High Profile: Baghdad Week 2 - My Family Travels

High Profile: Baghdad Week 2 First: the backstory. I am currently in Baghdad, working as Country Director for IREX, running a very similar program here to the one I ran for them in Serbia. Only WAY more complicated, bigger, and of course… in Baghdad. I will be here anywhere from 6 mos to a year to…??? Up to me really. 

This morning had a very loud wakeup: a LARGE rocket was fired into the International Zone (IZ, formerly known as the Green Zone), a VERY loud boom, sounded rather close by. First time I’ve heard that. Up till now, I’ve heard bombs going off, not nearby.

One minute later my PSD (personal security detail) rang to make sure I was OK. The guesthouse I’m living in is near a firing range. Shortly after the hit, I heard what sounded like US soldiers singing one of those marching songs, and then a lot of target practice at the firing range (the firing is a daily occurrence). Sirens, helicopters, drone of overhead air support. And then…I fell back asleep.

I guess I’m adjusting. Or I was REALLY tired. The rocket hit a UN compound, killing three kitchen staff from Bangladesh, more wounded. The compound was evacuated. I haven’t heard if people think that specific compound was targeted. People were not surprised, as they were expecting attacks as a result of the recent political activity, described below. It has been still much quieter here than previously, earlier there were 3-4 such attacks every day.

The IZ is huge, also lined with T-walls, tons of sandbags, dusty construction sites, a lot of cargo containers. Most of the buildings are concrete bunkers. Periodically one also sees a bright yellow structure: duck and cover. That is where to go when the siren for incoming mortars/rockets etc. is sounded, although it didn’t sound this morning.

High Profile

I arrived about 10 days ago. Per protocol, I was met at the airport (eventually, after calling them on my porter’s phone) by my PSD. All expats here have security companies. Some travel very high profile (tank-like vehicles, large convoy, gunners on top, helicopter cover)… that would be for major political figures.

Then there is high profile: armored bullet-proof SUVs, visible gunners, but no dedicated helicopter cover. That would be me — all armored bullet-proof SUVs, heavily armed men (with AK-47s and side-arms). I have either 3 vehicles/9 men or 4 with 13. It has more to do with team availability than anything else. They and I wear a heavy external flak jacket and helmet while in the vehicle (or the “heavy” as it is referred to: the SUV I’m in is the heaviest armored vehicle of the convoy).

The guys basically look like soldiers, totally kitted out with guns strapped to legs and just bristling with muscle and menace; most of them are ex-soldiers. Last is low-profile, which is traveling in a 3 vehicle convoy, but the vehicles are armored/bullet proof cars: sedan cars, Mercedes, BMWs. They blend. The “pack” (as the passenger is referred to) is wearing a more covert flak jacket, big shirt is worn over that, no helmet. Men still have AKs and side-arms and flak jackets, but they’re hidden under big shirts as they dress in civvies. I’m investigating switching over to low profile, I feel it would make me less of a visible target.

During my first week I had to go to a security briefing at the US Embassy. At one point during the presentation, the guy was talking about obeying the guards at the checkpoints, and if you don’t, they will shoot. And then he said: “and that would be considered a good kill.” That is the single most memorable moment of that briefing. Not a sentence I hope to hear again.

When I go to the office now two of the PSD team are always nearby, providing what is known as CP (close protection) in the trade. I finally persuaded them to dress in low-profile fashion, which is making my staff and I much happier, instead of seeing these men in jumpsuits, totally kitted out.

New Iraqi Withdrawal Accord

 The big news story here recently has been the passage of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). This is the agreement between the US military and the Government of Iraq regarding how long and under what conditions the US military will stay in Iraq. The current agreement is due to expire 31 Dec 08. There have been months of negotiation occurring between the various powers and parties involved. The pact, which is expected to be formally ratified by Iraq’s three-person Presidency Council, requires U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities, towns and villages by June 30 as the first step toward a total withdrawal by the end of 2011. What they mean by leaving the cities is that Iraqi security instead of US will be manning the various checkpoints, and the US military will be on the bases throughout the city (FOB’s, forward operating bases). So they are not literally leaving the city, but their visible presence throughout the streets will be greatly diminished. Their ability to take over roads and restrict movement — which they currently enjoy — will also be limited. It also limits U.S. troops’ ability to conduct missions, raids or arrests without Iraqi authority, and opens the door to Iraqi courts handling some criminal cases involving American troops. Depending on your perspective, this has either been a major move towards strengthening Iraqi sovereignty, or a capitulation to the US permitting them to continue to stay here.

We are all very relieved the vote is finally over, and passed. The rocket yesterday was not surprising (i.e. that it happened). There was a suicide bomber at a mosque in town as well. The general feeling is that both this vote, and the upcoming provincial elections scheduled for 31 Jan 09 will probably result in an uptick of violence. It is the Iraqis who suffer most from the violence. Just in the short time I have been here, there have been some bad suicide bombs and sticky bombs. Probably close to 100 Iraqis die every week.

And the whole process could still be derailed in July when, in a concession to Sunni Arab parties, a national referendum is to be held to ratify the accord. If the public were to vote to reject the accord, then it is possible that the accord could be thrown out. Additionally, all the private security companies operating here will no longer have immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. The Iraqis are taking over the former Presidential Palace in January, which currently is the US military HQ and US Embassy.

Life in the IZ

So I am currently living in a guesthouse in the IZ, and commuting to the office. The situation being what it is, it is not advisable to establish a daily pattern. So I have been to the office all of three times so far, and otherwise work out of an office at my security company, and email or phone with staff. Not ideal, but it will have to do. This week, for the first time, I will try to go to the office on three days. That means each time the full convoy, flak jacket, etc. etc. In all likelihood, wherever I end up living in the red zone, there will be at least one person with me at all times (evenings as well). Having all these men around me all the time protecting me, looking after me… believe me, it goes quickly to your head, making you feel way too important.

This Accord means that a large part of the IZ will be far more open, so from the expat point of view, the IZ is getting much smaller, and less secure, so I’m glad to be moving out. I’m glad anyway. Although the social life is good here, it’s a weird bubble. I have hardly had any contact with Iraqis, it’s all expats and military. And the support staff are what you would expect: Filipino, Bangladeshi, African. No one really knows how all this will play out, this is still a very volatile place, and the current relative calm is fragile.

That being said, there is a lively social scene in the IZ. There are restaurants (Chinese, Iraqi, American), all sell booze, there is even a place for a mani/pedi apparently. (I thought there would have to be). There are shops: around the corner from my guesthouse is a tiny strip mall selling booze, smokes, electronics (cellphone and iPod accessories), tactical clothing. On the military bases there are PXs that I will have access to once I get my badge (still doing the background check on me).

 My Assignment

 The work I’m going to be doing is to help build and develop the Iraqi media. That means a lot of training, building and strengthening journalist associations, advocating and working for passage of laws protecting media and freedom of speech. Right now all of our programming is related to the upcoming provincial elections. We have given grants to several TV networks to produce a weekly prime-time talk show covering election related issues. Similarly we have an eight-page supplement for five major newspapers, and also distributed as a stand-alone, on election issues. I’m hoping to do the same with radio.

We will have on-going trainings on election reportage, as we are trying to persuade the Election Commission to open a press center dedicated to the elections (which we will organize and run). Things like that. I am the only ex-pat, and have a good hard-working, highly dedicated Iraqi staff (and have just hired two more women to join us, making my female colleague Maha VERY happy).

Since all our work involves the local Iraqi media, IREX has always been located in the so-called ‘Red Zone’…that is all the rest of Baghdad which is not in the IZ. The practice among all international organizations operating in the red zone (almost all media companies i.e. NY Times, CNN, NBC etc etc live in the red zone), is for the expats to live where their offices are. Some NGOs also are in the red zone. In some cases, where there is a large expat staff, they will take over a villa or compound and make that into their home/office.

In cases like mine, small to tiny expat staff, we live/work in hotels. My office currently is in a hotel where I thought I also would live, until we discovered that in fact there are no other expats living. That made it both dangerous and unlivable, as I don’t want to be trapped with no possibility of human contact after the staff leaves at 4pm. I will be moving into the same small hotel where my friend Tina lives and works. There are about 6 media organizations in the same area in various hotel/villas, so that will be great.

The Scene

Welcome to the wild wild east. I don’t think I’ve seen so many large, pumped-up men since I worked at the Super Bowl. The male-female ratio is pretty appealing for a New York female used to 5 women for every man…. Out here it looks like 20:1 the other way. I haven’t had so much attention since I was 18, and it’s hilarious. And need I say… very enjoyable. I thought those days of head turning were gone. It happens to almost every female, so I’m trying to keep my perspective, but it definitely has an effect.

Apparently, a while back there was a flight leaving Baghdad airport, full of men, soldiers, contractors, security, and a smattering of women. As they reached cruising altitude, the pilot came on, started telling them the flight stats and then: ‘And for the women on board, ladies, you are now leaving the Baghdad Beautiful Zone”. (When people ask if a woman is pretty, the response is “Oh, she’s a 6… but a Baghdad 8.”)

Thursday night starts the weekend, but there are parties all over the IZ it seems almost every night: either the private bars at security companies, NGO houses, embassies. The guesthouse I’m currently living in has a nice backyard, so we build a bonfire in the back, and hang out in the evening. My first night I ended up playing poker with the gang present that night, which included a young woman running an NGO up north in Kurdistan down here for meetings, an Iraqi American lawyer running legal NGO here, a couple of engineers doing construction and water projects, and myself. Next night I was invited to an NGO party, night after that to yet another party. A lot of VERY heavy drinkers out here, getting alcohol not a problem AT ALL.

I have to confess I am having a great time. It is tremendously challenging, stimulating, and there’s no denying the edge and intensity of being in a danger zone. I can see how people get addicted to it… but one guy said to me, don’t spend too long out here. He’s been here five years and counting. First, he was security, now doing business with a mate, and he’s longing for a warm connected relationship I think… but this isn’t the place to find it.

The weather has been cool and sunny, lovely for me, even though it’s very, very dusty here. Yesterday we had torrential rain, thunder, lightning and hail, the roads were quickly flooded, no drainage system. Now tons of mud everywhere. Not a place for Manolo Blahniks.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned….

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