Saturday, June 30, 2007

Baghdad Finale (pics)

29 Jun 07
Just back from what should be my last trip to Baghdad. This one was a bit different from all the others in that I was actually there for work vice professional education. Scifi and I attended a conference in the International Zone (the “IZ”…aka the “Green Zone”).

We had to take a helicopter ride over from Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) to a landing zone in the IZ near the US Embassy. It was an interesting ride but it was over entirely too quickly. From the air, it looks like any city anywhere in the world; people were walking and driving everywhere. I only saw large concentrations of people at checkpoints.

Scifi pointed out a massive mosque that was under construction and it was encouraging to see large scale construction in the city. When we landed, however, he explained that Saddam began the mosque during the regime and intended it to be the largest mosque in the world. They were well into the project when Saddam learned another Arab country was building a larger mosque so Saddam simply canceled all construction on the Baghdad mosque. It looked like it would have been amazing but obviously was being built for the wrong reason.

We stayed in tents at the Embassy which was Saddam’s Presidential Palace in Baghdad. We were allowed to roam the Embassy grounds freely. I expected gaudy and over the top but the compound was actually very nice. We even took advantage of the opportunity to swim in Saddam’s pool.

The IZ is in the middle of Baghdad and is simply a section of the city that has more stringent security than the rest of Baghdad to ensure security for Coalition personnel. There are apartment complexes within the IZ which house everyday Iraqis that come and go thru the checkpoints.

The security checkpoints were interesting. At first glance the guards look like Iraqis but when they speak to you it’s in Spanish. All of the checkpoints are managed by USMC personnel but are actually manned by the firm Triple Canopy which hired an army of Peruvians to man the gates. At one point we needed directions to our destination. It was another of those surreal moments when, in downtown Baghdad, I asked for and received directions in Spanish from the Peruvian guard.

As we left the guard post we walked past the bombed out hulk of Believer’s Palace. It was across the street from Saddam’s Palace and looked like a palace on the outside but it was actually a chemical protection shelter Saddam had built to protect him against a chemical attack from Iran. The Coalition supposedly named it “Believer’s Palace” when someone saw the palace and proclaimed “I believe one more JDAM/bomb would have finished it.”

There were civilians everywhere and at dinner one night I sat across from a State Dept employee. I asked if the majority of civilians were State Dept employees (considering it was the Embassy it seemed obvious). He said the majority were actually, Dept of Agriculture, FBI, and Dept of Interior and that there were relatively few State Dept folks.

Scifi had an additional day for the conference so several of us had the day off and took advantage to shop a little. One of the guys and I ran a 5K that was scheduled for the day after we left but the sports director said he’d give us the T-shirt if we ran the race. The route was from the Embassy down to the gravel road along the Tigris/Dijila River. The T-wall is some 20 feet high there so there was no chance of seeing the river.

The last night we were scheduled out on a Blackhawk helicopter but got weather canceled so we walked down to the Rhino Runner terminal to see if we could get a ride back to BIAP via the Rhino Runner (essentially a super armored vehicle). The Rhino ride was interesting and we rode past the Iraqi Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Victory Over Iran monument which is the avenue with the crossed sabers you often see from the regime when Saddam would review military parades. Once we left the IZ we headed down Route Irish to BIAP and arrived in the wee hours.

The following day I got up early and caught an IqAF C-130 down to Basrah. Enroute we stopped at Talil AB to pick up some Iraqi passengers. As we took back off I saw the Great Ziggurat of Ur built by the Sumerians over 4000 years ago. At one time, Ur was the oldest know city in the world (and may well still be).

Back in Basrah by 1500…great trip.

1 comment:

emitch1 said...

I think Ur is where Abraham was from. Very cool!