December 5, 2009
Our day started at 5:00 am. We caught taxis to the Amman airport for our flight to Baghdad. Although it was still dark, there were a lot of early risers up and about. In general Jordanian taxi drivers drive fast, weaving in an out of lanes. Luckily the roads are really good. Going through security was a cinch, as was getting our boarding passes.
We were at the gate for Baghdad by 6:30 am. The flight itself left on time – a 75 minute journey heading east. My seatmate, Rashid, I learned works as a bureaucrat in the Iraqi electricity department in Baghdad. He was telling me things have indeed improved significantly. He told me that life was slowly, but surely returning to normal and for the better. He reminded me to be sure to eat samak al maskof (a fish dish) and drink arak, a date liquor. I don’t know if I will get to or not. We’ll see.
Flying over the Iraqi landscape, for the most part is desert, but just east of Baghdad in Anbar province, the airplane started descending and flew over the Euphrates river and valley, a patchwork of agricultural fields – what looked like irrigated winter wheat, date plantations, and greenhouses. From my vantage point of several thousand feet, wheat germination appeared to be patchy. Apparently, the date palms have also been devastated in the recent past by an insect; and with everyone being busy with the war, many trees have been killed. On top of the war, the whole country has been experiencing a drought for the last seven or eight years.
The Royal Jordanian Embraer 195 jet landed as scheduled, and rolled to the terminal building – to a whole bunch of news photographers and videographers waiting for the plane.
For a second, I thought they were there to welcome us, only to discover they were there, along with the Iraqi deputy sports minister, to welcome Falah Hassan, a star footballer – the Pele of Iraq, who was returning home after a hiatus of nearly 20 years. Apparently he lives in Detroit, and was returning home to a hero’s welcome. He is to help Iraq’s sporting efforts.
We walked into a really crowded terminal building, full of contract workers and businessmen from around the world.
After securing visas with the help of Ali, an Iraqi national, we were welcomed by Taylor and a group of private security personnel with a private security company called Aegis. Private security is big business in Iraq, and the personnel are all former soldiers, US, British, and others. Aegis is a company not dissimilar to Blackwater.
We were escorted by the Aegis personnel to a parking area to bullet-proofed Toyota SUVs. We had our own convoy of SUVs, each with a driver and another individual who literally rode shotgun, i.e., carried an automatic rifle, smoke bombs, etc. The personnel are called personal security detail – PSDs. The convoy had a lead vehicle, the Alpha vehicle; Lee Sanderson, a civilian DoD employee and our host, and I were assigned to the Bravo vehicle. We had several more SUVs for my cohorts, with a vehicle in the back with well-armed individuals.
Each of us was given an IBA – Individual Body Armor, which must weigh about 25 pounds, and a Kevlar helmet.
My PSD, Chad, a former British soldier from Plymouth, briefed me on security procedures. I was asked for the last four digits of my social security number and my blood type – O+. Then he briefed me on what I was to do in case we encountered insurgents or other problems – basically, avoid looking out the window, get the hell down, and stay low!
Our ride from the airport to the guesthouse – Park Edge – took almost an hour on a road with numerous checkpoints and numerous Iraqi military vehicles with gun turrets and well-armed personnel.
At one checkpoint, an Iraqi soldier with a little gizmo in his hand that looked like a gun with an antenna walked by our SUV; the antenna turned towards us, almost like a divining rod. I go, “oops”. Chad says that those are supposed to detect bombs and bomb materials, but he thought they were an expensive rip off that the Iraqis loved, but which most of the time gave false positive signals. Cesar, our Iraqi driver, got out of the SUV and talked to the Iraqi soldier in Arabic, and then the soldier motioned for us to go on. I gave him a victory sign and the guy started laughing. Kind of reminded me of keystone cops, but these guys were armed with serious weapons.
Entry into the International Zone – IZ – was through a checkpoint.
Once through the checkpoint, you could get the feeling that we were entering a sort of a garrison, with
concrete walls – they call ‘em T-Walls (from Tennessee Walls), and apparently each one costs $1,500. Someone is making a lot of money!
We arrived at our guesthouse – basically a compound with high walls topped by concertina wire, and a whole bunch of black-clad, gun toting, security guards. We were welcomed to our abode by an American – Travis. The facility has a couple of buildings with comfortable sleeping rooms, and a very nicely appointed kitchen, living room, and dining room.
The security guards are Hondurans. The custodial staff is Filipino. The chef is an Indian. The wait staff is Nepali. A veritable United Nations.
We were welcomed by another civilian DoD staff member, Hope, a recent Harvard graduate and colleague of Lee’s. We were briefed by Travis, Hope, and Lee – about the guesthouse, security, and what to do in case we were attacked by mortar or rockets – just stay low is the basic message.
As we were being briefed, I could hear the thumpa, thumpa, thumpa of helicopters circling, which reminded me of MASH. I was waiting for the theme music to start up! Of course, this is not MASH and there is no Radar or Honeycutt or Hawkeye or Hot Lips Houlihan. This is a combat zone. This is serious.
Dr. Ahmed Araji, an Iraqi native and professor of agricultural economics at the University of Idaho, who is serving on an IPA (Interagency Personnel Act) assignment for the Task Force to help develop the agricultural infrastructure, met with us and gave us an overview of the itinerary for our visit. Ahmed is well connected, both professionally and personally. Over lunch – baked chicken, fish, rice pilaf, salads, vegetables, and dessert – we discussed the expected outcomes for our visit.
Iraq has seen a significant brain drain, either because of people leaving or retiring, in all areas of academic endeavor, but particularly so in agriculture. Dr. Araji lamented that 85% of the food is imported into Iraq, which just a few years back used to feed the region. They face low productivity, drought, lack of infrastructure for storage and transportation, etc., etc. The country is rebuilding itself, and part of this rebuilding effort is to train the future and to help build capacity. The Iraqis are interested in sending 10,000 students, with nearly 1,000 in the agricultural disciplines, for graduate education, particularly to institutions in the States. Our conversation revolved around the Iraqi needs, and the capabilities land grant universities offer that could potentially help meet the same.
After a short break – many of us took powernaps, we hopped in a pair of black Chevy Suburbans, one driven by Lee and another driven by John from Manchester, England, a former British soldier with Aegis.
They took us around the IZ/Green Zone to show us the sights – Saddam’s highly fortified buildings hit by JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions), the Swords of Qādisīyah, also called the Hands of Victory, a pair of arches in central Baghdad, which were built to commemorate Iraq’s war with Iran, and
at the base of which are alleged Iranian helmets,
the new US Embassy under construction guarded by Peruvian security guards,
the Babylon Hotel (from the roof of which US Networks broadcast their coverage of the war against Saddam), various ministries and other government buildings,guarded by Ghanaian and Ugandan security guards.
The roads are eerily devoid of traffic, other than the occasional car or Humvee with Iraqi soldiers driving really fast;
at one point, we were passed by a convoy of fast, white SUVs, lights flashing and sirens blaring, and John said that was the Iraqi president. Driving around in the Green Zone, one gets a claustrophobic sense because of the T-walls that make the roads feel narrow. Then there are other areas that are completely open – with unfinished buildings from Saddam’s era. While Baghdad has a number of green areas and there are palm trees and shrubs lining some roads, it has a dusty, brown ambience. The buildings, behind high walls, tend to have a brown adobe façade
Our day ended with a wonderful visit with Dr. Sami Araji, Chairman of the Iraqi National Investment Commission, a Michigan State University graduate and Dr. Ahmed Araji’s cousin. Sami is a passionate man, and wants to make a difference for the Iraqi’s, including helping develop capacity by sending bright young men and women to America to be educated, like he was well over forty-five years ago. He is a true believer in the land grant approach, and made a passionate plea to us to help his country by offering opportunities to young Iraqis to be educated at our universities. He truly is a breath of fresh air. If he has his way, I am certain Iraq will do well. The evening ended with our eating dinner with him. The food, cooked and served by Indians, included chicken, beef, pork, various vegetables, soup, and desserts. Sami and Ahmed are both wonderful conversationalists – we talked about (American) college football, politics, the security concerns in Iraq, the global economy, Iraq’s future, their children, etc.
A nice end to a long day.
Tomorrow we visit the University of Baghdad College of Agriculture at Abu Ghraib. I am looking forward to it.