BAGHDAD — Quite literally two seconds after I typed the second “d” in Baghdad above, a mortar shell (caliber unknown) hit about 50 meters from where I am typing. The sound was reminiscent of the “hissing” or “tearing” sound a bolt of lightning makes when it hits very close by. It was immediately followed by a gigantic explosion.
I ran to the window and the neighborhood was full of Kurdish guards running in the direction of the explosion with their weapons at the ready. The six private security guards housed across the street came running out with all their armor and fancy looking machine guns ready for battle.
I was not far behind with my body armor on and my M-5. When I arrived at the scene of the explosion I learned the mortar shell had hit the front of the house about 50 meters away and then exploded in the street. Thankfully, no one was hurt. This is the third or fourth mortar shell we have had in the neighborhood over the past ten days or so. This was the closest hit and there are several theories as to what is going on here. The primary one is that they are getting the range on a neighboring company.
NOT LONG AGO I LEFT BAGHDAD on a scheduled R & R trip back to the States.
Readers will recall that while my outward bound car trip to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) was, as usual, scary as hell, the scene at the airport spoke volumes about how things were improving in Iraq. The place was mobbed with travelers and Red Caps. A newly built mosque by the front door was doing land office business. The men’s room was doing so well they had hired an attendant. The air-conditioning was working for only the first time, although at only about 60%. Captain Ayad and his Flying Carpet Airline had more passengers than they could handle. The terrorism business was so slow that the normally very alert Ghurka security guards had a bit of a sleepy look about them.
In spite of Capt. Ayad’s barely being able to get the lumbering Rug from the runway to cruising altitude, I left Baghdad cheered by the tangible signs of progress and the very real prospects of lots more.
Upon my return three weeks later, it appeared nothing had changed. The immigration process was brisk and professional. The crowds were smaller than at my departure, but their size was still encouraging. Only the Customs procedure brought a jarring note to the proceedings. The Inspector watched me wrestle my suitcase full of surveying textbooks atop his inspection table. When I had it up there I said: “Nothing to declare.” He smiled at me and said: “Open it.” Once it was open, I held the top for him to look inside. He walked over and, without even a glance, he pushed it shut. He smiled and then made an obscene gesture with one of his fingers.
For a moment I wondered if the finger was an omen of things to come. But, except for this disconcerting note, everything about my arrival back in Baghdad had about it a feeling of Humphrey Bogart returning to Casablanca for a curtain call to be spent with the “usual suspects.”
When I got out into the blistering heat (133 F) on the sidewalk of the terminal, my heart was lifted once again. Sitting there in the bright sunshine as far as my eye could see, were 15 or 20 enormous packages neatly wrapped in heavy duty plastic. From their shape I could tell the packages contained the frames for automatic escalators to be installed where escalators had never existed. The two levels of the airport are about to be connected as they should have been when the airport was built. The huge packages seemed a metaphor for all the progress being made in Iraq.
When BIAP was built some 20 years or so ago, Saddam unaccountably failed to install escalators between the two levels. Passengers having to move from one level to another have had to walk up and down the stairs; with or without their luggage. Everyone knows that nations with aspirations to greatness must staff their airport men’s rooms and have escalators from one level of their airports to another.
There is something vaguely troubling, however, about the sense of priorities that lays out what is undoubtedly a large amount of money for airport escalators, when as far as I knew upon my arrival, so much else still remains to be done.
During the drive back to Baghdad my spirits started floating back to earth. Osama, my driver, pointed out a couple of big holes in the road and said simply: “Car bombs.” The number of Humvee convoys on the road looking for terrorists had not only increased in number, but also increased in size. Most convoys used to consist of three Humvees. The going rate now seems to be five.
As we got to the neighborhood of our house, I heard the detonation of a car bomb about a half kilometer away. I urged Osama to speed up so we could avoid the huge traffic jams that are invariably caused by dozens of police SUV’s speeding to the scene of a car bomb explosion.
THE COMPANY I WORK FOR IS involved in the reconstruction of the Iraq infrastructure. We, and our competitors, are deeply involved in the business of building new electrical substations, new electrical distribution and transmission lines, water mains, water purification installations and compact water units for use in towns of about 5,000 or 10,000. We have also carried out many projects involving repairs of roadways and the installation of airport radar and landing systems. Altogether, we have completed 39 projects, but in the past five months practically no new work has been assigned to anyone for reasons no one understands. All of us involved in these projects are clearly ready to do whatever it takes to bring Iraq back to where water flows, lights shine and people and cars can move around. For now, nothing is happening.
In order to be assigned one of these projects, and thus have work get underway, a company responds to a government-issued Request For Proposal (RFP). They are very elaborate documents that run 40-60 pages each. Our proposals are equally as long. For big projects they can run 200 pages or more. While a great deal of what is in an RFP is pure bureaucratic boilerplate, a lot of what is required is clearly germane and important.