Live from Baghdad

My adventures in Iraq.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Election Day

Well, yesterday was interesting. That was definitely the most "incoming" we've had since my arrival. Although I've been told it was nothing compared to September 12th last year when they "celebrated" 9/11. By now you've probably heard two Americans were killed and 5 wounded when a mortar hit the Embassy compound. Of course, the press always screws that one up and terrifies my wife. See, technically I live adjacent to the US Embassy. That is, I live next to the "official" embassy - a small building, probably the former home of a powerful member of Saddam's government. When the press talk about the Embassy compound, however, they are referring to the Embassy Annex also known as the "Palace". This is the sprawling former Republican Palace, seat of Saddam's government. It's about 2 miles from my compound so I'm relatively safe.

Just thought you'd like to know.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Blog Changes

A new friend is helping me spruce up this blog. You'll notice that I've archived old posts to improve download speeds. I've also added a "blog roller" on the right margin listing some of my favorite blogs. And a feature I'm sure everyone will appreciate is the new commenting system run by Haloscan - no more obnoxious "Anonymous" comments.

Iraqi Elections

My apologies for the long delay between posts. To be honest, I've been waiting for something exciting to happen but it's been quiet around here. Reported insurgent activity has been well below normal.

Of course that's all relative. According to yesterday's NY Times, in the week ending Sunday, Baghdad was hit by 7 suicide car bombings, 37 roadside bombs and 52 insurgent attacks involving automatic rifles or rocket-propelled grenades. The suicide bombs alone killed at least 60 people and injured 150 others. Now before my mom freaks out, those attacks were, by and large, targeted towards Iraqis.

Most of the Green Zone has been locked down with movements outside restricted to "Mission Critical" only and inside our protective walls we've been restricted to "Official Government Business" movement. That means no trips over to the PX. We've also been upgraded to "Uniform 3" status, meaning we're wearing our body armor and helmets anytime we're outside a building. Pulling on my bullet proof vest has become almost second-nature, like grabbing your coat on the way out of the house on a cold day. Except this coat weighs 25 pounds and is accessorized with a Kevlar helmet.


We have teams of people deployed here just for the elections. We have public affairs officers to handle all the press that have come back to Iraq now that the tsunami news cycle has worn down. We have "democracy specialists" who are in charge of everything from getting the ballots printed to voter education. I've had a few conversations recently with these specialists who have experienced elections from El Salvador to the Balkans. They are firm believers in the democratic process and believe we will have some level of success here. But like the Bush Administration, they won't define any minimum standards against which to declare a successful vote.

The one thing I will agree with them on is that this will be historic. We just have to wait and see if it will be a triumph of democracy over tyranny or a failure of imperial ideaology.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Too cool

All right, so this has nothing to do with Iraq but I had to share. And yes, I am working over here but Friday is our slow day and I was surfing the internet - so shoot me! (Oops, wrong choice of words....)

Slackline Wizard

Thursday, January 20, 2005


In an earlier post, I talked at length about the projects we are working on over here. Through infrastructure reconstruction, we hope to improve Iraqi lives to an extent that democracy can take root. That's part of the theory at least.

However, in this environment, it often seems for that every small success we have myriad well-publicized failures. A recent "Atlantic Monthly" article states, "...the war has degenerated to the extent that the construction sites have become nothing more than symbols of the despised American presence." Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. (The article is online but only available for paid subscribers at Atlantic Monthly.)

A more balance article recently appeared in the NY Times looking at USAID infrastructure projects in the southern Iraq city of Basra. Read it here. I actually visited with Tom Rhodes, the USAID representative quoted in the article, while I was in Basra last week. Tom is quoted as saying, "I think we've given the Iraqis the capacity to pump clean water, the capacity to offload grain in the port, the capacity to transmit power. Now the Iraqis themselves have to face the development war." Tom later apologized for that last metaphor, but his point was accurate. We are in the process of handing over responsibility for Iraqi infrastructure to the Iraqi government. This may be celebrated as a success back in Washington but it remains to be seen whether it will reflect a long-term improvement for the Iraqi people.

We're seeing more and more of these new and refurbished plants poorly maintained or abandoned. We have a handful of water and sewer treatment plants south of Baghdad that are completed rehabilitated but they can not be commissioned because they lack electrical power to run the pumps. In these cases, USAID and Bechtel have completed their goal without achieving their objective. The plants are in good working condition but no clean water is being pumped and sewage still flows on the streets. Yet I don't believe it's their fault, no one could have anticipated we would have less electicity on the grid than we did last summer.

Infrastructure also provides the insurgents with an attractive target. Around Basra, they regularly blow the oil pipelines that run to the port of Umm Qasr. If you stand out at the army base for awhile in the evening, you can usually spot a billowing cloud of smoke in the distance marking the most recent hit. I'm told the oil engineers are very efficient at stopping the leaks and repairing the pipes. A couple days ago, insurgents blew a hole in the pipe carrying treated drinking water to the western half of Baghdad. Most of our Iraqi colleagues have been without running water since the attack. More tragically, the infrastructure project also provide a target rich environment in terms of Iraqis willing to work for the Americans and thus considered infidels.

In the end, I believe we'll have some successes. We have a project underway that is bringing potable water to a region of Baghdad whose only source of water came directly from the putrid waters of the Tigris. We're drilling wells and installing treatment plants in rural areas of the country where until now people had to pay exorbitant rates to have bottled water delivered. And we're getting raw sewage flows off the streets. Will this be enough to effect real long-term change in the everyday lives of the Iraqi people? Time will tell, but I have my doubts.

Friday, January 14, 2005

At the Tigris Posted by Hello

The Tigris River Posted by Hello

Palace Gardens Posted by Hello

Palace Gardens Posted by Hello

Bird's Eye View of the USAID Compound

[Photo removed for OPSEC (that's "Operational Security" for you civilians!) Figured it wasn't such a great idea to post targeting information for my office trailer on the internet.]

Entrance to the US Embassy Posted by Hello

My USAid co-workers Butch, Eddie and Vince in Butch's kitchen.  Posted by Hello

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


I'm heading down to our offices in Basrah in southern Iraq for a couple days. Don't worry Mom, Basrah is the relatively safe part of the country. And I get to go drink Guiness with the Brits (if any US military personnel are reading this, I will be in full compliance with General Rule 1A - it will be non-alcoholic Guiness, promise!)

Thus, I may be out of touch until next week. I know you will all miss reading my rants and raves, but here's something far more entertaining:


The writer is a young Army lieutenant tank commander who saw action in Baquabah and recently in Falluja. War sucks and most of you know what I think of this war in general, but the thought of running over almost everything and blowing the rest of the stuff up just gives me goosebumps. My rugby teammates will understand, or at least the forwards will.

I suggest starting at the beginning by clicking on the "Archives" on the right side of the frame and read from the bottom up.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Another View

A fellow USACE employee has a great blog about his year in the Green Zone: Citizen Frank. Captain Frank Myers is an Army Reservist who was called up last summer wresting him away from his law practice, his wife and two kids. He is part of our 9-member Operations team at GRD Headquarters and he also serves as the night-duty officer, working every night shift.

I got a late-evening email from CPT Myers earlier this week with an urgent message to call him. I've never been in the military, but when an officer-in-charge asks me to do something, I jump on it. Ends up, CPT Myers is also the Information Officer for the Ops Center and is tasked with looking for news on USACE's mission in Iraq. He Googled my blog and the first entry he sees was your favorite idiot civilian reporting on US military operations! (see earlier post on USAF) He was very nice about pointing out my mistake and encouraged me to keep posting, just to use a little more common sense in the future.

I guess this is one case where it's good to know Big Brother is watching.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


I had a question from one of my loyal readers as to how much we're hearing about the tsunami and the after-effects. You have to remember that I'm living and working with USAID. These people are the Third World disaster specialists. I can already see some of them salivating at the opportunity.

Please don't get me wrong. My USAID colleagues are idealists, they followed this career path because they believe they can effect change in the world, relieve suffering, and help people escape war, famine, drought, and poverty. Very few people understand tragedy like USAID and they've all seen it a lot closer than a 30-second blurb on CNN.

However, they also know that money follows tragedies and there's a backlog of work to be done in Southeast Asia. Besides, the wiped-out beaches of Thailand sound like paradise compared to beautiful downtown Baghdad.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Rock & Roll

I don't know what's going on yet, but the US Air Force has been rocking and rolling all day long. They had F-18s (I think) flying overhead all morning and in the last 2 hours we've heard and felt at least a dozen booms. Our security says we're safe and I think it's our guys hitting something west of Baghdad.

Didn't I read something about "Mission Accomplished" about 18 months ago?


Okay, we just got an update. Apparently, there were some VBIED attacks on high-profile Iraqi VIPs (outside the IZ). I'm sure you'll hear it on CNN.

Still don't know what the jets were up to this morning. And thanks to my anonymous poster who points out that they were probably F-15s as F-18s are Navy birds.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Happy New Year

Sorry I haven't posted in awhile. Things were very quiet over the holidays, which makes a great Christmas present but lousy subject material for my blog.

One of our major responsibilities at the USAID Project Office is to coordinate with the 1st Cavalry Division who is currently in charge of the Baghdad area. The Commanding General (CG) of the 1st Cav is Major General Chiarelli who is considered one of the brightest guys over here. He believes that the only way to achieve force protection in Baghdad is to employ as many people as possible and provide basic services (i.e., clean water and electricity). Thus, he takes a personal interest in all of the infrastructure project USAID and others are doing and receives a briefing every week. This briefing is attended by over 100 people, including Ambassador Taylor (the #2 civilian in Iraq behind Negroponte), half a dozen full colonels on Chiarelli's staff, 20 or so lieutenant colonels, dozens of majors, contractors, USAID, Corps of Engineers, and, of course, yours truly!

Two days before that briefing, Chiarelli's staff holds a pre-meeting with representatives of the Corps of Enginners, USAID, and the contractors to review the information they'll present to the general. We're supposed to make any changes or updates at this meeting so the briefing goes smoothly. However, last week I had a meeting with the Deputy Mayor of Baghdad on the day in between the pre-meeting and the briefing. We discussed some changes to one of the major projects in Sadr City.

Thus, when my project came up at the General's briefing the following day, a small voice echoed from the back of the hall, "Sir, excuse me, I've got an update on this project...." I wish I could describe the feeling of abject terror as 100 pairs of eyes swung towards me. The General swiveled his chair around to face me. I stammered, "Sir, Chris Serjak from UPO, I had a meeting with Deputy Mayor Humadi yesterday and I believe we've agreed on an engineering solution to the sludge discharge problem." Silence filled the air. The General nodded, turned back to the major presenting the briefing and said, "I believe this is resolved?" The major nodded and the General said, "Carry on."