I'm in Iraq.
This morning I was doing my daily round of the news and the blogs, and
by chance I saw a comments posting in Atrios by Ms. Bridegam which
linked to an earlier post I made here in ABGO about my son (who is
also still here in Iraq) and Arabic language books.
I haven't posted much since then, so let me tell you my story. I'm a
retired military officer. When my son was in the process of
deploying, I saw a want ad in the Army Times looking for personnel to
work for the DoD in a variety of specialties in Iraq.
I emailed my resume on a lark, and they called me up in September. I
accepted an offer and arrived here sometime later. I've been in
Baghdad and outside and have done a few different things since I've
Time really flys as a day-to-day experience, but when I look back it
seems like I've been here a long time because of the number of intense
I've met Bremer and a couple of members of the Iraqi Governing
Council. I've done some policy stuff and some on the ground execution
stuff. The fun thing about the job is the extent to which individual
initiative can be exercised. The not-so-fun thing is the extent to
which: (1) people are trying to kill me, and (2) this makes it hard to
get things done.
My impression of what's happening: we are doing a lot of good here,
not only because of the money we are spending, but also because there
are efforts to advance democratic values, human (including women's)
rights and civil society. One thing that never gets through is how
poor and decrepit much of this country is outside Baghdad. Baghdad
itself I would describe as a mid-to-high third world city, something a
bit below Nairobi. Of course the security situation makes it worse
than it could be. In the Shia south, it's much worse materially but
better on the day-to-day security aspect, obviously excepting attacks
like Karbala. I haven't been up north. You can see visible evidence
of improvements in the economy: the consumer goods of all types being
displayed, the satellite dishes on homes and apartments.
To fix things, it's going to take time and more money. The $18 bn of
reconstruction programs of the US $87 bn supplemental and the $12 bn
of the Madrid donor conference have barely begun to be spent. There
is going to have to be a stewardship of these projects by the
Coalition. In my opinion, this stewardship will have to include a
very delicate fostering of democratic values and transparency in
government with the transitional government. Many millions of dollars
are allocated for these programs, so if you're an NGO program person,
look up the USAID website and get ready to get your resumes in.
I have already heard about several examples of corruption within the
Iraqi ministries, and this will be one of the make or break issues.
I'm not really interested in identifying myself, but this is a small
club, so if you have any questions, shoot.
Great to hear from you!!! There are so many questions I'd like to
ask, but here are a few:
1. How do the Iraqi people interact with you?
2. Do you think the handover will occur on June 30 as planned?
3. Do you think the media is covering what's happening in a fair way?
4. How is the morale of American troops?
5. I've heard that oil production is back to pre-war levels, how
about electrical, water, healthcare, education etc.?
6. How are the Iraqi people reacting to the bombings/terrorist
7. Do you think the Al-Mada list is authentic? How do the Iraqi
people feel about the UN?
8. Are there any job openings for an RN/History teacher?
Thanks for getting in touch. I'm sure that there are terrifying
moments, but also some very exciting ones. GOOD LUCK!
Selene, you were at the GO Wellesley conference too, right? It's a
pity we didn't meet somehow. We both could have had a drink with
First, a bit of on-topic: After I posted the above, a colleague and I
were talking to an Iraqi contractor, Saad, about a project we're
doing. I have a bunch of translated English to Arabic books in my
office, mostly these earnest political studies suited for the reading
list of PolSci 250, or business "how to" books for Mgt 250. Except
for "Cold Mountain," the only novel. So I offered him some, and we
were talking about books, and he says "Do you know an author, George
Orwell? That book 1984, that was the way it was under Saddam." No
Now, to answer your questions:
1. They interact very well. I have made some friends here. While
most of the Iraqis I meet are either working for us directly or as
contractors, I have had the opportunity to be up on the dais in a
couple of public forums where I have had to answer pointed questions
about what is going on. One gauge is the "wave" gauge. You get a lot
of waves from children and many adults, thumbs-up, etc, while you're
riding in your CPA Suburban. Now there are some Iraqis that try to
"interact" with you by means of a 122 mm rocket or a mortar, of
2. Yes, it will happen. There was and is a bit of chagrin here about
the acceleration of the turnover, because there's a lot to be done in
reconstructing this society and introducing democratic concepts,
breaking corrupt and obstructive bureaucracies in the Iraqi
ministries, and there was some comment that it was tied to the
election, but now that it's approaching, it appears that it probably
was the right call. Saad, the contractor mentioned above, thought
that the violence will subside after the turnover, and the al-Zarqawi
also implies that the violence will subside.
3. The "media" and "fair" are tough concepts. TV is pretty useless,
except for Nightline (I met Ted Koppel at the palace, told him he was
responsible for many half-hours of sleep lost) and PBS's Frontline, I
saw a bit of the recent Frontline on Iraq when it was rebroadcast on
AFN, it was pretty good.
If you read everything, you probably get a good idea of what's going
on. The NYT does the best job of covering all the different aspects.
I also read the Guardian's Iraq special. One of the best sources is
Prof. Juan Cole's blog, which is read by many CPA officals. With
network, cable news and local papers, you don't really get the breadth
of what's going on, it's always "X killed in Iraq attack" or "Soldiers
Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are outrageous, consistently promoting the
flimsiest anti-Coalition rumors, while ignoring anything good that we
4. The morale is pretty good right now, because soldiers are either
(1) on their way out, like my son, or (2) just on their way in and not
sick/scared/bored yet. In between, you see some discouraged troops,
but pretty much doing their jobs well. One comment: the way that
women have been on the front lines especially in the MP units, out
patrolling every day.
5. Electricity production is slowly growing, but is still 2000 MW
below demand, so there is load shedding throughout Iraq. One problem
is that demand is rising faster than supply right now, maybe because
of all the electrical appliances being bought. I had some knowledge
about that problem, like many other things the non-permissive security
environment has slowed things down. The supplemental money should do
a lot more to increase production, with some big projects. Water:
depends where you're at. Baghdad is OK. Sewage is a huge long-term
problem. Many Iraq cities have no sewage system, just tanks that are
pumped out and dumped whereever, including vacant lots. Very bleak.
6. We have had a problem with rumors being started at every terrorist
attack that "someone saw an American jet fire rockets." We try to get
out and stop these things, but Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya will run with
them, no matter how unfounded. Eventually, the truth gets out though.
I understand why some Iraqis are frustrated about things like
Karbala, they are just sick of the violence I'm sure and blame us for
the lack of security.
7. I would guess that the Al-Mada list is authentic. I have seen
some sleazy things about the "Coalition of the Unwilling," or the
Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis since I've been here with regard to their
pre-war commercial dealing with Iraq, so it doesn't surprise me. The
UN was in some ways a tool of these commercial interests, plus there
is this absolutely onerous UN Claims Commission which accepts all sort
of fraudulent exorbitant claims from Kuwaitis and Palestinians who say
they were damaged without any proof. Plus the billions claimed by the
8. If you want a job here, you can probably get it. Check
iraq.monster.com and check the Research Triangle Associates website.
Creative Associates is out now, and Abt Associates backed out of their
contract because of the insecurity, I think. USAID is going to let a
bunch of contracts in a variety of areas, so I would check their
website for news, also look for "Personal Services Contracts" on their
website. There's Halliburton/KBR, too, although word is that KBR
stands for Kin, Brothers and Relatives, that you have to have an in
Thanks so much for the first hand report. I don't know if you know
this, but Nashville has the largest Kurdish community in the country.
Many Kurds are very anxious about the Erbil bombing ect., but are
still very optimistic and getting ready to go home,(if they haven't
already). I've even been invited to a wedding in Kurdistan in June,
but unfortunately won't be able to make it.(I also won't be able to
make the big Kurdish New Year's celebration in a few weeks here in
Nashville--I'll be in Chicago--but hear it's great fun).
Sorry that we didn't meet at Wellesley, but if we ever should, drinks
on me--that goes for your brave son as well. I'm just so glad that
people like you are over there. (And I would love to be, but have
teenagers.) As for 1984, should we be surprised? Can any of us even
imagine what it must have been like? (I think "Republic of Fear" gives
us some idea) On an encouraging note, I have a Kurdish student who has
developed a great admiration for Tom Paine--one writer I truely hope
has been translated into Kurdish and Arabic along with Orwell!
> ...On an encouraging note, I have a Kurdish student who has
> developed a great admiration for Tom Paine--one writer I truely hope
> has been translated into Kurdish and Arabic along with Orwell!...
Glad to hear from you.
While we're talking translations, has there been any mention of Juan Cole's "Americana In Arabic" project that we've
discussed here before (<http://www.juancole.com/trans.htm>)?
Also, you said the Juan Cole weblog is frequently read by CPA officials. What do they tend to think of it?
What do they think of Salam Pax (<http://dear_raed.blogspot.com/>)?
Do you have any comment on the discussion of body armor sent to soldiers from home that came up in the Atrios thread
Have you seen any of the new school textbooks? What do you think of them?
Are there a lot of security men around from foreign private companies? What is that like for the regular soldiers?
What do you do to keep the danger from wearing out your nerves?
How's the food?
I have met two Iraqi/Tennesseans: one a Chaldean Christian woman, and
the other a Kurdish woman from Nashville. Both are working for IRDC
(Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council) an organization of
Iraqi expats, some from the USA, others from the UK, who have come
back to help out in the effort. The IRDC has been an important asset
to the effort, living throughout the country.
And we have Tom Paine's "Common Sense" in Arabic.
There has been some mention of Prof. Cole's effort, it's a good idea
and I would urge people to support it. We are doing some of the same
things, but you can't have too much of that!
While I read Salam Pax occasionally, and once used one of his postings
to illustrate something about an issue, he doesn't post that much, so
I don't know who reads him.
Body armor: I think all the soldiers and Marines have had the high
quality "interceptor" body armor with ceramic plates for some time
now. At least the ones I see.
Haven't seen the new text books, except for some math workbooks in
Arabic. I know that there is a "democracy and tolerance" curriculum
which has been promulgated in the south central region.
The security men from private companies work mostly on fixed security
on (mostly inner) gates and perimiters or what we call PSDs (Personnel
(or Personal) Security Detachments) More later.
Um, sorry. I had to break off and do five things that noone would
ever do in combination in a normal job, including having tea with the
chief of a group of squatters from a religious/political party with a
nasty rep and asking them to leave the gov't building they were in
(without saying, but implying: or else) and getting price quotes from
a soccer ball manufacturer.
About the foreign security guys. I wanted to add that I think the
story about the South Africans contractors was a cheap shot. I know a
few of them, they have protected me in the red zone in the past. Not
all of them are white, by the way. They are decent guys.
The soldiers have a more general mission than private security: to try
to secure Iraq as much as they can, and to conduct operations and
patrols to that end.
How do I deal with nerves? Work as much as I can. Try not to think
about the effects of high-speed metal fragments on flesh. See how
funny things are. Use my few opportunities for flirting. Two beers
in the evening.
Food is pretty good, but it is institutional food, e.g. meat is
"inspected, not graded."
> .....Um, sorry. I had to break off and do five things that noone would
> ever do in combination in a normal job, including having tea with the
> chief of a group of squatters from a religious/political party with a
> nasty rep and asking them to leave the gov't building they were in
> (without saying, but implying: or else) and getting price quotes from
> a soccer ball manufacturer.
Congratulations on your bravery. Do you ever feel a young Eric Blair sitting on your shoulder?
What's sad to me is, the work you need done there now calls for a kind of diplomatic street smarts that people learn in
the U.S. in professions like inner-city social work that both attract and produce left/liberal political leanings. There
are valiant street outreach workers in every American city who have spent years cheerfully handing out vitamins in
dangerous neighborhoods. I expect you could use a few folks with that kind of seasoning. But the way things are, the Bush
Admin. doesn't value the skills or honesty of people like them, and they don't trust the Bush Admin. enough to work for
Which brings me back to a question I asked Gene earlier: is there room over there currently for truly independent NGOs
that can employ the kind of frequently thorny and eccentric characters who do good social work?
> About the foreign security guys. I wanted to add that I think the
> story about the South Africans contractors was a cheap shot. I know a
> few of them, they have protected me in the red zone in the past. Not
> all of them are white, by the way. They are decent guys.
Thx for this. Stories do get stretched out of shape at a distance. From here the imagination produces sinister bulky
figures in mirrored sunglasses. I've posted your comment on my weblog with links to this discussion.
> The soldiers have a more general mission than private security: to try
> to secure Iraq as much as they can, and to conduct operations and
> patrols to that end.
Yes, that's why I kind of wonder (yes, attempting to judge from a huge distance) if it's good for there to be very many
private security men there.
A few years ago I met a woman in the tourism business who had been in a shop in Russia when a thief wrestled away her
cell phone and ran with it. She said the shop was full of security men and in fact the thief ran out right between two of
them -- but the guards were employed to protect the store, not to protect her, so they didn't do anything about it.
Is there any of that kind of problem going on?
> How do I deal with nerves? Work as much as I can. Try not to think
> about the effects of high-speed metal fragments on flesh. See how
> funny things are. Use my few opportunities for flirting. Two beers
> in the evening.
Hope you are eating enough green vegetables. Seriously: my metabolism went off kilter a few years ago and it cost me a
lot of trouble to discover just how important spinach & other cooked greens are in strengthening the body against even
relatively minor stress. And B vitamins. There really is something to that stuff about Popeye and the spinach.
> Food is pretty good, but it is institutional food, e.g. meat is
> "inspected, not graded."
Any turkey lately? ;--)
>I'm in Iraq.
Hi. Good to hear from you again. Best wishes to you and your son, thanks for
your very interesting reports and thanks most of all for doing what you're
doing over there.
I'll give you a mention at the blog in which I participate:
There are some heated "intra-Left" debates there about Iraq which may interest
Indeed. I'm curious to what extent Orwell's books were available (in English or
Arabic, openly or secretly) and read in Saddam-era Iraq.
> And we have Tom Paine's "Common Sense" in Arabic.
> There has been some mention of Prof. Cole's effort, it's a good idea
> and I would urge people to support it. We are doing some of the same
> things, but you can't have too much of that!...
What about this one?
Both of Blair's big foreign adventures led to disillusion bordering on
personal disaster. I'm not there yet, nor do I want to get shot
through the neck.
On the issue of the people here, this is a tremendously varied group
which includes many political liberals in policy and operational
positions. The heavy presence of Brits and Aussies in the policy
positions (out of proportion to their troop contributions, IMO), along
with the lesser influence of Poles, Spanish, Ukrainians and others
serves to moderate any right-leaning characteristics among the US
contingent. There are many "thorny and independent characters" here.
I could see GO here among the Brits.
As an example, I would point to someone I know and admire, Mandana
Hendessi, see http://www.antiwar.com/spectator/spec31.html for a
critical view (cheap shot) from The Spectator. The USAID and RTI
people who staff the nation building and local government programs are
not conservatives to any degree I've seen.
Even when you take what you could describe as the hard-core Republican
political appointees, the differences between them and a US or UK or
even an Iraqi political liberal shrink to insignificance in
comparision to the differences between us and a member of Moqtada
Sadr's Mahdi Army or a Ba'athist. For an example of someone else I
know and admire who's a Republican political appointee, see Rich Galen
and his blog, www.mullings.com
All of these people on the CPA staff agree on the basic minimum
requirements of political freedom: free speech, women's right to
advocate and vote, etc. There is so much to do on the basic level
that things like gay marriage and the capital gains tax (would that
there were capital gains now!) aren't issues.
Was there a samizdat phenomenon under Saddam?
> Both of Blair's big foreign adventures led to disillusion bordering on
> personal disaster.
Took me a moment to realize you meant Eric. ;--)
> I'm not there yet, nor do I want to get shot
> through the neck.
Certainly not what I meant.
Lots to chew on in the rest of your message. I'm chewing. Thx.