Blog - February 2005

In January, 2005, Peter embarked on a one-year trip to Iraq as a contractor, beginning with a training session in Washington, D. C. This is an informal blog of his training and experience in Iraq.
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Blogging in Baghdad to a high security beat

After being trained how to stay alive in Baghdad, I proceeded to Iraq by way of Jordan. There was a week intervening in Amman. My arrival was so inauspicious that the security guard who was supposed to meet me at the airport upon my arrival at about 2:30 a.m. didn’t show, so after fruitlessly looking around the airport for someone holding a sign saying “Dr. Bearse,” “Mr. Peter” or “USAID,” I hopped into a cab to get to the Amman Sheraton, where I supposedly had a room reserved, only then to find no reservation, either. So they stuck me in a room that was too rich for my blood but, what the hell, poor me -- a night of luxury for consolation. I could have stayed in the bathroom if they had given me a mattress; it was that big. Trouble is, the fact that no one from the security side of our project was there to meet and greet made me wonder how much I could depend on “the security side.”

One of my colleagues recommended that I take time to get out of the hotel and walk around: this would be the last casual walking-around opportunity we would have for a long time. Boy, was he right. I managed only one walk, though, with one of my project teammates, an American citizen who lives in Luxor, Egypt, where he has an art gallery. Together we ventured out to size up the offerings at a Jordanian gallery several blocks from the our Amman hotel. I liked the wood carvings and ceramics; he liked several paintings. It was the beginning of an a brief friendship.

Jordan is an overwhelmingly (90%) Muslim country, with the remaining percent Christian. If you leave your window open and like to wake up early, you will find yourself inspired by a rising chorus of chants from the minarets where Mullahs perch to intone morning prayers. No fugal pattern of Bach, these waves of sound that rise and fall over the city.

As is well known, taxi drivers in all countries are among the most interesting people to talk to. The one who drove me from the airport was a Christian named Moses. I didn’t ask him whether he was Old Testament or New. At 29, he was younger than Old but nevertheless had something to say about Biblical sites in Jordan. These do not include the spot where his namesake stood to receive the tablets, but some claim Jordan contains the Genesis site, the Garden of Eden.

Genesis shares the same root as genital. Be that as it may, it is the site where the original first couple discovered their genitals, where the endless series of “begets” and “begats” that run through Genesis presumably had their beginning. That fucking apple tree, destroying the pristine innocence of Eden! I forgot to ask where’s the “Methuselah tree.” There is one somewhere, perhaps older than the tree’s Biblical namesake.

Beware of the Sheraton Amman el Rashid. It’s a fine hotel but they charge you for everything under the sun. Like some hairshirt international consultants, I was trying to tank up at breakfast and make a sandwich to take out for later. This culinary strategy has the dual advantage of keeping to one’s diet and making money off one’s “per diem” allowance. Then I discovered that the free happy hour was only "free" if you were paying top dollar for an already pricey, upscale room on an upper floor in “The Towers.” After seeing my first laundry bill, I felt like washing my underwear in the bathtub. The U.S. Government (meaning you, taxpayer) was paying the bill, but being an old Yankee tightwad, I've never felt right paying steep prices, no matter who is picking up the tab. I switched to a less expensive, room in terms of both floor level and price. It was actually a better room. So much for price as a marker of quality.

Amman and its residents are quite westernized. Some people came into the hotel wearing traditional Arab garb, but not many. The Jordanians we met were quite friendly to Americans. Smiling faces of the late King Hussein and his son, the young King Abdullah, adorned the airport and other public places. The Jordanian Parliament is supposedly weak and pliant vis a vis the power of the royal family but the royal family is well liked and seems to be trying to turn Jordan into a more democratic kingdom. The king is handsome and amiable; he has a beautiful, trophy wife who just bore him a second son, named “Hashem” after the Hashemite Kingdom which the royal family represents. One could say that the wife has a trophy husband. Trophic?

One Thursday evening at the hotel I came upon a wedding party gathering. The slap, slap, thump and resonant rhythm of two drummers started to sound along with a bagpipe. The men formed two columns, clapping, then dancing with wild abandon with each other, every which way, of variations in a circle in front of a couple that looked like a pair of statuary, the woman beautiful, the young man handsome. The stiff groom was drawn into the circle of men dancing while his bride looked on. The drumming grew insistently strident and louder. The whole ensemble – drummers, bagpiper, dancers and couple, moved slowly but steadily down the front isle of the hotel as if the wild circle of dancers had a center of gravity that pulled everyone else along even as the circle cycled within the defile formed by flanking friends. I wanted to do my African cheer but thought it best just to look on, listen and be as silent, like the women. As the staccato beat of the drums rose and the bagpipe went on with its offbeat tune, a wave of feeling passed over me--an odd mix of sad and glad. I was happy for the bride and groom – what a joyous occasion. with so many friends and relatives clapping, singing and dancing! I was caught up in the infectious mood of gaiety, but saddened by remembrance. Such a wonderful public celebration had never accompanied any of my marriages.

The week-long interregnum in Amman was not wasted. I managed to meet with most of the component managers for our Private Sector Development and Employment Generation Project in Iraq. The Project has nine components, and there would be much to learn. I used work time in the hotel to get myself up to speed on its numerous facets so I could hit the ground running upon my arrival in Baghdad. Others had already long been at work on their own components, from several weeks to three months. One disappointment during this week was not having an opportunity to meet with the head of the Project, the so-called "Chief of Party."

Our arrival in Baghdad was very different from the arrival in Amman. We were met by a virtual armada – a convoy of armored SUV’s accompanied by an average of at least two armed and armored guards per SUV. As we emerged from customs, we found that we arrivals needed to be armored, too. A suit of body armor and a helmet were handed to each of us. No ifs, ands or buts – put them on right away! Once underway, our PSD (private security detail) decided that we’d better divert off the dangerous airport road to “Camp America,” a military base more or less on the way to Baghdad where we could shop at the PX if we wished. There, I got my first sense of what it is like to be in a war zone. American troops, both men and women, were all around us, milling about and climbing in and out of armored Humvees with machine gun placements atop. The parking lot around the PX contained a number of jeeps and APCs (armored personnel carriers) bristling with guns, as well. The PX itself was like a militarized Walmart. I got a valentine and a can of nuts.

Our convoy was typical -- one SUV up front with two or three armed guards “riding shotgun;” one or two in the middle with unarmed (but armored) passengers, plus two armed guards per vehicle, and one bringing up the rear with another two or three guards.

I remembered what we'd been taught during training, and looked constantly out the back window to make sure the rear-guard vehicle was still with us--that no other vehicle, possibly a suicide car bomber, had intervened. After a while, I noticed how the SUV drivers drove so as to prevent other vehicles from wedging their way in. They drove smartly and aggressively so as to cut off anyone who would get in their way, get too close, or get in between any of our SUV's.

Finally, with great relief, we arrived at our Project's compound without incident. We were fortunate. IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are frequently detonated along the airport road, resulting in death or in dire injury, and in fact I learned only after my arrival something that might have led me to stay at home, had I heard it earlier: one of the Project’s vehicles had been shot up (fortunately without harm to the occupants), and four consultants from the team of another, related project had been killed.

Our “security training” had already led me to feel insecure. When I was told that the security “detail” guarding our compound was an odd mix of Angolans, South Africans and Gurkhas,my doubts began to escalate. I really began to wonder. But during my first 7-10 days, as I began to get acquainted with several members of the security team, my confidence in them steadily rose. They knew their stuff, and there were 110 of them for about 26-30 of us – quite a ratio, about 4:1. Angolans were on the roof to watch for snipers. There were several guards at each entry point to the compound and at least one guard per point of entry to buildings within. You couldn’t move within the compound without your identity tags, and you couldn’t go anywhere outside of the compound without 24-48 hours advance notice and several guards to accompany you. The American Ambassador never left the “Green Zone” without a dozen guards. We were in the Red Zone, outside of the more secure and better known Green Zone.

More Blog Entries
December 4, 2005 - May 19, 2006 - A Run for Congress in 2006?
December 3, 2005 - ALTERNATIVES to the BUSH43 STRATEGY ON IRAQ
June 12, 2005 - On Bill Clinton
June 7-12, 2005 - On ?Social Class?
June 7, 2005 - Washington State Governor
June 1, 2005 - The European Constitution and Democracy
February 2005 - Blogging in Baghdad to a high security beat
January 21, 2005 - Security Training Prior to Departure for Iraq
Jan. 19th to 28th - Highlights of training by the Department of State (DS)