Saturday, January 31, 2009

Election Day in Baghdad

Today was provincial council election day in Iraq.  What has struck me most about this event of potentially world-shaking importance is how normal it has been.  All the news reports have said "little" violence ... I just saw a CNN report that three mortars exploded in Tikrit (about 100 miles north of here), and that's it.  Pretty impressive for a country that was seriously at war with itself less than a year ago.  From my own observation, I only heard one quick siren late in the day.  No big booms from car bombs.  No small-arms fire.  The mullahs sounded normal during the call-to-prayer over the mosques' loudspeakers.  

My TV has been tuned to Iraqi channels this afternoon.  They looked for all the world like American channels during our own elections.  An assortment of anchorpersons (male and female) chattered away at anchordesks.  They cut away to various reporters on the street, who interviewed regular men and women, and showed footage of people in polling places putting ballots in ballot boxes and getting their fingers dunked in the inkwell.  Then back to the anchordesk where some pundit would solemnly analyze proceedings so far.  Then some footage of various high mucky-mucks like Nouri Al-Maliki and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.  One station followed all that up with something kinda like a half-hour music video, featuring some guy in a suit proudly singing while the scenes behind him showed busy markets, crowded streets, mosques, the marsh Arabs, army or police officers marching in parades, people on amusement park rides ... in other words, normality.  

If this was presented to western news reporters, there would be a sense that it was probably for show, or that the reporters would be slanting the news somehow.  But this is on Iraqi television, for Iraqi viewers, who have excellent built-in bullshit detectors.  I can't wait to talk to some of our local Iraqis over the next few days.

One reason the elections have gone so peacefully today is that there is a very large security presence.  Iraqis have taken the lead and provide the visible forces.  American forces are positioned to support the Iraqis, but are staying as invisible as possible.  The troops and vehicles have been pretty much pulled back into the bases.  Our helicopters, however, have been going non-stop - every time I've gone outside, there have been flights going by overhead, sometimes several.  

A group of us travelled over to another base here in the IZ for a meeting today.  Traffic was exceptionally light and there were Iraqi police everywhere.  But still, there was no sense of crisis or danger: the police were standing around, relaxed, smoking cigarettes, and waving at us as we went by.  Just another day in Baghdad, only quieter, more ... normal.  

Results of the election won't be posted until around February 15th.  They'll shape the political environment for the next round of elections for national officials later this year.  There is some anxiety about what will happen when the results come out, and whether that will trigger another round of violence.  From what I saw today, I don't think it will.  Iraqis seem to be very proud of where they are now and how far they've come.  Although there will probably be a lot of grumbling and griping, and maybe some violence, I don't think it will reignite the massive troubles we saw in previous years.  Nobody wants that anymore.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Photos of the New Embassy Compound

A while back, I gave you a link to some photos of the old Palace, where the Embassy was located.  Wanna see where we live and work now?  Go back to the Baghdad Anne website and look at the new collection of photos.  These will give you an idea of what the State Department's newest and biggest Embassy looks like.  They even show you the inside of one of the apartments.  This guy obviously did a major cleanup before taking the pictures, as very few guys on their own keep their room that neat ... your intrepid reporter included!

Our weather has warmed significantly in the past couple of weeks.  Our lows are now around 45-50 and our highs approaching 70.  Really nice.  Today, though, the wind picked up, meaning that tomorrow the air will be loaded with grit and sand.  Yuck.

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I was going to the Rock-Hard Abs class at the gym.  Well, I've kept it up, going usually twice a week.  Yesterday, while getting dressed, I actually saw my abs again!  Yes!  They looked like they were covered with a thin comforter, but hey, there they were, very distinct below the ribcage.  I haven't seen them in 30 years.  So tonight at the abs class, I showed everybody ... you know to motivate them ... but nobody was interested.  My marshmallow-covered abs aren't very impressive next to some 20-year-old gym rat's.  Oh, well, they're my abs and I'm just happy I can see them again. 

I gotta keep going to abs class because our DFAC (the dining facility) is getting better.  When it first opened it ... well, it left a lot to be desired.  But the staff worked pretty hard at getting things better, and for a while it was all right.  But then it started to slide.  We'd see the same stuff at meal after meal, the layout of the serving lines was poorly thought out, and the quality wasn't as good.  Well, friends, our DFAC is on the upswing again, because Mr. Lee is back.  This is a retired Army chief master sergeant who ran Army chow halls his whole career, and went to work for KBR doing the same thing after he retired.  He's a little guy with more energy and enthusiasm than should be legal.  Mr. Lee ran the DFAC at the Palace for a while, and ran one out at the airport for a while, before having to go back to the States for a year or so.  Now he's back and we've got him.  He's making lots of changes with every meal and responding to comments every day.  It's amazing how fast things are improving.  We're the envy of the IZ right now.  Seriously.  One of the other compounds has a really good food service setup, but they were whining because we got Mr. Lee and they didn't.  Too bad!

And no, you won't see pictures of the DFAC nor Mr. Lee on the link above.  We're keeping him on a short leash!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Iraqi Elections

The Iraqi elections are only about 36 hours away.  With over 14,400 candidates vying for 440 council seats, there are a lot of people looking for air time for their messages.  I was watching an Iraqi channel on TV a little while ago and saw non-stop political ads.  I mean non-stop: there wasn't any scheduled programming!  Just ads for this candidate or that, with a bunch of "rock-the-vote" style ads in between.  All sides are going all-out.  Some ads are "guy-in-the-street" interviews, one was animated (pretty sophisticated animation, too), some feature patriotic music and Iraqi flags waving, and some seem to suggest that a vote for the other guy is a vote for the terrorists (sounds like our ads, huh?).  There are even spots featuring Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who is the biggest of the big Shiite religious leaders.  Sistani has said it is everyone's duty to get out and vote for the "most qualified" candidate, and he has been very careful to ensure that his words cannot be construed to endorse any candidate or any political party.  His words carry a lot of weight here.

The Sunnis boycotted the last round of elections.  As a result, the Shiites and Kurds took a disproportionate share of power while the Sunnis were left out in the cold.  This time, the Sunnis are determined to gain at least a modicum of power back.  They are really energized and will turn out in droves.

The Kurds are going to turn out, too.  They know that their gains from the last election are fragile and fear that a gain in Sunni power will come at their expense.  So they're energized, too.

The only ones boycotting the election this time are the Al Qaeda guys, and there really isn't a lot of popular support for them, anyway.  They will probably take out their anger in some form of attacks, but nobody expects major disruption from them.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of election monitors in-country right now.  They're going to virtually every polling place to make sure the process is as fair as possible in a place like this.  I was in an office today where a group was getting a last-minute briefing before heading out to their assignments.  My roommate left yesterday to his posting, which is a small town way out at the end of the road somewhere. 

As you might expect, with this many people going out to monitor this important an election, the logistics are daunting.  The US is taking the lead on providing transportation, support, and security for the monitors.  (Well, duhh: who the hell else could do it?) I've watched the planning develop for several months now and have been impressed with the way our military, in particular, has stepped up to the plate.  Our guys live and breathe organization.  There are plans, back-up plans, and contingency plans.  Every helicopter, C-130, MRAP, and cargo hauler in theater will be working pretty much every minute, and the schedules have been scripted (with back-ups, of course) for quite a while.  A really amazing effort.

In contrast, there are other organizations here in town whose approach seems to be to sprinkle magic fairy dust and then *POOF* everything falls into place.  And no, I won't name names.

While checking the news this afternoon, I saw that the Iraqi government announced that Blackwater is going to be invited to leave the country very soon.  Do you think it's a coincidence that the announcement was made just two days before the election?  Do you believe in the Easter bunny?  And yes, that little item is getting quite a bit of attention here.  My experience with Blackwater has been unfailingly positive: the guys are pros and know what they're doing.  At least the ones I deal with are, but I wasn't here during that infamous shooting in the traffic circle last year.

But that's the news from my little corner of the IZ.  The next two days will be very interesting.  Let's just hope they're not too interesting!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mac Attack

I love my MacBook, I really do, but contrary to the "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" commercials, Macs aren't perfect.  Programs hang up occasionally and you get the "spinning wheel of death".  Or they just act funky.  The iChat program on Janis's computer hasn't worked quite right for many months now ... it'll run, but she needs to do some odd workarounds to get it to do things that it should be doing with one simple keystroke.  

I've had issues with the AirPort on my MacBook ever since I got it.  AirPort is the Mac's wireless connection.  It has never connected with our wireless router at home.  Other people's Macs will connect, but not mine.  Of course, when I took mine to an Apple store, it ran perfectly.  Little bastard.

Here at the Embassy we have an "internet cafe".  I've come over here many times because the bandwidth is much better than in our rooms.  A couple of nights ago, though, my Mac wouldn't connect.  It would see the network, but it wouldn't hook up.  I took it back to the room and it worked fine on the wire (just like at home).  I looked at the Apple discussion boards and found a bunch of things to try.  I also found out that my AirPort problems are not uncommon.  Anyway, I tried lotsa things and nothing worked.  Couldn't connect.  

So I shut the thing down and let it rest for hours.  Came back over here with another list of things to try and as soon as I fired it up, it worked fine.  Go figure.  I know that PC's get sleep-deprived if they go too long without an overnight rest, but Macs were supposed to be pretty much immune to that.  Not!

Okay, enough griping.  My computer works (again), we had a beautiful day here (low around 40, highs in the low 60's, bright and clear), and work is going pretty well.  And I've got a great big chocolate chip cookie waiting for my "cookie attack" which is due in about an hour.  So there: I just talked myself into a better mood.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Two New Watercolors

Watercolor and ink on paper

Fallujah Kids
Watercolor and graphite on paper

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Inaugurations and Blogs

On Tuesday evening, the Embassy staff set up a projection TV to show President Obama's inauguration.  It was in a large room that was well filled with people.  And the bar was open.  I joined the crowd because you shouldn't watch something this important in your room by yourself.  An inauguration reflects your country, and you should be with your countrymen and countrywomen to witness it.

And at the conclusion of "... so help me, God", I turned to my friends and we toasted our new President with the finest free champagne in all of Baghdad.  You wanted the job, Mr. President, and now you've got it.  Go make us proud.

So far, he's doing a good job of it.  His speech was exactly the right tone, with inspiring calls to action and service, sober recognition of the military, economic, and social stresses we face, and stern warnings to those who would stand in our way.  A master at work.  Such a change from the doofus who preceded him.

The crowd watching the inauguration was certainly a mixed group.  The majority of us were Obama supporters.  There were a lot, though, who weren't.  But then, the popular vote was only a little over 50/50, so if the McCain supporters weren't there, I'd have been very disappointed.

Okay, enough politics ... I think every blogger and journalist on the planet has pontificated on this subject by now, so I won't contribute any more.  

Instead, I'm going to point you at three very interesting blogs.  I've mentioned the first one in here before.  It's "Embrace the Suck", written by a young soldier in Afghanistan.  He has some very sharp and insightful comments on what our new President ought to do in that country.  Normally his stories have me rolling, but this one is very thoughtful and well-reasoned.

The second one is an entry called "Five Years in Iraq (Shameless Vanity)".  It's on the Free Republic web site and was written by someone I work with.  She has been in Iraq for, yes, the past five years, working as a civilian in various occupations around town.  Many people seem to assume that we civilians are here just for the money.  Well, the money is good, but we're here for other reasons, too, and this posting addresses that.

The third blog is a brand new one with exactly two posts as of this moment.  The writer, Molly Dingledine, is a jewelry artist that I know from Asheville who is going to work in Cameroon with a volunteer organization.  It'll be very interesting to read how her adventure develops.

And that's the news from sunny Baghdad.  Stay warm, America!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

CARE Packages

A while back, an old friend of mine said he was going to send me a CARE package, and asked what I wanted out here. Cookies? Candy? The answer, surprisingly (since I'm a big fan of cookies) is: nothing with sugar. Please. We have sugar coming out the wazoo out here. The DFACs have fresh-baked cakes and piles of big chocolate chip cookies, as well as an ice cream section. My office still has candy bowls filled with Hershey Kisses and gummy bears and all sorts of other goodies dating back to Halloween. And lots of people get packages from home filled with sweets of all kinds, much of which winds up in the "Take it, please!" pile. So we are not lacking for sugar. But CARE packages are always welcome. So what do we like to get out here?


Yup, toys. Silly little footballs that we can throw at each other. Doodads that we can stick on top of our computer monitors. Gooey balls of some kinda slimey silly putty that we can stick on each other's desk and gross them out. Stuffed animals. Little monster trucks. Things that make us laugh.

Over Christmas, I ran around wearing a Santa hat that would wiggle to the tune of "Have A Holly Jolly Christmas". At least, I did until the music thingie burned itself up, at which point the wiggling didn't make much sense. One of the guys in the office was constantly getting small rubber Chicago Bears footballs. I'd find out about it when the new ball bounced off my computer screen or the back of my head. A woman in the office has a collection of stuffed green frogs that are often rearranged on her desk into very compromising positions. (Yes, we are equal opportunity harrassers).

So my friend's package arrived yesterday. Inside it, I found:
- A Washington Post newspaper (I'm so thankful it wasn't a Washington Times ...)
- Four movies. (Every little Iraqi store around here sells black market DVD's for dirt cheap, but their quality is often pretty bad and, as an artist, I'm sensitive to copyright infringement, so real movies are greatly appreciated!)
- A matchbox-sized monster truck.
- A small American flag.
- A bag of marbles (to replace the marbles I've lost ...)
- A toy compass, so I can find my way out of this country.
- A tiny little sunshade.
- A whistle (just in case I decide to be a whistleblower ...)
- A membership guide for AARP. Thanks, John ...
- A wind-up flashlight.
- A hand-held electronic Uno game.

The CARE package is achieving its mission. About a dozen of us have read the paper and there have been lots of laughs about all the other items. I have a section of my desk now reserved just for toys.

So if you're going to send a CARE package to somebody over here or Afghanistan, don't send them cookies or candy.

Send them toys.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Thinking About Art

Janis sent me a "care" package recently that had a lot of my magazines, including a couple of issues of Art in America.  Even though I'm working as a program manager right now, I still consider myself an artist first and foremost.  This State Department job is just a temporary assignment, not a career change, and I have intended from the beginning to go back to my studio when this is over.  So I keep tabs on what's going on in the art world.

But going through the December issue of Art in America was a bit unnerving, to tell the truth.  It has a lot of ads trying to get people to visit Art Basel Miami Beach, or Art Miami, or Pulse Contemporary Art Fair.  It also had some words here and there about the turmoil in the art market ("turmoil" here meaning "nobody's buying anything").  All of which gave the magazine an air of desperation.  

The art world is always the first to get hit when there's an economic downturn and the last to recover.  During the last downturn, the art market started heading down in, oh, early 2001, and tanked after September 11.  The recovery from that was really odd.  Remember, many people lost their jobs early on, but then we had that "jobless recovery" in which few of these jobs reappeared.  I noticed at the time that there were a lot of people who had always harbored a dream to be an artist, and when they lost their jobs, they decided to go into art full-time.  So there were suddenly a lot of new artists applying to galleries and art festivals and so on.  The art world was able to absorb the newcomers, more or less, since the downturn wasn't very severe.  That's definitely not the case this time: when the Wall Street Journal is regularly using terms like "crisis" and "possible depression", then I seriously doubt that people will go looking for careers as artists.  Even flipping burgers at McDonald's can start to look pretty good.

For me, what goes on in the art fairs and galleries has only a tangential effect.  My paintings are not the kind of works that galleries clamor for.  They're pretty serious works about not very cheerful things, and they're definitely not the sort of works that somebody buys to hang over their couch.  (Not unless they've got a really strange couch!)  So at the time my opportunity to work with State came along, I was pursuing a very different line of marketing.  But even this approach needs a healthy gallery scene to give the corporations and NGO's I was (am) targeting some confidence that art is a good investment.  And, of course, that's pretty much gone now.  

Bummer.  On the positive side, I picked a helluva good time to find employment!  But I'm still planning on going back to my studio and painting pictures that few will probably ever buy.  It's what I do.

Okay, enuf doom and gloom.  There is some good news out of the art world every now and then.  One of my teachers at UNC Asheville was Virginia Derryberry.  Her paintings have always been strong, but over the past six years or so, they've reached a whole new level.  Now she's got a web site where you can see them.  Go take a look:  I'm putting a link to her site in the "artists I like" section, too.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


I went to a meeting today at the Al Rasheed Hotel.  This was once a 5-star hotel, now grown a bit shabby but still pretty nice, particularly for a place like Baghdad.  The Al Rasheed is one of the places that all the news crews lived and worked during the war.  These days, it's packed with businessmen from around the world, coming in to land contracts for rebuilding the country and providing any kind of services.  It's also the prime meeting area for westerners and Iraqis.  It's in the IZ, so it's pretty well guarded, and it's Iraqi-owned, and it offers upscale food, drink, ambiance, and some shopping.  The Ministry of Construction and Housing was hosting a conference in the large, elegant ballroom today.  It seems that the hotel lobby is a prime meeting area, as every group of couches had a collection of businessmen earnestly engaged in conversation.  As we conducted our own meeting, I wondered, how many billions of dollars of deals had been negotiated on the very couch where I was sitting?

It's proper form, in meetings in Iraq, to have a drink of chai.  Chai is tea.  At the Al Rasheed, upscale place that it is, they bring it in cups shaped like tiny little vases.  Iraqis like their chai with sugar.  Lots and lots of sugar.  I watched the gent across the table from me dump in four heaping spoonfuls.  That's more than I put in three big ol' cups of American rotgut coffee!  But he downed his chai pretty quickly and showed no signs of a sugar high afterward.  Amazing.

I've been talking with my Foreign Service friends about the upcoming elections.  They're two weeks away now.  These elections are an international Big Deal.  In the last round two years ago, many Sunni parties boycotted the elections, and as a result, the Sunnis have been relegated to the sidelines while Shi'ites and Kurds exercised more influence than their numbers might suggest.  So this time, the Sunnis are participating.  

Another difference is that, this time, they're really electing people.  Last time the elections were for slates, essentially parties or micro-parties.  This time it'll be more like a normal parliamentary election.  (Side note: how come whenever we help set up a new country, it always has a parliamentary form of government?).  

We get Iraqi, Saudi, and other Middle Eastern stations on our TV feed.  I was channel-surfing last night and came across a series of ads that were telling Iraqis to get out and vote.  There were several ads with different themes.  Bouncy music, images of ancient architectural remnants of great Iraqi civilizations, happy/proud/strong young people, a young man riding his bike through Baghdad's streets and checkpoints, finally to end up at a polling place.  At the end of each, they held up their finger that had been dipped in purple ink to show they had voted.  As far as I could determine, these ads weren't for parties or people, they were just telling everyone to get out and vote.  And then they returned to their normally scheduled showing of an episode of 24.

One of my Foreign Service friends was noting that there are no polling services in Iraq like there are in developed countries.  Consequently, no party really knows for sure where it stands.  Every party says that they have the support of a big chunk of the population, say, 70%.  Well, if you add up all of these chunks, you wind up with a lot more than 100% of the population.  What that means is that all of these parties, even the ones that do well, are going to be rather shocked at the final numbers.  What do you want to bet that they'll be crying foul?  Except there are going to be several hundred thousand election monitors all over the country.  I think it'll be a reasonably fair election, except that nobody will like the results.  Unfortunately, if somebody doesn't like something, there is always the possibility of violence.  

Another thing.  In elections in America, the talk often gets very divisive and nasty.  Remember Bush/Kerry, or Bush/McCain, or any number of other elections.  We've been doing this for over 200 years and we're still not civil about it.  Iraqis are learning from us.  But if you say things about somebody here like our politicians do at home, you're likely to get shot.  So far there hasn't been very much violence at all.  We're just hoping that, as the clock ticks down, it stays quiet.

Meanwhile, hey, it's Thursday, meaning that it's the weekend.  Let's go clubbing! 

Oh, yeah ... we can't ....

Monday, January 12, 2009

Why Iraq Is Going To Take A Long Time

I've spent the past couple of days in a conference.  There are people participating from the State Department, from the Corps of Engineers (the organization that's building most of the construction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan), from some other American and international governmental organizations, some NGO's, and Iraqis from both the national Ministry and from a local facility.  The reason for the conference is that we've been building a brand-new modern facility for them.  It's a big, complicated project costing way over $160 million dollars.  Some of it's your tax dollars, some of it's not.  But construction is going to finish up sometime soon and we'll need to turn it over to the Iraqis to run.  This conference is part of a long series of meetings that we've been holding to plan that turnover.
While sitting in the room today, listening to some long, involved negotiations over very minor stuff, it finally all started coming together for me, exactly why it will take Iraq so long to become a functional country.  There are so many things that play into it.
One is the lack of education on the part of so many Iraqis.  Yes, there are a lot of smart and highly educated Iraqis out there.  But the education system started breaking down in the 80's and got worse over the next 20 years, to the point now where the average Iraqi has a 6th grade education.  Yes, I know, many Americans are at that level, too, but our country as a whole is a lot higher.  When the average schooling is so low, that affects everything.  Plumbers don't understand why or how plumbing systems work, or even how to properly make joints.  Machinists don't understand why they have to use special honing tools when rebuilding engines, they'll just use sandpaper.  Electricians don't understand why they need to spend money on cheap lightbulbs for warning lights.  (These are all true stories).  
A related issue is the "brain drain".  Many of the most educated people fled Iraq beginning under Saddam Hussein and accelerating after the 2003 war.  Most Iraqi doctors, lawyers, businessmen, bureaucrats, artists, and others are now in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, London, or anywhere they can find a home and live in peace.  We didn't help matters when we instituted the de-Ba'athification policy because we fired all the officials who had the skills and corporate knowledge to run the country.  They were replaced by mid-level or junior people who didn't know what to do and had been trained only to take orders.  "Initiative" was something that could get you killed.  
A third big issue is the degradation of the infrastructure.  Many people think that we've been rebuilding all the stuff we blew up during the war.  That's not the case.  We blew up military sites, Ba'ath party headquarters, and things like that, but we deliberately left alone all the key infrastructure: water treatment plants, electrical plants, sewage plants, hospitals, schools, that sort of thing.  And guess what: they weren't working or were a knife's edge away from collapsing, anyway.  They'd had almost no maintenance or service for over a decade due to the economic sanctions after Gulf War I.  
All of this was brought about by the repressive Hussein regime, the 8-year war with Iran in the 80's, two wars with the US, and years of international sanctions.  This country has had the crap beat out of it for 30 years and the people learned to cope their own, dysfunctional, way.
So here we are, having a conference so that we can turn over a brand new facility to the Iraqis.  But building it and having it be a success are two very different things.  I won't divulge what this particular project is, and to illustrate the problems we're facing, I'll create an example.  Let's use a hospital.  First, we build a building.  (Actually, that's a lot harder than it sounds ... remember, these people have an average 6th-grade education, and how comfortable are you with knowing that your house, wiring, plumbing, concrete, and everything else were built by crews whose supervisors hadn't even gone to the 7th grade?)  
Now we have to hook it up to the water system.  Only you can't drink the water in the public water supply.  Maybe you can sink a well, so now you need pumps.  Which need electricity.  Which might be on maybe 4 hours a day, if you're lucky.  So you put in generators.  Now you have to coordinate with at least two Ministries to get an allotment of fuel for the generators.  If you're lucky, and you have contacts in both Ministries, you might get enough for another 4 hours a day.  And you have to hire yourself a diesel mechanic and electrician to maintain the generators.  Remember, these are the guys who think you can hone an engine block with sandpaper and think that buying bulbs for warning lights is beneath them. 
Now we need to hook into the sewage system.  Oops, there isn't one.  Sewage runs in the streets.  Okay, we'll build a septic system.  Now we need a lot more land and a complicated bit of technology.  Which needs a technician ... who doesn't believe in warning lights, by the way.
Now that we've got the building up and some semblance of power and water, and the waste (hopefully) goes somewhere out of the building, we need somebody to run the organization.  Hospitals, universities, utilities, and other such organizations are really complicated things and need smart people to run them.  Iraq has smart people in abundance, but they just don't have the training and experience needed to run things, since all those who did are now gone.  So for a hospital, we'll get a doctor to run it.  Now this doctor has never run anything more complicated than an office, but now he's in charge of a big new facility with a couple hundred people and millions of dollars worth of equipment and more millions of dollars in needed services.  And his environment has beaten into him the idea that initiative is dangerous, so if he wants to keep his job, he has to bump decisions up to his boss.  In this case, a deputy minister in Baghdad.  How effective do you think you would be if you had to get approval from some Assistant Secretary of Whatever in Washington before you could, say, repair the generator that just broke down for the umpteenth time?  (There wasn't any warning light to indicate that there wasn't any oil in the diesel engine, so it blew up).
So this doctor is the Man In Charge of the hospital.  Most people in charge of something develop a budget that says, this much money for the electricity bill, this much for water, that much for salaries, here's a pot for maintaining the building, that sort of thing.  Well, Iraqis in general have no background in doing this.  None.  So we have to teach them.  Then, once the budget is submitted, the next problem is actually getting the money.  Ministries here are not good at approving budgets and getting the money out.  And, just for the record, the "hospital" we're building is going to transfer to Iraqi control next month, and there is still no budget approved by its Ministry.  Not for next year, not for this year, not even for next month.
One of the problems with getting money out is that corruption is huge here.  It's a way of life, and they don't necessarily even consider it "corruption", just standard business practices.  You want a driver's license?  Pay the guy some money.  You want to get electricity to your house?  Pay the guy some money.  And if you're an official, skimming money into private accounts seems to be a national pastime.  I've heard some horrendous amounts.  Remember the "Oil for Food" program that the UN ran when Hussein was in power?  I've heard that 70% of the money that the program generated went into private accounts.  And that's a pretty common figure.
Okay, assuming that our doctor actually gets his money to run the hospital.  Now he has to contract for services.  Except he has never written a contract in his life.  Neither has anybody on the staff.  None of them know how to draft a statement of work or solicit bids.  And even if they did, there aren't many people who know how to respond to bids.  The general support infrastructure is pretty lacking: it's hard even to find firms who can do the laundry, much less maintain the computers and provide the food preparation services or any of the other support services we normally subcontract.
Finally, there are security issues.  On this project, we Americans are rarely at the site, simply because it's dangerous for us to be there, and dangerous for the Iraqis to be seen with us.  There are still people around who might decide to assassinate anybody working with Americans, or plant a bomb, or set up some militia roadblock, or other mischief.

Well, this has turned into quite a tome, hasn't it?  But it's all part of the effort that's needed to get this country moving again.  It's going to be a long road, at least a generation, possibly two, before they get to the level of Kuwait or Jordan.

As for me, I'm glad I'm a part of this.  No way could I have understood the complexity or magnitude of the problem from my home in Asheville.  But I think I'm doing a small part in helping move them down the road toward a new country.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Beard Is Gone

(cue B.B. King's "Thrill Is Gone" ... )
The beard is gone ...
The beard is gone away from me ...
Oh, the beard is gone ...
The beard is gone away from me ...

Yup, I got a wild hair and cut off the beard I've had for the past, oh, seven or eight years.  Time for a change.  I saw a photo taken a few days ago and was wondering "who is that old fart?" and it was ME!  I have a lot more silver on the chin now than when the facial fuzz sprouted back then.  And all those ads tell us that you can't be a babe magnet when you're Mr. Gray ... hey, they wouldn't lie to us, would they?  

A grand total of three people noticed.

But I like it.  Yeah, the face feels a bit nekkid now, especially when I walk outside and it's cold and windy and I'm wondering, "damn, where's my face warmer?"  Guess I'll keep it a while.

Speaking of cold, it's a cruddy day in Baghdad, cold and raining.  Yuck.  A bunch of us braved the elements and went over to Union 3 (the military base across the street) for pizza tonight.  No beer.  Union 3 is a military base and all military are subject to General Order Nr. 1, which says: no beer, no sex, no time, while you're in a war zone.  This applies to civilians here under military orders.  But I'm not here under military orders, I'm here on State Department orders, and you should see the selection of beer, wine, and spirits in our little Exchange.  Whoever selects the stuff for the Diplomat exchange has some excellent tastes, too.  I've got a bottle of very fine Merlot sitting in the kitchen right now.  Come to think of it, that's probably the wrong place for it.  It needs to be in a glass.  On my table, about six inches from my right hand.

Excuse me while I make that happen.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Driving in the IZ

My job requires that I leave the Embassy fairly regularly and go to other places in the International Zone (IZ).  Up until the end of the year, we were pretty comfortable in doing that at almost anytime.  I mean, we had these big honking up-armored SUV's that look like regular SUV's, but opening the door takes the strength of Hercules because they seemingly weigh about 400 pounds apiece.  Americans had a lot of immunity in the IZ anyway.  So we weren't worried about getting stopped by Iraqi army or police forces because the Americans pretty much controlled the whole area.

January 1 brought a new order of business.  Americans aren't in control of the IZ anymore, Iraqis are.  There was a good bit of anxiety about that because nobody knew what would happen.  Would they pull people over left and right?  Would they set up checkpoints all over the place?  Would they block off streets to all but official Iraqi vehicles?  Would traveling in the IZ be hazardous to our health?  Nobody knew.

As it turns out, not much is different.  Iraqis have control over the IZ and have indeed set up some new checkpoints.  But they have Americans with them and they all seem to be getting along just fine.  After a bit over a week under the new order of business, it looks pretty much like the old order of business.

So what's it like to drive around the IZ?  Well, in the first place, traffic really isn't that bad, since not that many vehicles are allowed in here.  Only those with official business, or those who live here, can come in.  So despite the fact that we're in the middle of a huge city with traffic jams all over the place, our roads are pretty clear.

As for rules, well, it's kinda like Italy.  Lane lines, stop signs, and speed limits are only suggestions at best.  Nobody really speeds since the troops at checkpoints get nervous about cars bearing down on them at high velocities, and you don't want to make troops nervous when they're armed with AK-47's, M-4's, and 50-caliber machine guns.  No, sir.  So everybody seems to cut everybody else a good bit of slack.  As for lane lines, well, if I need to use that particular piece of roadway, and you're not using it at the moment, what's the harm if I do?  

Having been through the joint Iraqi-American checkpoints quite a few times now, I've found the Iraqi soldiers to be very pleasant and businesslike.  They check my badge to make sure I'm authorized to be there and we wish each other a very pleasant day, with big smiles all around.  I'm happy they're doing their job, and they're happy to be there doing their job.

But words can't describe what the place looks like.  So while driving around today, I took some pictures.  No, I'm not going to show you any of the checkpoints, nor am I going to show you places that are readily identifiable.  There are still a lotta people out there that could use that information in ways I wouldn't like.  

Here's a typical thoroughfare in the IZ, with a typical amount of traffic.  

When I talk about T-walls, this is what I'm talking about.  They're big, temporary concrete walls that can be moved around as needed.  Americans seem to like the gray concrete aesthetic, while Iraqis go for color.  T-walls are everywhere.  Literally.

This is a nice-looking arch that hasn't been damaged very badly.  Note more T-walls.

T-Wall Canyon Street.  Which is just about anywhere here.

Monday, January 05, 2009

What day is it?

It's groundhog day here ... one day is pretty much like another.  Since we're using the Arabic work week (Sunday through Thursday, with Friday and Saturday "off"), I'm perpetually screwed up.  Yes, I know, most of you think I'm screwed up anyway, and you're right, but this is a particular screwup.  I can never figure out what day of the week it is.

Today was the dedication of the New Embassy Compound.  It was a certifiable Big Deal.  We had John Negroponte here (he's the #2 guy in the State Department), plus Vice President Jalal al-Talabani, plus several hundred other VIP's.  Quite a crowd, which made it virtually impossible to move today.  Fortunately, despite all the high-viz activity going on, no bad guys launched rockets at us.  It says a lot about the state of Iraq today when a whole lot of high mucky-mucks can gather on the American compound under a tent of all things and not have to worry about incoming fire.

The downside of having the dedication with all these bigwigs?  The DFAC was jammed for lunch.  All the high rollers were over with the Ambassador, wherever that was, so all their slaves stood in line with the rest of us Embassy peons in our dining facility.  Our group found a table right by the entrance, which meant that everybody in line got to check out our lunch first.  "Hey, is that chicken?  Any good?  What's that stuff?"

It's still pretty cold around here.  Around 35 in the mornings and 55 in the afternoons.  Cold enough that I'm actually using the treadmill rather than jogging around the compound.  I told you I was a wuss!  

A group from my office went out to Fallujah the other day to check on the sewage treatment plant that we've been building for too many years.  I didn't get to go on this trip, unfortunately.  Today, though, I was looking through the photos.  The pictures showed a plant that should've been finished at least two years ago under normal circumstances ... but normal circumstances don't include two massive battles and a long-running insurgency.  Which is pretty much gone now.  Fallujah and the surrounding region gave birth to the Awakening movement, which is the group of Sunni tribal leaders who finally got sick and tired of the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) guys using their towns to fight the US.  So they banded together and started forcing them out.  This started before our surge did and the Awakening and surge worked together to essentially defeat AQI in the region.  AQI isn't totally gone, but they don't have much influence anymore, and the region is quiet enough now that the Marines are closing down their base and pulling out.  Iraqi security forces are taking over.  So the drawdown continues.

But my point in this wasn't a history lesson, it was the pictures.  Besides photos of the plant, they took a lot of photos of the town.  It was more interesting for me to see the Fallujah residents in their town than the sewage plant.  (Well, that's a no-brainer, isn't it?)  The kids, especially, were fun to study: curious, a bit wary, big smiles, mischievous ... in other words, kids.  Who aren't afraid to go out in their town any more.

You measure progress any way you can.  If not in an unfinished sewage treatment plant, then in the fact that the kids don't have to hide indoors anymore.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Friday Musings

It's frickin' cold here today.  Woke up this morning and it was 25 degrees outside.  You think I'm going out for a jog in that?  Think again.  The afternoon wasn't much better - around 50, maybe, and windy.  And it's supposed to be like that for, oh, days.  Looks like I might have to go use those damn cardio machines in the gym.  Yes, I'm a wuss, so sue me.  

Today is Friday, which means it's the Iraqi Saturday, meaning we don't have to go in to work, but of course we do, because what else is there?  I thought I'd catch up on email and some background reading, but then it turned into Get Your House In Order Day, meaning I wasted hours getting ready to really go back to work this next week.

Had dinner tonight in the DFAC with my roommate, who's a State Department guy, and two of his friends.  Staties are an interesting breed, or at least the ones here are.  We wound up pitting various key Embassy officials against each other in imaginary Ultimate Cagefighting bouts.  "What about (person A) and (person B)?"
"Oh, B, definitely ... he has a long reach."
"Yeah, but A has that mean streak ... she'll go for the nuts and cut 'em off."
"You think she can get inside?  He's pretty quick himself."
"No question, she's so short that she'll just walk right in, knock his knees out, and castrate him."

Remember that these are senior Embassy officials we're fantasizing about.

One thing I've noticed is that there are a lot of political and policy wonks around here.  Well, duhh, it's the State Department!  Still, I find it odd to be sitting around a table, kicking back after work, listening to talk about how so-and-so's political analysis in the Foreign Affairs magazine was so spot-on.  Tonight, one of the Staties at our dinner table was telling us about how she had just read a 3-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson and couldn't wait for the fourth volume to come out.  Me, I'm thinking that I can't even make it through a Wikipedia entry about Johnson without dozing off.  And the other day,  a guy in my office was talking about how he's a big fan of Calvin Coolidge.  Yes!  You can't make this stuff up!  I'm working in Wonkistan!

But then I come back to my own little computer and go into Blogistan.  A couple of of my posts have been picked up by Thunder Run recently.  I went to see what it was all about and found that it's pretty cool.  It picks out entries from blogs from people scattered around Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are some people out here who are very good writers and really capture the essence of their lives.  I really enjoyed reading Afghanistan Shrugged, by a guy who's an embedded trainer with the Afghan army.  Another one is Embrace the Suck, by a young soldier in Afghanistan ... his new post "27 Hours in a Sardine Can" had me rolling.  Actually, all the blogs I read had something interesting to say.  Dunno why mine was included, but there it is.  So if you want an unfiltered look at military life over here, go take a look at any of them.

'Nuff said.  'Nite, all!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to you!  I sincerely hope this next year turns out better than the last.  What a strange, tough year it's been.

During this past week, we've been sorta getting stuff done.  We gradually got settled into our new office spaces, getting our stuff out of boxes and squirreled away on our desks, getting our computers to work, trying to find out where all the offices for our key contacts are, that sort of thing.  I've still got some issues.  Every other day, for example, my computer loses all my old email files and I have to spend some time chasing them down.  They're supposed to be saved to the network, but my computer doesn't understand that.  A bit annoying.  Another thing: the Network Gods don't want me to change my computer's desktop image.  They want me to keep the really boring State Department logo.  I keep trying to change it over to pictures of my grandson, my wife, or my dogs - you know, things I care about - but NOOOoooooo ... I'll make the change, and then while I'm working away on something, all of a sudden my screen will flicker and that damn State Department logo is back.  Those damn IT wienies have caught me again.  Tomorrow I'm gonna try something underhanded: I'll give my own picture the same file name as the State Department logo, and see what happens.

I got a bit annoyed at upper management this past week.  Twice we had a shotgun tasking: two of us were separately tasked to do the same damn thing.  In both cases we found out about it and were able to combine our efforts, but it's irritating.  It also indicates a lack of trust, which I think is totally unfounded.  On the flip side, one of the taskers has proven to be interesting.  The more I dig, the more complicated it gets - and it's a regular Pandora's box already.  I think the boss thought that I could ask a few questions and whip up a memo in an afternoon.  It's gonna take a week just to talk to the right people and get enough of a background to figure out how to answer the boss's questions.  That, of course, is NOT what she wanted to hear.  So it boils down to: I can give you a good answer in a week, or I can give you crap now.  Your choice.

This past week, everybody finished up the move out of the old Palace.  All the offices were cleared out, stuff piled into dumpsters and hauled away, and equipment and furniture removed.  This turned into a big flailex (that's Navy speak, meaning a big flailing around by all concerned).  The plan, up until just a few days ago, was that the US would keep possession of the old Palace for another six months or so while refurbishing it to the condition it was in when we moved in.  But within the past four or five days, the Iraqis decided that they wanted it on January 1, regardless of the condition.  Well, not exactly "regardless": they want us to give them the funding to refurbish it.  I don't know if we're doing that - frankly, I hope we don't, since we need the money in the US.  But we did a crash effort in cleanup and this morning the Iraqis raised their flag over the old Palace for the first time since April, 2003.  A big milestone: the Palace is no longer ours.

Another milestone went into effect at midnight last night.  The Security Agreement (what the news media was calling the Status of Forces Agreement) became the law of the land.  That meant that the Iraqis are now in primary control of the entire country.  We still have our enclaves: the Embassy, various bases in the International Zone, Baghdad, and around the country.  But we don't control the IZ anymore, nor do we have the same level of immunity that we had.  While this is a necessary step in getting Iraq up and running as a functioning country, it's also a bit scary for those of us here.  We don't run the show anymore.

So far things haven't gone to hell in a handbasket.  That's encouraging.  A group of us went out around the IZ a bit today, visiting a few FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) and seeing what was going on.  We saw a lot of new checkpoints and a lot of Iraqi Army vehicles and soldiers.  And I saw a lot more US soldiers than I anticipated.  Seemed to me that the US soldiers were the ones doing the work while the Iraqis stood around and smoked ... kind of an odd way to "back up" the Iraqi forces, but hey, who am I to criticize?

Still, we're going to maintain a low profile for a while as this new way of doing business sorts itself out.  I'll stick to the compound and not go out the gate.  

But YOU DON'T HAVE TO, do you?  You can go out to the mall, to restaurants, to movies, or to another state entirely.  And Janis told me that she tanked up our Land Rover for $1.87 a gallon for premium, so gas is dirt cheap right now.  So you've got no excuse!  It's your American duty to get out and go somewhere.  And as you do, think of us here in Iraq, trapped on our compounds and FOBs and bases, with nothing to do but work.  And write in our blogs.