Monday, March 24, 2008

Iraq on $5,000 a second: Where to go & what to see

(Photos are of women in the maternity ward of a Haditha hospital, my "can" at Al Asad, view of the pre-fab latrines at Striker and some boys in rural Anbar)

Over the past year, many people have asked me, "Jane, what is it like in Iraq?" I have answered this question in many different ways but today I would like to focus on one aspect of my experience in Iraq -- getting around from one military base to another. Today I'd like to give you a personal tour of what it is actually like to embed in Iraq. Why? Because Lonely Planet hasn't been over there within the last five years. But I have.

Suppose you want to embed in Iraq or maybe even want to enlist. Can you simply turn to the transportation section of "Iraq on $5 a Day" and get all the information you need? No you can't. So I've located a much-neglected niche in the travel guidebook business and I'm gonna fill it. And you don't have to go to Barnes and Noble to buy my guide either. Everything that you need to know is right here. Welcome to "Iraq on $5,000 a Second".

In April of 2007 and then again last October, I embedded with the US military and saw a lot of Iraq from inside the wire. So if you want to get a guidebook to Iraq that will give you travel suggestions on where to go and what to see outside the wire, you are gonna have to contact Dahr Jamal or Aaron Glantz for that kind of stuff. In Anbar province, I was fortunate enough to go out into the towns and villages and meet individual Iraqis, but that was the exception. I met poor farmer families out in the countryside and sheiks and children in the city of Hit and women who had come to a hospital in Haditha to have their babies. And most of the Iraqis I met were dirt-poor -- which is totally ironic because the ground under their feet contains trillions of dollars worth of oil. But I digress. Most of the time I was in Iraq, I was inside the wire.

This is your guidebook to what's happening inside the wire -- an eye-witness account of what the place looks like, how to get around there and what to expect.

The first place that we are going to explore is Baghdad's Green Zone. While I was there in April, that's ALL that I saw. Ask me ANYTHING about the Green Zone! Been there, done that. "But why just the stay in the Green Zone," you might ask. Here's a travel tip. When asking for an embed outside the wire in Iraq, DO NOT write anything unfavorable about John McCain! Directly after I wrote an
article about McCain's so-called stroll through a Baghdad marketplace, I was informed by a fellow reporter that Condoleeza Rice's guys at the State Department were keeping me on a very tight rein and so I only got to see the inside of the Green Zone. Oh well. It just means that I will have to go back.

No, wait. Before I tell you about the Green Zone, I gotta tell you how to get there!

After you either get your embed permission papers from MNFI's CPIC (that stands for "Multi-National Forces Iraq" and its "Combined Press Information Center"), you go to and buy your plane ticket to Kuwait. Bargain Travel always gives you a good rate. The only problem with Bargain Travel tickets is that they are so cheap because they are non-refundable. So make sure that CPIC gives you the green light to come over there first before you buy your ticket or else you will be screwed. And you will have to take the Department of Defense to small claims court to get your money back. Can't you just see it now -- General Petraeus standing up there in front of Judge Judy, arguing his case. "But Your Honor, it wasn't our fault!"

After you have secured your CPIC permission and your plane ticket online, hop onto BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) at the Ashby station and wrangle your 100-odd pounds of luggage off to SFO. Then you fly for 16 hours to Frankfurt and sit around that airport for a day, waiting for your connection to board. Then you fly another six hours to Kuwait and you finally arrive at the Kuwait City international airport, all haggard and jet-lagged. And what does the Kuwait airport look like? It looks exactly like the San Francisco airport. Or the Phoenix airport. Or JFK. Except that most of the guys there are wearing white nightgowns and the ladies are wearing black headscarves.

Then you go try to find your ride out to the nearest US airbase -- there are a lot of US airbases in Kuwait. But where should you look for the person who will give you your ride? At the airport Starbucks, of course.

It used to be that if you couldn't find a ride to the base, you could spend the night in a Barca-Lounger at the KBR office at the airport for free but they closed that one down.

Here comes our ride coordinators. Army officers dressed in Nike T-shirts and Bermuda shorts drive us 40 miles out into the desert in their American SUVs.

The airbase is a tent city. Almost everything you will see on an American military base from this point on is some sort of pre-fab. And because guys build all of these bases and guys maintain them, most of the American stuff you see in Iraq resembles a cross between a Boy Scout camp, a trailer park and a fraternity house. Forget about the fine points of interior decoration. This is a guy thing.

War is a guy thing. It's like football. Only what's going on in Iraq isn't exactly a war. It's more like a barroom brawl, a free-for-all where everyone jumps into the fray -- except instead of fighting over Super Bowl rings, they are all fighting over oil.

After Kuwait, we board a C-130 troop transport plane (wearing our helmets and flak jackets of course) in the middle of the night and head off to BIAP -- Baghdad International Airport. Ha! BIAP consists of four large tents and some picnic tables -- and lots of concrete blast walls.

A bus picks you up at 3 am and takes you off to Camp Striker. More tents. A LOT more tents. Hundreds of them. And lots of soldiers, many in T-shirts and shorts and out for a jog every morning. Striker is a holding pen for troop movements so it's not all that formal. And everyone there eats well -- even you. The food is part of a recruitment campaign to get guys to re-up. The dining facility offers a grand cruise-ship-type buffet. Roast beef, chicken, turkey, salad bar. I recommend the pie but that's just me. You might prefer the build-it-yourself sundaes. But you can't have a beer. And no tequila either. Iraq is an alcohol-free state.

At sometime after midnight the next night, we board one of the Rhinos for the trip to Baghdad. A Rhino is an armored vehicle as big as a house. There are five or six of them in your convoy. They look like that parade of dinosaurs in "The Land Before Time". And then, hopefully, you safely make the 12-mile run into the Green Zone under the cover of darkness.

This whole trip is bizarre. You've been in Iraq for three days now and you have yet to see an Iraqi. Maybe you will never see an Iraqi. But you will see a lot of TCNs -- Third Country Nationals -- and a lot of American soldiers. And make no mistake. These are well-trained and intelligent people -- the cream of one whole American generation, a proud, well-developed fighting machine -- and totally wasted on Bush and Cheney's greedy, useless, selfish, criminal plans to make themselves into the world's first trillionaires. What a waste. At some point in time, America may need this fine fighting machine. And it will have been wasted on trivia and greed.

Not that what is happening in Iraq now is trivial. Our military is doing a lot of good things over there now and we should be proud of them. But their whole reason for being over in Iraq in the first place was trivial and Shock and Awe was trivial -- it trivialized the importance and meaning of human life. And Shock and Awe was also responsible for bringing down the greatest country in the world. No, I'm not referring to Iraq. Our wonderful America has been broken and almost destroyed by Bush's Shock and Awe. But I digress again. Let's go back to the tour.

What does the Green Zone look like? It looks like a cross between Fort Hood and Washington DC. The Iraqis originally designed it to be their nation's capital and it has government buildings and monuments and broad avenues, just like Washington DC. And then superimposed on top of all that is a typical American military base, just like Fort Benning or Fort Lewis. And the result is a strange hybrid.

Are you still thinking that you are going to meet some Iraqis? Think again. Most of the residents of the Green Zone are either American military personnel or TCNs. Peruvian soldiers man most of the security posts. And the most commonly-spoken language in the Green Zone is...Spanish.

You can take a shuttle bus around the Green Zone -- to the PX. To the helicopter landing pad. To the El Racheed Hotel. To the Combat Support Hospital. And to the Parliament. But there is a checkpoint or two or three on every block and between the press room and the El Racheed two blocks away, be prepared to go through two X-ray searches, two body searches and seven different document- examination points. Not to mention bomb-sniffing dogs.

Oh, and you can also go to the current US embassy which is a former palace of Saddam Hussein's. Olympic-sized swimming pool, gold-plated bidets. But you gotta have an escort to go there so you might have to cross that off your list -- even though it has a laundromat in a pre-fab in the garden and they teach aerobics in Saddam's former ballroom. The new US embassy is still being built and is over a mile long. It is HUGE.

Okay. You've done the Green Zone. Now you want to go visit Al Asad airbase out in Anbar province. So you put on your full body armor again, struggle down to the helicopter pad and fly out to TQ where you spend the night in a wooden Quonset hut and then board a C-130 in the morning. But Al Asad is different from Striker. Nobody here lives in a tent. Everyone lives in a "can". You will too. Its Can City consists of a LOT of those ship-to-shore kind of container thingies you see in the port of Oakland, coming off boats from China. Each one contains a table, a closet and beds. Way better than tents. Trust me. But the latrines and showers are still at least a football field away and this can be a problem if you have to pee in the middle of the night.

Next you get on a convoy of Humvees and go out to the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), out in the small towns. And from there you go to the COPs (Command Outposts), out in the deserts and rural areas. And at that point, if you are lucky, you may even see some Iraqis! Okay. You've gotten all the way to COP Timber Wolf way out in the middle of nowhere where the kitchen consists of a pallet with a wooden crate on it, full of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). And instead of latrines they have wag-bags, biodegradable bags that you poop in. Sorry but I'm not going to go into detail about these.

Okay, so you've done all this. So how do you get back home? The same way you came. You get back into the Humvee convoy. Back on those primitive gas-spewing helicopters that leave you deaf for 24 hours and back on the C-130s that look like they are left over from World War II. Back to the Green Zone. Back to the Rhinos. Back to Camp Striker. Back to the airbase in Kuwait. Back to the Kuwait airport and the Frankfurt airport and the San Francisco airport and BART. And then you are home, stuck with jet-lag.

And there you have it -- your own personal guidebook tour of the military bases of Iraq. Glad you could come. I hope you enjoyed it. And if I ever get embedded in a combat zone in Iraq, I'll write a guidebook tour of that too. Maybe this summer? I hear that you haven't really seen the REAL Iraq until you've carried around 65 pounds of body armor and a huge old 20-pound laptop, and gotten shot at in 145-degree heat....


Here's my John McCain article:

....After that, you will never guess what happened next! I got to interview John McCain! Seriously. He was here. Right here in the press room. Which is fifty feet down the corridor and around the corner from the cot where I had dumped off all my stuff this morning and is now my new home. Senator McCain, Senator Graham, Rep. Pence and Rep. Renzi had put together what appeared to be the 2007 GOP Hype-the-War Tour. "Do you think that they will give us souvenir T-shirts of the tour," I asked some guy from CNN. Probably not.

Anyway, Sen. McCain and his backup singers were here and even though I don't agree with them, I was glad that they came. It takes courage to come to Iraq.

"Our new strategy is making progress," said McCain.

"We are doing things differently," said Sen. Graham. "We cannot let suicide bombers set the pace. If we talk about leaving and losing, the car bombers win." Then Graham talked about how the four of them went down to the Baghdad market today and it was perfectly safe. "We bargained and bought rugs."

Pence agreed about the safety of the market. Later, however, he added that they did have to travel there in Humvees and be escorted by soldiers and wear body armor -- but other than that...

Later I talked with an Iraqi reporter who said that the market they went to was the safest in the city and several American reporters added that walking around in Baghdad without troops backing you up was suicidal and anyone who did something like that had a death wish.

Renzi then stated that, "We will not turn our backs on the Iraqi people," and the other Dream Boys agreed. And apparently if the bill to end the war makes it through Congress, Bush will veto it. "The President [sic] will veto any bill that will cut the legs out from under the military," added Graham.

So far, the group had talked a lot about how to make the "war" policy regarding Iraq succeed, but none of them talked about the elephant in the living room -- that the policy itself is fatally flawed. But I did! Shut up, Jane.

Yes, even with all those Senators and reporters and everything there I still had to have my say. So. Exactly what DID I say to John McCain? Sorry but you're gonna have to die of suspense a little bit longer. Someone just brought me some food!

Fried chicken, meatloaf, honeyed carrots, mashed potatoes, green beans and cookies! Giant chocolate chip cookies, macadamia nut cookies, peanut butter cookies, chocolate fudge cookies. Hey! You forgot the cheesecake.

So. What did I say to Sen. McCain? I gave him my famous "Light Brigade" speech. "I have been so completely impressed," I began, "by the quality, training, competence and skill of our troops here. They represent yet another generation in a long line of competent and capable Americans." McCain smiled and nodded his head, thinking I had finished my speech. Not.

"But," I continued, just getting warmed up, "our troops are also like the heroes of Lord Tennyson's poem, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.' They are fighting bravely and well in a situation caused by a blunder. So why should we senselessly continue to put our troops in harm's way for a mistake?" Or in order to appease some greedy, immature Lord Nelson wannabe. It doesn't make sense to destroy a whole generation of American soldiers just to support Bush and Cheney.

Then I got down to the heart of my question. Giving McCain that special look that us moms usually reserve for recalcitrant children, I said, "And after this terrible blunder in Iraq, are you then going to go ahead and make that same horrible mistake in Iran?"

McCain's answer was brief. "No comment."