Sunday, April 15, 2007

Bringing it all back home: I'm almost on my way back from Iraq....

A few days ago, Multi-National Forces-Iraq flew a bunch of us journalists down to Diwaniyah by helicopter to a press conference about the recent cleanup action conducted there. Before we left the the Green Zone press room, they handed us a press release on Operation Black Eagle that read, "Soldiers from the Iraqi Army and coalition forces entered their third day of fighting against illegally-armed militia in Diwaniyah in order to secure the city and provide stability to the region."

"Wow!" I thought. This was finally it! I was gonna go for a helicopter ride, embed outside the Green Zone and actually see with my own eyes the site of an actual firefight -- to say nothing about seeing an actual Iraqi town.

The helicopter ride to Diwaniyah was spectacular. For almost an hour, we skimmed over fields of rice and/or wheat, adobe brick compounds, sheep and cows. As we looked down out of the open helicopter door onto a pastoral scene almost older than time, peaceful rural Iraq seemed so very far away from the violence and suspicion of war.

So. Did I attend the press conference? Yep. Did I get lunch at the military base's dining facility? You bet! Did I set foot in the town? Not even one toe -- let alone a whole shoe! "Sorry," said our minder, "but we don't have time to go outside the base." It was a fabulous helicopter ride. It was an informative press conference. But did I meet any day-to-day Iraqis? No. Did I step outside the wire? No no no. As we left the base however, I did catch a glimpse of Diwaniyah out of the corner of my eye from the helicopter -- so I guess that I HAD been to the famous Diwaniyah! And when I ran into CNN's Michael Ware back at the press room at 2 am the next morning as he got ready to embed in Diwaniyah, I was able to casually brag, "Diwaniyah? Yeah, I been there."

In the press room, it was maddening to sit around listening to guys talk about their embeds. "Be patient, Jane," said one reporter. "It took me a couple of days to get my assignment." A couple of DAYS? I'd been there for two weeks! Some of these guys went to joint security stations, Sadr City, the infamous Haifa Street... The list goes on and on. And from what I hear, embedding in a joint security station in Baghdad in many ways resembles living at Fort Apache -- including the latrines.

But I'm not cowed by these other reporters' stories of front-line adventures. I've got bragging rights to combat duty too. "I spent 14 days in the press room." Hey, that's combat duty! I fought over access to the computer a lot. Plus those guys really snore.

And now my embed is over and I'm about to go home. And believe it or not, I'm really going to miss Iraq -- or at least all my friends in the Green Zone.

"Jane," you might ask, " why is it that you never got an embed outside the wire? Everyone else did. Why not you?"

Was it because, with all the hundreds of American troop units in Iraq, they just couldn't manage to find even ONE unit willing to take a little old lady? What? Our troops are ageists? Nah.
Was it because I was a liberal blogger? That doesn't make sense either. While I have been in Iraq, my reporting has all been fair and balanced. I have honestly and fairly debated all sides of the issues of occupation -- and I certainly have praised the Army a lot (especially the dining hall!). The Army got a whole bunch of favorable free publicity out of me. So that couldn't have been the reason.

Was it because I think George W. Bush belongs in jail? Well, hey. He does. And a large number of troops here agree with me. So it couldn't have been that.

Then this morning it hit me. "Ye cats! Maybe it was because I'm a Muslim?" Nah, Americans LOVE Muslims. It couldn't be that.

Could it be that no one wanted me to see what is actually going on out in the streets of Baghdad -- where the saintly choirboy troop types I see back on the base appear to be given very few boundaries and little supervision, miraculously transforming into "Boys behaving badly" when they are out of the sight of their moms? Why exactly do the Iraqis hate this occupation so much? Is having your home invaded and searched in the middle of the night by disrespectful GIs who get power-mad after driving around in their souped-up Humvees all night and who are not disciplined by their superiors for being disrespectful to cultural differences costing us any hearts and minds? And that no one wanted me to see this and report on it back home? Nope. Couldn't be that.

Regarding professor Phil Zimbardo's "Lucifer Effect" theory, maybe they don't want me to see it applied here? That it's not a few bad apples that spoil the barrel -- it's the barrel itself that is bad. And that the whole occupation smells like a five-year-old cheese? Nah.

Maybe I missed getting an embed because I was defeated by a ton of military paperwork? More than likely.

"Jane, you gotta stop fixating on not getting embedded outside the Green Zone," I keep telling myself. Sure, I managed to get lots of good stories and make lots of good friends even despite not having access to the "real stuff". But still and all. Did they really have to go and cancel my scheduled embed today at the Kuwait airbase too? Isn't that doing it up a bit TOO brown?

Bottom line? I've just come up with a good way to test my theory that I was deliberated dawged about getting out of the Green Zone. I'll simply apply for another embed in June, giving them plenty of time to find me an embed out in Sadr City or Haifa Street -- and see if I do get to return....

But maybe the reason I didn't get embedded was actually the reason they claim; that I was just the innocent victim of too much paperwork. Okay. Maybe we should defeat the enemy that way -- smother them all in triplicate forms!

By the way, I never got to go to Sadr City with my new Parliamentarian friends -- for two reasons. First, when I called their contact number, the man who answered said, "I cannot talk now. I am on the street. It is dangerous for me to be heard speaking English on the street". And, second, the Parliament cafeteria blew up.

PS: When I get back to the states, I will have so much to think about. How can we successfully get America out of this "war"? I know! Let's give every Muslim Iraqi $25,000 of their own oil money and send them all off on the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca (called the Hajj) and let the Saudis sort it all out. They host the Hajj every year. They are good at organizing large groups of people. For them, getting 15 million Arabic-speaking Iraqis to play nice would be a snap.

PPS: It is always difficult to ride in an open-sided helicopter without developing "Helicopter Hair" -- but completely worth every tangle. But now I am covering my hair with a trucker cap that reads, "Caution: Stay 100 meters back or you will be shot." The GIs love this hat. First they look at my hat and then they look at me and then they break out in smiles.