June 24, 2009

To embed or not to embed?

Unless you have a kidnap or death wish, there's only one answer to the question for a reporter covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You embed.

The question arose again this week because the U.S. Army's 1st Cav in Mosul barred a Stars & Stripes reporter from embedding with one of its units in that still hinky northern city.  Military flacks justified the disbarment by citing a March story from the reporter that "refused to highlight" what amounted to good news the Army was doing in Mosul.  They also said he "behaved unprofessionally" and wouldn't answer questions about stories he was writing.

Stripes denied all the allegations and said its reporter's stories from Mosul had been accurate and fair.  Its editorial director said the newspaper "would not tolerate the Army's attempts to control it."

Banning a Stripes reporter is semi-pardoxical, since the newspaper, although independent, gets $10 million a year or so from the Pentagon.  It's widely read by the troops in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. 

Some ideological purists from both the left and right galaxies of the blogosphere have long criticized the embed system, arguing that reporters won't write nasty stories about guys whose M4s are protecting them on bang-bang missions.  Or that they'll write only about the atrocities they witness (or make up)once they're safely back in their hotel rooms.

This is of more than passing interest here because I'm due to start an embed Saturday.  It will be for four days with an infantry outfit withdrwing from suburban Baghdad.  Hope to do one or two more while I'm here. I was also embedded last year for 10 days in Kirkuk with the 10th Mountain Division. 

And an argument could be made that I was one of the first embeds--before the system itself was invented in the mid-'90s by a group of hacks and military flacks--when I rode into Iraq from Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War.  The pool system used in that war created the embed system because the pool arrangements sucked for everybody.  Reporters were tethered to public affairs officers who babysat them, and all our reports had to go through a clearing house (censor's bureau) in Dharhan.  And the military suffered too because little of the heroism and ingenuity on display by American combatants was ever seen or recorded for the folks back home.

In the runup to Desert Storm, Maj. Randy Riggins, executive officer of the 37th Engineer Battalion out of Fort Bragg, simply told my PAO puke that there wasn't room in his Humvee for him and that he, the ranking officer, would be responsible for me.  So off I drove with the combat engineers, unminded by this bank clerk activated from the reserves as a captain. We were sandwiched between a French Foreign Legion outfit and the 82nd Airborne.  We wandered around southern Iraq till the 100-hour war ended.

My embed last year was successful for both McClatchy and for the 10th Mountain Division.  I linked up with some public affairs officers and enlisted personnel who knew what the hell they were doing.  Capt. Bruce Drake, for example, is a 'Mustang,' a former enlisted man who became an officer; even cooler, as an EM he was a Marine, then joined the Army and started getting bars on his shoulders.  He made sure I got to everywhere I wanted to go and met danged near everybody I wanted to meet.  As a result, I got several solid stories and even more blogs during my time up there.

Sure, some will say, you wrote the stories they wanted written.  Nope.  I wrote about what the unit was doing to prevent, treat and deal with PTSD.  Not a lively conversation topic in the mess hall.  And sensitive as hell because the VA--and the active military through guilt by association--was getting blasted back home for its non- or maltreatment of both active duty and former soldiers suffering from the psychological disease and, worse, TBI--traumatic brain injury from the IEDs blowing up all over both battle spaces.

But the 10th gave me free rein.  The result was the first and still only--far as I can tell--story about what a military unit in a war zone was trying to do to help its soldiers facing pressures no soldiers and Marines had ever faced.  While the rounds were flying and the bombs were exploding.

So you embed.  I read the Stripes' reporter's March story that got the 1st Cav brass PO'd at him.  I'd have written it much the same way.  I thought it was a good piece of journalism.  Not sure why the military got its knickers twisted to the point of banning a guy who works in a business that buys ink by the barrel--though those cheap little pixels are now trying to take us down.

Mike Hedges, managing editor of the Washington Examiner, gives talks to college students about the many wars he's covered (three of 'em with me). When the subject comes up, he tells the classes, “With reference to what Churchill said about democracy, embedding is the worst possible system except all the others.”  Then he rolls out a list of stories, from the Apache pilot who killed him own men in friendly fire, to the U.S. soldiers who poisoned themselves in Saudi Arabia making homemade booze (a minor diplomatic incident ensued) to the capture of top Saddam lieutenants.  The stories "I couldn’t have gotten without embedding."

Matthew Fisher, a good friend who's covered 14 wars (some of them many times over) and who's on his way to live in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for two and a half years in a tent, has been embedded many times.  The correspondent for CanWest, Canada's biggest newspaper chain, says this about his embeds with Americans, Canadians and British: 

'While it is true that they do not want you to highlight problems (that is normal behavior anywhere), if you are with any unit for a few days you will get a fair sense of what is right and wrong.  I think it is immensely valuable to embed, particularly when has been the case in Iraq and is now the case in Afghanistan, it is virtually impossible to move around the country freely on your own to suss out information.  Embedding is not a perfect construct, but it is a helluva lot better than sitting on your behind doing nothing.  And when combat operations are at a high tempo, there is no other good way to get a feel for a war and the man doing the fighting."

And you can make friends as an embed.  Bruce Drake and I are still in touch.  And five years ago, in a lovely outdoor ceremony overlooking Puget Sound, I watched former Maj. Riggo Riggins marry his lovely Naomi. 

I was their best man.

                                                           --Mike Tharp


June 22, 2009

Kirkuk: a place that should be seen--and heard

The Iraqi army major, a Kurd, didn't know what hit him.  Col. David Paschal, the 6'6" commander of the 10th Mountain Division based in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk last year, had taken off the diplomatic gloves.  As tea and soft drinks were served by fawning subordinates, the major almost preened in his easy chair.  The top-ranked American soldier in the area had come to visit HIM. 

After a few minutes of pleasantries--the Arabic translated by Paschal's female Lebanese interpreter--the officer from Chicago leaned forward in his seat.  Rawboned hands as big as those of former Bulls defensive ace Jerry Sloan clasped themselves together, as if trying to avoid making fists.

His usual command voice grew even louder.  He demanded to know why 200 Sunni Arab inductees had been turned away the previous week by the major.  The major started to explain about not enough trucks and lack of bunks and...

"Bull! I know why," the colonel thundered.  "Because they were Sunni!  We can't have that here.  We need every soldier we can get."

With that the colonel jumped out of his chair and, followed by his interpreter and junior officers, stalked out of the office.  The tea and Cokes remained untouched.  Paschal waved off the major's offer of a ride back to his vehicle.  "He's a pretty boy," he muttered as the group marched a half-mile in 110-degree heat.

Saturday's lethal truck bombing in Kirkuk, which killed 73--including 35 children--and injured at least 254 while leveling some 80 houses, brought back the memory of the colonel's outburst.  The major's refusal to induct Sunni Arabs into a local unit of the Iraqi army highlighted the divisions plaguing the city 155 miles northeast of Baghdad.  Kurds, Arabs. Turkoman and Assyrians make up its population of nearly 850,000.

The fact that Saddam Hussein displaced thousands of Kurds living there in the '90s with his own Sunni Arabs and the fact that the city sits on top of some of the largest oilfields in Iraq help explain why the bombing occurred.  Revenge.  And money.

Another bomb exploded Sunday, injuring five, and two police officers were wounded the same day trying to defuse a car bomb. At least a dozen people are still missing and feared dead from Saturday's blast.

Two other facts show why Kirkuk remains a roadblock for both the Iraqi central government's administrative control and the U.S. military mission in Iraq.  One is that because of the urban divisions, Kirkuk residents didn't even vote in last year's general election.  That means their voices weren't heard at the polls or the political souks where funds and favors are handed out. The second is that a commission appointed to conduct a demographic census of the city--the better to parse the percentages of each part of the population--still hasn't been able to finish the job.

The Kurds think they hold a majority and so should be governed by the semi-autonomous district of Kurdistan farther north.  But that would set a dangerous precedent for Iraq's delicate balancing act among Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Turkoman (a Turkic ethnic group) , Assyrians (an ancient people, today mainly Christian) and others for political representation and power.

The Citadel, a medieval-looking fortress 130 feet high across the Khasa River in Kirkuk, tells Kirkuk's history like the rings in a fallen tree.  First it was a Jewish temple, then a Christian church, finally a Muslim mosque.  Today it is a monument.

Last year two young men from Kirkuk started their own media company to provide video, audio, still photography and interpretation.  They called it The Citadel, no doubt hoping that 21st century technology would help bridge thousand-year-old breaches.  Saturday's slaughter suggests that many more such efforts are needed from all sides, with Americans like Col. Paschal acting as sometimes forceful referees, to keep the peace.

At some point in the history of this 5,000-year old settlement, it was called by an Assyrian name, Arafa.  In Arabic, "arafa" means "to be acquainted with Allah in knowing each other, the land of equality with no boundaries," according to the IslamicFinder Web site.  Kirkuk is a Turkoman word that means "a place that should be seen."

Iraqis of all stripe, and their American allies, can only hope that the oldest names of this volatile city will again one day mean what they say.

                                                 --Mike Tharp


June 20, 2009

Your correspondent in the rainbow 'Dream Man' undies

'Journalists who take themselves too seriously can look forward to funerals paid for either by donation or by the city council.'

--Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist

The glamor and glory of a war correspondent.

Five straight days in the same clothes. Five hours on plastic chairs between planes at London's Heathrow Airport, 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Four hours on metal chairs at Istanbul's airport, 11 p.m.- 3 a.m. No luggage after landing at Baghdad International Airport at 6 a.m.. It stayed in Turkey. Washing your hair with hotel hand soap.

Wednesday a biblical sandstorm blew into Baghdad. Visibility that night was one meter. Sahar, a McClatchy bureau reporter, braved the reddish-brown fug to pick up her son up at an Internet cafe. He walked in looking like a gray ghost. No planes in the air, so no bag.

Earlier, Nasif, the bureau manager, kindly dispatched a driver. He returned with shampoo, two pair of pants, two shirts, disposable razors, shaving cream, two undershirts (called "wife beaters" in trailer parks) and two pair of underwear--briefs, colored in green, blue and orange triangles with "Dream Man" stenciled around the waistband. We always wondered what the Scots wore under their kilts. Now we know what some Iraqi men wear under their dishdashas, the gray or white neck-to-ankle robes.

Jet lag, despite Melatonin and sleeping pills prescribed by Dr. Christian Gallery of Merced, Calif.; a two-months supply of them and high blood-pressure medicine filled hassle-free by Travis at the Save Mart pharmacy there. But they don't work. Awake 2-6 a.m. Tuesday. Up at 3 a.m. Wednesday. 2:40 a.m. Thursday.

Somehow, through closed doors, windows and curtains, the sand seeps in, hanging a smoke-like haze throughout the office, a film of desert dust on every flat surface. It smells like bad breath. Dr. Gallery also prescribed Cipro, good for the sore throat now starting to scratch and the runny nose.

Departing rotator Jack Dolan, an ace investigative reporter from the Miami Herald, types away on a final story. He's due to fly out on a 9 a.m. flight next day to Istanbul, then onward to Spain to meet his wife. But the muck in the air casts doubt on whether he'll get out Thursday.

Still, there's a chocolate cake and soda pop party for him thrown by the staff. Hussein, a steadfast and thoughtful English teacher-turned-journalist, makes an appearance. He's on his way to live, under a State Department program, in Dallas.

Other stalwarts from the bureau last year already have taken advantage of that exit strategy: Omar, the office manager, now lives in Massachusetts. Hussein, a driver, calls Atlanta home with his wife and 6-year-old and 4-month-old daughters. Scott Parrish, a basketball teammate in Tokyo 20 years ago, is trying to help him find a job. Suhaib, another driver, already was living there. His dad, Nasif, may join him in July.

McClatchy no longer employs Centurion bodyguards, and last year's armored Mercedes sits gathering grit on a side street. Paul Davies, a former British Royal Marine commando who shepherded dozens of rotators through the scary old days, landed on his rugger's boots with the AP.

Death and destruction are way down in the capital, but three IEDs have blown up within hearing distance of the bureau wthin the last month. Jenan, Sahar and Laith take turns compiling the Daily Violence Report, now only a half-dozen entries each evening from around the country, down from double and triple that number a year ago.

This spring Corinne Reilly of the Merced Sun-Star sent back photos of her and bureau folks eating in a restaurant. Nobody did that a year ago. Jack enjoyed ice cream at a shop a few blocks away that was car-bombed last June. A lemon smoothie at an Old Baghdad walk-in hit the spot Tuesday.

The hall pass, a biometric hologram ID that all foreign journalists must wear, is essential. Until it hangs from a lanyard around your neck, no embeds with troops, no access to the International Zone, no nothing--you're a non-person. 

 Breakfast downstairs consists of tomatoes, cucumbers, a thumb-sized object resembling a cold hot dog, soft white cheese in foil wedges, jam, bread and a square scrambled egg. Lunches and suppers in the bureau kitchen include yogurt, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, beef, lamb or chicken, fresh-baked pita-like bread and soda pop with lift-off tabs not seen in American since Coors cans in the '60s.

The bed is calf-high, a meter wide, two meters long--just right. Cell phone service proves dicier than in Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada, thanks to American military jamming of frequencies to keep them from being used to set off homemade bombs.

American combat troops are pulling out of the major cities--wait one--the lights just went out...Now they're back on. Deadline for withdrawal is June 30.

What happens then?

Stay tuned.

Your correspondent in the rainbow "Dream Man" undies will be on the job.

Hopefully also wearing the steel-toed boots lodged in a bag somewhere in Istanbul.

Glamor and glory.

Wouldn't trade places with anybody.

                                                                 --Mike Tharp


June 19, 2009

The ordinary becomes magic in Iraq

Last night I went out for supper.

One of the most ordinary acts we can do.

But it was the first time I'd ever done it in Iraq.

Last year Leila Fadel, the McClatchy bureau chief, Hussein, a reporter, and I were on the verge of venturing up the street outside the guarded compound where the bureau is to an ice cream shop.  We'd talked about the security situation and decided that since several Iraqis and a few foreigners they knew had already gone there, we'd give it a shot.

A couple nights later, from the rooftop we were forbidden to go to, we watched the ice cream shop burn down after a car bomb blew it up.  So much for a chocolate cone.

Last night Jack Dolan, the Miami Herald's bulldog/watchdog reporter, and I decided we wanted a burger.  There were plates in the fridge left over from lunch, but we both took one look at 'em and shook our heads.  "Burger," we said at the same time to Laith, a bureau reporter. 

To me, "burger" meant the cafe downstairs in the hotel we call home.  So I started to move, wearing sandals and the traffic-cone-colored shorts I wear after dark when nobody but the staff is around.  Both Jack and Laith looked at me.  "Uh," said Jack, "those might, ah, set us apart a little."  You want me to change into jeans?  They nodded.  Well, OK, it's only people from the hotel, I thought, but all right. I changed.

We got downstairs and I headed toward the cafe.  It was closed.  They were walking out the guarded doors.  Outside.

Outside!

The only times last year I'd been outside the wire had been in an armored Mercedes, an armored Humvee, a 25-ton mine-resistant rig, a Black Hawk helicopter and a C-130. 

The drachma dropped.  We were going outside the compound. On foot.  In jeans and sandals and a shirt. Last year my time on the streets of Baghdad consisted of three tense five-minute interviews:  one with a fish restaurant manager; one with a bookseller; one with a magazine kiosk owner.  While Hussein, his head on a swivel, translated, our driver loitered a few meters away, engine on, in case the presence of a 6'3, 220-pound westerner caught somebody's attention whose attention we didn't want to catch, and we had to make a run for it.

But last night we walked past the security guards manning the iron rail across our road and came to Jadriyah Street.  Cars and trucks and scooters buzzed past in two lanes either side of a weedy verge.  It turned out the most dangerous part of the night was getting across that street.

We came to the Tazij ("Fresh") restaurant.  Many tables inside, a few on a terrace in front--a short grenade throw from the street.  Inside or out, Jack asked.  Wherever it's cooler, I said, immediately regretting it when Jack decided it would be cooler outside.  All I could think of was the scene in "The Killing Fields" when the New York Times reporter and his freelance photographer friend were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Phnom Penh and a Khmer Rouge guy on a scooter cruised by and tossed a bomb.

But Laith led us past the terrace  behind a high hedge where dozens of tables sat on green grass.  Red and yellow fairy lights were necklaced on the hedge.  An orange cat meowed his way from table to table.  A little girl in a pointed party hat ran through the opening in the hedge and onto the terrace. On the street as we were ordering, a wedding party in several cars drove by, horns honking and people shouting.  The smell of charcoal drifted through the starry night.

Jack and I had lamb burgers, Laith a chicken burger, Pepsis all around.  They came on buns the size of salad plates, French fries on the meat forming a double layer of delicious. 

I leaned back in the metal chair.  And relaxed.  It still seemed a dream--to eat a meal outside in Baghdad.  Before the insurgency got real in early 2004, reporters and Iraqis alike could still do this in post-invasion Iraq.  But that small luxury, that little slice of heaven, like so many other parts of a civil society, had been swept from the table by four years of violence.

After we ate, we talked, mostly about girls and sports.  How normal is that?

As we crossed the street heading back to the compound, I felt as if I'd also crossed a threshold. Last year in May, I wrote the first, or one of the first, stories about the sharp decline in violence and what it might mean:

'After weeks of relative calm, two questions are being asked in war-torn Iraq and in the United States:  Will it last?  And when can Americn forces come home?'

I knew I was going out on a journalistic limb, but intellectually, I thought the timing was right to raise the questions.  Emotionally, though, I harbored deep doubts about how long the calm might last.

Our supper Thursday night eased some of those doubts.  Hell, I've been around long enough to know that all it might take to keep people cowering again in their homes is another Alaskari Shrine incident--the 2006 bombing of the sacred mosque that lit the fuse that touched off civil war for the next two years.

And as American combatants pull back to their bases outside major Iraqi cities by the end of this month, knuckleheads may test the Iraqi army and police to see just how tough they are.  More bloodshed is inevitable.

But last night's plain and simple walk to eat a meal outside the walls gave me more hope than I've ever felt about this place.  Sure, it could all turn back to dung in a white-hot heartbeat.  But for one easy hour or so, sitting with two friends at a quiet cafe in south central Baghdad, it seemed anything was posible in Iraq.

Even peace.

                                                                               --Mike Tharp


June 18, 2009

A Fed Who Truly Helped

Haider, our driver, and I were threading our way through 108 degrees and a narrow concrete path hemmed in by blast walls in the International Zone (IZ).  That's what the old Green Zone is called now.  We both had to get U.S. military ID badges so we could be street legal and enter places we couldn't go without 'em.

To paraphrase a line in Macbeth, day thickened--with grit and grime from the sandstorm that enveloped Baghdad the past two days.  The residue stuck to the sweat on our arms.

At a dozen points along the 20-minute route, we were checked for IDs, and sometimes body-searched, by Iraqi soldiers, police and hard-eyed Peruvians. The modern-day Incas were armed with AK-47s and looked as if they wanted to revenge Pizarro by humiliating any gringo in range.  The name of their private security company is Triple Canopy.

In what passes for military logic, some of the checks and searches were only 30 or 40 meters from the last one, in plain sight of the next group of gunsels, who had just watched their comrades force us to dump everything from our pockets into a plastic bowl. We carried it the way a new inmate must lug his bedsheets to a cell.

There were wands and some sort of machine  that looked like the black monolith in "2001" where we simply stood for a few seconds, front and back, while it gave us cancer or made us sterile or mapped our genomes in order to let us move to the next station.  A first-tour U.S. buck sergeant from Ghana smiled and shook his head at the whole procedure.

And there was one body search that, if done by a female, would have turned on both her and me big-time.  Sadly, it was conducted by a swarthy dude wearing wraparound shades.

The only more dehumanizing pastime I've experienced was going through the U.S. Army physical at the Chicago induction facility 40 years ago.  Think DMV, cattle slaughter warehouse and Jerry Springer Show.  We didn't have to strip to our skivvies during this IZ drill, but the attitude of the searchers was the same: Please just give us an excuse to unlimber these automatic weapons and put you down in the dirt.

So it was with real relief that we wandered from this Hieronymous Bosch landscape into the cool confines of the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC).  This is where all hacks, drivers and some other media-affiliated folks have to get hooked up with a biometric holographic ID--a backstage pass to the war.

Besides the air conditioning, the room was brightened by the presence of Soheir Flanagan, in charge of media credentialing.  She's from Gilbert, Ariz., by way of Egypt. The Irish part "came from injection," she explained while I filled out the form.  Luckily, the CPIC card I got last year had expired only on May 30, so I didn't have to have the retinal or rectal (just kidding) exam or have my fingerprints taken; they were on file.

Ms. Flanagan is a contractor for Government Linguistic Solutions who has spent 25 months total in Iraq.  Fluent in Arabic and Southwestern English, she's got five grown kids "spread out all over creation."  She lost her husband to cancer some years back.

This is all by way of explaining that she cut me a big break.  "I'm making a huge exception for you, you know," she said over her desk.  I pleaded ignorance, but knew what it was. I'd forgotten my letter of accreditation from McClatchy; it was in the car, and when Haider and I exited the vehicle, I didn't know that would be the last I'd see of it till we were done.

She told me what I was missing.  I told her what had happened.  I told her I could either go back to the car and go through the dehumanizing drill all over again (I didn't say 'dehumanizing') or we could fax it or e-mail it to her.

"E-mail, not fax," she said crisply.  Then she handed me my brand-spankin' new CPIC all-access badge.  Then she smiled.  

"It is so nice to find a government official with a heart and a personality," I said, shaking her hand.  She smiled again.  I e-mailed her the letter as soon as I got back to the bureau.

Since hacks must deal with CPIC on a regular basis during our deployments, it's reassuring to know there's both a lady and a reasonable person working there. She could've gone by the book and tied me down in red tape.  But her experience and instinct told her that here was a rule that could be--not bent--but delayed an hour or so.

In the case of Soheir Flanagan, she WAS from the federal government--and she truly WAS there to help you.

Shukran and much obliged, Ms. Flanagan.

                                                                                               --Mike Tharp


June 17, 2009

World's Worst Commute? Try Jenan's in Baghdad

A big U.S. motor oil company has been sponsoring a "World's Worst Commute" contest on TV.  Commercials have shown folks across the land talking about the bridges, bypasses, detours, flyovers, clots of cars and other hassles they must endure to go, say, 27 miles in two hours.  The winner gets a ride with a NASCAR champ.  (Is second prize two rides?)

We've got a winner right here in the Baghdad bureau:

Jenan.

Take today's commute.  She lives less than 1 kilometer--0.6 miles--from the bureau.  Because of traffic, checkpoints, blast walls, police and military convoys, even that short distance usually takes her 15 minutes to drive.

This morning, just before she left for the office, an IED--a homemade bomb--blew up in the street near her home in the Karrada district.  Within a minute, Iraqi security forces, mostly police, converged on the scene.  Instead of seeing to the wounded, Jenan said, they started firing wild random shots with their automatic weapons.  Some bystanders were hit. 

"They were in the wrong place at the wrong moment," the McClatchy reporter explained about the wounded.  Some were kids, now out of school.

Still upset hours after the incident, Jenan explained how the Iraqi officers had learned recon-by-fire from the Americans.  U.S. troops used automatic weapons fire to suppress anybody coming to the scene of a blast because insurgents learned to detonate a second, and sometimes even a third, bomb once crowds had gathered. The American tactic was meant to deter the bad guys from approaching the carnage to create more havoc.

Like any tactic, it's imperfect.  This morning, Jenan could see no reason for the Iraqi officers to unleash magazine after magazine with no clear targets.  "Sometimes the student learns too well from the teacher," she said.

The official report listed five wounded; it didn't say whether they were injured from the IED or from gunshots.

The incident shows how critical it will be for Iraqi forces to show professional restraint once American troops are pulled out of major Iraqi cities by June 30.  According to Jenan's experience this morning, the homegrown men in uniform still have a lot to learn.

And her commute?  After detouring around barricades and checkpoints, she was an hour late.

As for any award, it'd be tough to stick all those advertising decals on her hijab.

                                                                                   --Mike Tharp


June 16, 2009

A Morning at the Museum

Departing McClatchy rotator Jack Dolan of the Miami Herald let his successor tag along when he and Laith, one of our Iraqi reporters, toured the Baghdad Museum in Rasheed, the old part of the city.  Along the way we passed three places that Laith assured us had opened as night clubs.  Since he wrote the story last year about liquor stores reopening in Baghdad, look for a feature down the road about Baghdad-after-dark that doesn't include firefights and wounded victims.

The old part of the capital featured the noisy panoply of Baghdad's reemergence as a cosmopolitan city.  For sale on sidewalks were beauty parlor chairs, beaded curtains, exotic room screens, red pillows with "KISS" and 'I LOVE YOU" embroidered in white and ice cream in parlors.  Iraqi soldiers stood, weapons unslung, sipping soft drinks from glass bottles.  A juice store sold Middle Eastern smoothies made from melons, cantaloupes, pineapples, limes, lemons, carrots, bananas, pears, grapes, pomegranate and grapefruit.  Less than $2 a glass.

Like the museum itself, a 19th century granite statue of Marouf Alrusafi, an Iraqi poet, had somehow survived the American invasion, Iraqi insurgency, low-grade civil war and sectarian attacks.  Standing with feet apart, left arm across his chest, the old poet seemed to be declaring that, as a museum booklet states, the purpose of art is "to protect the inheritance of fathers and ancestors."

Established in 1970, the museum enshrines historical tableaux from the city's 19th and early 20th century life.  In one room, 25 reel-to-reel tapes play music from more than 50 years ago in the rooms of each exhibit.  A Minerva radio, made of blonde wood, sits like a sentinel from the middle of last century.

In front of a room depicting a bride's party, sixth-grader Deveh says she enjoys the scene because, on the floor, a girl about her age is frozen in time, chasing chocolates cast by the bridesmaids.  Zainab Mousa Altaii, a government interpreter, explains that, just as today, some of older women wear 'abaya,' the black garment covering most everything, while younger women wear contemporary dresses.

A coffee house the size of a two-car garage shows men, and men only, playing dominoes, sipping tea and watching two cocks fight.  In the Al-Zorkhana room, or House of Strength, men lift what look like iron bowling pins and other weights to the frenetic tempo of a drum; this form of step aerobics originally came from Iran.

Other rooms show a soothsayer, money changers, a spinner, a mullah teaching formal Arabic, a saddler, seamstress, a healer of the soul, a half-Egyptian singer famous since the 1880s and, a personal favorite, "the scoundrel," a dashing, mustachioed dude who was also known as a playboy and the hero of the area.  Not a favorite:  the Circumcisor.

After the 2003 U.S. invasion, the dark and dusty museum lay both vacant and vulnerable.  But one old man, Mohammed Kadhum, stood outside with his machine gun every day for months to protect it.  "Nobody bothered to loot it because there were so many banks in the neighborhood," he recalls.  "Everybody went to rob them."

In its own modest and completely underfunded way (the building isn't even air conditioned), the Baghdad Museum tries to remind today's residents and survivors of what Abu Amr Ibn Al-Ala once wrote about the capital:  "One who has lived and died in Baghdad...as if he has moved from heaven to heaven."

Even with violence and death at a six-year low, Baghdadis need to be reminded that their city once dominated the civilization of the region.  This dark musty building shows how Iraqi and Baghdadi culture for centuries, according to a guidebook, was "full of the famous personalities of the world, such as poets, men of letters and scientists."

--Mike Tharp


June 15, 2009

Dodging Snipers with Chalabi

Walking 100 yards through Baghdad this weekend with Ahmad Chalabi -- the former Iraqi exile who helped justify the U.S. led invasion – was a nightmare.

At least eleven Kalashnikov wielding security guards, some wearing black masks that covered their faces, formed a circle around the portly politician and his aides. 

Their eyes and gun barrels scanning rooftops, the guards hustled the small entourage from the Baghdad Hunt Club, where Chalabi had just held an American-style town hall meeting, to his home.

When I lagged behind momentarily fussing with a camera, one of the guards grabbed my wrist and yanked me back inside their circle.  He offered no pleasantries or apologies.

I couldn’t blame him.

The day before, Iraq’s leading Sunni politician, Harith al Obaidi, a crusader for human rights, was slaughtered at a nearby mosque after delivering the Friday prayers.

Three of Obaidi’s guards died in the ensuing shoot-out with the assassin; a 15-year old boy sent by al Qaida in Iraq, police said.

Once inside Chalabi’s house, in the upscale Monsour neighborhood just outside the Green Zone, the mood changed completely.

There, surrounded by fine art, exquisite oriental carpets and soothing dark wood, Chalabi starred blankly at me when I asked him how many guards usually escort him.

“I have no idea,” he said, “were there a lot?”  

Chalabi, who is viewed as a master manipulator by his countrymen, and who was the darling of neo-conservative hawks during the run up to the 2003 invasion, said he is worried that President Obama is turning his back on Democracy in Iraq.

“It’s unfortunate some people in the new administration view this as a Bush personal project,” Chalabi said.  “They’re clearly trying to distance themselves.”

As U.S. combat troops prepare to leave Iraqi cities by the end of the month, and all American forces are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011, Chalabi said “the quicker we end the military relationship, the better for both countries.”

But he said he wants the U.S. to help pay down Iraq’s foreign debt, and to help cover the costs of reparations demanded by Kuwait.

He also said he wants American experts to help develop a real estate market in Iraq, and the Federal Reserve to conduct professional bank examinations.

When I pointed out how funny it sounded that anyone would want American banking and real estate expertise these days, Chalabi said “that’s how troubled these sectors are in Iraq.”

Chalabi's secular Iraqi National Congress didn’t win a single seat in the last election, but he's trying to rally them to re-engage the political process.  The two dueling sects of Islam, the Shiites and the Sunnis, dominate parliament now.

“These people have been good at getting power, but they’re not so good at implementing it,” he said.

Chalabi was born into a family of wealthy Shiite bankers.  Though Shiites constitute more than 60 percent of Iraq’s population, many felt pushed aside under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath party.

Chalabi worries that without significant improvements in the standard of living for average Iraqis, fragmentation of the now ruling Shiite alliance will open the door for a return of the Baathists.

 “We still have 15 to 20 percent of the vote going to people sympathetic to the old Baath party,” Chalabi said, “and they are represented by competent people.”

 A big contributor to the incompetence and corruption of the current government, Chalabi said, is the quota system for hiring government employees from the three major sects, which includes ethnic Kurds from the north.

One way for the majority Shiites and their allies to hang on to power is to replace the relatively messy, multi-party parliamentary system with a presidential system modeled on the United States.

Allies of current Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki have suggested making the change.

That’s where Chalabi, who chaired the committee devoted to ridding the government of Saddam's old deputies, turns ironic.

“The advantage of the American system is a strong executive authority,” he said.  “In Iraq, we have not historically suffered from a lack of strong executive authority."

 With that, an aide knocked on the door and ushered another group of visitors into a side room. 

 While Chalabi hasn’t attracted many votes lately, he keeps a steady stream of journalists and emissaries from other parties coming through his door.  Whether they blame him for the collapse of civil society after the invasion, or envy his ability to bring the might of the United States down on his bitter enemy Saddam, Iraq’s political elite clearly like to keep an eye on Chalabi.

They assume he’s always up to something.


 


Glances of Iraq after a year away

From Mike Tharp, who recently returned to Iraq to report from Baghdad for several weeks. He is Executive Editor of the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.

Some 26 straight hours in either airplanes or airports (Washington Dulles, London Heathrow, Istanbul), gave a traveler a chance to read for the Nth time Joseph Heller's 1955/61 classic, "Catch 22." Seemed like a good time to catch up on that novel's unique take on war while on the way back to Iraq. One of the conceits Heller uses as part of his sustained black humor is that of "black eyes" vs. "feathers in his cap" for one of the book's main doofuses, Col. Cathcart, who sucks up to everyone higher in rank and brutalizes all subordinates.

Those two categories seem to fit first glances of Iraq after a year away:

Feather in its cap: The Turkish Airlines 3:15 a.m. flight from Istanbul, about a third full, featured mostly Iraqis coming back to their country. A fashionably dressed couple, an old woman and her daughter, dozens of businessmen — all took the final approach to Baghdad International in stride. Last year the flight from Amman, Jordan, held mostly foreigners, many of them private security contractors, on their way to the war zone; nearly every passenger watched tensely as the aircraft circled for a landing.

Black eye: One — count him, one — immigration official on duty when the plane landed at BIA just past 6 a.m. It took 25 minutes for three or four other immigration officials to show up and man their passport-stamping posts. Is that any way to run a railroad, let alone court foreign investors?

Feather in its cap: Iraqi Humvee and SUV convoys dominate the capital's roads the way the Yanks once did, and many of them use a loudspeaker to ask, politely, for civilian traffic to make way for their progress "so we can please do our job." Last year American convoys forced all civilian traffic to the sides of highways and even off the roads as they roared through the city.

Black eye: Some Iraqi convoys still blare out Saddamite warnings — "Get out of our way!"

Feather in its cap: Traffic stacked up on Jadriah Bridge in south central Baghdad (mainly because of final exams at Baghdad University), and while vehicles wormed their way in and out of lanes, men stood in those lanes and hawked all manner of wares: tea towels, Kleenex, gum, small candies (some balancing plates of them on their heads), Chinese-made inflatable dolls. Important for two big reasons: they can sell because it's safe, and it shows the return of Iraqis' entrepreneurial spirit.

Black eye: power in the McClatchy bureau — and all over Baghdad — still goes out several times a day in the steaming summer; if you don't have a generator to kick it back on, you sweat. Feather in its cap: the hundreds of blast walls in the city are now painted with street artists' renderings of animals, fairies, flowers and abstract designs. Last year most were featureless gray monoliths that simply Balkanized entire neighborhoods.

Feather in its cap: a sense that you can almost breathe in (along with the pollution) calm and confidence among Baghdadis.

And that, as Milo Minderbinder chants in the novel, means that "everbody has a share."


May 10, 2009

Bombing in Baghdad - three injured

A bomb targeting a convoy of traffic police officers went off in Baghdad Sunday morning, injuring three civilians.

The improvised explosive device went off just after 8 a.m. in Karada, Baghdad’s safest neighborhood, just outside the Green Zone.

The blast was followed by sporadic small arms fire, as helicopters belonging to private security contractors and U.S. military Cobra gun ships encircled the neighborhood.

On Saturday, the city held a parade honoring the traffic police, who stand in for the inoperable traffic lights at large intersections across the city. Their job means they frequently bear the brunt of civilian road rage, which can be particularly intense in a city choked by closed roads and military checkpoints.

The explosion, blocks from the fortified hotels housing most western media in Baghdad, closed roads and snarled traffic for most of the morning.

McClatchy Correspondent Jenan Hussein contributed to this report.


ABOUT THIS BLOG

Baghdad Observer is written by McClatchy journalists staffing the Baghdad bureau.

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