December 7, 2009
Today we headed off to visit the University of Babylon, located in Hilla in Babil province, about 100 km south of Baghdad.
Because we would be leaving the IZ and going into territory that still has the potential for violence, we left early with our PSD and PPOs (personal protection officers) in our IBAs and helmets. I was assigned to the Bravo vehicle as usual, with Chad, our PPO, and Cesar, our driver; in addition we had the Alpha, Charlie, Delta, Echo, and Foxtrot SUVs.
Foxtrot brought up the rear, which also had a gunner sticking his head out. Chad was telling us that just yesterday they had received a G2 (intelligence) that there had been trouble in the area we were to go to.
The really amazing thing about our PSDs was how they prevented other vehicles from coming close to our convoy – reminded me of football blocks and basketball pick and roll moves, if one can imagine that being done in huge, armored SUVs. The other thing is that most Iraqis give these SUVs like our PSDs and the others, of whom there are numerous ones on the road, all the room.
Whenever we stopped, the PPOs jumped out, checked the surroundings, the buildings, etc., and only after securing the place, would allow us to get out.
They take their jobs seriously – I asked Chad what kind of defensive weapons they carried – everything from an M4 and Glock to smoke bombs, along with some heavier guns, and they also receive air support if needed, including latest road conditions ahead.
We drove through Camp Victory as an alternate, longer route, because the shorter route apparently goes through an area considered to be dangerous. Getting in and out of Camp Victory is serious business, and one needs a passport or other identification and papers to prove you belong there. One sees signs all around that say: “Danger: Use of Deadly Force Authorized.” As vehicles enter, soldiers and others carrying weapons are expected to clear their weapons. Camp Victory has high walls, concertina wires, T-Walls, watchtowers, and security galore.
Along the way we saw a couple of Saddam’s unfinished palaces – apparently he built 58 to 100 such palaces around the country, many of which he may have stayed in just for a day or others that were never finished, and the current government has no intention of completing.
As we left Camp Victory and headed south, the scenery changed to a more rural, pastoral one, women working in their small farms growing grapes, vegetables, wheat, corn, turnips, lettuce, potatoes, onions, alfalfa, sheep, etc. Looking at this pastoral scene, I was hard pressed to imagine the conflict that’s been going for the last almost thirty years.
The really sad part is that the farmers continue to use flood irrigation, which results in significant salinity, so much so that the fields are abandoned because of the white, salt encrustations – visible even from a moving vehicle.
Salinity is going to be the bane of agriculture around the world, but particularly for Iraqis, and there is serious work to be done on irrigation, salt tolerant plants, alternative approaches to production practices, etc. The further south we headed, the more green the countryside appeared to be and also more prosperous farmsteads and homes.
As we drove on, the mandatory checkpoints, armored vehicles, MRAPs with American soldiers, ECMs (electronic counter measure vehicles to detect IEDs), etc. But traffic seemed to flow, and they made way for our convoy, even on very crowded streets and roundabouts in Hilla, a town of about 400,000 people.
Another interesting sight one sees along the highway – or does not see – are gas stations. The latter have been favorite targets of the insurgents. What I discovered instead are trucking containers, which look like they are made of heavy, reinforced metal, painted red and white are used to store the gasoline and from which it is dispensed. Some of them are painted with the word “Petrol”, while others have the word “Patrol”.
We arrived at the University of Babylon around mid-morning, and met with a number of individuals, including the Vice Chancellor, Dr. Jawwad Al Janabi, and the deans of colleges of agriculture from Babylon and neighboring areas as well. Unfortunately, Pres. Nabeel Al Araji, who had visited OSU and met with Pres. Ed Ray and others on our campus, was out of the country at a conference.
After introductions, we listened to them and gave them an overview of landgrants and our universities and colleges and particular strengths. Yet again the needs at these institutions revolved around dealing with the problem of the “lost generations”, i.e., since 1980 the colleges have been at a standstill or have lost capacity. They need help retooling their faculty – there is a lot of inbreeding; improved capacity and infrastructure; opportunities for graduate studies. This seems to be the recurring theme – the 10,000 scholarships are going to be one small step in the right direction, but only a drop in the bucket.
What they need is significant investments in education. We proposed that our universities can indeed host their faculty on short term retooling visits and also offer graduate opportunities for the students; we also proposed creating a consortium of landgrants to offer education and training. I proposed that at least for the first cohort of individuals they focus on helping enhance capacity in basic agricultural disciplines such as crop science, horticulture, plant protection, soil and water issues, animal husbandry, etc. Then, once capacity has been built back up, future cohorts might seek education and training in the more modern/fundamental areas as well, such as molecular biology, plant genetics and breeding, etc. I also proposed maybe using the model that was effective in India and other countries during the last green revolution, i.e., each college be adopted by an American landgrant to offer a comprehensive program of education, training, capacity and infrastructure building, etc., with funding from the Iraqi government and from the United States. Dr. Ahmed Araji, our host, asked us to make explicit recommendations on approaches we may suggest. As we were having these conversations, the Deputy Governor of the province walked in to greet us.
He also made arrangements for us to be offered lunch and a secure visit to the ruins at Babylon. We left the university campus to visit the ruins at Babylon.
Lunch was served at a restaurant built by Saddam as a private dining facility, with the conspicuous opulence of carvings, chandeliers, and his name carved in everything. The food was traditional, Iraqi style lamb with rice and bean soup, and lots of unleavened bread. Then we got a personalized tour of the ruins, guided by the Deputy Director.
According to the Deputy Director, Babylon – the gateway to heaven or gateway to gods – was established by Hammurabi about two centuries Before the Common Era. It was later ruled by Nebuchednazzar around 600 BCE, followed by Cyrus and Alexander.
Sadly the ruins were ruined by Saddam, who in 1982 rebuilt major sections of the ruins by rebuilding walls above the existing ruined structures – one can see where the lower sections of the walls and structures are the original ruins, and the upper sections are the new structures. Allegedly each of the bricks used in the new construction has Saddam’s initials carved in! Not only did Saddam rebuild many of the ruins, he also created an artificial mound and built a huge palace on top. Talk about hubris.
The ruins include a number of palaces, temples, bazaars, streets, gates, and other structures.
Luckily the Gate of Ishtar and the Procession Street have been left intact – on the Gate of Ishtar one can see the beautiful relief work of real and mythical animals that project out of the brickwork.
In one of the squares is a basaltic rock sculpture of a lion on top and a human at the bottom – the Babylonian Lion, symbolizing the lion’s power and the human’s humility. The lion has been defaced pretty badly – the Deputy Director informed us that workers who had found the lion thought there was gold inside the lion’s body and in trying to access the same had broken off the face.
Another myth ruined for me – very much like the myth of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny ruined for children – is that I learned that one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, was just a myth perpetrated by Herodotus. According to the Deputy Director, there never has been a Hanging Gardens. Here I was, all excited about seeing another ancient wonder (I have seen most of the ancient and modern wonders of the world), only to discover there never was one! Regardless, Babylon is awe inspiring – that anywhere between three and four thousand years ago, there were people who built beautiful and precise structures, and the animal reliefs on the brick are indeed a sight to behold.
As we drove back to the IZ in Baghdad, we discussed Babylon, Saddam, Iraq, the lost generations and lost opportunities, and what the future holds, particularly of what our US colleges of agriculture can do to help. We will work to develop a concept note that will recommend the Iraqis consider modeling their agricultural colleges after the landgrant model. It will be interesting to see how it might be received and what becomes of it.
The return trip, which lasted for nearly two hours, retraced the morning’s outbound trip.