Saturday, February 28, 2009


I'm sitting at the military side of Baghdad Airport now, having left the Embassy earlier today for the last time. Since my last post, I've been busy with packing, cleaning, passing on the last bits of wisdom to Pat (the guy who's taking over most of my duties), and all the other things associated with closing out another phase of my life.

Our weather looked like it was going to have an impact on my travel. Yesterday the wind picked up and last night it got really dusty - I mean really dusty. Looked like a heavy San Francisco fog, except it was orange and gritty. Fortunately, I knew the weather might be an issue, so I had arranged for both a ground and an air option to get my butt over to the airport today. Then this morning the skies were bright and rapidly clearing. Great day for a helo ride! So right after noon, I caught a ride over to Landing Zone Washington. I was a couple of hours early but had nothing to do but hang out anyway. Then began the Great Bag-Drag Caper.

I checked in with the air ops people to let 'em know I was there for the flight later this afternoon. The kid checked through his paperwork, but I was not on the manifest. Ooops. I had a confirmation email yesterday, so I knew I was on the flight. Then he asked if I was a State Department guy. Yep, I am. So he said, you gotta go check in with the State Department air ops office. They're on the other side of the LZ. Okay, no problem. I grabbed my bags (one wheeled duffle, one wheeled carry-on, my shoulder bag, my body armor which weighs almost as much as my duffle bag, and my helmet) and waddled off to the other side of the field. Once there, I found the air ops office and reported in. The guy flipped through his paperwork and asked how my name was spelled two or three times before deciding that I wasn't on any of his manifests. So he called and talked to another office back at the embassy. Somebody there found my name on a list (yay), only I had to go back to the first side of the LZ to check in. All right, what else do I have to do, anyway? So I grabbed my bags and walked back across the LZ for the second time to the first office. About a half hour later, one of the ops guys came out and told me that the flight I was supposed to take was cancelled due to weather. Huh? It's beautiful outside! Yeah, but not up north, where the helos were flying from - it was dusty and they were grounded. However, the State Department guys might have something flying that afternoon. So I grabbed my bags and tootled back around the LZ for the third time. Turns out there was another State Department flight scheduled for later in the afternoon and I could probably get on it. So I sat and waited.

A while later, with a bunch of us sitting there hoping, a guy with the flight manifest came out and rounded us all up. He'd scored a hop for us with a couple of military helos. Except - you guessed it - it was going to leave from the other side of the field. Now a whole bunch of us made the LZ Bag Drag trip, me for the fourth time. We stood around for a little bit and then the guy came out and said that half our group was to catch the military helos and half would catch the blue State Department ones. Guess which group I was in? So for the fifth time, I dragged my bags around LZ Washington.

Hell, with as much walking as I'd done, I could've been at BIAP by then!

But finally they took our bags and loaded us into the helos and off we went. After all that trouble, the actual flight only took about six or seven minutes. We lifted off, arched over the old Palace, down across the Euphrates, and over the west side of Baghdad. In no time we were crossing over the runways and then settling down at the military side of the airport. After collecting our bags, we were shepherded through the military facilities (big steel temporary buildings surrounded by T-walls, not exactly the most picturesque environment you can imagine) and into Sully Compound. I got checked into my room, explored the adjacent BX compound, and then had dinner at the DFAC.

Now it's time to kick back and unwind. I'll go watch some mindless TV and hit the rack. I've got an early showtime tomorrow morning for a flight that doesn't leave until much later, but that's the way the military runs things. Let's just hope that I don't have to drag my bags all over BIAP tomorrow, too!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nits and Noids

I finished a new painting last night.  It's in acrylic, about 30"x24", more or less (I don't have a ruler), and based on a watercolor painting I did a while back.  I discovered that I do not like working in acrylics.  At least here - with Iraq's low humidity, I usually had less than a minute to use any color I mixed up.  Even then, it was like painting with tar.  The acrylics just wouldn't flow or blend or anything.  I felt like I was fighting the paint most of the time rather than thinking about the image.  It just wasn't fun.  As for the image, well, I think it's not bad for somebody that hasn't been in the studio for months.  

The painting was one of the things that I needed to wrap up before leaving.  I got everything at work done, so last night I dove into the painting and finished it.  Today I spent most of the day running around doing the checkout sheet.  It took me over a week to get checked in when I arrived, but almost all the checkout was done in just over two hours.  The rest can't get done until I'm actually ready to head out the door.  

After finishing up most of the checkout sheet, I went for a jog.  We had a really beautiful day here, fairly clear skies, temperature this afternoon in the low 70's.  It was too nice to waste, so off I went for my slow plod around the compound, waving "bueno' tarde'" to the Peruvian guards at all their posts.  (I noticed that they drop the "s" off the end of a lot of their words - took me a long time to be able to do it myself, dunno why).  Now I'm cooling off from the run before grabbing a shower and heading out to my farewell dinner.

There are three of us leaving the office permanently in the next two days.  I was working with the Corps of Engineers on their job offer rather quietly, and about the time I was finally able to announce that I was leaving, another guy in the office (who's been here for a year and a half) announced that he had decided to head home, too.  Then just a few days ago, one of our military officers, a reservist who was here on six-month orders that he was trying to extend, found out that not only was his extension not going to be approved (due to an odd technicality), but that he had to be physically home by the time the orders were up.  And when they started looking at everything he had to do with travel, outprocessing, flight availability, all that stuff, they realized, "oh, you have to leave on Friday" (this was on Monday).  Nothing like a little preparation, huh?  So our boss has NOT been in a good mood this week.  

I've written a good bit about how things have been improving here in Iraq.  Overall, it's quieter now than even when I first arrived in September.  But this morning we got a reminder that all is not yet well.  I was walking to breakfast at the DFAC when there was this ungodly loud POOOOOM from across the river, loud enough to shake the buildings, followed by a lot of rattle from AK-47's.  A lot of rattle.  One of the old hands in our office said it sounded like a 240mm mortar explosion.  It was a very sharp sound, certainly different from that of a car or truck bomb (which are usually a deep "thud").  Baghdad still gets several explosions a day from car bombs or suicide bombers or roadside IED's.  They're mostly targeted against other Iraqis, such as politicians, police, army, or judges.  There haven't been any attacks on the Embassy the whole time I've been here.  

I was picking up a few items in our little PX the other day and got to wondering about some of the things they carry in there.  Now, consider: here we are, a small group of civilians and military, living in a pretty nice compound in a war zone.  You'd think that they'd have a somewhat inadequate selection of the basics.  Well, you're mostly right.  But why would they have a whole bunch of Mad Dog 20-20??  Yeah, they have beer and wine and hard spirits because this is the State Department and not subject to General Order #1 like all military people are (General Order #1 prohibits drinking alcohol and having sex, among other fun things, and applies to all the hormone-crazed young men and women running around Baghdad in uniform).  But wouldn't you think that State Department people would want to give a somewhat better impression to the non-alcohol-drinking Iraqi natives than to have a large stock of Mad Dog??  And over on another aisle, they had a selection of quarts of motor oil and automotive paste wax.  This in a town where nobody has a private car and all the vehicles are maintained by KBR.  The only thing I can think of for the paste wax is that a lot of the military guys shave their heads these days, so maybe a coat of wax would add that final sheen.  Can't think of any use for the motor oil, though.

'Nuf for now.  Gotta get rolling.  Have a nice day!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wrapping Things Up

I'm scheduled to leave the Embassy on Saturday to start the journey home.  That will be the end of my tenure with the State Department, a 6-month stint that has been extremely rewarding.  Ever since my last post, I've been working like a madman in the office, trying to wrap up several projects and get things ready for handoff.  I can't say I'm handing them off to my replacement, because there isn't one.  If (and that's a big "IF") they ever get somebody in here, it'll be many months down the pike.  In the meantime, there's one guy who's getting custody of my files and some of my duties, and I need to be able to tell him what needs to be done.  So I've been trying to gather a lot of information together in a sort of "How To Do Skip Rohde's Job For The Complete Idiot" guide.  Yes, I hear the wags out there saying that it should be a 1-page book, and half of that blank.  But you're wrong.  It's two pages, including the copyright notification.  

Today I passed a milestone.  (Much better than a kidney stone, but that's beside the point).  Today I finished up a report on the status of our ongoing projects.  For the record, there are 256 reconstruction projects still ongoing at the present moment, most of which, contrary to media reports, are going well.  There was a big meeting this afternoon that discussed a couple of key projects from that list and the way forward for both of them was locked in place.  Then I had this great feeling of relief, as in "My work here is done ..." I was able to shift my focus from finishing the big reporting jobs to wrapping up my desk and getting files ready for handoff.  Late this afternoon I was able to go for a jog around the compound.  It was a nice day for once and I was happy to be able to get out and enjoy it.  Then this evening, a group of us got together for a special Italian dinner.  Most enjoyable.  

I'm looking around my room at this mess and thinking about packing.  Right now it looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a dollar store.  But there's a logic to it.  I keep trying to get stuff into boxes, but every time I do that, I wind up needing something from the boxes the very next day.  So half of what I pack soon gets unpacked again.  I'm thinkin' that I should just organize my stuff into general piles: this stuff gets packed up and stored until I come back, this other stuff goes with me on the trip, and that other stuff gets mailed home or thrown out or something.  Decisions, decisions.

But now it's late and I'm bushed.  Time to hit the rack.  I'll worry about my dollar-store explosion tomorrow.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Adventures with Bodyguards

I got to participate in something today that was, for me, highly out of the ordinary.  And, as it turned out, highly fun.  I took part in some exercises with our personal security teams.  They were running some drills and needed somebody to be the high-value VIP.  Somebody who didn't know squat about how these drills are supposed to be conducted, who therefore wouldn't anticipate things, and who might do something completely unexpected.  Somebody like me.  Fortunately, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and volunteered for the job.

They ran the drills at one of the bases here in the IZ.  We'd drive up to the building for a meeting with the "minister".  The security detail would do all their security stuff, then we'd go in the building and start our "meeting".  Then all hell would break loose.  Their job was to get me and two other "VIPs" safely out of the building and loaded into the cars and outa there.  

Without going into the details, I can say these men and women are pros.  They know their stuff and I'd go anywhere with them.  I'd be talking away with the "minister" when the action would start, and those guys would have me under a protective umbrella in nothing flat.  Then we'd begin the movement to the car - lots of team members rotating back and forth very quickly, everyone covering everyone and everything else.  They weren't gentle with us VIPs, either: they'd physically steer us wherever it was they wanted us to go.  And when a big burly guy with arms as big as your legs has you by the belt and shoulder, you damn well go where he says to go!

We ran several drills, each a bit more complex than the last.  Our little group of VIPs each got to play different roles, too.  Once I was the Ambassador and another time I was a kidnap victim.  Besides having a lot of fun, I gained a new appreciation for our security guys.  You'd expect to find only the best of the best in a place like Baghdad, and you'd be right.  They're professional, highly skilled, highly trained, and extremely disciplined.  And completely irreverent cutups when the action is over.

Your tax dollars at work.  Well spent.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An Interview With An Artist

Several of my artist friends have been doing interviews with other artists and posting them on their blogs lately. Here's an especially good one. If you want an insight into the life and mind of a contemporary working artist, read Constance Humphries' interview with Genie Maples.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Art in Baghdad

There's a very interesting article in the New York Times, from a few days ago, about an art exhibit in Baghdad.  The title was "Beacons of Humanity", with 80 works from 39 Iraqi artists.  Most interesting, the exhibit was held in conjunction with a Shi'ite religious holiday and was sponsored by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr.   

You may remember al-Sadr.  He is an extremist Shi'ite religious leader whose Mehdi Army was one of the most violent paramilitary forces during the height of the Iraqi insurgency.  He is a sworn enemy of the United States and almost everything Western.  For maybe the past six to nine months or more, he has apparently been living in Iran, maybe pursuing his religious studies, maybe doing something else.  Anyway, for whatever reason, al-Sadr left Iraq last year and since then his movement has pretty much fallen apart.  The recent elections appear to have relegated his followers to the sidelines.  People in Iraq are tired (and afraid) of his extreme religious militancy.

And now this art show.  Held by an extremist Shi'ite movement.  It's a non-sequitur, like going to a rave party sponsored by the Seventh Day Adventists.  Islamic fundamentalists don't condone the representation of the human figure, yet here were many paintings with figures.  Drawings, paintings, and prints lined the walls.  Abstraction is big here - for many artists, it is the only form that gives them adequate freedom to express their feelings.  This wasn't a Sadrist propaganda show, since few of the artists were Sadrists.  Rather, it just seems like the Sadrists decided to sponsor something that would show the Iraqi public that they're not really the bad guys that the media says they are.

Have the Sadrists really changed?  I don't know.  All I know is that they sponsored a very inclusive show, filled with some work that looks very, very good.  It's a rather daring move.  Most of all, it's encouraging: it means they're trying a different, more constructive approach to winning hearts and minds.  With art, something that's near and dear to me.

During the time that the art show was up, a Sunni female suicide bomber walked into a tent that provided shelter for Shi'ite pilgrims on the way to Karbala.  She killed herself and 40 other people, mostly women and children.

Iraq still has a long way to go.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Gettin' Short

I still find it hard to believe that in a couple of weeks, I'll be leaving the Embassy, my home for the past six months.  But it's true.  I'm trying to wind up my projects and get them into decent shape for handover to another guy in the office.  I've been busily making travel arrangements for the trip home.  And I've been filling out forms and taking online courses like a madman to get all the Corps of Engineer's employment and deployment requirements met.  Meanwhile, Janis has been making appointments for me at home to get tax stuff done, some dental work done, and more forms to get filled out.  With all this busyness, there's no time to sit and think about what it all means.

I was told, when I was going through the State Department training last summer, that everything in Iraq was in a constant state of change.  That has been borne out.  If it's not the Iraqis changing things, it's us ... and if not us, then the Iraqis.  I arrived when our offices were still in the Palace but we were starting to live in the new Embassy compound.  Now the Palace is back in the Iraqi's hands and we live and work at the Embassy.  The old BX has been turned over as well.  During the next year, more US compounds in the International Zone will go away.  The commands will consolidate onto fewer FOBs, or move out of the IZ entirely, or even leave the country.  Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has headed the Embassy for two years, is leaving.  Our mission in Iraq is probably going to change in a big way very soon, since President Obama has stated his intention of drawing down the American presence fairly quickly.  And the Iraqis are gradually assuming more and more control over their own affairs.

That's not to say things are going smoothly.  Today a female suicide bomber killed herself and 40 other people, mostly women and children, who were on a religious pilgrimage to Karbala, south of Baghdad.  There are bombings in the city every day, mostly targeting police, judges, and prominent political leaders.  Corruption is still rampant throughout the government.  And venturing beyond the FOBs and the IZ is still dangerous, both for Americans and everybody else.

I'm happy with my decision to leave the State Department and go to the Corps, though.  I'm looking forward to getting more involved in planning and doing, rather than monitoring, which is what my job has entailed up to now.  I'm also hoping that I can get around the country more.  And the military mentality of the Corps is more in line with my own way of thinking than is the State Department's essentially political mentality.   Looking at the general plans for the Corps, the military, and construction projects for the next six to twelve months, I'm excited about the possibilities and opportunities ahead.

But right now, my room is a mess.  I'm starting to sort my stuff out.  I'll put a good bit of it into boxes and take it over to the Corps during my last couple of days here.  Some will go back home with me, and some will just get dumped.  Unfortunately, it seems like I still need all the stuff in the "take it to the Corps" and the "dump it" piles!  So I'm gonna have to live in a pigpen for a while.  Some things just don't change ...

Monday, February 09, 2009

A Signing Ceremony

Today was the culmination of the working group that I was involved with over the weekend.  There was a ceremony in which the US transferred ownership of the Basrah Children's Hospital to Iraq's Ministry of Health.  The Ambassador, Ryan Crocker, and the Iraqi Minister of Health, Dr. Salih, were the two officials signing.  It went off very well, much to my relief, since I did much of the coordination for it.  The event was held in a small courtyard at the Al Rasheed Hotel.  We had Iraqi and international press front and center, with a lot of people who've been involved with the hospital in one way or another observing.  

Here's Ambassador Crocker giving some very well-spoken remarks just after the signing.  Dr. Salih is pretty pleased, having just been given ownership of a very expensive, as yet unfinished, hospital.

Ever wonder what these events look like from a distance?  Here ya go.  I noticed that, quite often, the further back the individual was, the more work they'd done on the hospital.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


I'm going to change jobs in another month. I'm going to leave the State Department and go to work for the Army Corps of Engineers. They're just down the road and I've been working with them on a daily basis for most of my time here. Last month, they made me an offer I couldn't refuse. It's a very interesting and responsible job, more in tune with my interests and capabilities than the one I'm doing now. Plus, the pay is better. And I'll be working with an organization whose functions I understand better. And finally, I will be able to get out and see the country more than I have here.

I'll probably be in Iraq longer than I originally planned, too. The job has some interesting aspects to it that I'd like to see play out. So my end date for my Iraq deployment will probably be a few months later than planned. But that's life.

Janis is comfortable with this new development. Neither of us are big fans of this separation, but having a videochat capability so we can talk every day is a big big BIG morale booster for both of us. We talk about all the daily events and it keeps us close. I'll still get breaks every few months and get some time at home.

So that's the news. I've had a good time here at State, but I know a good opportunity when it comes along, and this is one. Time to jump!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Conference

The conference that I was coordinating is over and I survived.  What an experience that was!  Yesterday was the first day and of course there was a new checkpoint on one of the two main routes to the Embassy, which meant traffic was snarled.  We started about an hour late.  That afternoon, we were 4 hours into the conference and 3 hours behind schedule.

Iraqis and Americans have very different ways of conducting meetings.  Here's a typical exchange among Americans:
Ralph: "Give me a status report on the project.  Start with line 1."
Bob: "Lines 1, 3, and 5 are done and signed for.  Line 2 will be done this coming week.  I need your people to provide us with a Mark 2 shnabblefratzer before we can move any further on line 4."
Ralph.  "Right.  You'll get it tomorrow."
Bob: "Roger that.  Then we'll be done with line 4 by the 25th of the month."

Now for the equivalent exchange between an American and a team of Iraqis:
Ralph: "Give me a status report on the project.  Start with line 1."
Iraqis: A 20-minute discussion of line 1 ensues, complete with five people talking at once, mostly in Arabic with some broken English, arm and hand gestures to rival the Italians, sometimes sounding like they're about to come to blows, and the hapless translator is completely overwhelmed and unable to provide more than a rough outline of what's being said.  And at the end of it all, we still haven't even started talking about line 2.  And Bob?  Bob gave up about ten minutes ago and went for a cup of coffee.

Americans are very businesslike about meetings.  Facts and clarity are paramount.  Not so with Iraqis: personal relationships are the key thing.  They'll spend a lot of time in small talk, trying to get to know who you are.  What you know is not that important, even if what you know has a direct impact on their business.  It's a way of life that's well adapted to their social roots and history.  It's not well adapted to high technology and a fast-paced, globally interconnected world.  So when the modern Western way collides with the ancient Iraqi way, people on both sides can get perturbed.  We see them as slow and inefficient.  They see us as pushy and insensitive.

Today's session was very similar to yesterday's.  We started almost as late despite the fact that there was no checkpoint to delay traffic.  And when we jumped into the first topic (a planned 30-minute review of something previously settled), we promptly ground to a crawl.  It was like they'd never seen the document before.  Two hours later, with only an hour left before we had to leave, we moved on to the second (more important) topic.  The third and fourth topics (even more important) were covered in ten minutes, mostly by skimming over the all-important (to us, not to them) details.

So the next time I conduct a conference like this, I'll try to keep a few things in mind.
1.  We won't really start until an hour after the scheduled time.
2.  Iraqi watches evidently have no hands.
3.  We'll move at the speed of a snail for the first 80% of the meeting.  We'll speed up a bit for the next 30%, and only lightly touch on things for the final 20% as we madly try to wrap things up.  You'll notice that's more than 100% of the meeting time.  That's because it will go well over the allotted schedule.
4.  Don't present them with something new and expect them to make an immediate decision.  If at all possible, give them some time to go ask their boss.  It's pretty likely that they're not empowered to make those decisions.
5.  Be respectful.  Their way is not our way, but that doesn't mean it's wrong or bad, just different.  

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Thursday Thoughts

What a week it's been so far, and I still have several more days to go before its over ...

I've been setting up a conference for this weekend.  Actually, I took over the conference this past Monday, because nothing had been done for it.  It's been scheduled for a month, but there are two individuals in two different organizations who've been adamantly saying that the other guy is responsible for it.  And one of 'em then left the country on leave.  Consequently, at C minus 5 days, with no venue, no schedule, no invitations, no nuttin', I got fed up with their pissing contest and took over.  The conference kicks off tomorrow morning.  We've got a nice room here in the Embassy, with a computer and projector, comfy chairs, tables, and whiteboards.  Almost everybody is on the access list ... except a few that haven't bothered to tell me they're coming, and I know there will be some from one particular agency.  (So if they spend a few hours twiddling their thumbs at the gate because they didn't bother to notify me, hey, no skin off my nose).

I swear, I've had more emails come through my computer in the past 48 hours than I've had in the past five months.

So, anyway, the conference is going in the morning, ready or not.  I'm pretty happy with the job that my team has done getting it together.  I'll let you know how it turns out.

I just talked to Janis at home in Asheville.  They've been having lots of snow and bitter cold weather this winter, and last night it got down to 4 degrees.  Didn't have the heart to tell her it was in the upper 60's here.  But now I've let the cat out of the bag and I'm sure I'll hear about it!

I did a lot of whining earlier in this post about work.  But y'know, even with that, life here isn't bad.  I was walking by a group of young Air Force airmen outside the PX earlier today.  One of them, a young woman, noted in the most wistful voice you can possibly imagine, "Oh, they have indoor bathrooms here ..."

Puts it all into perspective, doesn't it?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Iraqi Election Coverage

Here are a few good articles about yesterday's elections:

"Pointing to a New Era, US Pulls Back as Iraqis Vote", NY Times.

"Baghdad Bureau", a blog by NY Times reporters (many of whom are Iraqi).

"Iraq's Democracy May Not Be Perfect Yet, but it Could Be Someday", Wall Street Journal, by an Iraqi expat.