Sunday, January 30, 2005

Its election day in Iraq. We will watch from down here in Kuwait as Iraqis express the will of the people. Whatever happens today, the very fact that the elections are happening at all and according to plan is a victory in itself and a step forward.

I think of all my Iraqi friends at this time. Some Shia, some Sunni. Some will vote and others will not because of direct threats against them. Hopefully all will benefit in the long run.

I think of several guys in particular who worked with us. They have endured so much in the past year, kidnapped family members, one had his house mortared by insurgents and his children injured, death threats to themselves and their families, even verbal abuse and insults from US soldiers who think they are the enemy. I know these guys are heroes and the rebuilders of Iraq. Every day they defy the terrorist's ambitions by getting up, going to work and not giving in to despair. They are winning by sheer will power. They would not admit greatness themselves, they are all humble men. They will tell you "what else can I do". That's the difference, the only way they see is forward, to fight in their own way. Others wait and see in the safety of inaction. As it has always been, the people of action and vision, will make the way for the rest.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

My last day in Iraq was yesterday. The morning was filled with last minute things like going to the mail and cleaning our tent out. Being the last out means that you get stuck with a lot of crap to throw out.

Another medical unit from our state just got in and will be here for the next year. It was good to see some familiar faces wearing the same patch we do. We gave them as much stuff as they wanted, microwaves, carpets, refrigerators, electronics, cds. They happily carted them away in the back of an ambulance.

While we were packing up we heard a rocket whistle in close to us but with no boom. We looked at eachother and continued working thinking it was a generator or something. When the alarm sounded we knew it had been incoming.

The rocket landed ten feet infront of the gate guard to the hospital across the street from our shower, causing a extreme blood pressure jump for the guard. EOD was out there later digging it out. That would be our last incoming for our deployment we've had over 600. We lost 13 comrades on our base both US military and Iraqi National Guard.

The last of our Battalion, including me, left Iraq at 19:30 local time yesterday on a C-130. As we did some hard banks after takeoff I could see the lights of my home away from home for the last year fade into the distance.

I'm now in a camp in Kuwait for a little while. Soon we'll be back home.

Monday, January 24, 2005

After a break in the weather yesterday, we are back to rain and mud today.

Yesterday, I went on an unscheduled mission back to the International Zone in Baghdad. We flew down just as the sun was coming up. The fields are very green with new crops coming up. A few fields had stubble where corn had been harvested.

After landing at the helipad, we walked out to the main drag near the Embassy and up towards our Brigade HQ. The IZ is much different than when I was first there in October. More security and blast barriers, more visible guards and everyone needs to be in Body Armor and have a loaded weapon. A few days after my first visit, 2 suicide bombers hit the bazaar that used to be near the embassy and the Green Zone Cafe.

At the Embassy we got a nice tour by a Sergeant in the unit in charge of the place. We went to a room that soldiers call the Rocket room. On one end is a large painting of rockets flying off to kill Saddam's enemies, on the other is a painting of a mosque. I believe its the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The artwork on the walls and ceiling are incredible, hand carved and painted designs, metalwork, intricate chandeliers. I saw room after room of incredible craftsmanship and opulence.

One room I visited was called the Green room. Its the one that Saddam appeared with his cabinet seated at the head of a large table.

I've visited a few of Saddam and his son's palaces. It really boggles the mind that so much money could be poured into these projects, to the detriment of the population. The work is incredible, but it was paid for in blood.

The palace is called the Embassy Annex because the US Embassy is being built elsewhere, though it won't be completed for a while.

We flew out in the afternoon. Every time I fly out of Baghdad I go in a different direction. This time I flew east out over the Tigris right by the Ishtar Sheraton, past a large church in the Eastern part of the city and over an area with large numbers of low walled buildings. It was incredible the number of water buffalo crammed into pens in people's courtyards. In the distance I could see the split blue-green dome of the Martyr's Memorial and a large stadium.

The Ishtar Sheraton on the East bank of the Tigris River

View of Eastern part of Baghdad

Saturday, January 22, 2005

It has been raining all day and into tonight. Its miserable outside, which should keep the bad guys indoors at least until it stops raining. Our tent has been billowing in an out and sounds like its going to be ripped up and blow away. Everyone who could, stayed out of the cold and the rain today. A short walk to the chow hall soaked me to the skin.

The forecast for tomorrow is mud. Mud in the showers, mud in every building, mud in our tent no escaping. The temperature should be nice in the upper 50's.

We missed this particular type of weather last year. At this time last year we were doing our field exercise at Fort Drum, NY with an ambient temperature of minus 27 degrees F.

Most of the Battalion is already back in Kuwait. After the transfer of authority to the last incoming unit the rest of us here will join them. I don't envy them in Kuwait. Many units are just sitting in tents in overcrowded camps sometimes for a few weeks waiting to catch a plane home. That makes it bearable though...going home.

Sun Pillar - Fort Drum, New York January 2004
I now have less than a week left in Iraq. I'll be in Kuwait for the elections. The thought is that the insurgents will try to really ramp up the violence 2 to 4 days before the election for maximum intimidation effect. I'm optimistic that Iraqis will come out and vote. From watching various programs on TV I'd think that no one is going to vote. The guys at Iraq the Model think differently as do I.

In our neck of the woods, we've had a few rocket and mortar attacks in the last week. Only a couple hit close enough to me where I could even hear them. Activity is up a bit but really not that much. The insurgents seem to favor targeting people who don't shoot back.

Yesterday our EOD guys were going crazy. They were blowing up things all day making mushroom clouds several hundred feet tall. A couple times they forgot to tell us, so we wondered if we had a rocket attack. The worst case of not being notified was a couple months after we got here the Air Force dropped a 2000 pound bomb just outside our gate. That shook a few people up.

For my Iraqi friends and all Iraqis I pray for a successful election, the first of many.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

It rained all last night, alternating between pouring and sprinkling. The wind kicked up and helicopters flew into the hospital making for a very noisy night in the tent.

I spent most of the day in my tent reading "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand. It wasn't until later in the day that I realized how ironic it was. The characters in the book are all men and women of action, who must remain in motion, while I wasted my day doing mostly nothing, including a long nap in the afternoon. I was the Randian anti-hero, notable in my ability to get nothing done and having no goal. Well, I'm not to concerned if its only for a day.

Since dinner I actually have been doing a few things like checking up on the current situation.

In Mosul the security situation has improved, despite the kidnapping and eventual release of the Catholic Archbishop. The insurgents are trying to maintain the perception of total lawlessness by focusing their efforts on high profile, soft targets that don't risk confrontation with American or Iraqi security forces. The murder rate in Mosul has actually dropped significantly in the last week, but the insurgents are very savvy at using the media as a strategic weapon.

In a few days the location of polling stations will be published. This will probably kick off the insurgents final hurrah, which will last until the 30th. Several security measures such as limiting vehicular traffic and closing the borders have been widely published.

My guess and my hope is that Iraqis will come out in large numbers defying the small group of terrorists and criminals trying to keep back the tide of history. In a few days we will see.

Monday, January 17, 2005

I''m sitting in my tent, rain is pattering on the roof and there is a roll of thunder every few minutes (we ran internet lines out to the tent). A helicopter is passing overhead, about to land at the hospital. I have less than 2 weeks left in Iraq and probably around 3 left in Theater.

Last night our headquarters det left for Kuwait. We marched over with them to the holding area where they waited for the C-130 out. Most of our gear was hauled down to Kuwait by flatbed, so with the exception of a handful of people we didn't have to convoy back. Most of our Battalion is now waiting for us in Kuwait. Hopefully we'll leave, as we came a year ago, the entire battalion on one big jet.

Its a bit lonely, with only a few of us left in headquarters.

I woke up early this morning to the sound of three mortar rounds leaving the tube. I didn't wait to find out whose they were before I jumped into my boots and went inside the building. Last week I heard a mortar launch a few hundred meters outside the wire, it hit a hangar but didn't damage anything. It turned out this mornings launches were our guys doing mortar registration.

Later in the morning I went down to the clinic. The replacements just arrived last night. I met a couple of the new PAs and had lunch with them. There have been a few delays with the incoming unit and some people felt like they'd never get there. Now they can look forward to leaving soon.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Today was our last official day of our Iraq mission, we did a transfer of authority ceremony this afternoon, after an excruciating 5 run throughs of the ceremony.

As we walked out of our tent to walk to the ceremony practice, the sky was just lighting up in the east. A single contrail from a plane stretched from one end of the horizon to the other forming a giant arch taking up the sky and illuminated by the rising sun. I said it was like a gate we had to go through on our last day, oops wrong direction...that way is Iran.

Most of the company will be leaving in the next few days. I'll stay around with a few of the leaders to torment the incoming unit a little more and waiting for the last unit to replace our guys at the clinic.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

We haven't had any mortar or rocket attacks here for a week, which is a long time in these parts. Its only happened three times since getting here last February. Word is that the insurgents are planning something they call a "day of fire". Probably the usual business of trying to cause as much damage as they can. A lot of car bombs are supposed to be roaming around the country. Our recent car bomb apparently was perpetrated by two Saudis.

Eighteen days before the elections. Several groups have stated that their snipers would gun down voters at the polls. Think about that, the act of voting is seen as dangerous or offensive enough to warrant a deadly response. With 6000 polling sites throughout the country, its impossible to or provide a high level of security for them all. On election day we'll see the heights of bravery as people come out to vote with knowledge of both its dangers and importance and the depths of cowardice as some voters are attacked and unfortunately injured or killed. Its up to all Iraqis to ensure their sacrifice was not in vain.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

I had a fairly relaxing day. A couple meetings in the morning, then tying up a few loose ends in the afternoon. I met my contractor friend who just came back from a business trip to Germany. He said he'll be laying low until the elections are over. Its the last time I'll see him before I leave. I've been lucky to have as much contact with Iraqis as I've had, though I would have liked more. I'll keep in contact through email.

The lull across the theater continues, for how long we don't know. The insurgents are probably moving and refitting in anticipation of attacks near the election. We have seen these spikes a half dozen times throughout the last year. My expectation is a relatively brief period of violence followed by another lull. The insurgents are running up against a few problems. One is leadership, the other is logistics. After the last Fallujah operation attacks dropped dramatically and changed to less confrontational, lower risk attacks. There was a need to preserve the fighting strength that was left. Quite a few insurgent leaders and enablers (like the moneymen) have been rolled up recently. I think the leadership crisis is real and significantly impacting their ability to sustain attacks.

As others have said before, the insurgency in Iraq comes nowhere near the gold standard Vietnamese insurgency, with large scale popular participation. The insurgents are viewed generally as dangerous criminals, sometimes as nutty zealots. They are savvy and have a very good handle on how to play the media. As a result I expect a number of large scale "made for TV" attacks in the coming weeks, followed by a crowd of talking heads discussing how everything has come undone. After the elections we will see more attacks, however, successful elections will further erode the credibility of insurgents of every stripe.

Another element of the insurgency is the subcontractor. A significant number of people we catch are paid to plant a bomb or fire a rocket. They do it not necessarily for ideological reasons but instead to make a desperately needed buck or sometimes because of threats on their own lives or their family. If the security situation was better, they would likely be happier working on a reconstruction project.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Well I have officially been evicted from my office and bedroom. I'm living in a tent with all the officers and senior NCOs. Its like a big frat house. We still are doing our jobs (most of us) for a little while longer. The incoming unit is about to take over. Tonight we are having a big cookout with steak, lobstertails and a huge amount of food.

There have been a few bumps with our replacements and it hasn't exactly been the smooth, friendly transition that we experienced with the unit we replaced in February. It could be an Active Army/National Guard thing. Since we've had no problems with other Active units the real reason is probably because there are a few asses involved who's attitudes lead the way. Anyway I'm sure they'll do a fine job when they take over and I wish them luck. It will be an important year for Iraq and they are a big part of it.

The insurgents will undoubtedly try to cause trouble just before the election in the form of mass casualty attacks against soft targets. I think that the Iraqis like the Afghans will pull it off. It will be messy, but an important step forward.

Monday, January 03, 2005

I woke up this morning to the sound of an explosion. It was the sound of 5 men dying. A car bomb blew up just outside our base about 500 meters from my building. As is often the case these days, it was the Iraqi National Guard who took the brunt of it. These men were doing their job, as they do every day, keeping us and their comrades safe. Doing what they could to bring peace to Iraq, they gave their life for their country. They will remain in my mind and heart among the honored dead. They should be regarded as such everywhere.

I'm getting sick of people who characterize all the Iraqi security forces as corrupt, bumbling fools. Most are honest and increasingly capable. Men of action, not words. There is so much moral distance between the armchair pundit who secretly revels in each attack and outrage because it validates their loathing of what we are doing here and the Iraqi soldier, policeman, border guard, or election worker who gets up each day and does his job knowing, yet suppressing for the sake of sanity, that today they might be killed and reviled as enemies of the people and apostates.

January, by all accounts, will be as bloody as the insurgents can muster. They will rage but the Iraqi voters have within their power the ability to deal a devastating blow against them with the stroke of a pen mixed with the bravery of showing up.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Sunrise on the airstrip waiting for the Sherpa to be loaded. These planes are great for carting equipment and people all over the country sometimes flying 20ft off the ground. My favorite ride next to a blackhawk helicopter.

Homemade Italian Pizza for Lunch, cheese, ham and artichoke. The base I visited was in the Italian Division area, there is a pizzeria on post that make homemade pizza and calzones. Italian music videos were on the satellite TV and a poster on the wall proclaiming the accomplishments of Operazione Babilonia, the Italian's piece of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The great Ziggurat of Ur. Temple to the moon god.

Looking down on the tombs area.

Another view of the Ziggurat.

Looking up from the underground entrance to a royal tomb.

Mounds of debris from excavations containing a huge amount of pottery shards.

The rebuilt "House of Abraham" built on the foundations of a rich mans house from the approximate time of the Prophet Abraham.

I just got back from a trip to a base near Nasiriyah in the southern part of the country. The flight down in the sherpa was enjoyable. I could see the snow-capped Zagros mountains in Iran as we flew south along the Iranian border.

The green Tigris valley faded to the sandy, absolutely flat desert of the south, criss-crossed by irrigation canals large and small. Near Nasiriyah I saw large areas of the former southern marshes that have been reflooded. I also saw large areas white with salt, the irrigation water carries salts with it that slowly build up and poison the soil.

My mission took me to a base that is right next to the ruins of ancient Ur. One of the ancient Sumerian cities, it is the traditional home of the prophet Abraham. In the 1920's and 30's the treasures of the city made it the most famous archeological site in the world, the excavations closely followed by the world press. Because of its biblical associations many Europeans traveled to this remote location to view it for themselves. Agatha Christie visited the site, later married one of the excavators and wrote a novel set in the excavation site.

I was lucky enough to tag along with a group of logistics guys who had arranged to tour the ruins with a local guide. The site is far from completely excavated, many years worth of work remain.

The site itself is dominated by the great Ziggurat, the temple to the moon god. One of the expeditions rebuilt some of the Ziggurat. We climbed the stairs to the top and had a great view of the surrounding desert and ruins. Natural asphalt was used to cement the bricks together. The guide told me that even today there are asphalt springs near the Iraqi city of Hit, these springs have been known from ancient times. Heterodotus referred to them as the fountains of Is.

We walked through a smaller temple and then the ruins of the royal palace.

One of the most striking parts of the ruins are the royal tombs. Both commoners and royalty are buried in a large brickwork area. Many of the commoners were buried simply wrapped in a reed mat and placed in a small nook along with a few personal items, some had their bones put in ossuary jars. The most spectacular part was the tombs of the Sumerian royalty. The tombs were large vaulted rooms where the excavators found many human and animal remains along with that of the king or queen. In these tombs they also found the gold, silver and priceless artifacts that captured the public's imagination only eclipsed at the time by the discovery of the tomb of King Tut in Egypt.

As walked past the tombs large piles of rubble from the excavation of the tombs lined the pit. The rubble contained a gigantic quantity of pottery shards mixed in with the dirt.

On the far end of the excavations was a house rebuilt on the ruins. It was the house of a rich man with 30 or so rooms, 4 courtyards, 3 stairs cases and a very modern drainage system made of interlocking ceramic pipes. This has been called the house of Abraham, because it is from approximately the same time period and his father was thought to be a very wealthy man.

The final part of the site we visited was called the Flood Pit. This deep excavation uncovered evidence of 2 large floods in the region, one 2900 years ago and one about 4000 years ago. The excavators at the time attributed the second flood to Noah's flood.

When things are safer, there are many sites like Ur that could support a tourist industry. There is a five year plan to continue excavation at Ur and also to build a hotel and some tourist facilities to support visitors.

The base I stayed at has had 1 rocket attack in the last year. The south part of the country is relatively safe, save an occasional roadside bomb.

Pictures tomorrow - server problems this evening

Happy New Year