December 8, 2009
We were informed last night to be ready by 8:15 this morning to leave for the University of Anbar Agricultural College in Ramadi, Anbar province, which is approximately 100 km from Baghdad. In addition, Dr. Ahmed Araji had made arrangements for us to visit with the Governor of the province as well. I was anticipating a good, productive day of meetings.
Anbar province, particularly Fallujah and Ramadi, has seen its share of intense fighting and violence, but has in the recent past calmed down tremendously. However, because of the bombing of a school last night in Baghdad, some recent instances of bridges being blown up in Ramadi, etc., I thought that this trip might be a bit more interesting.
Our PSD met with us at 8:15 this morning, and we got dressed up in our usual IBA, helmet, etc., and Taylor informed Ahmed that the visit to the Governor’s office was out, because that was not on our original itinerary, and the PSD needed to have the Marine Expeditionary Forces’ approval at least 72 h in advance on our itinerary, including any changes. The MEF provides intelligence, air support and other information about conditions to the PSD. Dr. Araji was very upset with Taylor, but really he couldn’t push this any further because the PSD was basically hired to protect us. I can understand Ahmed’s concern as well – not only was there going to be loss of face for not meeting with the Governor, but also could be a lost opportunity to engage the political muscle to help the universities. Regardless, we settled in to our respective SUVs, and headed out.
Yet again we were to go through Camp Victory to avoid some rough areas; additionally, our Bravo SUV needed gasoline – these vehicles are huge and also weighted down with the extra weight of armor, and get only about 5 miles or so per gallon. It took us quite some time to make our way into the interior of Camp Victory – going through checkpoints and the signs all over: “Deadly Force Authorized.” Camp Victory likely is more than 20,000 acres in area – driving around looking for gasoline took almost 45 minutes.
We got to see Al-Faw Palace, along with multiple smaller palaces, built by Saddam for his and his family’s and friends’ use, with a lake for fishing, animal preserve for hunting, and beautiful surroundings. Al-Faw Palace now serves as Gen. Odierno’s command center, and apparently is beautifully appointed.
We also saw the billets, housing, logistical support, Quartermasters area, fuel area, tanks, Humvees, MRAPs, APCs, soldiers, civilians, etc., etc. The logistical challenge of supporting 150,000 soldiers could be seen in the expanse of Camp Victory, and it reminded me of Napoleon’s saying: “An army marches on its stomach.”
We finally left Camp Victory and made our way to a really nice six-lane highway heading west to Ramadi. As we were leaving Camp Victory, we discovered that there had been some bombings in Baghdad, but did not know the details.
Just about 30 km out of Baghdad the scene is desert-like. Sand and the occasional small brush. The desert stretches as far as the Jordanian/Syrian border. As during the previous couple of days we ran into numerous checkpoints, American and Iraqi convoys, long lines of 18-wheelers carrying all manner of supplies to Ramadi and other towns in Anbar province.
We drove by the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, which had a terrible reputation during Saddam’s time, and which has become infamous now because of what a few of our soldiers did to some Iraqi prisoners – as we drove by I could visualize images of the prisoners being tortured, a shameful act by a few that damaged our efforts. Cesar, our Iraqi driver – whose real name is Ahmed – informed us that Abu Ghraib has been shut down.
Further down the road we bypassed Fallujah – a place where there was ferocious fighting, and which now is relatively quiet.
Along the highway there are signs of the carnage perpetrated by the insurgents, including the destruction of powerlines.
Our convoy arrived at the University of Anbar campus in Ramadi, about an hour to 90 minutes behind schedule.
Ramadi sits on the Euphrates River – I was surprised how clean the water looked as it rushed out of the sluices of a dam in the middle of town. We had to wait for the campus security to confirm that indeed we were to be allowed to go in – that’s another thing one sees around campuses in Iraq: a lot of security and gun-toting guards.
After what appeared to be an interminable wait – during which time we got to see campus life ebb and flow, with the movement of students in their uniform black and white clothes going back and forth between classes or whatever else they were doing, we were allowed to go to the administration building. We met with the president and deans of medicine, physical education, and science. We had an excellent conversation with the group – yet again the issues brought up were the need to provide training to their existing faculty and graduate education. The president informed us that Anbar University will provide scholarships for students to study in US universities and stipends for faculty to spend short term and sabbatical leaves. This of course was music to our ears, and all of us, after giving an overview of our programs, offered to partner with Anbar University on offering educational/training opportunities to students and faculty. I believe there is a pent up demand for the same – the last almost three decades have wreaked havoc on the educational infrastructure and capacity, and the Iraqis are looking to regain their capabilities. We also discussed creating MOUs as a framework for offering the same.
We wrapped up our meeting with the president and deans and decided to go to see the College of Agriculture campus and dean and department heads. Well, we butted right up into Taylor who insisted we could not go to the agriculture campus as that was not on the original itinerary approved with the help of the MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force). Dr. Araji insisted that we had to go to the agriculture campus – after all we were there to meet with the agriculture folks. It took nearly an hour to get the approval from the MEF. There was a sort of standoff between Taylor and Dr. Araji, with Ahmed becoming irritated and Taylor wanting to be protective, but luckily we got the approval. Overlaid on this standoff was the situation in Baghdad – where we discovered there had been several coordinated bombings, including at a university campus and some ministries. Legitimately, Taylor and the PPOs thought of this, but were completely comfortable knowing they could protect our safety.
It took us nearly 30 minutes to get to the agriculture campus, and which left only 30 minutes for us to meet with the agriculture dean and department heads – because the PSD likes to return to the IZ in Baghdad before dark, and it was already 2:30 pm, and it would be about a two-hour drive back. In the winter darkness settles in at 5:00ish.
We settled in to a conference room with nearly two-dozen individuals from the college and ourselves. It was a packed room, and we reminded everyone that we only had 30 minutes to spend with them. The dean gave a short welcome and appreciated our visit and described issues that he would like our help on – capacity and infrastructure building, education and training, etc. Each one of our party did an elevator speech on our respective institutions, strengths, English language institutes, majors, etc.
In the middle, the dean asked if we could eat lunch – and when reminded that we only had a few minutes, he said no problem and that lunch could be delivered to the conference room. Wouldn’t you know it – lunch arrived – platters of wonderful bread, flavorful grilled meat, relish, and salads, and no plates and cutlery. As the conversation continued, we dug in to the platters – I grabbed a piece of the bread, rolled some lamb shish kabob, hot relish and onions, and started eating. It was delicious. Traditional Iraqi food eaten in the traditional Iraqi family style! We literally broke bread with our Iraqi cohorts.
I have discovered Iraqis to be incredibly hospitable, loving, and genuinely concerned about their institutions and the young people. Of course the reverie of eating this wonderful food didn’t last long, because Paul, one of the PPOs walked in to remind us it was time to leave. It was amazing – almost in mid-sentence and mid-mouthful, we got up to leave. In some ways it was embarrassing to our hosts and to us. But I could see that Paul was very concerned that we needed to be out of there so we could return to the IZ before dark. We bid goodbyes and left.
On our trip out of Ramadi we could see many buildings pockmarked with bullet holes; bridges destroyed; buildings destroyed. Yet, there is this incredible amount of reconstruction as well – we drove through some neighborhoods of beautiful mansions and bungalows. On a previous occasion in Baghdad we had seen a statue of a human figure with wings poised to fly – I had commented that that might be the Phoenix rising.
As we were driving through Ramadi and seeing all of the new construction, I was reminded of that statue – I think if the security issues are dealt with, Iraq has a great future ahead, and I can see the Phoenix rising out of the ashes of Saddam’s and the insurgents’ tyranny.
The return trip was contemplative, and also full of conversations about the colleges we had visited, the need for development efforts in education, food, agriculture, and economic and community development; the need for coordination between the different Iraqi entities and the different US entities; the strengths US landgrants could bring to help; and the bombings in Baghdad and if that would dampen development efforts.
The evening – our last evening together, as we are scheduled to leave to head back to the States tomorrow as some of our visits were canceled due – was spent at dinner with Dr. Araji, Bob Love, a former US Marine Colonel and now a member of the task force hosting us, Lee, Hope, and Danielle. We ate a wonderful meal of traditional Iraqi food – rice, bread, grilled chicken, lamb, hummus, salads, mashed eggplant, stuffed (with a spicy rice) pepper, stuffed onions, stuffed eggplant, olives, etc., etc., and the most wonderful baklava! The conversation during dinner was on development versus just giving aid and walking away. On the things we saw and heard. On the politics of relationships and networks. On the impact of the bombings and continued insurgency. Needless to say we are all on the same page, i.e., it is not just enough to give aid and walk away, and that despite the insurgency, there needs to be efforts to help build capacity and infrastructure, not only in Iraq but also in other countries. I pointed out to Bob how US investment in development aid had dropped from 18% of all aid in the early 1980s to less than 2%, and that needed to be reversed, if we are going to be able to turn the tide of poverty, terrorism, population growth, disease, and environmental degradation in developing countries. I think we have an opportunity to be involved in these efforts in Iraq and other places in a deep and meaningful way – Dr. Araji and his cohorts are committed to helping make this happen within Iraq.