At Large

Iraqi Clippings

Even when Baghdad is quiet it's not -- new reports from the Iraqi capital.

By 6.22.05

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Baghdad itself is quiet. It's the rest of the country that has problems. Even though there have been many people killed nationwide in the past couple of days, very few were killed in the city. The soldiers are doing a pretty good job of keeping things peaceful. They continue to speed around in their pick-ups looking and acting like a convention of Rambos.

1) Even in the peace and quiet of the new Baghdad, things can be noisy. At exactly noon the other day there was a very loud explosion at the offices right next door to ours. My first thought was that our neighbors had been hit by a mortar shell. I went running out to see the excitement.

All I could see was the Peshmerga guards and other curious onlookers such as myself wandering aimlessly around. The guards shrugged their shoulders in a sign they had no idea what it was.

Three or four minutes later there was a second very loud explosion and a lot of smoke came from behind one of the walls next door. Oddly, however, I saw no debris flying up in the air.

It turned out that the neighboring office's Security Director had conducted an unannounced drill using things called "flash-bangs." They sound like the real thing but do no damage. The SD, an Australian from Virginia called Blue, came out to say the purpose of the drill was to show people they shouldn't go running out in the street to see the excitement.

"All of you fools who ran out would have been killed by that second mortar shell," he said.

Three days later, the Army issued an intelligence bulletin about the possibility of "indirect fire" on the Red Zone. Indirect fire consists of mortar shells, RPG's (Rocket Propelled Grenades) and the like. It cautioned everyone to stay away from windows and to be ready to get under a table or desk. Things haven't advanced very far from the atomic bomb drills of the early 1950s!

The intelligence bulletin was printed in very bright red block letters. In part it said: "All personnel are instructed to refrain from running to any impact location 'to see what is going on.'"

2) There's an unbelievable flood of $100 bills in Iraq. I go to the PX to do my shopping for stuff like toothpaste and shampoo. They are usually out of stock. The sign says: "We are out of a lot of things because the supply convoy was blown up!" That is absolute crap. They no doubt forgot to order, or have no idea of what is out of stock.

What I have noticed at the checkout point is that half the world's $100 bills seem to be in Iraq. People who have bought $3 of merchandise all pay with $100 bills! I finally figured out the reason. So many people here are paid their salary in cash, that the place is flooded with 100's. All our employees, for example, are paid in cash because going to a bank is dangerous and takes far too much time.

The result of the policy of paying in 100's has resulted in a great shortage of 1's, and 5's, and 10's, in particular.

There is one very smart thing they have done, however. Maybe it's an old idea and is done everywhere there is a PX, especially overseas. They give you NO change or silver coins at all! The silver has been replaced by very light cardboard "coins" with bright pictures on them. They are issued in the same denominations as regular coins. They can be used only in the PX.

The military estimates they have saved tens of millions of dollars a year in aviation fuel and transportation-related costs, by not having to ship thousands of tons of coins all over the world by plane.

If only they were as clever about everything else!

3) Last night I went to the Al Rasheed for a haircut. I have been told by my driver that Iraqi barbers are the best in the world! I have no idea who established that ranking, or what standards were used to measure it.

Of one thing, however, there can be no doubt. Iraqi barbers are, hands down, the fastest in the world. You can't see the blades on the scissors because they are going so fast. Just like the blades on an airplane propeller. It reminded me of one of those Japanese restaurants where the chef is slicing and dicing the shrimp right in front of you. The knife blade can hardly be seen and the guy always finishes up with a big flourish, as if performing a grand finale at the Fourth of July fireworks.

That is how he finished my haircut -- with a sharp crack on the top of my head with the side of the scissors. One of the women in the office says I look "much younger."

4) Arabs write "backwards," that is, from right to left. Book pages are also numbered from "back to front," at least by our standards. The way I have noticed this is that manila folders containing our files are all placed "backward" in the filing cabinets!! I can't find a thing!

5) The temperature outside our office yesterday was 129 degrees!!! That is hot! Thank God it's dry heat. All you feel is very deep, searing pain without any of the stickiness that accompanies humidity.

6) A few moments ago the following story came across my computer from the AP:

"A militant strapped with more than 100 pounds of explosives and disguised in an Army uniform blew himself up in a crowded mess-hall Wednesday...The blast killed 26 soldiers."

How the hell does ANYONE get into ANYPLACE with 100 pounds of explosives strapped to himself?! He must have looked like that Michelin tire character. Where are the sniffer dogs? Where are the security checks? Where are the magnetometers? How many times must the Iraqis fall prey to this same kind of attack before they wise up and start to protect themselves? This attack illustrates the reckless stupidity of some Iraqi commanding officers.

7) One of the untold stories about the war and its immediate aftermath is that we may never know or understand the extent of the damage caused by the wholesale looting carried out by Iraqis after Saddam was ousted.

Post-war looting was savage and absolutely breathtaking in its scope. It resulted in the destruction of much of Iraq's industrial infrastructure. I believe that the looting resulted in far more damage than was caused by the U.S. Air Force during the war itself. Personal observation has shown me the Americans did engage in "surgical" destruction that brought a lot of truth to the meaning of that overused term. They destroyed what needed to be destroyed for purposes of winning the war. The rest was left untouched. MANY "stones were left unturned." If someone in the targeting office decided we didn't need to break this building or that bridge, the thing was left alone, even if everything else around it was knocked down.

We all saw lots of looting on TV after the end of the war. Thousands of people walking off with furniture, mattresses, TV's, computers, and God knows how many other things. That was bad enough but the looting I am talking about is the senseless destruction of factories and power plants with explosives and sledgehammers and whatever other weapon was available.

We now receive proposals "to rebuild, replace, and rehabilitate" hundreds of millions of dollars worth of electric power sources that were in working condition even after the war. Then the looters arrived! All the proposals very frankly point out that much of the damage in need of repair was caused by looters. No one seems to really know exactly why it happened, but it is very clear that a great deal of the damage in Iraq was caused by the Iraqis themselves in some paroxysm of destruction. Obviously, it is the Iraqis themselves who today are paying the price for that fit of insanity.

Somewhere in the Defense Department there must be someone (I hope there is someone) who is asking the question: "How the hell did nobody think of the possibility of looting?"

8) You may recall my driver Osama. He is the guy who almost got both of us killed when he tried to pass a convoy of Humvees.

It turns out that Osama is the world's most brilliant handyman. He can literally fix anything -- a car, an electric generator, an M-5 carbine, a clock, a vacuum cleaner, an oven, a cell phone or all the plumbing in the house. No matter the size or nature of the problem, or the extent of the damage, Osama can have it working again in no time.

At one time only the outlets on the north side of my room worked. After a short house visit from Osama, everything works. Osama is now my best friend in Iraq.

9) I just had a visit in my room from Aziz. He is a big, gentle, very friendly Iraqi engineer who heads up our group of site inspectors. Although today (Friday) is their holiday, he came into the office to get some stuff to take on a trip to Mosul tomorrow. THAT is a dangerous trip! I pray he will make it safely!

I asked him what's new. He replied that a car bomb once again went off near his house out at BIAP. It blew out most of the windows in the house. It is the second time in two weeks that has happened -- and the eleventh time overall since "the end of hostilities," as he describes it with a big smile. He said "maybe the owner of the glass factory is doing this!" I can't believe the patience and forbearance of the Iraqis in the face of all this.

10) I was going to conclude with that last item, but since I've just returned from a visit to the United Nations compound, I feel compelled to unburden myself of what I learned there.

The reason for my trip was to escort two of our engineers to one of their X-ray machines which was not working. The compound is in the Green Zone. Iraqis can't go there unescorted so my DoD badge was needed to get us all in. I was quickly recruited since we assumed lives were at risk with this inoperative X-ray taker.

When we arrived at the GZ we were quickly checked up and down by the 3rd ID (Infantry Division). As always, they checked the bottom of the car, not because they think we are bringing in a bomb, but because it is possible someone else affixed a bomb to our car and we are the carriers. Hooked up to a proper timer such a bomb could kill dozens of people.

Once the 3rd ID finished with us, they directed us toward the UN checkpoint, which was no more than 25 yards away. When we got there we had to blow our horn to get someone's attention! Soon enough a blue helmeted UN soldier came out and apologized. He said he was drinking his tea. The soldier is a member of the Armed Forces of Fiji.

When he began to check the bottom of our car again, I objected very mildly. I pointed out that the chore had just been completed by a U.S. soldier in the company of a sniffer dog. He remarked that the UN does not accept the results of U.S. Army inspections, as thorough as they might be. Further complicating our trip was the fact that our driver Osama was armed with a pistol and he was made to surrender it. I didn't have to do anything because today I opted to wear only my body armor and to finesse my usual arsenal. The memory of Yasser Arafat speaking to the UN General Assembly with a pistol dangling from his holster persuaded me not to repeat the insult.

When we finally arrived at the entrance to the UN compound we were greeted effusively by another five members of the Fijian Army. I said to the Sergeant that I felt I had just met up with 60% of the Fijian Armed Forces. He said, "Oh no, sir, we have 2,000 troops!" He did point out that the soldier next to him was actually an Indian soldier on loan to the Fijians and was now wearing a Fijian uniform. I have no explanation for why the Fijians can't stock their Army with Fijians and are forced to borrow from the Indian Army.

When we were finally brought into the presence of the X-ray machines we were all flabbergasted. There was no long line of dying patients waiting to have their insides checked out. It turned out they were airport X-ray devices. The Fijian Army had basically "blown up its equipment" by plugging it into an outlet with the wrong voltage!

So the UN was letting people into their compound by making believe the X-ray machine was working when, in fact, it had blown its cork! I asked the female Sergeant if that worried her. She replied: "No one will do harm to the United Nations."

You should not believe those reports that the UN has permanently fled from Iraq to their usual hideout in Cyprus since the car bomb explosion that killed about 25 of their people last year. I know the UN is back because I was at their compound less than an hour ago, and you should see the fantastic security set-up they have this time!

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