May 03, 2005

The Green Zone is for conquering and unconquering only

Insurgent mortars hit LSA Anaconda on a daily basis. (Don't worry, it's an enormous base, the chance of actually getting hit by one is astronomically small.) The other night a barrage of about half a dozen hit maybe half a mile away from me, waking me up even though they weren't loud - there's something about that crrrrump that kicks you into wakefulness. I went back to sleep, was rewoken by the red alert siren, and went back to sleep again, as did almost everyone else in the tent; you're supposed to find a hardened bunker for the duration of the red alert, if you're on active duty, but nobody here takes the siren seriously. It's the boy that cried Mortar. Here it goes again, as I type.

Word is that one shell smacked into a shower trailer in which a soldier was showering. Fortunately for him it a) missed his stall and b) failed to explode. No word on whether the hot water was interrupted, or on whether he dried and dressed before leaving.

Last night a strong dusty wind turned into a full-on storm. It rained mud; the wind had kicked the dust up into the air, and the raindrops brought it back down. The storm grew so strong that main billeting tent (not where you sleep, but where you check in / watch TV / eat / get books / make phone calls / read Internet) half-collapsed and had to be rebuilt this morning. The walls of my tent whipped back and forth, the wooden doors slammed open and shut, and outside the wind howled and the mud spattered down.

The Green Zone is a very weird place. It's a vast patch of prime Baghdad real estate, a collection of palaces, embassies, stadia, huge decorated archways, hotels and government buildings, all tucked into an arm of the Tigris River. Not that you can see the river much. The huge, continuous wall of twelve-foot high concrete topped by an endless cylinder of DNA-like concertina wire sees to that. This entire city district has been sealed off, interrupted only by a dozen or so checkpoints.

Within is the downtown of a poor-but-not-too-poor city - wide streets, uneven cobblestoned sidewalks, and vast tyrant-ego-stroking architecture - turned into a paranoid armed camp. Especially in the district where I arrived. All the roads here are lined by more concrete-barrier walls. Another wall surrounds the helipad. The streets, parking lots, helipad, PX entrance, and compound entrances are watched by heavily armed Gurkha sentries, and believe me, a tougher-looking bunch of hombres you never did see. Smaller concrete barriers, sandbagged, block traffic. Lines of armoured Humvees with machine-gun turrets are parked on the street. Concertina wire is everywhere; in places you have to watch where you're going just walking down the road, to avoid a dangling strand. And the piece de paranoid resistance is the US Embassy, once Saddam's presidential palace, now guarded by Gurkhas, Marines, walls, cameras, and presumably every other form of defence known to mankind. I tried but failed to gain access; you need an active-duty DoD badge or a yellow embassy badge.

Lots of people wear yellow embassy badges. Almost all of them are white, American, thirtysomething, trickling in and out of the embassy to the nearby minibus stop (like Balad, the Green Zone is serviced by KBR-operated shuttle buses with Filipino or Iraqi drivers), the PX, or the Chinese restaurant. Yes, there is a Chinese restaurant, reopened after a bombing last year. Past a huge half-bombed-out palace that is now a military base, along a sidewalk demarcated by barriers and concertina wire, past a checkpoint and a shuttle bus stop and Gurkha-guarded compound entrances, then to your left, at the CHINESE RESTAURANT sign that looks like graffiti, through the cloud of Iraqi kids trying to sell you bootleg CDs, along a very narrow path with another huge concrete barrier to your right and property walls to your left - and that's even more surreal, backyards leading to moderate-sized houses in the midst of all this military security - and about a hundred feet in, in the shell of what was once a nice house, a nice Chinese family serves you food on wooden chairs and tables, indoor and out. The hot and sour soup was surprisingly very good. The vegetable fried rice was, not surprisingly, not.

I mentioned compounds: there are several, each of which have their own walls and wire and security. The embassy is the ne compound ultra, then there's a PCO (contracting office) compound, another for the State Department, another for the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party?), plus the military minibases in the Zone if they count, and the biggest compounds of all, Kellogg Brown and Root, a division of Halliburton, who run the actual infrastructure of the Zone just as they do at Balad. There are 6,000 KBR employees in Balad and probably a comparable number in the Zone. The running joke is "KBR invaded Iraq; America just came along for the ride."

There are very few Iraqis in this 'downtown' embassy-compounds-helipad area. The ratio of military to civilian is something like 1:1. Some of the civilians look like civil servants anywhere. Some of them carry weapons and wear armour. Mercenary groups such as Blackwater have a significant presence here in Iraq, employed by private companies or sometimes, I think, by the US government directly. I'm not sure if the Gurkhas are mercenaries or part of the 'Multi-National Force'.

The parking lot outside the PX is like an SUV dealership - an armoured SUV dealership, with a sideline in Humvees. It seems that only Iraqis drive sedans. Past the embassy-compounds-helipad area, the Green Zone opens up a little and starts looking like a city again, one with wide two-lane roads and apartment buildings, although it's still mostly given over to government buildings and hotels - I was denied access to the Al-Rasheem, to my dismay. Note that in a five-hour visit I only managed to visit the places the buses take you, which is maybe half the Zone.

Some of the old walls are bullet-scarred. A huge archway covered by a massive golden dome spans the road at one point. Highways lead off into unexplored parts of the Zone. The roads are busy but the sidewalks nearly deserted. A couple of sidewalk stands sell Coke, cigarettes, DVDs, grilled kebab meat. I traded a dollar for a thousand dinars at one, and was offered whiskey in a hushed voice. I rode in a bus empty except for the driver, and later, in a bus where I was the only non-Iraqi; I'm embarrassed to say that both experiences were slightly nervous-making. The Iraqis were friendly, and laughed and joked with one another. Mostly men, a few women, two middle-aged with dyed hair, one young, very pretty, and heavily made up, dressed all in black with a hijab.

A friendly Scotsman I rode with explained that there are still 12,000 Iraqis who live within the Zone, and as a result only the compounds, whose denizens live and work inside, are truly secure; the Zone itself is only quasi-secure. Being ex-British military, who fought in Gulf War I, he also had harsh words about the unprofessional military incompetence of the insurgents. "I'm from John O'Groats," he said. "Isn't that the end of the world?" I asked. (John O'Groats is the northernmost habitation on the British mainland.) "No, sonny," he said without missing a beat, "this is."

May 02, 2005

black hawk up

Objectively, a day trip from Balad to the Green Zone involves very little actual risk. Subjectively is a whole other story. Typically, I was nervous up to the moment that I actually sat down in the outgoing Blackhawk; then I started to grin.

It didn't help that the two passengers I flew out with were Airborne doctors who chatted breezily during the preflight about their recent patients; a "star cluster to the face" (don't know what that is, but it sounds nasty) and a piece of shrapnel that lodged on the inside of the victim's skull (without any brain damage). They talked wistfully about the "freedom birds", the airplanes that fly from Balad back to America, and the sad fact that they weren't on one.

To fly a Blackhawk from Balad, you sign up at the space-available tent, and at your appointed hour a minibus takes you out to the flight line, where dozens of helicopters, mostly Blackhawks and two-rotored Chinooks, await. After grisly conversation you climb in.

There isn't quite enough room to stand. The door gunners sit on padded seats behind the cockpit; a machine gun is mounted on a flexible arm in the open window in front of each them. The space between them is occupied by a rugged military laptop, from which various cables and wires run. Flaps and panels in the ceiling keep storage niches covered. Everything is painted black. Behind the door gunners are three forward-facing seats; behind that are two benches of five seats, facing one another. The seats are canvas and metal pipe, and the belt buckle is circular, with three apertures, for the side and two shoulder straps; to release, you twist its propellor-shaped top. The main doors slide open and shut, and are windowed.

They turn on the laptop first, which I found surprising. Its screen is touch-sensitive and seems to display some kind of map. Then the power, this sounds like an aircraft engine coming alive, and then the rotors start to turn, like fifteen-foot knife blades with the sharp edge away from the rotation direction, the last foot or so of each rotor bent back about thirty degrees, forming a vaguely swastika shape. A few slow rotations, then whop, whop, whopwhopwhopwhopwhopwhop and you better have your earplugs in by now because Blackhawks are VERY LOUD.

Taxi out onto the runway; hop up, then down again, standard procedure for some reason, in sync with the other Blackhawk next to you (they almost always travel in buddy-system pairs) and then up you go, like an angled elevator, the ground falls away. But not too far. They fly about 50-100 feet above the ground, at circa 240 miles per hour. It's 20 minutes from Balad to Baghdad.

From the air Balad/LSA Anaconda looks like a child's sandbox full of military toys. The area outside is much greener, a patchwork of farming fields fissured with canals and pocked with clusters of palm trees. Then villages, big L-shaped concrete blocks and crude brick buildings with thatch/mud roofs. Roads, smooth and modern, well-trafficked. Herds of goats flee from the helicopter noise. Lots of people wave; some keep their arms lowered and stare; some just ignore us1. We cross over wide muddy rivers, vast barren brown patches, more roads, towns, farmland. Not a lot of variety except that the size of the villages increases. On the way back, it was nearing sunset, and I could see street lights in the larger towns, fluorescent tubes mounted on hockey-stick-shaped poles.

A Blackhawk is a remarkably smooth ride. The whole aircraft vibrates, but it's a kind of soothing white-noise vibration rather than anything jarring. Both flights did feature a couple of sudden heart-pumping lurches though. On the way there we repeatedly banked sharply, sometimes by what felt like as much as 45 degrees (but was probably more like 30). I presumed it was SOP to do this, a kind of evasive action, but the flight back was pretty much a straight and level shot. I guess each flight crew has its quirks.

The ride itself is absolutely exhilirating, landscape zooming past and disappearing under you, like a dream of flying.

On the way out, one door gunner had a bag full of little Tyco stuffed horses, the size of my hand, white with a brown mane, beneath his seat. He placed one stuffed horse in the turret mount in front of him, presumably as a mascot. Midway there, as we flew over a village, he dropped another one out. A gift to Iraq? A sacrifice to propitiate Lady Luck?

On the way there we spent hardly any time over Baghdad, all I saw was a sea of buildings, a busy traffic-jammed highway, then bridges over the wide Tigris, and we were already descending into the Green Zone. The descent takes about five seconds; the landing is gentle, bumpless. On the way back, we spent more time over the city, flying from the palaces of the Green Zone, across commercial streets and areas full of entirely built-up two- and three-story buildings on palm-tree-lined houses, drab and sprawling, a bit like a characterless suburb of Cairo except not as built up. Beyond that were the inevitable shantytowns, one-story shacks, slums smeared across miles - Sadr City, I suppose. Fabulous and exotic, it wasn't. I can't imagine there'd be much reason to come to Baghdad if you hadn't convinced yourself you needed to conquer it.

1Yeah, I know, jarring perspective shift. It's a blog, whaddayawant?

May 01, 2005

Rock the casbah

More incoherent notes:

I'm staying in a billeting tent, which is a tent dormitory with 18 cots, a few Porta-Johns nearby, and some showers and actual toilets a further walk away. Don't misinterpret "tent" - this one has wooden floors, fluorescent lights, two massive air-conditioning units, and a 15-foot-high ceiling. "The only things the army are really good at are erecting tents and lining things up in neat rows." (Presumably they're at least competent at the actual warfighting as well. And their engineers are well respected.) There are 28 such tents in the billeting area, plus a central check-in tent that features another huge TV, a small library, and the internet/phone center from which I now type. Backpacking is actually amusingly good training for living at a military base.

There are plenty of bugs, kind of surprising for an alleged desert. (Though there is a nearby canal, and fields of green weeds grow outside the fence.) I showered late, night before last, and there were sand fleas everywhere. The odd mosquito too. At night, driving along Pennsylvania Avenue, you can see surging clouds of bugs and moths flocking to every candy-cane-shaped streetlight.

It's still easy to get lost, since there are few unique landmarks. Fortunately there are bus stops everywhere, most of which have posted bus maps.

Several times yesterday I asked soldiers how long they'd been here, and they answered with how much time they have left. Most seem to be from the South or the Midwest. One of them said "It's changed a lot since the first time." This is his second tour. Last time his unit was living in bombed-out buildings and doing laundry by hand; now they have access to pools, gyms, vast recreation facilities, cooked food every night, etc.

The food ranges from unremarkable to excellent. Dinner night before last was (good) steak, lobster, and king crab legs. Unfortunately I didn't take my hosts' warning re the spikiness of the crab legs seriously, and impaled my thumb on a thornlike shell protrusion. Yes, that's right, I went to Iraq and was wounded by shellfish. Do I qualify for a Purple Heart?

Went to the gym yesterday. It's one of the huge (40-foot-high ceiling, football-field length) circus-type ovoid tents, just past the indoor/outdoor pool complex. Except for the lack of changing facilities, it's one of the nicest gyms I've ever been in. There's a basketball court, an indoor racquetball court, tons of free weights and cardio equipment, a sit-up room, an aerobics/martial arts room, all heavily air conditioned, of course. The red alert siren sounded partway through my workout. Mortar strike somewhere on base, presumably. No one heard its thin wail, obscured as it was by that Destiny's Child "I Need A Soldier" song, until the music stopped and a sergeant shouted at us all to go to the perimeter of the building and sit with our backs to the wall. This is the new red-alert procedure; the old one was to evacuate the building immediately. We sat for about twenty minutes, united by boredom, until the all-clear sounded.

Most of the actual infrastructure - power, water, roads, sewage, DFACs, etc - is contracted out, and most of the contracts go to KBR. Presumably building a military base isn't all that different from building an oil drilling compound. KBR in turn subcontracts much of the actual work to (judging from their staff) Turkish, Filipino, or Indian/Sri Lankan companies. The last group isn't that surprising - there's a long history of people from the subcontinent coming to the Gulf to make their fortune and support their families.

The non-military Turks, Filipinos, and Indians are known as TCNs (Third Country Nationals) and are treated with some...not suspicion, exactly, but lack of equality. Iraqis, none of whom I've actually seen yet, are LNs (Local Nationals) and divided into Escort Required and No Escort Required. TCNs also run the local bazaar, where you can buy leather jackets(!), brass lamps, carpets, toiletries, clothes, etc. The bazaar is pretty devoid of shoppers. I feel a certain kinship with the TCNs; after all, technically, I am one myself, though I strongly doubt a Sri Lankan could wander around the base like I do without at least occasionally being challenged.

Most soldiers choose to wear their PT (Physical Training) gear, black shorts and gray T-shirts, rather than their DCUs (Desert Camouflage Uniforms). Half of them still carry guns, pistols in strapped-on thigh holsters, or various flavours of assault rifles. It's a little bizarre being at the PX and seeing a woman carrying a shopping bag with an M-16 slung over her shoulder. There are "clearing barrels", basically triangular wooden blocks in which are emplaced barrels lined with sandbags, outside most buildings, into which guns must be pointed while cleared for fear of an accidental discharge. I'm not sure why they're so heavily armed - I've only been here two days, but I can confidently say that a firefight is not going to erupt in LSA Anaconda anytime soon. Maybe they're worried about the Iraqi National Guard unit going rogue or something.

"Freedom Radio" plays on the gym and occasionally in cars; a weird mix of rock, country, paeans to the fallen and the decorated, and exhortations to keep up the good fight, call your family, check with your chaplain if you're stressed, and not lose your ID card, along with lectures on how to recognize an IED. (Classic Orwellian milspeak. "VIED" sounds so much more clinical and innocuous than, say, "car bomb".) TV antennas pick up Armed Forces Network channels. There are also Arabic radio stations, mostly devoid of music. The first song played by Armed Forces Radio when Operation Desert Storm began in '91 was, famously the Clash's "Rock The Casbah". There is no longer any sign of that irreverent humour.

Last night, sitting with one of my hosts atop an E-shaped truck-parking bunker (with steep inward-sloping concrete, but exterior slopes gentle enough to walk on) watching the sun set spectacularly over the base, there was a GI sitting on the middle branch of the E with a lit candle, a Tarot deck, and a knife, performing some kind of pagan ritual. And I thought the place couldn't get any more surreal. Except it isn't; I've been here all of 48 hours and living on an Iraqi military base already seems perfectly normal. One thing about us homo sapiens, we adapt real good.