Friday, August 22, 2008

Field Trip!

Mom Alert!!! – Mom and Marilyn will probably want to skip this blog entry. Click here instead to revisit a nice post from the past.

This week I got to benefit from one of the perks of working in the front office. One of Ambassador Crocker’s Special Advisors had an open seat in a helicopter he was taking to visit a port of entry on the Iraqi border with Iran. He asked if I would be interested in tagging along. Um, yeah.

So I donned my PPE (personal protective equipment) and we headed out to catch our ride on a Blackhawk helicopter. There were 2 Blackhawks, the first one carried the “important” principals, the second one carried me and another traveler. Flying above Iraq in a Blackhawk surrounded by 5 well-formed, well-armed soldiers… at the risk of sounding like Paris Hilton, that’s hot!

In the background is the Blackhawk, right behind me is the Hummer-tank vehicle.

From the landing zone, we traveled to the border crossing in a vehicle that I can only describe as a cross between a Hummer and a tank. Once we reached the port of entry, we were allowed to take off our PPE and we took a tour of the facility. There’s a lot of activity there. Some 200-300 people cross every day, mostly Iranian religious pilgrims visiting holy sites in Iraq. There are also dozens of trucks and oil tankers that pass through every day. The American and Iraqi soldiers do a great job managing so much in-processing and out-processing of people and vehicles.

At one point, we were standing at the small gate that divides Iraq and Iran. I never imagined myself standing at a border crossing into Iran. The atmosphere wasn’t as tense as you would think. The soldiers tell us that their relationship with the Iranian soldiers is cordial. We didn’t have any interactions with the Iranian soldiers, though.

The covered areas are the pedestrian in and out-processing lines;

the oil tankers are waiting to go through; beyond is the Iraqi desert.

It was an interesting trip and quite an adventure.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It's Like Wonderland, But With Guns

It’s surprising how quickly one can adjust to a surreal environment. Perhaps it’s the surrealness (I just created that word) that actually makes it easier to adjust. If the environment is so far beyond “normal,” then your mind won’t even try to recognize it as normal. Your brain tells you, “You’re in Wonderland, so just deal with it.”

The embassy in Baghdad is unlike any other mission in the world. As one person described it – it’s the largest, most complicated inter-agency beast ever devised by mankind. It’s difficult to describe the experience in a way that can be grasped by someone who isn’t here. Let’s start with the Palace. Yes, the embassy currently resides in one of Saddam’s former palaces. It takes me anywhere from 5-10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. I’ve only gotten lost once.

Security here is unlike at any other mission. Not only do we have a huge staff of Foreign Service security agents, there is a large number of contactors. I would estimate that half of the people under “chief of mission” authority are security folks. Add to that the large number of uniformed military wandering the Palace and the surrounding compound. To put it simply, there are a lot of people with guns.

The hours are long, but not insane. This is not really a bad thing because I’m still learning what people do when they’re not working. I bounce back and forth between the compound (where we live and will eventually work) and the Palace. This weekend I may wander across the street to a local market and also accompany a colleague to the rug store. I may also go over to one of the pools. The food is… decent. I won’t starve here, but I won’t get much culinary delight either. We have kitchens in our apartments, but there’s no place to buy groceries (hence my trip across the street to the local market).

The apartments are comfortable. To accommodate a larger-than-planned number of residents, they converted one-bedroom apartments into two-bedroom apartments by turning the living room into a second bedroom. So we have our own bedroom and share a kitchen & bathroom. There’s a gym at the compound that I go to whenever I can. Overall, the daily routine is fairly monotonous. The movie “Groundhog Day” is a common reference among employees.

Working in the front office will be a great learning experience. I can already tell that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I don’t regret for a second my decision to come here. My portfolio includes the Political-Military section, the Public Affairs section, Hostage Affairs and a whole lot of acronyms I couldn’t begin to explain. That probably sounds more impressive than it is. I move paper back and forth. But I get to read a lot of interesting things.

With all the hoopla last year about the State Department possibly “forcing” diplomats to serve here, it’s surprising how many people here have either extended their tours or have returned for a second tour. Even with all the frustrations, inconveniences and dangers, there are a lot of people who love what they do and are very committed. I’m proud to be counted among them.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Finally in the International Zone

Well the journey from D.C. to the International Zone (aka "Green Zone") took longer than expected, but I arrived safely Thursday evening. I had an overnight flight from D.C. to Paris, then arrived in Amman, Jordan the following night... without my luggage, which decided to stay in Paris for a while. The next day, I gathered with a bunch of other diplomat types at the Amman airport, only to learn that a sandstorm in Baghdad cancelled the military flight that day, forcing a 4-day delay in Amman. I did a little sightseeing in Amman, namely the Dead Sea and the baptism site at the Jordan River. But mostly I tried to take it easy and enjoy the beautiful Amman weather.

The military flight from Amman to Baghdad Airport was on a C17 or was it a C130? I don't know the difference. A big cargo plane. Very smooth and uneventful. There aren't any windows so you can't see anything. As I walked down the ramp after we landed, the blast of hot air almost knocked me over. I think it was at least 115 degrees when we arrived. I picked up my flak jacket and helmet. The precise weight of the jacket, according to informed security sources, is "over 20 pounds." Wearing the flak jacket and the helmet that's one size too big made carrying my baggage (it caught up with me in Amman) in the heat a struggle (but probably quite entertaining for onlookers). I had a brief wait at the Baghdad airport before a few of us crammed into a helicopter for a quick ride to the International Zone. Thus was my arrival to the IZ - hot, covered in dust and sweat, hair all over the place, wearing 20+ pounds of bullet-proof gear and carrying a duffle bag and backpack. A diplomat's life is very glamorous!

I'm still figuring out how things operate here. There's a lot of in-processing paperwork and procedures I still haven't finished. But I'm adjusting quickly to life here. I can even stand the heat if I don't have to be walking around outside for more than 15 minutes at a time. My biggest accomplishment is finding my way from the shuttle stop to my desk at the complete opposite side of the Palace without getting lost (the embassy offices are still in the Palace until we move into the new compound). This is unlike any other embassy in the world. Just the number of people here is astounding - most of them carry weapons. Lots of military and security.
I feel quite safe so far. Some colleagues took me on a driving tour of Baghdad the other day and I learned what are safe areas and what areas to avoid. The DCM staff (that's what I am) has access to 2 cars, which I didn't know. So I can actually drive somewhere in the IZ if I need to. I have a feeling I'll use the motorpool and their driver instead. It's strange to see the reaction to the Duck & Cover alarm here as opposed to in Bucharest. People take alarms very seriously here, if you're not under hard cover when it sounds, you drop what you're doing and run like crazy to the nearest bunker. Don't bother asking me specifics about the alarms or incoming fire, I can't answer. Like I said, I feel quite safe so far.

I'll write more about my job and daily life at a later date. Up until today, most of my time has been spent on administrative stuff and just getting acquainted with the sections I'll be working with. But I can tell you already that the hours are long!

It feels great to finally be here. I know it will be an exciting adventure. Stay tuned!