Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In The (Wife's) Palace

Saddam Hussein had palaces all over Baghdad. One of them, belonging to one of his wives, is here in the International Zone. It was heavily damaged during the war. Subsequently, it was used by different Coalition troops as both office space and berthing areas. Now it's being turned back over to the Iraqis. A group of us got a chance today to go inside, and here are a few photos of what we found.

This room on the top floor of the palace contains - well, it contained - a full-size pool.  You can see a corner of it in the lower right side of the picture.

Exploring a place like this gave me a lot of very different feelings, often simultaneously.  I felt a lot of curiosity, wondering what was around the next corner.  There was awe at what a bomb can do to a building.  And I admit, there was a bit of voyeurism, too: peeking into Saddam's rooms and seeing places he never intended any American to see.  

Monday, October 27, 2008

Site Visit

A group of us went out into the Red Zone the other day to visit one of our "problem" construction sites. This was the first time I've been outside the International Zone on the ground. It's quite a bit different from flying over it in a helo.

Since we're Embassy staff, we go out in an Embassy convoy. These are run by Blackwater. Yes, it's that Blackwater, the one the press has pilloried so much in the past. Frankly, I love these guys. I have found them to be very smart, experienced, and professional individuals. Many of them are ex-soldiers who saw some of the worst of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as civilian security forces, their mission isn't to go smash down doors, it's to make sure that people like me get into and out of places we need to go, safely and with a minimum of fuss and bother. The press likes to portray them as loose cannons. I've found them to be, without exception, very level-headed and unflappable. Exactly the kind of guys you want on your side if it ever gets ugly.

We went out in a convoy of several armored SUV's. There were lots of security measures in effect that I won't talk about, but suffice to say, I felt very safe. Still, as we got to the checkpoint that marks the boundary between the International Zone and the Red Zone, the tension in our truck suddenly went up. All of us put on our helmets - we were already wearing our vests - and our heads started swiveling. Security convoys do not flow with traffic because that's dangerous: that's how somebody with a bomb can get right up next to you. So we dominate traffic. That's the only way to describe it. We own the road and everybody else will wait. Maybe it seems arrogant if you're looking at it from the outside, but if you're on the inside, you realize that you have, in effect, a great big TARGET painted on your vehicle, and you have to take aggressive action to make that target hard to hit.

The press doesn't move this way. They take the other option: going low-profile and trying to be as invisible as possible. They use old beat-up Toyotas with the Bondo flaking off the sides, or taxicabs with local Iraqi drivers. So when they get caught in the traffic backups that convoys like mine cause, they gripe about it in print.

The project we went out to visit is a multi-million-dollar construction of a building in downtown Baghdad. Your tax dollars are paying for it, courtesy of Congressional largesse circa 2004 called the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund, or IRRF. IRRF allocated about $20B (that's billion with a big B) for projects intended to rebuild some critical parts of Iraq's infrastructure and kick-start the economy. This particular construction is an important part of that. Unfortunately, it's been plagued with all kinds of delays and is one of our biggest headaches.

Building anything in Iraq is infinitely more difficult than it is in the States. For one thing, there are always people around who'd like nothing better than to blow it up and kill everybody associated with it. Sometimes they try. Then there's the difference between the American way of doing business and the Iraqi way. That's the subject of another post. Hell, it's the subject of a book. Or a whole series of books, plus a few hands-on immersion seminars. The phrase "Americans are from Mars, Iraqis are from Zarkon IV" might give you an idea. Bottom line: we do business and project management in very different ways.

We do the actual construction in very different ways, too. While I'm not an architect or construction expert by any stretch of the imagination, even I can see things that wouldn't pass muster in the States. Or most anywhere else, for that matter. At this particular site, I was ecstatic to see rows of cinderblock laid in reasonably straight lines - it was quite different from the last site I visited!

I took my camera and sketch pad with me on the trip. I'll try to get a few images up on the blog in the next day or so. But I didn't do much sightseeing. There are too many people out there risking their lives to protect dorky little me, and I'm not about to put them to a moment's more risk than I have to. So when we move, we move quickly, and about all I can do is snap pictures out the window and hope to get something interesting. We'll soon see if I did.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saturday's Musings

It's Saturday morning. Outside, the sky is pretty gloomy-looking. A big wind kicked up yesterday afternoon, which usually means that the next day will be socked in with dust. That hasn't happened yet, but the weather guessers are saying it will this afternoon. Meanwhile, the sky is gray and they're calling for a bit of (gasp) rain. Well, we'll see.

I have an exciting day ahead of me. I get to participate in the "Cost to Complete" meeting this afternoon. This is a really stimulating 3+ hours where we sit in a room with no windows and pore over spreadsheets with all kinds of figures about current projects and their progress and how much money will be spent on them. It's like being strapped in a chair and having your fingernails slowly pulled out, one by one. Last month I was a back-bencher in this meeting and got a serious case of whiplash from nodding off. Today, I get to sit at the table as a participant. The hard part will be in pretending to be interested while squelching my urge for inappropriate wisecracks.

And you thought it was all fun and games here. Not!!


Now it's noon, a few hours after the above post, and we're having a full-fledged thunderstorm. Lightning and thunder about every minute or two, pouring down rain. Amazing. And the interesting thing, for me at least, is that the air still smells dusty. It's like the rain just kicked up all the dust. I stood there at the window, enjoying the view, until a lightning struck a short distance away and I scurried back to my cubbyhole.

Monday, October 20, 2008

More This 'n' That

I got my official photographer's card today, so now I can officially take photos around the Embassy.  Not that the lack of a card has stopped me before, but now I can whip out my Official Photographer card and impress the hell out of anybody that asks.  Unfortunately, they don't want me to photograph things like the security guards, the bullet pock-marks, the sandbagged sentry posts, or the big T-walls, which of course are exactly the things I want to photograph.  So I will probably will anyway.  I'm such a rebel.

Surprise, surprise: the Embassy doesn't have an Official Artist card.  It seems like I'm the first "artist" to ever talk to them.  It doesn't surprise me: most artists have zero appreciation for authority figures and just go out and draw and paint whatever they want, anyway, regardless of what The Man says.  Here, I might point out, The Man carries a loaded M16 and is authorized to use it.  

But The Man's rules only apply on Embassy grounds.  Outside the gate, it's Iraqi territory, and the security people let me know that Embassy rules don't apply out there.  (Actually, nobody's rules apply out there!)  So I'll take my paper and go find neat things out in the International Zone to go draw.  And, hopefully, not get shot by other people's security guards.

Actually, to set your mind at ease, the International Zone is safe.  It's the NRA's dream town.  Everybody rides around in armored cars, all the military vehicles are bristling with 50-cal machine guns, every other person is armed with an assault rifle or at least a pistol (even the joggers), there are T-walls and concertina wire everywhere, and assault helicopters and jet fighters and Predators buzz around overhead 24 hours a day.  Can you imagine a more perfect place to live?

The weather (since you asked) is pretty perfect these days.  Lows around 68, highs around 95 ... in other words, about 25 degrees cooler than when I arrived just a few short weeks ago.  We've had a couple of days where it clouded up and we actually got a few drops of rain on the windshield ... which, in Baghdad terms, is a torrential downpour.  But most days it's dry.  Very.  Dry.  And a bit dusty ... except on days when it's really dusty, in which case we wear those little surgical masks in an attempt to keep as much dust as possible out of our lungs.  

Club-Baghdad-on-the-Tigris.  Make it your next vacation spot!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Getting New Shades the Hard Way

Hey, whaddaya think of my new shades?  Do they look like (a) Ralph Lauren?  (b) Giorgio Armani?  (c) Those cheap plastic ones you get when you have your eyes dilated?

If you guessed (c), you're right.  I had to go to the optometrist today.  The reason is that last night, without warning, my vision went wonky.  It was like looking through a really strange kaleidoscope, with flickering lights all around the edges.  Some things in the field of vision were in focus, other things right next to them weren't even visible.  The effect lasted a half hour or so before it gradually cleared up and returned to normal.  Scared the crap out of me.  So off I went to sick call first thing this morning.  The doc immediately wrote me a referral to see the optometrist over at the military hospital (about 2 blocks away).  The eye doc dilated my eyes, poked and prodded and checked 'em out thoroughly.  Turns out I'd experienced a "vitreous detachment".  That's where the sac of goo inside my eyeball had suddenly pulled loose from its moorings to the eye.  Its very common for people who are over 50 and nearsighted.  Like me, both counts.  Fortunately, unlike retinal detachment, it doesn't normally threaten your vision.  And it's not like the goo is going anywhere.  It just isn't anchored anymore.  

Whew!  I tell ya what, I was scared to death it was that other kind of "detachment", the retinal kind.  And as an artist, I'm kinda attached to my vision, as warped as it is.  So it was a huge relief to hear that it's just a harmless part of growing old.  

The doc dilated the hell out of my eyes, though.  I had a meeting this afternoon and sat there the whole time, in a dimly-lit room, wearing these stylish shades.  And I was as happy as I could be, too!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bose'n to a SIGIR

For the past few days, I've been spending my time writing up stuff for SIGIR. How exciting does that sound? And what the hell is SIGIR, anyway? Well, SIGIR is the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. It's charged with snooping around into all the reconstruction projects in Iraq to make sure there's no fraud, waste, or abuse. And with over $50B in reconstruction authorized so far, you can bet there's some kinda fraud/waste/abuse out there. So SIGIR is always looking at something. When they do, they contact the offices involved and ask for lots of information. I had three different requests land on my desk just the other day and have been spending a lotta time trying to collect the answers and draft an accurate and politically correct response.

While they can be a pain in the butt to me, to you as the American taxpayer, they're a Good Thing. You can go to their web site and find out just about anything you'd ever want to know about the good, the bad, and the ugly of Iraq reconstruction efforts. All their reports are online. I keep a hard-copy of their current one on my desk all the time to (a) learn something and (b) serve as a coaster for my coffee cup. I don't recommend you print it out on your home printer as it's about 260 pages long. But if you want to learn something about Iraq reconstruction, go to the SIGIR web site. I'll post it to the links section of my blog as well.

Janis just sent me a wonderful anniversary present. We've been married 15 years now ... sure doesn't seem like it, but it's true. Even though the actual date is next week, she had me open the present last night while we were video chatting. (Janis is completely incapable of leaving a present in its wrapping. Even though she can wrap a present better than anybody I've ever seen, once it's in her hands (or mine, for that matter), the wrappings have to come off ... NOW!) Anyway, she got me a set of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Sweet! Sound quality is phenomenal. Her timing was perfect, too, as my old ear buds for my iPod had just quit. So here I was at my desk today, trying to write a response to a SIGIR question while rockin' out with my new headphones. I hope I didn't inadvertently include some of the lyrics in my report.
SIGIR: "Provide cost figures for the Sadr City contract."
ANSWER: "Rock me baby, rock me baby, all night long!!"

Your tax dollars at work.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Journalists in Iraq

There's an interesting article in the Washington Post about how the news media is pulling out of Iraq. All the news bureaus are getting smaller, if not pulling out entirely. The reasons:
- The stories are fundamentally more about politics than about combat.
- Developments are nuanced and require an understanding of who's doing what to/with/for whom, as well as why.
- It's expensive to keep people here and expensive for them to operate.
- Afghanistan and Pakistan are heating up.
- The military isn't taking "embeds" into combat operations anymore.

In other words, there's less blood and gore. Things are calmer. The Iraqis are working to put their country back together again (maybe not very well, and certainly not to our standards, but they're doing it). Reconstruction is a long, slow slog. Understanding why and how things develop (or don't) requires time. Spelling that out for the general readership at home also requires time.

So our news outlets don't do it. If they can't shock the nightly viewers with scenes from Iraq anymore, then they'll go find another war to write about.

Last year you'd read a headline along the lines of "75 KILLED IN BAGHDAD MARKET!", along with a required photo of a crying child next to their mother's dead body. Today, the story is "150,000 PEOPLE GET CLEAN RUNNING WATER!". Think you'll read that in the paper?

Uh, no. But your tax dollars are payng for it. And the story is just as important.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


I've done a few sketches around the Palace area.  Not many, and not enough to get the rust out of my drawing skills yet, but here are a few, in case anybody's interested ....

This is the Green Bean.  It's like a little Starbucks stand in one of the former Palace ballrooms.  If you go there more than twice, the barristas know who you are and what kind of drink to make.

The front of the Palace, like most of the buildings in Baghdad, are protected by 10-ft tall T-walls.  These are really tall concrete barriers, like the kind you see around road construction.

I've mentioned MRAP's a few times, and here's one version.  There are actually many different kinds.  This is the littlest.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Helo Trip

Today a group of us went to one of our project sites to see how it's coming.  The site is a bit outside Baghdad.  For transportation, we had two helicopters take us out around noon and bring us back a few hours later.  

I get really jazzed over riding in a helo.  They remind me of bumblebees: there should be no reason the damn things can fly, but they do.  And they're an assault on the senses: noisy, bumpy, cramped, and windy.  Kinda like an old British sports car, only with better technology.  And they fly low, so you can look down and see what people have piled up in their back yard.  Maybe even land there, too!

One of our helos was an older Huey, the same kind that you see in all the Vietnam movies.  The other was one of the new Blackhawks.  Both belong to the State Department, not the military, and so they're painted American Blue ... a nice, deep, dark cobalt blue.  All the military helos are a dark, dull green.

The trip didn't take long, but it was fun.  We flew low, a few hundred feet off the ground, lazily zigzagging along, changing altitude, and every once in a while throwing it into a steep bank.  I took a ton of pictures.  Most are variations on the same thing.  Here are a few that you might enjoy:

Here's the cockpit for our Blackhawk.  You can see the other helicopter out in front of us.

This is the Al-Rahman Mosque, otherwise known as the "mother of all mosques".  Saddam Hussein ordered the building of the largest mosque in the world.  It wasn't finished when we stopped construction in 2003.

We flew over a park that was teeming with people.  Kids, families, strollers, thousands of people wandering around having a good time.  Friday is like our Saturday, a day off, and just like us, they like to go to the park.  What's really wonderful is that they can go to the park now.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Thoughts on Iraq

All the entries I've made so far have been about me and my experiences. They've been pretty lighthearted and in looking back over them, it looks like I'm having a Club Med vacation. But this is Iraq, a war-torn country that's still a big mess. Our press only gives us snippets of information, usually about bomb attacks or politics, but that's like looking at the country through a drinking straw. You're not going to get the big picture unless your own boots are on the ground. Now that I've been here a while, I can see things from a different perspective.

Iraq, and our involvement with it, is a mass of contradictions. Some of the people are the greatest people you'll ever want to meet. Generous, open, warm, and intelligent. Others are as crooked as they come.

The American government has done a hell of a lot - and I mean a hell of a lot - to rebuild this country and get it on its feet. Billions and billions of dollars worth. We've built new power plants, water treatment plants, sewage plants, electrical distribution networks, schools, hospitals, airport facilities, prisons, courthouses, government buildings, roads, the Umm Qasr shipping port, hundreds of clinics, and more. But a lot has also been wasted. Many projects haven't been finished - sometimes due to violence, sometimes due to insurgent attacks, sometimes due to corruption, sometimes due to sheer incompetence. Sometimes when the projects have been finished, they haven't been maintained, and within a year the facility can be functionally useless.

The Iraqi government is trying to invent itself. Sometimes it works, many times it doesn't. They just passed a new elections law this past week. You have no idea how big a deal that is. During the much-vaunted elections of a few years ago, Iraqis couldn't vote for individual candidates, they voted for different slates, and the Sunni's boycotted it. The new elections law will enable people to vote for specific candidates. And the Sunni's have learned the hard way that they have to participate. In all, a Very Good Thing.

But try to get support for some of the basic necessities of life and you run into a brick wall. You want fuel for that generator so the city can have some electricity? No. You want spare parts to keep a sewage treatment plant up and running? No. You want books for the brand-new school the Americans just built? No. Part of the reason is that they have a Byzantine bureaucratic system that makes the Byzantines look supremely logical. Part is because different ministries have different ethnic groups in charge. Some is due to corruption siphoning off the funds to make things happen. Some is due to a highly centralized power structure with no accountability to the provinces, meaning the people actually affected by the lack of electricity, water, sewage, and education have no influence on getting the services. And some is due to the fact that any government official who authorizes an expenditure is personally responsible for that entire amount. Yes, you read that right. So if some official decides it's okay to build a road, and somebody else later decides that it wasn't, then the official who authorized it has to pay it back out of his own pocket. Yessir, that'll tighten things up in a hurry, won't it?

So for the time being, I'm of two minds about this country. On the one hand, it has made a lot of measurable progress. You can see it every day. On the other hand, it still has such an incredibly long way to go. I don't think most people in the US understand just how far it's come nor how far it has to go. We see it - I saw it - in a much narrower light. But remember the old tale about the blind men and the elephant. I'm only seeing a small part of this elephant even now. And it's a helluva lot bigger elephant than I ever imagined.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Golfing in the IZ

A couple of days ago, we went decided that we needed to hold an office golf tournament.  So off we went to the finest golf course in the International Zone.  Yes, it's the only golf course in the IZ.  And that's really stretching the definition of a "golf course".  This gem is a 9-hole par 3 layout.  It's run by the fine folks at the NATO headquarters, located right behind Saddam's crossed-swords military parade site.  

Here I'm teeing of on hole #5 or 6 ... I dunno, they all look pretty much alike ... just like dirt.  I doubt you've ever seen such a plume of dust on a tee shot.  For me, it was the norm.

And you can see how far I actually hit the ball ... maybe 6 inches on that mighty swing ...

Here's our gang on the green.  No, I don't see much green here, either.  

The course was a bit of a challenge.  After scoring a whopping 13 on the first two holes (this is a par 3, remember), I came back and was the only one in our group to actually score a birdie.  Yes!  I have absolutely no idea how that happened.  And I made up for it on the next hole, with something like a 7.  Or 8.

Scores didn't matter, though.  It was just an excuse to get out and have some fun.  Mission accomplished!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sara Palin Is A Ditz

Sorry, but I gotta rant. Seems like every time I go to a news site, there are two or three articles about Sara Palin on there, and none or one on McCain, Obama, or Biden. Other than the fact that she's a physically attractive woman, there's not a single thing to recommend her. No experience, no vision, no accomplishments, nothing. And she's under investigation by a Republican-controlled legislature no less. What the hell was McCain thinking when he chose her? I watched her in the debates and she was not impressive. Give her a question and she'd flounder around for a few moments until she remembered what the official line was, and then she'd repeat it verbatim. She makes Dan Quayle look like a brilliant elder statesman. The press likes to repeat her line about being a "pit bull", but she's really more like a yappy chihuahua.

If McCain wanted a woman, there are many who are far, far, far more qualified. Even Elizabeth Dole, my current state senator (who I just voted against via absentee ballot) would be a better choice.

In a normal election, the choice of a Veep isn't that important. And it really wasn't for Obama this year, either. But for McCain, it is. Face it, the guy's 72 years old. At the end of his first term, he'd be 76. The odds of him keeling over from a heart attack or experiencing the onset of dementia (like Reagan did) or something similar are fairly high. If he's to be a viable candidate, he needs a strong backup. Palin isn't it. In fact, she's the opposite.

End of rant.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Why I'm Going To Abs Class

Don't mess with my calendar for late afternoons on Tuesdays or Fridays. I'll be in my Rock-Hard Abs class.

Anybody who knows me is rolling on the floor in tears after that last statement. Rock-hard abs and me just don't exist in the same universe. But it's true: I go twice a week. I've been going to the gym and swimming and jogging fairly regularly since arriving here. This class takes the place of a gym session or two and really pushes me. And it's kinda fun, in a perverse and painful sorta way. And humbling, too. I'll be slowly puffing along with my situps ("....ooonnnnneeeee ...... tttwwwwooooo ....") and these two skinny young Air Force girls next to me will be bouncing along at 90 miles an hour, boing boing boing boing, laughing and chatting with each other the whole time and barely cracking a sweat. My goal is to someday last the entire hour without collapsing in a heap on the floor.

There's a reason that I've been doing all this exercise. It's called the DFAC. I mentioned it in a previous post. The DFAC is our Dining Facility. Actually, there are a lot of them all over the International Zone. They're run by KBR, formerly a subsidiary of Halliburton and a target of hate mail from the left. But those of us who live with KBR on a daily basis are perfectly happy with the way they run the DFACs. Which amounts to four scheduled all-you-can-eat buffets, every day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midrats.

When you enter the building, there's a big 8-sink area where you're required to wash your hands. Iraq's a dirty place, anyway, and hand-washing keeps the spread of the Dreaded Crud down to a manageable level. Once in the door, you scan your CAC card (a photo ID) or sign in, then move on to the food lines. There are several. Right by the door is the Main Line, which serves up the main entrees of the day, such as sloppy barbecue ribs, grilled mystery fish, fried chicken, or meatloaf, along with a couple of different kinds of veggies, maybe mashed potatoes, and rolls or cornbread. On Sundays, they have Prime Rib night.

If you don't want the Main Line selection, then there's another line just past that with something else. Yesterday it was the Louisiana Bar featuring gumbo, rice, and something they called jambalaya. There's a salad bar with a fairly limited selection that doesn't really vary much, but still, it's fresh salad. And they'll have a section with various types of other salads, like macaroni, tuna, or pasta. There's a guy making grilled chicken, which you can have straight or with cheese on a bun. There's a sandwich bar where you can make your own Subway sandwich only with a lot more stuff. Several different coolers with all kinds of milk and juices (all in those little sippy cartons that grade school kids love) or sodas, water, or energy drinks. Or coolers filled with tea or kool-aid clones. If none of that rings a bell, there's a grill in the back that makes pretty good burgers and dogs. There are two tureens of soup next to the door, and across from that is the fruit bar. And to top it all off, there's the ice cream section - not quite Baskin Robbins, but still a pretty good selection ... or you can have soft-serve. Or move over to the desert section where they have a bunch of cakes and pies to choose from.

That's a typical lunch or dinner. Breakfast is similar only a little smaller and loaded with breakfast stuff. Haven't been to midrats. This goes on every day, 365 days/year. And it's free.

Which explains why I'm going to Rock-Hard Abs class.