Rust and paint (17)

September 11, 2006

It was a graveyard. That was the only way to describe it. The place where old war machines came to die. Row upon row of massive sand-colored metal tanks, their huge guns each raised to a different height, sat there like a frozen image of a clumsy chorus line.

There weren't just tanks either, massive artillery pieces, trucks, strange amphibious vehicles that looked half boat – an automotive mating ritual gone horribly wrong, and all covered in the graffiti of their conquerors.

Beneath the layers of black spray paint could be seen the original unit designations of these shattered old Iraqi tanks left to rust in a field at the edge of Taji base, somewhere north of Baghdad.
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Shit's Creek (16)

August 6, 2006

We were nearing the end of our patrol when we got a call about a UXO incident – unexploded ordnance. Someone, somewhere had found some kind of exploded bomb and we were sent to deal with it.

Actually, our patrol was just there to secure the area and provide security while the EOD (explosives ordnance disposal or something, I swear, it's a new acronym every day) was called in to clean up the mess of the war.

It turned out to be an unexploded mortar shell in a particular poor area somewhere in southwest Baghdad, a Shiite neighborhood not far from a Sunni neighborhood, another one of these fault lines in the city.
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Unexpected support (15)

August 2, 2006

In the midst of this whole mess, the last place I expected to find people who liked America was west Baghdad.

West Baghdad, roughly speaking, is the Sunni part of a very mixed city, and has the distinction of being the home to a pretty nasty insurgency for the last few years – you wanna get kidnapped, go to west Baghdad, where they also shoot men for wearing shorts and women for not wearing veils.

US troops turned the place over to the Iraqi army back in December, all part of that process of Bush calls our stepping down as the Iraqis step up... Except it all went to hell so badly that in April the US army had to move back in – I don't think that was mentioned in the state of the union address.

Now, the whole capital's going to hell in a handbasket and the same process is being repeated across the city as more US troops are being rushed in. Six weeks into the new prime minister's security plan, it's worse than ever here and the Iraqi forces have shown themselves unable to control their own capital.

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Not okay (14)

July 11, 2006

It was supposed to get better. That was my tacit, agreement with myself about coming here. The idea being that 2005 was a bad year, some kinks had to be worked out and then this year it would all get better.

There were to be elections, and then a new government and then Iraqis would take over the running of things, the insurgency would be defeated or re-absorbed, the Americans would leave and the streets would be safe again.

And most importantly I would be able walk through a marketplace – which as far as I'm concerned is the God-given right of anyone living in a Middle Eastern city and something I have yet to do here.
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Wadis have loose sediment (13)

June 6, 2006

Last Saturday, I went to see a mass grave.

I have to say that ranked up there with one of the more disturbing experiences, if just for some its mundane details. We were flown out there by the Americans to some god forsaken spot in the middle of the desert early in the morning. When we arrived we were taken into a large air-conditioned tent, rather like half a cylinder with a long table inside and a fridge full of cold water and this lean spare man, "Sonny" proceeded to give us a briefing on... well how people kill other people.

Iraq you see, is underlain by a stratum of gypsum, a hard chalky substance that makes digging difficult. As a result, if you need to bury someone quickly, you need to find a place where the soil is loose.
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Lobster, grilled fish (12)

May 31, 2006

The other day I got to experience one of the few perks of the job out here and attended a monthly lunch for journalists thrown by Baghdad division commander, Major General J.D. Thurman of the 4th Infantry Division.

I had to use his name in a story once and asked a subordinate what the "J" stood for and he blanched and said he'd have to get back to me. J.D.'s a beefy fellow from Oklahoma who describes himself as a "straight shooter" who just wants to touch base with us folks every month or so.

I'll give him this, he put on an impressive spread of t-bone steaks, lobster, shrimp and grilled chicken (where does this stuff come from?) before subjecting himself to our barrage of questions about why this place is such a mess.
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Half way (11)

May 14, 2006

It was hard coming back. I mean it's never easy, but this time around, after three weeks in Cairo and getting married, it just seemed that much tougher. I also knew, I was now half way done.

I waited two hours at the airport until the security team was free to come pick me up. Already in May, the hot wind was like a hair dryer in the face, presaging just how awful it would get over the next few weeks.

We worked our way through light midday traffic, through a city so broken down that it makes Cairo look leafy. A blue and white police pickup truck with mounted machine gun pulled up next to us and I slumped lower in my seat. As it passed, I saw that the back of it was filled with blood spattered corpses, limp hands and feet dangling over the tailgate.
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Getting Along (10)

April 16, 2006

Iraq is a flat country. No, mean really flat. Even the topographically challenged Nile valley comes across as lumpy compared to the pancake flat perfection of Iraq's landscape.

I took a chopper up north the other day, stopped by Tikrit, home of the big guy, and then moved on to Kirkuk the next day. The countryside below me was stunning for its flatness and aridity.

No wonder the Sunnis are so scared about the north and south splitting off-those areas have water and oil--the Sunni center of the country (from what little I've observed from the chopper flightpaths) has, um, some severely moisture-challenged farmland.
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A statistic (9)

April 6, 2006

He was described to me once as the office’s very own little Saddam Hussein. Salah Jali doesn’t really have a proper title, but he’s one of the mainstays of the AFP Baghdad bureau.
After the all important tech guy, Salah is the only one who has his own private office from where he rules the bureau. Daily there is a line of petitioners at his door who come to sit in the little chairs placed in front of his desk.
When it comes to the bureaucracy of the daily functioning of the office or even the bureaucracy of the outside world, Salah is your man.
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Careful what you wish for (8)

March 28, 2006

I came back from my latest break in Cairo and then spent an entire week cooped inside the Baghdad hotel where the office is.

Outside Iraqis wondered whether full blown civil war had broken out as the tide of tortured corpses mounts, while inside I was wondering why I always had to ask for the damn Nescafe at the breakfast buffet.

Just as I was going completely stir crazy, I had to get out of there. And then I had one of those careful-what-you-wish-for moments, or in more apocalyptic terms, I wanted a mission and for my sins they gave me one.
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How did he drive? (7)

February 27, 2006

And then I suddenly realized, there was no way weren’t going to hit that car. It’s that moment in every traffic accident, that you know there is no avoiding the collision, and you brace yourself.

Mind you, I wasn’t actually all that worried, we were in a heavily armored humvee and the rickety white and orange taxi stuck in front of us didn’t look particularly impressive.

Our convoy had come barreling through the intersection the way most US military convoys do, sirens blaring for everyone to get out of the way, except that two cars tried to race across first and then somehow got into each other’s way.

The soldier in the gun turret yelled, worked the siren and then threw noisy stun grenades to get their attention. And then we slammed into the taxi.
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What happened to the shoe? (6)

January 24, 2006

You could feel the reverberation of the explosion in your chest as it shattered the morning calm of the office.

We always hear bombs from around Baghdad from our 7th floor perch overlooking the city, but usually they are just distant thuds that sends everyone to the balcony, scanning the skyline for the telltale plume of smoke.

This time though, there was no need to go looking as the sudden flash only 200 meters away followed by the a massive boom made it pretty clear where it was coming from.
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You know it’s time to leave when… (5)

December 28, 2005

It was a publicity stunt, pure and simple—a photo op, a silly event, but it got me out of the office, and well, I’d had a few when the embassy guy called me up the night before to see if I would go and cover it.

So there I am, at 8am on a frigid morning, a bit hungover, waiting in the Green Zone to be picked up to watch the US ambassador and the marine corps hand out gifts to little children as part of the marines’ longstanding “Toys for Tots” campaign.

I hate the word “tots”. In fact, not just the word, hate tots in general.

But I only have a few days left, and I can’t stand to be in the office typing up the daily death tolls anymore (for those counting 24 died on Wednesday, 11 on Tuesday, about 20 on Monday), so why not?
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But what kind of movie? (4)

December 20, 2005

We settled into the cramped confines of the armored humvee, its interior looking for all the world like some teenagers messy pickup truck—Coke cans, food wrappers, magazines and then the less prosaic stuff, gas grenade, assault rifles, ammo.

The lieutenant in the front seat was a friendly guy from Nebraska, in fact the whole convoy consisted of boys from Nebraska attached to the local marine unit occupying Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s far western province of Anbar.

“Lot of soldiers like to come out here,” he said as we pulled out of the marine base on the outskirts and headed into town. “Here’s where all the action is, not like Camp Cupcake out west.”
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Scene from court (3)

December 13, 2005

So I missed him.

The old man. The fallen lion, the devil on earth. The one who looms over this whole post-invasion mess, whose name I write in articles a dozen times a day.

The day I attended Saddam’s trial, he decided not to. Of course there will be other days. The trial is moving incredibly slowly and this is only the first of what people are saying are going to be a dozen trials.

The three days of testimony only saw about nine witnesses in the first phase of the trial. The defense and the prosecution still have to call their people and at the rate it’s been moving lately, it should last at least another year.
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White birds, black birds (2)

December 1, 2005

The light here is, quite simply, beautiful.

I don’t know if it’s the time of year, or we’ve just been lucky and not had many hazy days but at sunrise and sunset, it’s that sharp golden light that I associate with the desert.

Especially at sunset, the buildings spread out before our hotel turn a bright gold before gently fading into the gathering darkness. The office has bank of windows looking down at one section of the broad Tigris, which winds like a restless brown snake through the center of the city.

Flocks of white gulls are constantly flying along the course of the river. Suddenly they’ll all stop and settle on the water, letting the current carrying them down river before, abruptly, throwing themselves into the air to wheel around a bit more.
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A simple plan (1)

November 24, 2005

The sign as we left airport instructed us to do a number of things. The one that really jumped out at me as we sped by was the order to “lock and load” weapons because we were entering an insecure area—i.e. the rest of the country.

Just boarding the flight in Amman, Jordan for Iraq, it was clear that there was something different about this plane. Most of the passengers were hulking broad shouldered fellows with cold eyes. The grey in their military brush cuts and expanding paunches, were their only concession to age as they go to Iraq to work dangerous security jobs.

The Royal Air Jordan plane in a bit smaller than most and crewed, oddly enough, by South Africans—perhaps because they are particularly good and taking airplanes into a “hostile environment.” There was certainly a special skill to flying that plane as it suddenly twisted into a tight spiral during its approach into Baghdad Airport.
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