Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bye Bye Baghdad

As my departure from Baghdad approaches, I've been thinking about the past year. Here's what I will miss and what I will not miss about Baghdad.

What I won't miss:

Stepping outside and getting sandblasted by 115 degree wind and dirt
Iranian-made rockets
Action memos and 8-page cables

Baked fish and steamed vegetables
Personal Protective Equipment (aka kevlar vest & helmet)



What I will miss:

Some incredible people
Flying in helicopters
Free all-you-can-eat ice cream
Girls night
Big guys with guns opening the door for me
The DFAC when it's decorated for holidays

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Kurdistan Elections

At the end of July, the Kurdistan Regional Government (a semi-autonomous area in northern Iraq) held elections for their parliament and president. I was part of a small team from the embassy that travelled to Erbil for a week to help monitor the voting and ballot counting.

The election monitoring teams were split up, and I travelled to Sulaymania and Dohuk. Each location is about a 3 hour drive from our base in Erbil. Kurdistan is very safe compared to the rest of Iraq; in fact, the Kurds like to boast that not a single American has been killed in the region (I guess that’s true of you don’t count certain cities in disputed areas along the border with the rest of Iraq).

Despite the safer environment, our security was tight. Our convoy included 5 armored Suburbans and 11 armed bodyguards. Our driver was a “banged up” former Special Forces soldier from Georgia wh
o addressed everyone as Sir or Ma’am. We wore our body armor in the car. This was not a low profile movement.

The first day in Sulaymania I observed the special needs voting for the KRG soldiers, called the Peshmerga. The second day in Dohuk I observed the general voting. Our main job was to observe the actual voting process to make sure everything went according to the regulations. But the part I enjoyed the most was talking to the Kurds. Most seemed very happy to answer my questions (through an interpreter), although it’s likely they were just interested in a pleasant distraction from waiting in line in the extraordinary heat.

I was happy to see th
eir enthusiasm and their confidence that this would be a free and fair election. I saw a surprising number of elderly people, but also young people. Some voting centers were more orderly than others, but standing in the heat for a couple hours would make anyone cranky.

As it turned out, the elections had a large turnout and the new opposition party, the Change party, won nearly twice as many parliament seats as expected. It was a historic election and I’m glad I got to see it up close.