BAGHDAD, Iraq — Over the past few days I have been jotting down some notes on a number of things I have seen or heard or that have happened to me, either very recently, or since I have been here…
1. I’ve just been officially appointed my company’s Mail Clerk by the U.S. Army. The Army runs the Post Office here and at bases all over the world. The U.S. Mail is important stuff and can’t be trifled with. At a base with tens of thousands of soldiers the job is probably the equivalent of being Postmaster in a city of 50,000. But here, of course, it is something to be laughed at. Because it is such an important position, however, no Iraqi can be a mail clerk since they can’t be trusted. So the job has fallen to me.
In order to be qualified for the position (in fact, even to be allowed to pick up mail) I had to take a two-hour mail clerk course taught by Specialist John Poindexter. At the end of the two hours, we were given a very long and quite complicated exam. Fortunately, we were able to grade our own exams with the teacher! As we went through the grading, John would tell us the correct answer and give us enough time to change our answer if ours was wrong. Happily, all the students in my group were able to do very well on the test!! John was a proud teacher indeed!
Since I passed the exam, I was given a Certificate recognizing my new position in God’s Master Plan. As I looked at the certificate (actually a crappy Xerox copy on which I had to print my own name!), I reflected upon a book that was a huge bestseller in the late ’60s or early ’70s. It was called The Peter Principle. I see my promotion to Mail Clerk as proof that the Peter Principle is still at work and still thriving. I can’t imagine a position, that, by temperament or talent, I am less qualified to do. I have finally reached my level of incompetence!
2. An Iraqi cockroach is the size of a small horse.
3. I had to go to the Post Office today to pick up mail (I go only when someone thinks he has some) and was out for the first time since the well publicized flooding of Baghdad streets with Iraqi police and soldiers. We are told the number is 40,000, but the U.S. Army says there are only 30,000 trained Iraqi soldiers in the Baghdad area. I don’t know of anyone who can tell the difference between the two numbers but be rest assured that this city is CRAWLING with soldiers and police.
All of them wear the U.S. Army desert camouflage uniforms you see every night on the news. Most also have the Kevlar helmets that are much in demand and very expensive as well. Many others also wear bandanas to conceal their faces, much as we all saw in Grade B Westerns. The reason for this is quite simple: Every Iraqi is terrified of ever being seen and identified by a friend as being a part of the Coalition or of cooperating with it. In the worst case, that friend might be kidnapped and tortured to reveal anything he knows about anything or anybody.
What is either truly funny, or truly pathetic, about this huge group of men is the way they get around. All of them ride in badly beat-up old pickup trucks! The backs of the trucks are packed with guys standing with their AK-47’s pointed skyward as the pickup literally races along, putting all of their lives at risk. Have you ever tried standing in the back of a pickup as it chugs along at anywhere between 30 and 60 miles an hour through city streets? All the soldiers in the back are waving and shouting and it is quite obvious that to all of them this whole thing is a gigantic game of Cowboys and Indians! They are in it for the sheer excitement of looking and sounding very macho, being armed to the teeth and racing around at high speed while firing their weapons in the air to make a lot of noise. It is a truly rag-tag looking group.
To me it is very reminiscent of watching the war in Somalia/Mogadishu on the news every night ten years ago. The screen was filled with all these lunatics racing around in pickups and firing their machine guns to light up the night sky.
The funniest thing I saw today was a pickup in which the only guy in the back was a soldier manning a .50 caliber on a swivel so it could swing through a wide arc. The soldier manning the machine gun was sitting on a barstool! And, when the pickup went around a corner too fast, the gunner was pitched out on his head! Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt badly and I did see him getting to his feet and going back to retrieve the bar stool that had followed him over the side. That is the kind of army $18 billion can get you.
Just as we were getting back to our compound from the Post Office trip, we came to a point at which we had to make a sharp U-turn right across a two-lane highway with traffic moving in both directions! I cringe every time we come to this U-turn, but so far we haven’t even had a near collision.
As we reached the U-turn today during the late afternoon rush hour, I noticed a Police SUV stopped in one of the lanes of the highway. It was full of cops and all of them were leaning out their windows with their AK-47’s and looking very mean and threatening. Suddenly, a guy on the street who was not in a police uniform but was carrying a pistol ran up to the SUV. My very first thought was… My God! I am going to see my first suicide bombing!! I was wrong. The guy jumped in the back of the vehicle. Since he was not instantly shot dead and the SUV did not blow up, I have to assume he was among friends.
Once he was safely inside, all three cops leaning out the windows (I thought one guy would fall out!) started to fire their weapons at about a 20-degree angle straight down the highway!! I shouted to our driver (not Khattab, my regular driver) to watch out since the SUV was only about 20 meters from us and, quite frankly, I did not know whether the cops were friend or foe. There are lots of soldiers and police wearing stolen uniforms in Baghdad, and that has been a serious problem.
It turned out the police were simply trying to clear a lane through traffic and did so by firing at least 50 (a guess) rounds right down the road! The bullets probably came down a mile away and went right through some unfortunate guy’s back window!
What I find incredible about this is that when I got back to the compound and told the local folks what had happened, not one of them had any objection to the police firing indiscriminately down the road. Their point was simply: How else are they going to clear a way through traffic?
From all the above you might deduce (as would I) that the Iraqi Army and police are some kind of Marx Brothers operation. There are certainly many reasons to think so. But maybe, just maybe, I am starting to see a tiny change in things. The sheer enthusiasm of these guys as they go tearing around, the way they mindlessly congregate in large groups and stand around chattering the better to be killed by suicide bombers, is quite awe-inspiring. In spite of the untold number of deaths among these men, they keep enlisting in numbers that defy comprehension. Can it be only the money they are enlisting for? The pay is terrible but admittedly it’s better than being unemployed. I am beginning to think that perhaps there is a bit more than the money. Perhaps these guys are enlisting partly for the money, but partly for some hope that maybe Iraq can make its own way to a better future. And if they, rather than the U.S. Army, achieve this, they will have something they can be proud of.
4. If you were to check the CNN website at this moment you would see a reference to a huge car bomb exploding right near the gate to Baghdad International Airport. Actually, almost in the same spot where we almost got hit by the mortar shell a month and half ago. When this happened today, Khattab was about 30 yards behind the car bomb. It did some concussion damage to his car, but the worst part of the blast was deflected by a truck in front of him. The truck, it turned out, belonged to the security company across the street from us. The blast caved in the front windshield in a way that demonstrated not so much how powerful car bombs are, but how good the windshields of modern day cars are. The driver was very lucky because a piece of shrapnel about eight inches in diameter came right through the windshield and went out the back of his cab at a point less than ten inches to the right of his head.
The shrapnel was eventually found buried in the cargo someplace. I saw it and I must say that it would have rearranged everything in that poor man’s body.
5. There is a very friendly routine I (and everyone) go through with guards, soldiers, and others as we come and go. This applies anywhere in the city. I always wave, give a thumbs up, smile — anything that acknowledges their presence, tries to reassure them I am not all wired up with bombs, and recognizes the fact that they have the authority to let me through the potential bottleneck they are manning. Iraqis are a very friendly bunch of people and invariably they wave or smile back.
American soldiers all wear nametags that are usually quite visible even if they are wearing body armor. It is thus easy to say, “Hi Martin, howya doing today?” or “Sgt. Rodriguez, you look pretty mean this morning!” They seem to appreciate you looked at the nametag.
Recently the Georgian guards were particularly friendly the day that the President was visiting Georgia. The troops here, at least, told me they were very pleased and very proud that a U.S. president would take the time to visit their country.
The guards from all countries, and there are really very many, are uniformly very courteous, friendly, and affable. Many want me to put my hand out the window of the car to shake it. When heavy traffic slows things down, they like to practice their English on me. Some speak it remarkably well.
The Pershmerga guards in our compound are very fond of Americans. They shake hands with me every day and profess great love for George Bush. It is also a habit, at least in our company, that everyone shakes hands with everyone else in the morning. I don’t know if it happens all over
6. There has been an important positive development in Iraq. I have neither seen it nor heard it mentioned at all in Western media. Iraqi Airways started flying the other day between several major Iraqi cities. For many months IA was flying only international flights in a pretty modern fleet of passenger jets donated, I understand, by some U.S. airlines.
The importance of this development is that in theory, at least, Iraqis will once again be able to move around this country and avoid some of the dangers of road travel. It also means that it is safe enough in the vicinity of airports for commercial air traffic to take off and land. That, folks, is very important news! I will wait apprehensively to see if there are any attempts to shoot down one of these planes. I will wait patiently for the day when I see this reported in one of the many newspapers of record around the world.
7. Another thing you won’t see receiving much analysis in the press, is the state of electric power in Iraq. You do hear that nothing here works and that the power is off a good deal of the time. And that is very true.
I heard the U.S. Ambassador speak the other day and he pointed out some interesting statistics such as the fact that since the end of the war, electric power generation has increased by over 80% compared to prewar levels. That is a pretty fantastic accomplishment! And still there are blackout conditions all over the place a good deal of the time. The problem is that the Iraqi economy has started to rev up so much that electric demand has risen by nearly 100%. So, there is still a shortage of power.
In a sense, things are so good here that electric power simply can’t keep up with the demand even though it is growing at a pretty amazing rate. Since our company (through RFP’s) gets a preview of what will be happening down the road with Iraqi electrical facilities, I was telling someone the other day that one day in 2007 or 2008, all Iraqis will wake up one morning and have electric power they never dreamed possible. And, they will have the most modern electric system in the world. The reason is they started from so far back as a result of the losses caused by Saddam and the wars, that all the equipment had to be replaced. In 2008 everything here will be brand new! Pretty much the same happened in Japan and Western Europe after WWII.
8. The other day I was going to the Green Zone. The newly assigned driver, ominously, is named Osama. He is not nearly as good a driver as Khattab, who has been promoted to field inspector. An additional problem with Osama is that he speaks no English and understands even less.
We were speeding along and eventually started to pull into line about 150 yards behind a column of some five or six Humvees. One great danger to Humvees is the threat that is posed to them from behind by anyone with a weapon who can get close enough. As a result, no one is allowed to get any closer to their rear than 150 yards. On open highways they protect themselves by having the guy in the last Humvee simply aim his machine gun at anyone who gets closer than the rear gunner feels comfortable with. In the city, of course, you can’t just have the gunner spraying machine gun fire in the middle of downtown Baghdad whenever he thinks someone is too close.
The 150-yard limit is policed in a curious way. The last Humvee in the convoy, in addition to having the rearward facing machine gunner, also carries a sign that says in English and Arabic: “You are now close enough to this vehicle that the gunner can shoot at you with intent to kill! BACK OFF!!” Also within Baghdad, an Iraqi Police SUV tails the convoy exactly 150 yards back with its hazard light flashing. The secret here if you want to remain alive beyond sunset is: “Don’t pass the SUV!!”
Yesterday, as we tailed the convoy, Osama decided it was moving at a speed not to his liking. So he pulled out of line and sped up to pass the SUV. I immediately started to say to him: “Don’t pass him, don’t pass him!!!” But, my Osama does not speak English so we continued hell-bent down the road. Very, very soon we started to noticeably cut down the distance twixt the last Humvee and me.
In a situation like that, the so-called “rules of engagement” say U.S. troops are required to fire warning shots before they engage in fire “with intent to kill.”
Newspaper reporters and editors are the world’s most accomplished Monday morning quarterbacks in the “incident” they report. In our case yesterday everything, from start to finish, happened in about five to eight seconds. We continued gaining ground on the Humvees and I was now shouting “Stop!” at Osama. But Osama had obviously never been in this situation before and didn’t know the rules, so he kept giving it the gas. He just wanted to put the slow-moving convoy behind him.
The soldier in the back of the Humvee was now waving vigorously in a gesture that could only mean “Stay away!” I could not understand why he had not fired a warning shot because we were clearly close enough so that any reasonable soldier would conclude that this guy gaining on him like crazy had hostile intent.
Then he did fire….Clearly it was aimed upward. I didn’t hear it, but I saw a puff of smoke and the muzzle flash. Osama still didn’t catch on. The soldier fired another round and, perhaps a third. Suddenly, I recalled something my father told me many decades ago. “If your accelerator ever gets stuck turn off the ignition.” So I leaned over and did exactly that. The engine died and we coasted to a halt.
When we got back to the house I had some advice for Osama through a translator.
9. Today is June 6 and I arose at the usual 6:05. As I went down the stairs and looked out the window I noticed that it seemed quite foggy outside. Since the temperature was 94 degrees, I wondered to myself what kind of wacky reversal of the laws of physics could cause fog to exist at that temperature.
When I sat down at the glass topped kitchen table I realized that what I was seeing outside was not fog but a sandstorm! Iraqi sandstorms are not out of a French Foreign Legion movie. The wind doesn’t blow 80 miles an hour as we huddle behind camels. A sandstorm in these parts takes place with only a moderately stiff breeze. The sand is not the kind you find at the beach. The “grains” are so microscopically small that they have the consistency of talcum powder or confectioner’s sugar.
The reason I realized it was a sandstorm and not a foggy day came when I sat at the table and it was absolutely covered with a thick layer of dust. Everything in the kitchen was covered in it even though the windows and door were shut. The particles are so tiny they obviously move easily through joints, seams, and other invisible points of entry. Once inside a closed room, I have no idea what causes them to be wafted everywhere and be laid down in an even coat.
When I went to the room where I work I noticed the same was true. Dust covered everything. On my desktop I could see in a sharp and crisp outline of dust, a paperclip, a pair of scissors, a pad of post-it notes and several sheets of paper. The scissors looked strange because the finger holes were so clearly outlined.
When the cleaning ladies arrived the first thing they did was to throw pails of water all over the floors (they are marble) and then mopped it up. I was told once early on, to be very careful about walking on one of these floors after a sandstorm and the cleaning ladies have arrived — it is like walking on ice. The dust forms a very slippery surface when moist.
The sandstorm also has some unfortunate side effects. First, it lowers the boom on our Internet. Our connection works by means of a laser beam fired from Al Mammoom Tower to a gadget on our roof. But the laser beam doesn’t go through the dust. Without Internet we have no phones because they are Internet-based. And, we also can’t e-mail our proposals to the U.S. government so, ultimately, we won’t get paid for stuff we don’t do.
A more serious byproduct of the storm affected Ferras, one of our surveyors. His wife had a baby girl three weeks ago and, during the night they heard the baby gasping for breath. It was the sandstorm! It was not in the forecast and since the temperature outside was over 100, and they have no A/C, the window was left open. Ferras was somehow able to construct a sort of canopy over the baby’s face and head with several wire coat hangers and some fine mesh cheesecloth he found in the house. Once he erected the device he moistened the cheesecloth so the particles of dust would adhere to the cheesecloth!
Who said Iraqis are not resourceful?
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