Live from Baghdad

My adventures in Iraq.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Merry Christmas

It's not a White Christmas, it's a wet Christmas. The first real rain of the year started this morning and has not let up. We've got the day off, but there's not much to do. I opened my presents this morning (thanks Mom & Dad, Skoonpa & Skoonma, the whole Wynn family, and Susan). No attacks yet so that's the best present. Everyone reports that last Christmas was like the 4th of July. We're having a big party tonight with turkey and roast beef and all the trimmings. They're taking good care of us.

Merry Christmas to all and may there by Peace on Earth.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

In the Spirit of Giving

If you've resolved to be more giving next year or you're just looking for a tax deduction, here are two worthy causes:

1) The United Service Organizations (USO) has launched "Operation Phone Home" to provide phone cards to every soldier who wants one in time for the holidays. To send a phone card, just go to:

2) The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is one of the very few international organizations still daring to bring vital services directly to Iraqi civilians. You can make your donation to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and earmark it for Iraq, at:

The IFRC is racing to help hundreds of thousands of refugees survive the winter by providing blankets, heaters, and basic medical supplies. In the face of increased insurgent violence targeted at government schools, the Red Crescent has mounted an effort to equip every school with first aid training and basic medical supplies. They've also been charged with maintaining the rapidly growing number of orphanages in the most war-torn parts of the country.

Christmas Eve's Eve

This place can be much more peaceful than I expected. Pleasant evenings. Birds chirping. Palm trees. Beautiful sunsets.

Outside the walls, however, all is brown. Dirt and noise. Chaos.

Occassionally, that chaos intrudes upon our idyll. Always in the form of violence. The concussion of a car bomb, even one in the distance, compresses your chest. A nearby mortar round creates pressure waves that thump through your body. Small arms fire across the river is only a pop...pop...pop. Perhaps an instinctive jerk of the head, but nothing more.

After every large explosion you breathe a sigh of relief and think, "phew, I'm all right." But the next thought is that the explosion signifies that someone's life has justed ended, or more likely, several lives. It doesn't matter if they're American lives or Iraqis, everyone one of them has a family.

Peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

A Real Hero

A blog from a chaplain that was in Mosul during Tuesday's attack.

I am humbled.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Please say a prayer today asking Him to bless the families of those killed and to comfort the wounded from the rocket attack in Mosul yesterday, the deadliest single attack of the war.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Snowball's chance....

It's hailing in Baghdad today.

Does that mean it's a cold day in hell?

Friday, December 17, 2004

New New Job

Remember when I mentioned that things happen quickly around here? Well, I won't be the Power Sector Manager for very long. The current Water Sector Manager is heading to Falluja (say a prayer for him), so they're promoting me to a permanent Sector Manager. At least I can't blow things up at a water treatment plant! I'll be responsible for all the USAID water, sewer, and landfill projects in the country. I've already been to a couple of meetings with the Deputy Mayor of Baghdad and his engineering staff and will probably be meeting with the Minister of Water (similar to a Cabinet Secretary) sometime soon.

In other news, I've also been talked into extending my deployment by two months. Don't worry, I cleared it with Susan and my parents first and while they're not thrilled, they understand that I'll need that long to make a real contribution over here. My apologies to my rugby team, but I'll still be home in time for Nationals.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Ka Boom

I've had a few questions about the recent attacks on the Green Zone and, specifically, my personal safety. First, you need to put these reports in perspective. We have approximately 75 reported insurgent attacks per day in Baghdad. This figure includes everything from VBIED attacks on American convoys, to mortar attacks on outlying military camps, to small arms fire attacks on Iraqi police forces. Ninety-nine percent of these attacks occur out in the "Red Zone" (which is everything not inside the Green Zone).

The other 1% of attacks (usually one every other day) are targeted on the four-square-mile Green Zone. Occasionally, these attacks consist of mortars or rockets, usually launched from somewhere across the Tigris River. They refer to mortar attacks as IDFs or indirect fire attacks, because the insurgents literally lob shots into the air with the hope they'll come down on somebody. The mortars always come in twos as the attackers know the helicopters will come looking for them. They have just enough time to launch two mortars before they throw the launch tube in the back of a pickup and hightail it out of there. When a mortar hits, it explodes upward and outward like a fountain, so as soon as one hits you drop to the floor to avoid shrapnel. We also have concrete blast walls around all of our trailers.

Rocket attacks are a little scarier as they pack a lot more punch. However, the insurgents will typically target high-rises like the Al-Rasheed Hotel that they can aim at from a long way off. The only time a rocket attack has affected our little compound is when a rocket motor fell off as it passed over head and came crashing down in our courtyard (before I arrived here).

Lately, or at least for the last week, it seems the insurgents have switched tactics. We haven't had any mortar or rocket attacks within the Green Zone but there have been a lot more suicide car bombs or VBIEDs, including the two that hit the gates on consecutive days. There are probably thousands of Iraqis that work in the Green Zone everyday. These include day laborers, cooks, drivers, maids, and our engineers. All of these Iraqis have been cleared by security and have ID cards allowing them into the IZ. They line up at the 8 entrances to the IZ every morning. Many of them park their cars outside the gates and walk in to avoid the long lines as every vehicle is searched for explosives. It's these soft targets that the insurgents have hit recently with 20 dead Iraqis in two days.

Ironically, or perhaps tragically, these are not considered particularly successful attacks. In both cases, the bombers failed to get near American soldiers and even failed to cause a significant loss of life. According to the recent security assessments, these attacks are seen as "throw-away" attacks by the insurgents with no more purpose than to show that they haven't forgotten about the Green Zone. Of course, it also doesn't hurt that 90% of the foreign press lives in the Al Rasheed Hotel, less than a kilometer from the gate. Most of the reporters have stopped going out of the Green Zone so all they have to report on are attacks within walking distance. Thus, these relatively small incidents are your headlines.

Anyways, you can be sure that when we hear something go BOOM!, we hit the floor, slap our helmet on, and throw our flak jackets over top. And we all breathe a big sigh of relief when the "All Clear" comes over the intercom.

Friday, December 10, 2004

In the news...

Well, not me, but one of my projects was on CBS News last night. Here's the clip:

CBS News (may take a few minutes to load)

I work with the two guys from USAID interviewed in the clip and this is one of our high-profile power projects.

The Commute

My time in Iraq really started with the first convoy from Camp Victory at the Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad. It's less than 5 miles as the crow (or mortar) flies and only marginally further by car. However, the road, designated "Route Irish" by the military, has been the site of a majority of the attacks by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), vehicle bourne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), and the ever-popular suicide vehicle bourne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). (Actually, my lieutenant colonel describes them as "homicide bombers" because "suicide bomber" puts the sympathy on the attacker.)

Anyways, for the last several months, the only way to make this run is either by military convoy or by armored vehicles driven by our Private Security Detail (PSD). Most of the PSDs I've come across are Brits, Scots, Aussies, and a lot of South Africans (but I still haven't found a rugby game in the Green Zone!) I went through Fort Bliss with several American PSDs but I don't know where they're all hiding. The armored cars are typically Ford Excursions, Chevy Suburbans or Toyota Land Cruisers custom built with 3-inch thick bullet-proof windows and steel plates surrounding the passenger compartments. Every car has at least two heavily armed PSDs and every convoy has at least three vehicles. I've actually seen a couple of SUVs that look like something out of Mad Max, with steel plates welded to the outside of the doors and a guy sitting in the back with a mounted 50 cal machine gun poking out the rear window. Must be a low-rent PSD company.

Back to the airport. There were six of us scheduled to head to the Green Zone so we took 4 vehicles. Two cars with 3 passengers each and two "shooter" vehicles. You wouldn't think you could be cramped in an Excursion but with the bullet-proofing and our flak jackets and helmets, the 3 of us were a little squished. Our co-pilot gave us the pre-flight briefing and, unlike my last Southwest flight, I didn't sleep through this one. In case our PSDs were incapacitated (kind of like decapitated?), he showed us how to work the radio, the satellite phone, and the speed dial on his cell phone. He also showed us where the safety was on his AK-47. If it ever comes to that, you get one guess where I'm pointing that first shot.

With the safety briefing over, our driver shuts his door and you can watch our PSDs transform into eagle-eyed, ass-kicking commandos. Suddenly all the cool bravado and careless humor they were showing seconds ago is switched off as they turn on. As we pull out of our small compound in the middle of Camp Victory, the PSDs are already using the communication that will get us through the Red Zone: "traffic to your left" "intersection clear" "slowing for bump". The four vehicles are spaced only meters apart to reduce our profile and prevent other cars from coming between us. Thus, the lead vehicle shouts a warning when it brakes for a speed bump or a stop sign.

In just a few minutes, we clear the gate and our driver floors the accelerator. The convoy blows onto Route Irish at 70mph, bumper to bumper, with local Iraqi traffic parting like the Red Sea before us. You can see that the locals are used to these mini-tanks and dive to the side of the road. We seem to be making good progress when, to my shock and horror, I see cars driving the wrong way on a 4-lane expressway and coming straight towards us. The PSDs don't seem to panic and, as I learn later, flow of traffic and lane right-of-ways do not really translate in this country. Apparently, it's quite common to drive "kamikaze" against oncoming traffic if you're side of the highway is blocked.

As we come around a bend, we discover the reason behind all the kamikazes. A traffic accident (suprise!) has blocked the road and traffic is stalled. An idling vehicle is a target around here so we execute a tight 3-point turn and join the kamikazes. Now we're heading back the way we came against traffic at 70mph. Once again, the locals are easily swerving out of our way. We come up on a highway off-ramp or, actually, an on-ramp from the normal perspective. Doesn't seem to bother our guys as we fly up it. The lead vehicle charges into the intersection at the top and blocks traffic as we make a hard left onto an overpass. On the other side of the overpass, the lead vehicle again sprints into the intersection and barricades the traffic. We swerve into another hard left as the road dips down below the freeway.

The cars brake hard as traffic is backed up at the next intersection. We sit for what feels like an eternity but was only a heartbeat or two before the convoy dives off onto the shoulder and forces its way towards the intersection. With the traffic stacked up around us and the convoy stuck in traffic, the PSDs are noticeably agitated. They motion for Iraqi pedestrians to move away from the vehicles and point their rifles at a man that doesn't move quick enough for their tastes. I may have imagined the small sigh of relief from the PSDs as a gap in traffic let them plow through another intersection. Traffic lets up a little and we pick up speed. We make it through a few more intersections and swerve left at an on-ramp back onto Route Irish. We've made it past the traffic jam and the way ahead is clear. We pass a small bus on the side of the road, twisted and charred, the victim of an earlier IED.

A few minutes later we clear a military checkpoint and we're safely within the Green Zone. The vehicles slow to a relative crawl and the PSDs are back to their jocular selves. The guys drop us at the Corps headquarters and we thank them profusely. They get out for a smoke break as they wait for the passengers who are headed out to the airport in a few minutes. Yeah, that's what they do every day.

Four days later, the embassies decided that Route Irish was too dangerous for civilians and everyone goes by helicopter now.
From Kat,

"Sometimes I think war is God's way of teaching us geography."
--Paul Rodriguez

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Many thanks to David for sending me a link for a "how-to" on power. I actually studied this stuff at college, but I only had one class in energy production! The rest of it was all on sustainable energy and all the bad stuff that came from power plants. (And some of you know about my great attendance record!) Oh well, looks like I get an accelerated class.

Monday, December 06, 2004

New Job

The US Army Corps of Engineers is opening a Resident Office in Falluja. Wonder if I should apply?

Nah, just kidding. Actually, I just got a promotion. Thank you, thank you. I am the new Power Sector manager for the Corps of Engineers USAID Project Office (same place I am now). But now instead of just worrying about Baghdad, I'm responsible for power projects across the whole damn country. Actually, it's just an interim assignment - the resident manager leaves in a couple weeks and his long-term replacement won't be here until after the new year. But in the meantime, I get to see how much I can screw things up. Do I know anything about power generation or distribution? Let me think....nope! Oh well, the first thing you learn in Iraq is that whatever you're doing today won't be what you're doing tomorrow.

Interesting website

For a daily update on Iraq Reconstruction projects, check out the homepage for the US Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region District:

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Iraq Geography Lesson

I thought it might be useful to get my loyal readers geographically oriented so they can follow some of my future stories. This will be quick and painless, I promise.

Baghdad is roughly in the center of Iraq and right in the middle of a floodplain formed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This area is also known as the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia, and the birthplace of civilization. (It's rumored that the neighborhood has recently gone downhill, but we're working on it!) Mosul is situated in the more mountainous north and Basra sits near the Persian Gulf in the south. In the Baghdad region, Falluja is located about 20 miles to the west and Hillah, Karbala, and Najaf (the "Triangle of Death" according to the media) is located about 60 miles south.

The city of Baghdad is set up much like Los Angeles or other large cities with several cities or distinct neighborhoods within the metropolitan area. The International Zone (IZ) or "Green Zone" is a 4 square mile area located in the middle of the city on the west bank of the Tigris River. Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) lies about 15 miles west of the IZ and is accessed by the BIAP Road, also known by its military designation as Route Irish (more on this later). Just north of the airport is Abu Ghraib, site of the infamous prison. The Sadr City slum is located in the northeast part of the city on the other side of the Tigris. Sadr City was built for 450,000 people but is now pushing 2 million, mostly due to in-migration by Shiite Muslims displaced when Saddam drained the southern marshes, as discussed in my last blog. The district is one of the poorest in Baghdad. It is also a haven for criminals released from Iraqi prisons by Saddam shortly before the invasion.

You can find a great description of the IZ at Sorry, I haven't figured out how to publish links on this blog. Anyways, it's the “Ultimate Gated Community” with armed checkpoints, coils of razor wire, chain link fences, and the fact it is surrounded by “T-Walls” (12-foot high reinforced and blast-proof concrete slabs). Within the Zone, there are dozens of "compounds", each occupied by either a military unit, an embassy, another government agency, contractors, or security firms. Each of these compounds is secured by more T-walls and private guards.

I'm living and working on the USAID compound, which consists of about 85 1-bedroom "hard houses" (brick and mortar construction), 30 "trailers", and a mess hall. I live in a trailer ("You might be a redneck..."), which is actually a ConEx (or shipping container) converted into living quarters. The trailer is divided into 2 rooms or "hooches", each with their own bathroom. They're actually pretty nice, laminated wood floors, queen size bed, dresser, TV with satellite, and as stereo. I'm supposed to get a DVD player as soon as some more come in. The trailers are all surrounded by blast walls to protect against shrapnel from a mortar or rocket attack. Of course, it doesn't do much against a direct hit from above but nothing short of several inches of concrete helps in that case.

I'm also working in a trailer, which is set up like any office with cubicles and office furniture. I'm sharing my office with my boss and our Iraqi Admin Assistant. More on that later.

So that's a quick primer on my geography. As always, feel free to ask questions (of course, I'll mock you if they're stupid.) Next up, Iraqi Security (yeah, that's an oxymoron.)

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Baghdad coat check (you should see the valet!) Posted by Hello

General Bostick, the head of US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Gulf Region District (aka the "big boss") Posted by Hello

Lt. Colonel Caraway (my boss) overseeing my "Hail and Farewell" Posted by Hello

Thursday, December 02, 2004

And you complain about your job?? The current sewage system in Baghdad. Posted by Hello

And this is where it all happens - my office! Note the cement "blast walls" surrounding it. Posted by Hello

You've all heard a lot about the Green Zone Café. Here is a picture of the reconstruction thereof. The sign reads: "Green Zone Café reopening November 6, 2004 - Carry out only" Posted by Hello

This view of the five-star dining facility was taken from my office. Posted by Hello


I'd like to clarify a few things regarding my last post. First of all, I'm NOT the Second-in-Command of the US reconstruction effort. I know this disappoints my parents and lets the rest of you breathe a huge sigh of relief. However, there's an Ambassador, a couple of generals, and several dozen colonels who would probably take offense at that implication.

I've also received some questions from many of you (okay, just one of you, but I like her so here's the answers).

* Does Iraqi electricity all come from oil or does any of it come from solar energy (or other renewable sources)?

Most, if not all, Iraqi electricity comes from oil. Generally, diesel powered thermal plants (i.e., steam driven generators). The newer plants, including the ones we're building, will be more efficient turbine-powered generators (like a jet engine). We are also studying the possibility of developing the natural gas fields east of Baghdad for use in power generation. Natural gas is much cleaner than diesel or turbine driven plants, so hopefully this is the future. Personally, I'd love to see some of these millions of dollars go towards providing every Iraqi household with a solar panel. Afterall, in addition to oil, sunshine is one thing Iraq has plenty of. The most vulnerable part of the electrical grid isn't the production (we'll get that fixed eventually) but the transmission. Two guys with acetylene torches can knock down a transmission tower in a manner of minutes. If every house was topped with a solar panel, that problem would go away. Unfortunately, Iraq also "blessed" with another thing in abundance, dust. Even a thin layer cuts the efficiency of a solar panel.

* While the rebuilding is a high priority and it sounds like it will progress very rapidly, what kinds of programs are being implemented to protect the existing natural resources?

As I'm sure everyone can guess, US environmental policies don't really apply over here. That being said, we have to conduct environmental assessments of all of our projects. Some cynics have suggested that the reason for this is to protect the US from future environmental liability by showing how messed up things are already. However, we are trying to instill an institutional awareness of environmental stewardship by showing the Iraqis how to contain spills at construction sites, report contamination, and consider the environmental effects of projects. It's working so well that we're running into problems siting a new landfill because the Ministry of the Environment won't let us put it anywhere near Sadr City (which raises it's own problems because if you put it way out in the desert, it becomes too expensive to haul the wastes.)

In addition, many of our projects are intended to protect or restore natural resources. The objective of our wastewater treatment program is to provide safe drinking water for the Iraqi people, however, it will have the ancillary benefit of cleaning up the Tigris and hopefully restoring some of the natural ecological functions of the river. In southern Iraq, there is a big project to restore the Tigris and Euphrates delta, a huge wetland that may be site of the Garden of Eden. This area supports a large fishing industry and a way of life for an Iraqi subgroup. These people rose up against Saddam after Gulf War I but because UN truce did not restrict helicopter flights, he was able to suppress the uprising. To punish these people, Saddam drained the marshes by diverting the river flow, effectivley destroying their way of life. Many of these people have since become refugees and fled to the cities where they join the Mahdi Army who are now anti-US. The hope is that if we can restore the marsh, the people will return, and stop shooting at us.

* Aside from "handing shovels" to Iraqi people, are there any efforts being undertaken to educate people about such things as running a power plant efficiently, keeping water clean, etc.?

Training is a major part of everyone of the reconstruction contracts. We are sending Iraqi engineers throughout the Middle East for training and to Europe and the US to meet with equipment manufacturers and universities. We are even constructing a Technical University in southern Iraq that will be staffed by Iraqis but supported by specialists from around the world.

Hope that answers your questions. I realize there's lots of rah-rah stuff in there, but for those of you that know me well, you know I'm an optimist (no that's not a guy that sells you eyeglasses). There's a lot of well-meaning people over here and we're trying to move things in the right direction. The US made a lot of mistakes after the invasion, but we are learning and applying those lessons everyday.

More pictures coming!