polemics. But let me be clear: I abhor all who kidnap and murder civilians, and my captors are clearly guilty of both crimes," she said.

The Monitor's editor, Richard Bergenheim, said Friday that Carroll's parents told him the video was "conducted under duress."

"When you're making a video and having to recite certain things with three men with machine guns standing over you, you're probably going to say exactly what you're told to say," Bergenheim told ABC television.

Bergenheim said Saturday there were no negotiations that he knew of for Carroll's release and no ransom was paid. The paper hired her a week after she kidnapped.

He said she was on her way home and "her family is just absolutely rejoicing."

It was unclear precisely when Carroll would arrive. According to Richard Walsh, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, Carroll was to land at Logan International Airport in Boston late Sunday morning.

In her statement, Carroll thanked those who had helped secure her release and said she wanted time to recover.

"This has been a taxing 12 weeks for me and for my family," she said. "Please allow us some quiet time alone, together."