TUESDAY, JANUARY 27:
I got into the office at about 5:30 this morning. The muezzin are singing the calls to prayer at one of the nearby mosques. It’s been a busy week. The day before yesterday there was another explosion not too far away from the palace and another rocket attack the night before last. Fortunately, nothing has been as bad as the suicide car bomb that killed more than a dozen people near the “Assassin’s Gate” a few days ago.
There was no panic and confusion here after the car bomb (or after the various mortar and rocket attacks). We knew the palace itself wasn’t affected much. From what I understand, even during the rocket attacks around Christmas, people just go on with what they are doing because the [attacks] are over very quickly. If there was a major continuing attack, there are bomb shelters. The trailers we sleep in are protected by walls of concrete and sandbags.
When there is an attack, a siren goes off that sounds like movie air-raid sirens. Then a speaker system we call “Big Voice” directs everyone to “take cover.” People who are inside the palace go downstairs to the bomb shelter in the basement, then sit around for an hour waiting to hear Big Voice announce “all clear.” People who are smart bring a book to the office so they can read while sitting around in the basement. If we are in our trailers, we stay in place. If outside, we head to our trailers or one of the bomb shelters — whichever is closest.
Security for entering the actual palace building is contracted to a private company. (U.S. Marines guard the perimeter of the compound and the entry gates to the palace grounds, and conduct patrols on the inside of the compound.) The security company hires only retired British soldiers who are Gurkhas to be the door guards. When the mortar or rocket attacks happen, the Gurkhas refuse to leave the posts, and the Marines have to basically go inside to seek shelter. (The Marines have protected bunkers for their guard posts on the perimeter.)
I think I heard some mortars going off yesterday morning (it could have been our guys blowing up explosives, but they usually don’t do this at night). Other than the car bomb, I don’t have much experience being in a place that’s under attack. It’s nothing like the movies. The attacks in WWII movies are major operations with bombs dropped by planes, heavy artillery, and/or tanks. Here we just have a couple people taking potshots and hoping to get a lucky shot.
There is a guarded perimeter around the palace complex, so it is unlikely someone could get close enough to throw grenades. Multiple layers of concrete blast walls provide protection.
For security reasons, I can’t take photos of the outside of the palace. But you can find a map and photos of the palace before the war at: www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iraq/republican-cc imagery.htm. You can tell the pictures are old if they still have the giant statue of Saddam’s head on the corner of the building. When they were taken down and placed in the palace parking lot for a few days, someone put a sign on them saying, “Please don’t urinate on the statue” because Iraqis kept doing so....
The current threats are car bombs against the vehicles lined up to get inside the Green Zone or rockets or mortars fired from a mile or a couple miles away. Fortunately, with our present security posture, it’s very difficult to be accurate with rocket and mortar fires because they don’t have a chance to aim and adjust. They usually point the things in our general direction, use a timer to set them off, then run away so they don’t get killed when we shoot back.
One of the reasons the attacks on the palace have decreased over the past month is that after the Christmas attacks we knew the general area they were firing from (some date-palm orchards and farmland) and sent a couple AC-130 Spectre gunships to clear out the area. The Spectre is a four-propeller aircraft that has a couple machine guns that fire 1000 rounds of 30-millimeter bullets a minute. They can put a bullet in the middle of every square foot of a football field in a matter of seconds.
The bad guys have to resort to suicide bombers, remotely detonated bombs on the side of the road, or a few quick shots of artillery from a distance. Otherwise, they are killed before they can do much damage.
Anyway, I am safe and sound, and intend to stay that way.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 9
This morning there was a mortar attack on Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) and maybe one on the presidential palace. The palace isn’t too far from BIAP, so we’re not sure if it was a miss aiming for us or a miss aiming for the airport. But the highlight of my day was going to Camp Victory to attend a meeting in the Water Palace. It’s smaller than the Presidential Palace that I work in, but the interior is much more ornate than ours—as hard as that is to believe. It’s amazing what you can do with a couple billion dollars of other people’s money.
Apparently, most of these palaces (I think the number is 77) were built with “Oil for Food” money that Saddam was allowed to collect after the first war. The interiors rival the Czarist palaces in Russia — a dozen huge chandeliers and intricately carved and colored plaster on all the ceilings. The floors are multicolored marble and beautiful marble columns line the entryways.
We have to leave the Green Zone to get to the Water Palace, and trips outside the Green Zone require convoys of a certain size and armament, plus we have to wear our flak vests and helmets and load our weapons. Riding in a convoy outside the Green Zone is an “E-ticket Ride” (for those old enough to remember Disneyland before the single admission price). In order to reduce our exposure as a target, our convoys travel quickly, with a short distance between vehicles (my old Driver’s Ed teacher would be very upset). There is a great deal of weaving between lanes and weaving in and out of civilian traffic.
Any foreign country Americans go to, you’ll hear us complain about how people drive — jokes about “Tijuana Taxis” and such. When I was in Korea, it was pretty dangerous; it was a common occurrence to almost run into other drivers who were passing on blind corners. But Baghdad is the first place I’ve been where you see cars driving the wrong way on the freeway. I’m not talking about a rare occasion where someone accidentally went down the wrong ramp; it’s not an exaggeration when I say we encountered at least six cars heading the opposite direction on our side of the freeway during a 30-minute drive from palace to palace. I guess it’s easier than going to the next on-ramp and making a U-turn. At least they usually stay in the lane next to the median or drive on the shoulder.
The weather is still pretty nice. It drops to the low 40s — and sometimes even the 30s — at night, but the day highs are in the 60s. We had thunderstorms two days ago, and there is mud all over the place. This has been a surprise to me, because I thought everything would look like it does in Lawrence of Arabia.
In a few more months, it will be in the 100s with high humidity. Mosquitoes become a problem, and we will have to take medicine to prevent malaria. (It’s not quinine anymore, but I don’t remember what antibiotic it will be.)
One of my new projects is crop dusting. Actually, I won’t be doing it myself, but I’m drafting a plan that will allow the Iraqis to spray their date palm orchards without getting shot down. Dates are a $450-million-a-year crop, so killing the bugs is a high priority for them. Last year, it was too close to the end of the war, and the coalition prohibited spraying. The Iraqis claimed this really hurt the crop. (Although the agriculture advisors from the U.S. dispute this claim and want to wean the Iraqis away from massive pesticide spraying for environmental reasons.)
Thankfully, I don’t have to sort through the ecological and agronomic issues. I’m just addressing the military aspects of coordinating the flight patterns and times to ensure safety and security.
TUESDAY, MARCH 2
In our office inside the palace, we heard the explosion this morning — although it wasn’t quite as loud as the one caused by the car bomb near the “Assassin’s Gate” last month. From the front of the palace complex, we can also see the smoke in the distance. CNN reports that multiple explosions occurred around the same time in several locations. Although there was at least one attack in Baghdad, according to the press, the main target of the attack seems to have been the Shi’ite pilgrims in the city of Karbala (about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad).
Karbala is where Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, was killed in battle during the Seventh Century. The decision of whom to follow as Islamic leader after the death of Mohammed is the cause of the schism between the Sunni and the Shia. Hussein was the leader of the Shia branch, and the commemoration of his death is the major Shia observance called Ashura. During this year’s Ashura , over two million Shia are expected to commemorate the event over a period of 40 days, ending with Arb’aeen . During this period of time, many of the pilgrims engage in self-mutilation — a practice that was seen through photos in the western media last year during Arb’aeen. Although it’s not as dramatic as self-mutilation (which is not universally practiced during Ashura /Arb’aeen), the most common activity is spending the evenings in groups at private residences and talking about the death of Hussein and related religious topics. I suppose a similar American practice would be Bible study.
Ashura and Arb’aeen are personal and private events for the devout. Photographing them can be perceived as disrespectful. Coalition military personnel have to strike a balance between avoiding the presence of nonbelievers during the commemoration and being available to back-up Iraqi police and security forces if necessary. Some of the Iraqi leaders have said that no Coalition security is required during Ashura /Arb’aeen because they think Islamic believers would never kill one another. Many Iraqis are convinced that the attacks on Iraqis, including Iraqi police and military personnel, are committed by Coalition Forces as part of a conspiracy to maintain our presence here.
Saddam prohibited the observance of Ashura . Although the Shia form the majority of the population, they were oppressed by Saddam, and the Sunni minority held most of the power. The end of the war last year was the first time the Shia had been able to observe Arb’aeen in about 30 years. Now we are seeing the first Ashura in three decades — one of the reasons it’s expected to be exceptionally large.
A large number of pilgrims are crossing the border from Iran to participate. Although it’s hard to know what to do about them, attacks such as those of this morning were not unexpected. Yesterday, the Iraqi Governing Council announced an agreement on the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). The TAL is a temporary constitution that will govern Iraq until elections can be held and a formal constitution adopted. Although the TAL is not yet “official” (it remains to be signed), the agreement on its provisions by leaders representing a wide range of interests — including Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds — is a tremendous accomplishment.
We are on-track for Iraqi sovereignty to occur on July 1, 2004, as scheduled. Every day, we are building more capacity for the Iraqis to provide their own security, including police and armed forces. A large part of the U.S. $18 billion “supplemental” appropriation is going toward hiring, training, and equipping Iraqi police and soldiers and building police stations and military garrisons for them. As it becomes clear that Iraq has a real chance of becoming a democratic nation, the terrorists, including both foreign fighters and what we call FRE (Former Regime Elements — people who belonged to Saddam’s regime) can be expected to increase their efforts to disrupt the process of establishing a democratic Iraqi government.
We’ve already seen that many of the recent attacks have been against Iraqi troops and Iraqi police stations instead of Coalition Forces. Because the FRE want to see a return to Sunni autocratic rule, and the foreign fighters (and Iraqi extremists) want to create turmoil, the Shia pilgrims are a tempting target for terrorist attacks. However, since attacks against fellow Muslims violates Islamic law, maybe the terrorism will backfire and strengthen Iraqi cooperation and support with the Coalition.