Saturday, November 27, 2004

Today I spent some time with two of my Iraqi friends whom I haven't seen in a long time. They have been laying low because of the threats of kidnapping and death threats against contractors working with the Americans. One of our mutual friends was kidnapped a few months ago on the road to Baghdad. He eventually was ransomed for 40,000 dollars.

My friends seem to have a very good handle on what we call the atmospherics. That is, the mood on the street and the general security situation. They told me that the security is good again for them and they feel confident to come back. Their confidence in the future is very high.

Next week for the first time in their lives they will travel outside Iraq. Its hard to the understate the significance of this trip for these two men, roughly my age, who until recently had no chance of leaving. This will be a business trip to Germany to buy some factory equipment for a new construction material factory that they are setting up. They'll be gone for a month, but I'll keep in touch by email. It seems every Iraqi I meet has a yahoo or hotmail email address. I asked them why they chose to build a particular type of factory and they told me that they saw the future would be all about building. They are general contractors now and want to also get in on manufacturing some of the building materials. They contacted suppliers in Germany and arranged for visas. The Germans were eager to work with them. Because of guys like this who have hope in the future of their country and the ambition to help create that future, I have confidence that Iraq will succeed as a nation.

We had lunch together and chatted about a wide variety of things. One of them said that if things are calm in Najaf and Karbala in the spring, he will bring his whole extended family for the pilgrimage called Arbaeen. If there is violence only the men will go to represent the family.

We also talked about some of the positive changes in the country since Saddam fell. For one thing, marriages are way up. One of the reasons is in the former regime a couple needed to get government permission to get married. This invariably involved a significant amount of "baksheesh" or bribes. Now people simply need the approval of the family and no longer have to pay off officials or have officials prevent them from getting married.

Another interesting thing we talked about was about Yassir Arafat. He said that many people in Iraq didn't like him because he had two faces. I wonder if it has something to do with Saddam's support of Arafat and paying the families of suicide bombers. It was surprising, since I thought Arafat had widespread support throughout the Arab world.

It seems that Iraqis are more independent minded that some people give them credit for. I saw a report last week that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are quickly losing marketshare to two local Iraqi TV stations. Also note that most of the calls for Jihad are coming from non-Iraqis. Like a lot of people, they don't like to be told what to think, especially from people outside Iraq. This is a good thing.

Friday, November 26, 2004

The chow halls went all out yesterday. KBR apparently brought 200,000 pounds of turkey, 45,000 pounds of stuffing and 25 tons of potatoes into Iraq.

The chow hall decorations were crazy. There was the huge 4 foot long Mayflower boat made out of bread, dozens of carved melons and pineapples, big bread cornucopias and a three foot alligator whose skin was made of pinapples and its mouth was a watermelon.

The food was good and the whole day was fairly very relaxing. It was a good sign that we didn't have an attack on the holiday. It follows the lull that we are having. We haven't had anything fired at us in 3 days, the longest we've gone for a long while.

I called my family last night and talked to my wife, my sisters, my brother, my sister in law and my brother in law all gathered at my parent's house with 10 grandchildren running around (well, not the babies). For once I think it was actually colder here than in New England.

Today was a cool blustery day, which we started early with 6AM sandbagging detail. Nothing really exciting. I saw the two Iraqi kids at physical therapy. They had a translator with them today so they were a bit more talkative. The girl actually knows quite a bit of English, but is sometime shy about using it. I spent the rest of the day preparing for and going to meetings. Dinner tonight was a little less appetizing. A corn dog, fries which I slathered with melted cheese and chili, and some tomatoes. A new thing that they are doing in our chow hall is making milkshakes. One of the guys has a few blenders next to the ice cream station where he spends a couple hours at each night making mostly strawberry shakes.

We all recently had our blood drawn for G6PD deficiency testing. We have been taking chloroquine since April for Malaria prophylaxis. We need to take primaquine at the end of the mosquito season but people with a certain enzyme deficiency can't take it because it may cause hemolytic anemia. Testing everyone in theater has proved to be a logistic challenge to say the least. The Air Force was smart and tested everyone before they deployed, the Army is doing it now with the new troops coming in, but has to catch up with us.

I broke out my Arabic CD again. The classes are now held on the other side of post at a very inconvenient time. I do want to start going again if I can fit it in.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

All the chow halls are busily preparing for Thanksgiving tomorrow. Each one tries to outdo the other in food and decorations. The base commander will award one of them the top DFAC (Dining Facility) award.

Some of the units for OIF 3 have already arrived in theater. Several units from our state are on the ground. We've actually met with some of our replacements, even though we aren't leaving for a while. Its a good feeling to know that we'll be leaving soon enough. Seeing the replacements makes it more tangible. Part of the transition is trying to transfer the knowledge of everything you've learned over the last year to the incoming unit. It takes a lot of organization and reflection on what went well and what didn't. It prevents the new unit from making the same mistakes and lets them build on our successes. For the maneuver units this is essential. The enemy invariably tests the resolve of new units in an area. We can't give them any slack.

Our push against the insurgents continued in N. Babil province today. This area has been a problem for a while and some of the guys from Fallujah ended up here. Instead of letting them regroup and reconstituted, the idea is to keep them off balance. The goal is to allow the elections at the end of January to go on. There are other hotspots and the assassinations of government officials and candidates will continue in an effort to influence who makes it into office.

There are reports that Moqtada Al-Sadr is getting very frustrated with his henchmen. While he gives the nice political face to his organization, he is furious that his orders to assassinate Allawi and other officials have come to nothing. We may see some more activity from him.

Theater-wide we are continuing to see short-term positive effects resulting from the Fallujah operation. Attacks are down significantly, and those that do occur are not causing as many casualties.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Clearing operations continue in Fallujah. Attacks are down across theater by at least 50% compared to last week. The danger exists that, as insurgents sense the situation slipping away from them, they will get increasingly outrageous in their tactics. With two months until the election it will be a rough ride.

I've been following two stories out of Fallujah. The first is the unfortunate incident with the Marine shooting the injured insurgent in the mosque, caught on film. The reaction to the incident has been bordering on hysterical. In my opinion the Marine acted in accordance with the situation as he saw it. Keep in mind several incidents that day gave proof that even dead bodies were potentially dangerous. A booby trapped body injured 5 marines and killed one and a dying insurgent reportedly pulled out a grenade as his final act. Again the tactics of the insurgents dare us to become barbarians. One gray situation becomes an international incident and a propaganda coup. More disturbing is that he may have delayed action because he felt he needed to verbally justify his actions to the news crew.

Al Jazeera showed the clip all day long interviewing people on the street whipped up into a frenzy. One guy said that this proved the Americans behavior in Fallujah was just as bad as those decapitating innocent civilians and the idiots who killed Margaret Hassan. Luckily most Iraqis know better.

The second story, again promulgated by an eager media is that of a humanitarian emergency in Fallujah. There was a story that US troops blocked a Red Crescent convoy was blocked from entering the city by US troops. The story had to be refuted by the Red Crescent itself before anyone believed it wasn't true. The ministry of health made extensive plans to take care of displaced civilians, setting up food distribution and medical support. Throughout the operation the main hospital was taking patients and two clinics stayed open in the city. The fact is that most civilians left the city for outlying areas.

The moral of the story is that mayhem and misery trump progress in the news, even if it has to be made up. The Fallujah operation will be portrayed as a dismal failure, responsible for spreading the insurgents into the far corners of Iraq to cause mischief. We will have to wait and see how this effects the insurgency but I have to think removing over 2000 insurgents and disrupting a major command and control center can't be all bad.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Here's some pictures from my trip to Baghdad earlier this week. The first picture is a busy street in Baghdad on the east side of the Tigris river. Its amazing how many satellite dishes are around, even in the poorest areas. I think this may be the edge of Sadr City (AlThawra).

D:\DCIM\102_PANA\Baghdad Street

This next picture is of the former Grand Saddam Mosque, now called the Al-Rahman (The Merciful) Mosque. Still under construction it was to be the largest mosque in the world when completed with 64 domes and 20 stories tall able to hold 30,000 worshippers. Saddam went on a Mosque building spree after the Gulf War. He wanted a grand mosque named after him in every one of the provinces. He also reportedly donated 25+ pints of his own blood for the purpose of writing the whole Koran with it. This is housed in the Mother of All Battles Mosque in Baghdad. What a nut!


The last picture, though hard to make out is a group of people, mostly children, in a field with a flock of sheep in the farmland outside of Baghdad. Everyone in the group waved to our helicopter as we passed over.

D:\DCIM\102_PANA\Flock of Sheep

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

My soccer injury has wasted a lot of my time in the past week. On the plus side I did get a helicopter ride down to the International Zone in Baghdad to visit the hospital.

The ride to Baghdad was good for sight seeing. The fields are now green from the fall rains. We came in to the International Zone from the east, flying over Sadr City and the parts of Baghdad lining the east bank of the Tigris. Crossing the Tigris we passed low over the Al-Rashid hotel and the Iraqi government offices.

We landed at the helipad and some guys from Brigade picked us up in a white chevy Tahoe. Last time I walked but it was a bit too far with crutches. I had a quick visit to the PT department at Ibn Sina Hospital where many of the car bomb victims go. Saddam even had a hernia operation there a few months ago. Now its manned by an Army hospital unit.

Rushing back to the helipad in the back of a humvee ambulance we managed to hitch a ride with, we arrived just in time for an afternoon ride back to our base. We flew west out of the IZ over the Baghdad Zoo, now devoid of animals. To our north were two large unfinished mosques that Saddam was building, The Saddam Mosque and the Mother of All Battles Mosque. We made a stop at another base in the Baghdad area and picked up a few more people, then flew back out over the date groves and fields to our base.

We've continued to get rocket and mortar attacks on base. In fact yesterday I woke up to a couple of loud thuds followed by the alarm siren.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Tonight is one of the most important dates during Ramadan - The night of destiny also called the night of power. The actual date seems to be different for Sunni and Shi'ia here. Usually on the 27th day of Ramadan Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel (Jabril) started to reveal the Quran to Mohammed. On the night of destiny many Moslems pray all night "one night worth a thousand months". It is also unfortunately another excuse for some to do mischief. For us this was no exception tonight. Illumination flares were lighting up the area north of our base to help troops in contact. We also had a number of mortar rounds come in an injure some of our third country national workers. Throughout the country we've had a spike in attacks.

Major combat in Fallujah should be wrapped up within 72 hours, probably less.

Today we spent time watching coverage on Yassir Arafat's death and reactions around the world.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Fallujah operation seems to be going as planned. Its a messy, dirty business. We've been receiving casualties for the last few days. Soon the civil affairs teams will be moving into Fallujah to help with restoring public services as the civilians return home. Huge amounts of reconstruction money has been allocated for reconstruction.

The elimination of a safe harbor for the insurgents in Fallujah will not be the end of the insurgency, but the momentum of success can bring a life of its own. The most important element is that the Iraqis gain confidence in their leaders and security forces. I think things are moving in the right direction.

Today we had a higher level of attacks in other areas throughout the theater as a reaction to Fallujah. We expected this and will deal with the situations as they arise or intelligence surfaces.

When I went for PT today I met two Iraqi children who come to the base twice a week for physical therapy. The children are a brother and sister who were injured in a mortar attack. The little girl is in a wheel chair and can't use her legs. Her brother had the bones of his leg fused after the injury and is in need of additional surgery. The kids were very happy to be there. I said hello and exercised my stock Arabic phrases. They both teased me because I told them I hurt my knee playing "Toba" (Soccer). While I was lying on my back getting my knee iced they both came by and tickled my feet.

On my way out I grabbed some candy from a box that said "candy for our patients-take more if we made you cry".

Monday, November 08, 2004

I've been hobbling around today. Yesterday I got a knee injury during our soccer tournament. The physical therapist thinks it is fairly serious but can be treated here. As a result I get to go to physical therapy every morning. Our soccer schedule was a little too ambitious. The tournament was crammed into 4 days. It turned out that yesterday we had to play 3 games, 2 back to back. We were all beat up the end, I couldn't walk(or at least dance a jig), we dropped 3 people off at the clinic and this morning the clinic saw 8 people from various teams. I guess if our biggest problems in Iraq are soccer injuries, we'll be lucky. The Iraqi guys who got me cleats Saturday were amused to see me with a knee brace.

In Fallujah Operation Phantom Fury has kicked off. Once again the Iraqi Army's best units are involved, specifically 36 Commando. Today they seized Fallujah General Hospital, which was used to great effect for propaganda purposes in April. The Marines and US Army troops have started to move in. We have been seeing the big Marine CASEVAC helicopters and Army Blackhawk Medevac choppers coming into the hospital here. Its always a sobering thing when the big gray twin rotor choppers pass low overhead as they approach the hospital LZ. You know that your wounded comrades are in that thing. I always say a prayer for them.

Today one of our contractors who I haven't seen in a long time stopped by. He has been staying away for a while because of threats against people working with us. He was on post to pick up one of our other contractor's son who was wounded in a mortar attack. This little boy was lucky, he got some shrapnel in his flank, was medevaced here and spent a week in the hospital. His neighbor, another child, was killed in the attack. The boy was very cute and seemed very happy to be going home. We gave him a few little gifts before he left.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I just came back from a whirlwind aerial tour of Northern Iraq. I was up with the Stryker Brigade near Mosul on a mission yesterday and today. I caught a medevac flight up there after failing once again to find a space on the Sherpa. I came back on a Cav Blackhawk.

My return flight involved 6 stops, 2 refuels and hundreds of miles from Mosul to the outskirts of Baghdad plus a few backtracks. I really enjoy the helicopter rides, zipping over the countryside with people waving and sheep and birds scattering beneath us. The terrain up north is very different than the flat green plains of the Tigris valley. Heading north there is an east-west chain of hills a couple hundred feet high that rise up out of the flat desert. Further north near Mosul the land is hilly and very rocky. The Tigris winds through the city with lush vegetation on both sides.

On the way up we pulled some high G turns when the pilot thought he saw someone planting an IEDs and circled to investigate.

The FOB I visited was very isolated, really in the middle of nowhere. The good thing about the place is that it is so quiet. They rarely get attacked because of their remote location. The food was better than at my base. They have the same contractor as the Cav in Baghdad complete with the milkshakes to go.

On the way south from Tikrit, another of my stops, we saw huge numbers of sheep. In one location it looked like dozens of shepherd had gathered in one place with their tents, vehicles and probably 5000 sheep. I even saw a small herd of camels of three varieties (brown, black and white).

Last night I walked from the trailer I was staying to the MWR tent to send an email and watch the beginning of the election coverage. I got back to base around 10:30 and have been watching the TV throughout the day. Kerry is scheduled to give a concession speech around 9pm our time. I'm glad its over and I'm happy with the result.

My Medevac flight north

Hills north of Tikrit
hills near q-west

City of Mosul