Sunday, October 28, 2007

Codetalkers: How to win friends & influence people in Iraq....

I'm currently sitting in the hold of a C-130 troop transport plane, staring at the bottom of a combat boot belonging to the soldier across from me and suddenly I realize there's a word on his sole. "Converse".

"Why are you flying to Kuwait," I idly asked the soldier. "Going home on leave?"

"My mother died suddenly this morning." I felt so bad for him, I even vainly tried to struggle past all of my seatbelts and Kevlar and give him a hug. When my mother died suddenly several years ago and my neighbor gave me a hug, it had really helped. The soldier was pretty much devastated by his loss. I felt so bad.

And the soldier next to him was absent-mindedly pointing his M-16 at my knee-cap. "Would it be okay if you pointed it at my duffel bag instead?" He obliged.

Will we get to the airbase in Kuwait before the dining facility closes? It's gonna be a tight squeeze but I hope we make it. I haven't hardly eaten anything in two days, having been suffering from "The Halls of Montezumas' Revenge".

Anyway, I was day-dreaming about this and that during the flight when it suddenly hit me -- the military over here in Iraq is equipped with almost every single weapon imaginable; has spent almost a trillion dollars on all these freaking weapons that you see all over this country -- but has spent only piddling amounts on the one weapon that counts the most -- words.

Two nights ago I was happily sleeping away on my cot at Forward Operating Base Haditha when the peace was totally shattered by the Thunder-Clap from Hell! OMG! This is it! We're being invaded! I thought about crawling under my cot for protection but really -- have you SEEN my cot?

"What the freak is going on!" I screamed. "We're all gonna die!"

"Jane, those are just outgoing illumination rounds," said our Captain. "If they had been incoming rounds, trust me, you would have known. The entire ground would have been shaking." Oh.

I'd gone up to Haditha to see the Marines' Lioness train program, wherein female Marines are taught how to interact with Iraqi women. The program has been a huge success. Iraqi women have really appreciated being able to deal with women like themselves. For instance, some of the Lionesses were asked to go provide moral support to a woman who had just been assaulted by an Iraqi man. And the Marines' female Iraqi interpreters are also important in helping make Iraqi women feel at ease.

Then we all trooped off to see a new medical clinic being build in joint collaboration with Iraqis, Marines and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Several Iraqi building inspectors were there. And yes when you build in Iraq, just like when you build in the States, you still need a permit. Which reminds me that when I get back home to Berkeley, I'm going to have to deal with getting a permit for my window because while I'm over here writing about Big Things, the Board of Directors at my housing project is busy tormenting me about Little Things. Punks.

Then we all got back in the Seven-Ton and convoyed over to the local hospital. It was only two blocks away. "We coulda walked here," I complained, "All this military stuff is making us look like we're the evil occupying force instead of just your friendly local neighborhood Marines trying to help the local police dudes keep the peace."

The Marine next to me laughed. "Jane, we usually just run foot patrols here in Haditha, sort of an informal neighborhood watch."

"Then what is all this heavy-duty gonzo in-your-face military equipment about?" Those Seven-Tons are HUGE. And totally intimidating.

"We're using all this gear because of YOU, Jane." Really? "How would it look if a 65-year-old visiting grandmother passed out from heat-stroke or something on our watch?" Ha. I bet that wasn't it. I bet that my daughter Ashley phoned up the Marines and told them that she was all worried that I would get lost again and would they PLEASE keep me on a short leash. Humph.

At the hospital, we looked at the emergency room and thought about ER and Gray's Anatomy but there wasn't much action there. It was a pretty calm day. "And here's our oncology room, cardiac room, men's ward, women's ward and pediatric wing." They had 80 beds total but only about 15 of them were filled. I had wanted to go see their morgue but it became pretty obvious to me while doing rounds that this hospital's morgue was gonna be empty.

But the hospital ward I liked best was the pediatric ward. There were cute little babies! Totally cute. And the mothers and sisters and grandmothers and the entire extended female family of each baby's mother was there, drinking chai tea and having a picnic on the floor. The older woman had blue tattoo marks on their faces. Table clothes were spread on the floor and everyone had made themselves at home. Cute little babies. I loved the maternity ward.

Back at Al Asad airbase, I started chatting with a young Marine. "Where are you from?" I asked.

"Arizona. I'm a full-blood Navajo. And my wife's grandfather was a Codetalker during World War II." A Codetalker? Holy cow! And then it dawned on me. That's what we need here in Iraq! Not necessarily a Navajo native speaker but someone who could speak Arabic -- lots of someones who could speak Arabic, to be exact. Heck, we gots all these expensive weapons -- 100,000 different ways to blow people up. But can the average American soldier even speak to the average Iraqi on the street? Nope.

I propose a new program wherein every single soldier in Iraq is required to memorize 20 words of Arabic a week. "But, Jane, the Arabic grammar is really complicated." Yeah but so is a Howitzer. If they can learn to operate one of those bad boys, surely they can master basic Arabic. And knowing a few sentences in Arabic would be SO much more effective. And maybe cost one-thousandth of the price.

While we were at the hospital, one Iraqi man came up to our officer in charge and said, "My mother is here because she had a diabetic attack in the middle of the night and we couldn't get her to the hospital because of the curfew and now she is very very sick because she couldn't get here for medicine in time."

"If that ever happens again," said the major, "approach one of our Marines and ask for an escort. Tell them it is an emergency."

"But if I do that, they will shoot me."

"No they won't. I promise you. They won't."

Guess what? I finally made it off the C-130 and actually got to the dining facility with only seconds to spare. But unfortunately, all that food just fueled my already-intense case of "The Halls of Montezumas' Revenge" and I was then forced to go do "research" on what the airbase's sick-bay was like. Thank goodness for Imodium! But as I sat in the waiting room, I noticed that the medical staff had the movie "Frankenstein" playing. "Don't worry about that," joked the medical tech as we watched Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant steal a brain from a surgical lab. "We only use this as our training film."

Meanwhile, back to my own brainstorm -- I think that having all the soldiers here learn Arabic would really help out. When I was in South Africa last month, I was told that the best way to remain safe in the villages and towns was to make friends with as many neighbors as possible. And if we learned the language, that would be a big safety help too. "They appreciate the effort you go through to learn Setswana, even if you only can say a few words." And that strategy of becoming safer by getting to know the locals can also prove true in Iraq. So. Let's start by having multilingual block parties in Baghdad, which, according to the Washington Post, is the most troubled region here and really could use a friendly neighborhood meet-and-greet.

To quote the Post, "'I honestly thought we were making a difference in Tikrit. Then we come back to [this] hellhole,' Marino said. 'That was a playground compared to Baghdad.' The American people don't fully realize what's going on, said Staff Sgt. Richard McClary, 27, a section leader from Buffalo. 'They just know back there what the higher-ups here tell them. But the higher-ups don't go anywhere, and actually they only go to the safe places, places with a little bit of gunfire,' he said. 'They don't ever [expletive] see what we see on the ground.'"

And with regard to our troops' burn-out in Baghdad, I also talked with a young West Point graduate stationed there -- one of the best and brightest of our younger generation of American military. "When my tour of duty here in Baghdad is up, I'm not going to re-enlist," he told me. "The West Point code states that one of its goals is 'To educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets . . . toward a lifetime of selfless service to the Nation.' To some this clearly means a lifetime of service as an officer in the Army. I disagree. I strongly believe that there are a myriad other ways in which to selflessly serve the Nation and the world." Has serving as a career Army officer stopped being a satisfying goal? If so, that's scary.

For all the money that they have spent on weaponry bling in the past seven years, Bush and Cheney might have done better to have just learned Arabic themselves, or, better still, stayed home and tried to make friends in America -- before villagers across the US come after them with pitchforks and torches because of the damage those two Frankensteins have done to America's military, America's Constitution and America's budget.

In Iraq, things are looking a lot better right now, thanks to the Marines and their house-by-house efforts to win hearts and minds -- and also because, according to my friend Stewart, "Anbar is doing well because of the Iraqis," who are really trying hard to make omelets out of badly broken eggs and also are sick of all the killing. If the "insurgents" think that the recent kidnapping of ten major sheiks is going to endear them to the Iraqi people, they are definitely drinking the Kool-Aid. Iraqis really seem to like their sheiks and do not take kindly to anyone who messes with them.

But for whatever the reason, things truly are looking up in Iraq. I mean seriously. But, geez Louise, I surely do hate to see Bush and Cheney take the credit for any successes over here -- not after our military has worked like dogs to pull all of their freaking chestnuts out of the fire. Please let us never forget that If it hadn't been for Bush and Cheney, we would never have been in this mess in the first place!

But perhaps I being too hard on Cheney and Bush. Perhaps they have finally seen the light and are finally starting to do a good job now? Apparently not. According to even Time Magazine, these two duds are STILL missing the boat. "George W. Bush has abdicated his control over the military mission and seems boggled by the political side of the Iraqi equation," sez Time. "He has lashed himself to the inept, unrepresentative government of Nouri al-Maliki but seems powerless to influence that government's actions. Bush's Iraq poster boys, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, are doing a wonderful job but lack the rank to make strategic regional policy. The Administration was so inept in dealing with Turkey that its designated mediator, retired General Joseph Ralston, recently quit in frustration. Bush's refusal to engage the Iranians has left a clear field for Russian mini-czar Vladimir Putin to move in and build an alliance. The Secretary of State is chasing an Israeli-Palestinian chimera at a moment when a burst of high-level U.S. diplomatic pressure might actually make a difference in Iraq. There are...hugs to be had, and [Bush is] not grabbing them."

I'm really really glad that things are finally looking up in Iraq right now -- but I can't help but worry about what all this has cost us. According to the New York Times, "The operation itself — the helicopters, the tanks, the fuel needed to run them, the combat pay for enlisted troops, the salaries of reservists and contractors, the rebuilding of Iraq — is costing more than $300 million a day, estimates Scott Wallsten, an economist in Washington. That translates into a couple of billion dollars a week and, over the full course of the war, an eventual total of $700 billion in direct spending." $700 BILLION DOLLARS? That's approximately $35,000 per Iraqi! If we had spent that $700,000,000,000 on, say, California, I bet that we coulda built a new McMansion for every single victim of the San Diego fire and still have had enough money left over to build one house apiece for every Katrina victim too.

Ah, the tax-and-spend Republican neo-cons. Thanks to them, I strongly fear that the wealth of America's future generations is going down the toilet like a bad case of dysentery. According to the House of Representatives Committee on the Budget, "The national debt on October 27 [is] $9,061,206,589,592.53. Your share of the national debt [is] $29,883.69."

And according to Congressman Pete Stark, "I’m just amazed that they can’t figure out—the Republicans are worried that they can’t pay for insuring an additional 10 million children. They sure don’t care about finding $200 billion to fight the illegal war in Iraq. Where are you going to get that money? Are you going to tell us lies like you’re telling us today? Is that how you’re going to fund the war? You don’t have money to fund the war on children. But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if he can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the President’s [sic] amusement." Ann Coulter may accuse Rep. Stark of over-reacting, but Rep. Stark is right. Where the FREAK are we gonna get the money to afford more of Bush and Cheney's endless fiscal irresponsibility, with or without wars?

I'm not the only one with intestinal problems here. Any close examination of America's budget over the last seven years will clearly show that Bush and Cheney's irresponsible fiscal policies have given the US Treasury dysentery too. And if we don't send some Imodium off to the White House immediately and slow those bad boys down, then there is a very real danger that America is going to collapse from fiscal dehydration soon.

Perhaps historians will call it "Bush and Cheney's Revenge".

PS: While waiting for my flight from Kuwait to Frankfurt, I sat next to a contractor -- the whole freaking airport gate area was filled with contractors so this was not hard to do -- who gave me his personal version of the history of the so-called war in Iraq. "In 2003 and 2004, it was pretty peaceful and then all hell broke loose for the next few years. And now things are starting to stabilize again."

And now that I'm in Frankfurt -- that plane ride was SO different from flying in a C-130 -- some new questions are popping into my brain. For instance, "Why is the population of rural Iraq still living in Third World conditions when they are sitting on top of so much petroleum wealth?" Perhaps I am being naive? And also, "What do I think should happen next in Iraq?" Should our troops get out?

Rep. Dennis Kucinich recommends replacing American troops with an international peace-keeping force. He recognizes that the Iraqis still need help in keeping the peace and I agree with him there. But perhaps putting another force in place might not be the best way to go -- because after all these years, Iraqis are finally starting to trust the Marines in Al Anbar and sometimes even the Army in Baghdad. And if a new "peace-keeping" force were to come in now, that fragile trust-building mechanism would have to start all over again from scratch. However, if the American military is now serving as a de facto peace-keeping force -- and it is -- then perhaps the UN and/or various oil-using nations could help foot the bill, including the European Union, Russia, China, the Saudis and even Iran. Or perhaps the American oil companies who are making so much profit off this so-called war might be persuaded to finally "give something back".

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Heartbreak Hotel: Let's open up a resort and spa in Al Anbar, Iraq!

Here's a sad story from Riverbend's latest blog. She's now in Syria, a refugee from battle-weary Baghdad. But how long can she afford to stay there? The Syrian government is apparently about to close down its border -- plus Iraqi refugees already in Damascus are running out of money fast.

Here's a portion of Riverbend's blog: "It is estimated that there are at least 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria today. I believe it. Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere. There are areas like Geramana and Qudsiya that are packed full of Iraqi refugees. Syrians are few and far between in these areas. Even the public schools in the areas are full of Iraqi children. A cousin of mine is now attending a school in Qudsiya and his class is composed of 26 Iraqi children, and five Syrian children. It’s beyond belief sometimes. Most of the families have nothing to live on beyond their savings which are quickly being depleted with rent and the costs of living."

What to do? How about opening a Club Med in Anbar? The city of Hit (pronounced Heet) is now pretty peaceful and would make an excellent alternative to driving all the freaking way to Syria. Plus when I walked down the street in Hit the other day, I met a carpenter who complained that there wasn't much work for him right now so I bet we could put him to work building hotels. And I was informed by the Mayor's office that Hit specializes in manufacturing building materials. Unemployed carpenters? Building materials just laying around? Let's build and open a resort and spa in the city of Hit for the poor endangered citizens of Baghdad!

Why go all the way to Syria when you can find peace and quiet right here in Anbar? Add a few amenities and voila! The fabulous Hit Hilton! The Regency Hit? Or the just plain Hit Comfort Inn. Brilliant idea, if I do say so myself.

"Sorry, Jane," said one Hittite. "Not a good idea."

"But why not! You gots the land, you gots the material. You gots the customers. And it's out in the desert like Vegas. A match made in Heaven. What's not to like?"

"For one thing, you gotta consider the tribal configuration. Baghdad is run by one set of tribes. Hit is run by another." Turf war? "Exactly. Plus the residents of Hit would be all worried that the highly-educated Baghdad people would snap up their jobs."

Humph. But I still think the idea is a good one. Why go all the way to Syria when you can stay in idyllic bucolic beautiful Anbar. Anyone out there want to invest?
PS: Here's a photo of my cot at Taqqadum

.Three weeks with the Marines in Iraq? Priceless!

"I love George Bush!" the sheik cried. Nooooo!

"But he bombed your cities, destroyed your infrastructure, tortured your people, stole your jobs and left you at the mercy of terrorists...." I said.

"But he got rid of Saddam."

It was Friday night in Ambar province and I was having a VERY interesting time hanging out with Lt. Colonel Dill and the Marines at FOB Hit (pronounced Heet). Lt. Col. Dill is kind of a cross between Albert Einstein, Chuck Norris and the Energizer Bunny and I loved the crew of American Marines he commanded -- plus he had some really interesting Iraqi friends.

"Suit up, Jane," said the colonel. "We've got a lot of things to do today." What sort of things? Will I get shot at? Does my hair look okay?

We jumped into a Humvee, joined a convoy, drove for an hour through the white powder that passes for soil in western Iraq, ran into the Euphrates River and then walked across to the other side on a foot bridge, escorted by Marines in full battle gear -- and boy do I mean Full Battle Gear. Locked and loaded. With little old lady me bringing up the rear. "Hey, guys! Wait for me!"

On the other side of the bridge we were met by more Marines driving a bunch of Seven-Tons that looked like they had escaped from the set of Star Wars. They then drove us through a village, up a steep slope and out into the desert hill country to Combat Outpost (COP) Timberwolf where we ate MREs for lunch and I used my first Wag Bag -- don't ask what that is. You don't want to know. Suffice it to say that when we got back to FOB Hit, I was actually glad to see our latrine. But the roast beef MRE was actually kind of tasty.

At COP Timberwolf, everyone lived in tents and the nearest paved road was two hours away. "We're on top of this hill," said the sergeant, "because insurgents used to mortar the village from here."

Going back down through said village, we stopped to examine the site of a suicide bombing. "An Iraqi policeman's family lived there. Lt. Waheed. A suicide bomber drove into his house three days ago. He was able to shield two of his children with his body and save their lives but he himself, an older child and his wife were all killed." The bomb had made a tangled mess of both his home and the house next door to it.

An older woman dressed in black came out into the yard and cried, mourning in the traditional Iraqi way. Lt. Waheed had been a good man.

"Please come into my house," beckoned a woman next door. The Marine with the M-16 next to me shook his head no. But the woman shook her head yes. I compromised. I stood in the doorway and hugged women, girls and babies. They'd never seen an American woman before and certainly not one as old as dirt, hanging out with Marines.


The men of the house then invited me in for chai -- really really strong sweetened tea. Chai? I'm there! And so was the village sheik. We all sat on divans and nodded and smiled. Then we got back in the Seven-Ton and walked back across the bridge.

"Next we will be going to dinner with the sheik of one of the larger cities in the region," said Col. Dill. I hope I do better with him than I did with one of the main sheiks of Hit. I just sat there on the couch and he looked at me and I looked at him for what seemed like forever. I had been given this fabulous opportunity to ask important questions of an important sheik and what happened? I went brain-dead!

"Well," i said lamely, "a month from now when I'm safely back in California I'll probably just kick myself for not asking you this or that, but right now? Can't think of ANYTHING. Sorry." The sheik said something about having to get back to his office and that was that. Maybe this time I'll do better.

In any case, here was another chance to interview a very important sheik. And to eat dinner too. It was an amazing evening. I wish that you had been there. I learned more about Iraq in three hours than I had learned watching American TV for the past three years. What did I learn? That Iraqis aren't all scary terrorists. That they are the best hosts in the world. That America's image of what it is like over here is often misinformed -- if not downright wrong -- and that the people at that dinner really wanted me to go back to America and tell their side of the story, which I promised to do -- as long as I didn't have to freaking start to actually LIKE George W. Bush. Sorry but I don't think all the Kool-Aid in the world could make me do that.

So. You want stories? Stories about real Iraqis? Here they are.

THE MOTHER: I've been told that in Baghdad things are more relaxed regarding what women can and can't do but in the more rural areas of Iraq, women's roles are more traditionally defined -- they are neither seen nor heard. But being a lady myself, I am able to go into the women's section of Iraqi homes and the women I meet there seem to be as fascinated by me as I am with them.

Tonight we went to dinner at the sheik's house. Lamb kebabs! My favorite! And fresh tomatoes and cucumber and baklava and...but I digress. And after dinner I got to meet the sheik's sisters, female cousins, wife and mother. The mother was a middle-aged lady, all dressed in black. And she said, "I have two sons. Just here, within my family, one son has been killed by the insurgents, two sons have had assassination attempts made on their lives and my youngest son has had both legs blown off by an IED. Please pray for my sons." I promised her that I would. She smiled through her tears and gave me several motherly hugs.

"It's been hard for me," she said. Being a mother myself, I can imagine what the pain would be like to see one's children killed, injured or maimed. I never, ever want anything like that to EVER happen to my children. War is not something one should take lightly when arbitrarily deciding to invade a country. War breaks mothers' hearts. This mother's dead son's body was found badly damaged, caked with blood and stuffed in a trunk.

THE INJURED YOUNG MAN: Qusi Shaba'an also broke my heart. He looked like a teenager, one you might see getting ready to graduate from high school or go off to the University of California -- intelligent, good-looking, hopeful and young. Except that he had no legs. "It was an IED," whispered someone next to me. "We are trying to get him artificial legs but it's a slow process. The Marines are doing everything they can to get him medical help." But still and all. This young man should be out dancing and running track.

"If he lived in Berkeley," I said, "the Center for Independent Living would help him. Maybe he could go to Cal? Become a doctor and help others like him?" Is there anyone reading this who can do anything for Qusi? Can we get him to the States? Set up an educational fund? I just hated to see him sitting there in a wheelchair, gritting his teeth and trying to smile.

THE YOUNG BOY: He must have been maybe 11 years old? Hard to tell. He looked younger, but he also looked gray-faced and old. He was the son of the man who had been found dead in the trunk. A polite kid. I worry about him.

THE IRAQI ARMY OFFICER: "There have been 20 attempts made on my life. I've lived through 13 IED blasts." And he showed me photos of the caches of weapons he'd found. "100 caches. We are cleaning this area up. With or without help from Baghdad." I asked him what he thought of the new idea of federalization, dividing Iraq into three states.

"That is a very bad idea," he replied. No matter who I've asked in Iraq, I always get that same answer. Underneath all the religious and tribal divisions, people here still think of themselves as Iraqis first.

THE SHEIK: This man was a Young Man on the Go. Taking charge. On the city council. Working with the police. He presented me with a traditional Iraqi dress. I looked hot! "Now is the time for reconstruction," he told me. "We need a good Marshall Plan. We need to educate our children, send them to universities both here and in the United States. Americans need to understand that Iraqis are real people just like them and we also have hopes for a better life for our children. And the government here needs to give our youth direction and things to do. Otherwise they get swayed by the terrorists who get lots of money from surrounding countries who hire the insurgents, using religion as a cover. This is threatening all our recent attempts to practice democracy here in Iraq. And also tell the American people that they must support George W. Bush."


THE INTERPRETER: I also got into a discussion with one of the Marine interpreters regarding the problems facing interpreters in Iraq. "In general, an interpreter's life is just not safe here. We knew that it wasn't safe when we joined but after a few years, this constant threat wears us down. We do a good job but sometimes oor work is not appreciated. And the Iraqis scorn us as collaborators or spies for working with the invaders and it's hard to change their minds. We avoid going on leave. It's just not safe -- even though everyone says that interpreters have guardian angels protecting them because there's been several cases where vehicles have blown up and only the interpreter has survived." Apparently this interpreter was also speaking for his fellow "terps" and most of them felt this same way -- proud of what they were doing but definitely worried about how long they could keep it up.

"There was a light of hope that some interpreters would be allowed to go to the United States and be given green cards after our contract is up but we all now realize that this is a Big Lie. And the militias threaten our families if we don't quit. From just this area, seven interpreters have been forced to resign because of threats to their families."

The interpreters also sometimes feel treated like second-class citizens. "I've been here for two years and I still have the same old flak jacket. And we want better treatment at the big bases. They don't trust us and treat us like dirt. And some of us want to immigrate to the States but as for me, I gave up. And they need to stop treating the interpreters who come from Jordan better than the Iraqi terps."

ANOTHER IRAQI ARMY OFFICER: His arm was in a sling. IED. I liked him. He was spunky and not afraid to speak his mind. "One of the problems we are having here is with the pensions to our soldiers' widows. Theoretically, they are supposed to receive full pay for six months and then half-pay after that. But we have learned the hard way not to count on the government in Baghdad. They are a bunch of thieves. We got rid of one Saddam and now we have 2,000 Saddams trying to take his place. Parliamentarians get huge sums of money each month while army officers in dangerous areas only get $800 a month. I've had to move my family three different times, to three different cities, to keep them from getting killed. They've shot up my house. Three of my nephews are dead."

"What would you do to solve the problems in Iraq?" I asked.

"First I would clean up the militias. Then I'd throw everyone out of Iraq who wasn't Iraqi. Then I'd strengthen the reconciliation program. Insurgents are recruited from the former Baathists and the unemployed. And all the governments outside of Iraq want to see Iraq fail. Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran also want us to fight here in a proxy battle instead of in their own countries."

THE LION OF AL AMBAR: I've saved the best for last. My talk with the head of the police department in the city of Baghdadi (not the same as the city of Baghdad BTW) was intense. The man is a legend around here and his eyes are filled with fire. He's intense. And interesting too.

"For the last few years, Al Ambar province has been, basically, under siege from insurgents. Hit hospital had no doctors. 40 children died as a result. The rule of law here had reverted to medieval times. 97 people from my tribe alone had been killed, including my brother. This area used to be worse than Baghdad."

Then the Lion told me an unusual story. "I was living in Baghdad myself at the time and I had three very unusual dreams. A man instructed me to come home to Baghdadi and establish security here. He handed me two flags -- one for Shia and one for Sunni. 'I cannot do that,' I replied. 'I am alone.' But still, I started my mission to renovate the Iraqi police here. I had ten brothers and seven cousins in the beginning and that was it. I paid our expenses out of my own pocket. We started cleaning up the insurgents just in the area around my home. Then once we got a safe base, we moved out from there, securing one area at a time. And then the Marines started giving us support and now our city is over 90% free of insurgents." Sort of like what happened in the Pacific during World War II. Island hopping? "Yes."

"And what would you do to solve the situation in Iraq?"

"First I would find faithful, honest and brave leaders. No corruption. No alliances to one religion or tribe. And I would select government officials from all sections -- Kurds, Muslims, Christians; from all the sections of Iraqis. It is the militias and parties that fight, not the people. I love all Iraqis without discrimination. We have to love everybody to earn their trust. I pray toward the unity of all Iraqis. We are all Iraqis first. Give us help with weapons, supplies and experience and we'll do the rest."

"What else would you do?"

"Reconciliation. We need to stop killing each other." And, especially, they need to stop trying to kill HIM. He showed me a photograph of himself in the hospital after one of the many assassination attempts against him. And he showed me several of his scars. "One bullet went into my chest right below my shoulder and went out the back. And the Marines stood in line to give me blood transfusions. I will never forget that."

Finally the evening ended with a photo op in front of someone's pet camel and a spooky ride down a deserted highway at 2 am in a Humvee. It was an interesting day. And it's been very interesting hanging out with the Marines. Very interesting.

No, it's been priceless.

PS: There IS a big difference between Anbar province and the rest of Iraq. Anbar has more or less got it together these days. "Perhaps we should just send the Marines into Baghdad and get this 'war' over with," I said to a friend.

"Shhh! Don't say that! You will hurt the Army's feelings." Oops. Sorry.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Madam Jane predicts: The Marines will be heroes in Iraq -- and in Berkeley!

Recently there have been several demonstrations and counter-demonstrations outside a Marine recruiting office in downtown Berkeley, California. Code Pink, an excellent progressive organization who usually has its heart in the right place, has been picketing the Marine office there, apparently because of the Marines' role in Iraq. But this time I have to say that Code Pink is wrong.

Counter-demonstrating against Code Pink has been a group who call themselves "A Gathering of Eagles," blindly claiming that Washington's policies in Iraq are spotless and above blame. And this group is also dead wrong.

Thankfully, however, Madam Jane has the correct information on the situation and is willing to tell all. Madam Jane has her crystal ball all warmed up and ready to go. Plus Madam Jane also has the extra added advantage of being right here, in Al Ambar province, inside Iraq, right now. But what do the cards say? Let's take a look.

Because the US military commanders in Iraq originally wanted to use "economy of force" in Al Ambar and concentrate mainly on the Baghdad area, the Marines got assigned the sole duty of taking over this province. So. Success or failure in this area can be solely attributed to -- or blamed upon -- the Marines' actions here and the reactions to these actions by the people of Anbar province.

Of course it's easy to look into the past and see what has happened back then. In the last few years, Ambar province has had extreme issues with violence and the major concern of the citizenry here has been with security, security, security.

As for the present? A great deal of progress has been made very recently toward making this place more secure. Even six months ago, not even the local citizens could safely walk down the streets of Hit (pronounced Heet), a city of 200,000, located in this western province. Yet the day before yesterday, I was out walking around Hit, chatting with the residents and playing with the kids -- although I do gotta confess that when I tried to hold a two-year-old girl in my arms, she DID burst into tears. And you can't just credit this all to the Marines. The local shieks have also played a big role as have the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police -- people like Colonel Shab'an, the Lion of Al Ambar, who originally funded the local police force with his own money and won back his area from AQI, street by street and block by block. But the Marines are in the local heroes' corner and that really helps.

Are there still insurgents in Al Ambar? Yes. Is the area totally secured? No. But when I went to a hearing held by the governor the other day to find out what the concerns of the citizens of Hit were, the people were talking about getting schools repaired, getting water treatment plants up and running, getting sewage pipes laid, getting more access to the courts. Security, the end-all and be-all of the last governor's hearing, was now way down on the list.

Why is that? Because the Marines in Al Ambar are doing a great job. Period. Their mission here is to help the Iraqis become self-sufficient and then step back. And that is just what they are doing.

Madame Jane predicts that this mission will be successful -- if the Marines are allowed to continue to work as hard as they are doing now to MAKE it happen. Every day, I have watched Marines go out into the province and talk with the sheiks, the city council members, the mayors, the residents, etc. regarding the local people's rebuilding needs and how the Marines could best help the Iraqis to start, work on and complete these projects. You have NO idea. The Marines are doing everything they can to make Al Ambar more and better than just a failed province within a failed state.

Madam Jane predicts that both Code Pink and A Gathering of Eagles would be a lot more effective if they turned their energies toward Washington DC and place their picket lines there -- where the policy decisions are made -- and just leave the Marines alone to do their work. To quote one Marine, "When a gunner are aiming for a target and missing it, he needs to adjust his fire so as to hit the right target." And the same goes for these groups. They also need to hit the right target and adjust their fire.

The Marines here truly are working for peace. It really pains me to say that, but it's true. You have no idea how much I -- the ultimate progressive advocate of peace and non-violence -- would love to diss anything about what is going on in Iraq but, frankly, I have been very impressed by the Marines' grasp of the concept of winning battles by winning hearts and minds.

Now if only Washington DC would please take heed, take note and follow suit.

Code Pink, please back off from attacking the Marines. You have important battles to fight -- but this is not one of them. As another Marine here just told me, "Attacking the Marines here in Anbar would be the same as if a building contractor had sold you a faulty house and the pipes all leaked and a plumber came to fix the problem and then you yelled at HIM instead of the contractor." The Marines are the plumbers. They are working hard to fix the pipes. Stand back and give them room to work.

Madam Jane also predicts that "A Gathering of Eagles" would benefit greatly from a course in good manners. "Handsome is as handsome does."

Madam Jane's chrystal ball is showing a clear picture of how things really are in Ambar these days. And if anyone doesn't believe me, I challenge them to come out and see for themselves. And if no one believes me, send out the New York Times or Sixty Minutes instead. And talk with the unit commanders. Visit the forward operating bases. Chat with the mayors and the police captains and the school teachers and the sheiks and the kids. See for yourself.

PS: I have to confess, however, that my chrystal ball has failed me in one respect. As to the long-range future of Iraq, the darn thing has clouded up on me! I shake it and shake it, but nothing shows up. "What if the US pulled out of Iraq tomorrow," I ask -- and get nothing. "What if the US stays here for ten or twenty years and our country goes bankrupt trying to deal with Iraq?" It's blank. What is wrong with this ball? Is it because I bought it used at the flea market? Maybe.

"What if the US pulls out, leaves a vacuum and Iran moves in instead?" Wait! I'm seeing something! My chrystal ball just predicted that if Iran moves into Iraq then it will face the same situation that the neo-cons did when they leaped before they looked back in 2003 -- and then IRAN would be in the position of occupier and IRAN would be the one going bankrupt instead of us. How ironic is that?

Whoops. Madam Jane's chrystal ball has just faded and gone dark. Sorry about that. It's time for me to put it back under the bed. But do not dispair. Common sense is still available to all of us. And common sense tells us that the Marines in Anbar are on to something -- hearts and minds. And here's something else to think about: People -- be they Iraqis, American politicians, fundamentalist zealots or the Middle East mafia -- can't just go around killing everybody all the time. Greed, power and this insane eye-for-an-eye cycle sucks eggs bigtime because if everyone keeps this stuff up much longer, there will be NONE of us left.

PPS: A friend in the US military in Baghdad just got out his crystal ball too. Here's what he said that it says: "I have not yet been to the Anbar province, but I understand that the neighborhood watch groups there and civil-military projects that the Marines are conducting there are showing progress." See! His chrystal ball agrees!

"I must say, however, that when you claim 'the war is over if you want it,' you are grossly underestimating what GEN Petraeus stated in September when he said that security across Iraq is extremely inconsistent. In numerous parts of Iraq, namely south Baghdad, the fighting part of the war -- firefights, IEDs, etc -- is very much still alive. We are seeing it every day. In some neighborhoods, we cannot yet allow the civil affairs soldiers to do their work on the roads, schools, sewage until security reaches an acceptable level...which it has not. School has just recently started up again now that Ramadan is over. However, just a few weeks ago, the school/mosque complexes were used by insurgents in the neighborhood as locations from which to fight." His chrystal ball is located in Baghdad, BTW.

"The corruption issue goes deeper than we also like to acknowledge -- it has not really been acknowledged enough in the media. Every service -- trash collection, propane, electricity -- is in some way funding the terrorists. JAM reaps a cut in the Shia-controlled areas; AQI in the Sunni ones. The Iraqi Police are infested with JAM, and the people know it. Just a few days ago, an Iraqi Brig Gen was caught aiding in planning a rocket attack on a US base." Of course my friend also confesses that his crystal ball read this last information in Stars & Stripes.

"My point," my friend's crystal ball continued, "is that the insurgents are smarter than I think you give them credit for. They are not just shooting themselves in the foot. Both sides are trying to kill Americans in order to reduce and diminish our will to stay and fight and/or mediate. At the same time, the Sunni/Shia extremist fight mounts as the two sides try to control every facet of the infrastructure, and when we do leave, they will wage the much anticipated war to see who can be the next 'Saddam', only this time democracy will make it look almost legitimate. Oh, and I am forgetting to investigate what Iran and Saudi Arabia will do when the mediator -- America -- leaves...."

And then my friend's chrystal ball too went cloudy and he was forced to conclude, "You may be able to tell from what I've written that, after two months of daily interaction with the Iraqis...I am a bit frustrated at the reality of it all as well." Me too.

PPPS: Here's more crystal ball gazing from an experienced journalist friend: "Likewise, I wish the war would end too, but it is far from over. There may be small bubbles of coercive peace where a given faction or foreign firepower dominates, yet the Iraqis' numerous grievances far outweigh what any outsider can truly fathom -- never under-estimate factions and their desire for revenge."

Madam Jane agrees with that statement for sure. There are circles within circles and layers within layers to this whole "war" and within the whole Middle East itself that no one can even begin to understand -- let alone little me. No wonder my chrystal ball is on strike! And as I prepare to go up to Haditha for the next two days and then to proceed home through Kuwait, I am almost overwhelmed with just one burning question. "Does ANYONE -- either here, in the Middle East, or in Europe or America -- really understand what the freak is going on in Iraq?" Or what to do about it even if they did....

Sunday, October 21, 2007

In Iraq, "The war is over if you want it."

From what I can tell, the war in Iraq is pretty much over. Or it CAN be over if we want it. All that American soldiers have to do over here is to play the good-guy card just a little bit longer...if they can just do that, can hang in there a little bit longer while the "insurgents" continue to shoot themselves in the foot....

Was it Chairman Mao who said, "To be effective, an army must swim through the people like a fish through water." And his tenure over China failed because he stopped taking his own advice. The Cultural Revolution became a disaster for him when he lost sight of winning hearts and minds and focused in on the blood sports.

And the same thing is happening here in Iraq. The insurgents' policy seems to be simply, "Let's blow as many people and things up as we can." But guess what, guys. If you wanna be a fish in the water, you can't go around blowing other fish up. Every time someone is kidnapped or beheaded or a car bomb goes off, the "insurgents" shoot themselves in the foot because the general population will no longer protect and support them.

And speaking of swimming, it's time for the current government officials in Iraq to stop acting like sharks and become just a little bit less corrupt. And as for Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey -- please stop fighting over poor Iraq's corpse before it is even dead. That's bottom-feeding behavior.

And if I was an insurgent here in Iraq, I'd immediately go back to winning hearts and minds. No one here wants another Saddam -- or even another George Bush. And bombing Iran is NOT gonna get Bush back in the swim either.

And if I was General Petraeus, I'd follow the Marines' Anbar Model and start swimming like mad! Schools, roads, food, jobs, sewage treatment plants, reconstruction. Play the "lesser of two evils" card for all that it's worth.

And if I was the American media, I'd stop billing what is happening in Iraq as a "war". It's no longer a war over here. The "war" phase is OVER. Instead, think of Iraq as just some poor country in need of foreign aid after having been hit by a tsunami named George W. Bush.

This war is over if we want it.

What's that old joke? "But Mommie, I don't WANT to go to Europe...."

"Shut up and swim."

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sweet Home Iraq: In Anbar province, I met the governor...

The Allman Brothers sing about how "in Birmingham they shot the governor" -- but that's not what's going to happen here! The governor of Anbar province came to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hit this morning and I am here to tell you that the insurgents would need a whole battalion of operatives (if they could even come up with that many) to take this man out. Our convoy is locked and loaded. I mean REALLY locked and loaded. Plus Anbar province, with the help of the US Marines, has really settled down a lot lately. Knock on wood.

"Ms. Stillwater, you will be riding in the Seven-Ton," said the platoon gunner as our convoy started to line up for the two-mile drive into the city of Hit, population 200,000. "A year ago you couldn't even drive down the street here without getting shot at. But now you can go to the market and even walk around without being in any danger." Hey, I'm in a Seven-Ton. I'm good to go.

Still and all, as safe as the streets may be, having the governor come to town is a good opportunity to show off some brute force -- sort of like on Veterans Day. Give the folks a show. And what a show it is! We gots the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Police Force and a whole bunch of Marines parading down the main street. We're impressive. We're awesome! You should see me in my flak helmet and vest. I'm awesome too. But really. Hit is now supposed to be a quiet town -- like after Gary Cooper became sheriff in "High Noon". The school marms are safe.

"Jane, you got it completely wrong. It was Lynyrd Skynyrd who sang 'Sweet Home Alabama'. And they didn't shoot the governor either." Sorry about that.

In any case, we rode into town. "I am coming home to you...." Being on the Seven-Ton was like being on a float in the Rose Parade. I was waving like crazy to all the kids. You'd think I was the Queen. No one tried to shoot at us. People actually smiled. This Anbar Model thing may actually work! Hell, it's costing us enough. It had very well better work. "Where the skies are always blue...."

At the Hit High School cafetorium, the governor spoke to approximately 120 municipal officials, tribal leaders, Iraqi police officials and US Marines -- and between all of them, I counted 75 side-arms and 25 M-16s. I myself walked in, saw that I was the only woman in the room, turned around, walked out and went to get a headscarf.

"Thank you for asking me here," said the governor (through a translator). "We are pleased with the stabilization of this area. All of us benefit from being protected because with the rule of law comes prosperity." Then, one by one, representatives from the Iraqi Army, the police, the municipal council of Hit, the local tribal sheiks, etc. gave the governor their input regarding logistics and priorities for setting up the province's budget. Apparently, the provincial officials now have the funds to start the ball rolling bigtime in Anbar but are sitting on them until allocation issues are cleared up.

The health director spoke. "We have the hospital open but don't have any staff because we don't have any funds to pay them." Someone whispered in my ear that doctors are being offered very small salaries here in any case. And the police are also still waiting to get paid as are members of their muni court investigation team. I talked with a member of the team and he asked me to mention that the courts here are very important too. I agree! No more Alberto Gonzales types for Iraq!

Water project problems were also mentioned again and again. Everyone brought that issue up. "We have only had two possible cases of cholera here," said one doctor sitting behind me, "but with sewage leaking into fresh water all around this area, that situation could change for the worse at any time. In the north of Iraq, at least 2,000 people have died from cholera."

All in all, the governor's meeting went well. When I commented to one of the Marines that the governor's guys should get their act together and fix the freaking sewer system, the Marine next to me laughed. "Jane, you just don't understand. All these complaints about water are WONDERFUL. The last time the governor met with Hit municipal reps, all that was talked about was security, security, security. They've really come a long way."

"...Now we all did what we could do."

Anbar province has its good points and its bad points. Bad points? Many parts of Anbar are desolate and barren as hell. A lot of the children I've seen here look undernourished. Poverty is apparent in the rural villages. The Marines I am staying with in the FOB live in fairly primative conditions and there's no pumpkin pie at their dining facility. Heck, they don't even HAVE a DFac. And the internet connections at FOB Hit suck eggs.

And the good points here? Ah, the Marines. They are a well-trained, tight-knit group who write really funny stuff on the walls of the latrines and drive really cool muscle cars with awesome names like "Strykers". And the Iraqis themselves tend to be kind, hospitable and generous to a fault and would give you the shirt off their backs if you act justly and fairly with them. And the people of Anbar are trying really, really hard to make omelets out of the broken eggs handed to them by Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney.

"Does your conscience bother you...."

Then the meeting ended and me and all the Marines popped back in our Humvees, Strykers and Seven-Tons, went to a feast at the municipal building and then went back to Sweet Home FOB Hit. It was a great day. I got to meet the governor -- and NO ONE got shot.

Yes, I am aware that assassinations and car-bombs make more vivid headlines back in America and that "if it bleeds, it leads" sells more newspapers (and blogs), but still.... Peace is good news too. The people of Anbar are tired of being terrorized and being afraid of their own shadow all the time. And now they are willing to come forward and stand up for peace. And if they can do it in the middle of danger-ridden and war-torn Iraq, then we can do it in America too. It's time for us Americans to stop cowering every time we hear of a Code Orange alert and also start standing up for peace.

Guys, you have NO idea how safe and protected and pampered you are back home in America. Most of you would last about three days at FOB Hit -- if that. So. Man up, America and start fighting for PEACE too.

PS: I just found out that while we were in the governor's event, the Marines patrolling the perimeter did find one set of explosives nearby, so I guess I got the best of both worlds -- a positive, hopeful story but with a little bit of excitement thrown in as well.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Iraq's Anbar Province: The World's Next Top Model?

Hi. I'm still in Iraq. In Anbar province. At Al Asad airbase. With Regimental Combat Team 2 of the Marines.

At the dining facility today, I got into a discussion -- over pumpkin pie, of course -- about the direction this "war" is now taking. "Things are much calmer here now," said one Marine. Good. I'm glad to hear that the violence in Anbar is finally settling down despite all the White House occupants' intentional or unintentional efforts to keep chaos in Iraq stirred up.

"But do you think that the US should still pull out of Iraq even if the occupation is going well -- if for no other reason than because America simply can't afford to keep pumping Iraq full of Monopoly money instead of taking care of business at home?" I asked. "What do you think?"

Another Marine answered, "I can see your point. But still. I would really hate to leave Iraq while the infrastructure is still in such poor condition." Me too. Just look at this place. Everything in Iraq is either old and shabby or pre-fab or concrete-bunker-style Mussolini Modern or cobbled together out of junk. There's not much in between. This place is a mess. Martha Stewart would definitely give it a pass.

"But what if the Iraq government and the US start using less money here but start using it more efficiently by putting our dollars into education, jobs, infrastructure etc. instead of emphasizing military solutions? Would that help?"

"I'm sure that it would," said Marine number 2. And this would probably be a fabulous policy direction for the United States to take. "But even though things have settled down here a lot in the last six months," number 2 continued, "security is still Iraq's first priority."

What to do? I followed Tyra Banks' advice and looked at photos. "I have two photos here in my hand...."

But the photo that I was looking at now was a huge photo of Anbar province on the wall of Marine colonel Stacy Clardy's office. "What do YOU think is going on in Anbar province?" I asked. He told me.

"The mission we were tasked to do here revolves around support, security and stability. And to do this, we have recognized that the population is the center of gravity regarding successful completion of our mission. We put a considerable amount of effort toward the population here -- economic development, government, communications, rule of law. But you must understand that Iraqi systems here are much different from the ones we are used to and it's been hard work for us to get a handle on them. They are different from American paradigms. But we are making huge strides forward as we begin to understand more."

One of the Marines at the dining facility told me earlier that the Marine Corps had been sent to Anbar province at the start of the war because Baghdad was the "focus of effort" and Al Anbar was only supposed to represent "an economy-of-force". Maybe Bush and Cheney thought the Marines would be too efficient and muck all their "Disaster Capitalism" schemes up? But I digress. But you KNOW how much I love to diss Cheney and Bush.... Give me a minute here while I fight back the urge.

Anyway, the Marines fooled everybody and got Al Anbar province jump-started again and now everyone is all running around blathering, "The Anbar Model! The Anbar Model!" Semper fi!

"We have been working with municipal officials, tribal leaders, judges, police, etc." continued Col. Clardy. "And they are all coming to the table because they now feel that they can get their jobs done better with our help. The police are being trained in the latest law enforcement techniques. The judges are taking on more cases. And that they are seeing cases at all is a good example of how far we have come here. We are trying to take a holistic approach to getting things back on track."

The Marines here patrol 380 miles of Syria's border, 70 miles of border with Jordan and a small part of the border with Saudi Arabia. "500,000 Iraqis live in this area, primarily along the Euphrates River. Much of the rest of the area is desert but nomadic tribes live there. Bedouins. Towns centered on wells. And now the hard-core Al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] has moved out of the cities and are operating in the desert. So we too are out in the desert hunting them down."

"How do you locate them," I asked. The colonel's map showed the desert as a really big place.

"We make intelligence-based sweeps. The tribes that we work with in the cities originally came from the desert areas and they still know what is going on out there and are willing to help. They live in the cities now but they still think of themselves as Bedouin. But as the pressure is put on the AQI insurgents in the cities, they have retreated to the desert and they're not used to living out there." No more running water and Play Stations? Yikes!

'"So many of the insurgents are turning themselves in to tribal leaders, saying, 'I'm tired of living in the desert and I want to go home.' And the tribes take them back if they don't have blood on their hands."

"So you are having good luck with working with the tribal leaders?"
"Yes. The heads of the larger tribes see that the area is becoming safer with the Marines' help so they have already joined with us and now the smaller tribal leaders want to jump on board before they get left behind."

"How did you contact the tribal leaders?" Bribe a tribe member? Offer to marry into the tribe? What?

"Surprisingly enough, the tribal leaders came to us." Perhaps they were looking for a few good men? "The leaders were voting with their feet -- casting their lot in with the Marines, that the Marines would in the end prove more reliable than AQI and, more importantly, that the tribes would benefit from the stable environment that we help provide."

"But what about education and healthcare," I asked. 'What are the Marines doing to help in these all-important areas?" The colonel's answer wasn't exactly what I had expected.

"We are trying to build more school structures and there is a need for that but the schools themselves are operating. Students come to class. Teachers are getting paid. There is an incentive among the Iraqis to do this on their own because education is of primary importance here. And the same is true of the healthcare system. Iraqi initiative has gotten that up and running as well."

And the security aspects of the Anbar Model seem to be working as well. "In February we had 100 incidents a week and now it's down to 20 per week and those 20 have changed in nature. The incidents used to be IED attacks but now they mainly involve IEDs being found."

Why is that? "In many ways, war is a battle of wills; of who has the strongest will to win. And the Marines' will is stronger than the insurgents'. We are fully committed to winning the peace -- not just killing insurgents. We understand that this is how to win. Unlike in Vietnam, we don't even count enemy kills. It's irrelevant." Hearts and minds. Hear that George and Dick? Hearts and minds. If you've got them, use them. Ha!

So now that it appears to actually be working, the Anbar Model of winning hearts and minds is becoming more popular and is being tauted both in Washington and Baghdad. Bush and Cheney seem to be applauding its virtues. But make no mistake. The Anbar Model is doomed. "You must immediately pack your bags and leave." But why? If it is working so well, why won't Anbar be selected as the World's Next Top Model? I bet Tyra and Janice and Nigel and both Jays and Twiggy would vote for Anbar! So why not everyone else? The Anbar Model is fierce!

"Tell me again why the Anbar Model needs to pack her bags?"
"Sure. It's an economics thing. Let me explain. When I was in Afghanistan, I met someone who was familiar with the US-AID program for that country. They had painstakingly developed a beautiful plan to help stabilize the country. It included aid to every facet of economic, legal, cultural, social, agricultural, utility, medical and educational development -- geared to get Afghanistan back on track ASAP. A diplomat's dream."

"So what happened?"

"Washington refused to fund it."

"Why? Lack of money? Not enough local experts? Why?"
"As far as I can tell from what my source said, there was plenty of funds and resources available but the plan was vetoed in favor of spending more money on weapons and roads." Oh. The same old story. Cheney and Bush only get kickbacks from projects involving weapons and roads. And of course we all know the outcome. Afghanistan is now a total mess."

"And that is the reason, as all men know," that Anbar will never become the World's Next Top Model. To put it bluntly, not enough weapons and roads are involved. Sorry, Tyra. Bechtel, Halliburton, Boeing and General Electric will be the judges in this contest. And will they pick a model that supports education, rule of law, healthcare and jobs for the locals?

"That's not what the agencies are looking for this year."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Eye witness report: Marines drop acid in western Iraq!

"So Jane," said my press embed coordinator in Baghdad, "we finally got you a flight out to Anbar province. You will leave tonight at 9 pm." But you always add at least three hours to showtime whenever you fly military air and so my helicopter didn't take off until 2 am. But I got a lot of reading done and watched a lot of baseball on TV while I waited around in a pre-fab shack that serves as the terminal. How about them Rockies?

What's it like to ride in a Super-Stallion? Okay, I guess -- except that the loading hatch at the back was wide open and I kept worrying that my luggage was going to slide out the door, open like a parachute and hit someone below on the head with my flower-patterned and lace-trimmed pink and blue flannel nightgown.

"You are only going to fly part way in this 'copter," said the gunner as he looked at my hand. It read "232 TG" in big black Magic Marker letters. Why? Because on a chopper you can't hear anything and it was dark so this way the gunner knew where I was going without having to ask. No, they don't have stewardesses on the Stallions. And don't serve no cocktails or snacks.

We flew over Baghdad and Baghdad was big -- as big as Los Angeles. Had Saddam encouraged suburban sprawl? Then we kept flying westward over cities and towns. This was the green part of Iraq and if you had a choice between living next to a river or out in the desert, which one would you choose?

"Here's the half-way point," the gunner yelled in my ear. "You spend the night here." Or at least what was left of the night. We filed out of the Stallion and onto a desert in the middle of nowhere with some barracks and porta-potties. "Grab a MRE and go find a cot."

MREs. Meals -- Ready to Eat. I started sorting through the bin. Cheese omelet? Beef ravioli? Ah, chicken fajita! "Don't get the fajitas," said a voice next to me. "Trust me. Try something else."

"The meatloaf is okay?" The Marine nodded. "So. What do I do next?" He tore the heavy plastic wrapper apart with his teeth -- and out spilled a mini-supermarket of stuff. Geez Louise. Powdered cocoa, powdered lemonade, packaged mashed potatoes, crackers, packaged meatloaf, shortbread cookies, apple jelly, gum, matches, napkins, Tootsie Rolls, tooth picks, Tabasco sauce and I forget what all else. But no veggies.

"Then you take some water and add it to this pouch." I did. It steamed. "Now throw in the bags containing the meatloaf and potatoes." The meatloaf looked like dog food but tasted pretty good. The mashed potatoes, however, looked and tasted more like Cream of Wheat.

What next? A cot of my own in a plywood Quonset hut full of sleeping soldiers. I couldn't get to sleep with the lights on and so stayed up and read for the rest of the night. Then at dawn I discovered that even out here in the middle of nowhere, there was still a five-star dining facility. Hooray.

At 9:30 am, they assigned me a flight on a C-130 troop transport plane and I went off to wait for a few more hours for it to take off. But then suddenly some guy comes running into our Quonset hut screaming, "HazMat! Hazmat! You all have to evacuate! Now!" We all grabbed our gear and moved out. What kind of hazardous material? Would it be radioactive? Were we all going to die? Couldn't we all just get on the airplane and fly away from this threat? Nope, the airfield had been shut down. And there were all these cool-looking moon-walker-type guys all covered with silver, walking around and holding what looked like Geiger counters in their hands. We're doomed.

By 10:30, however, we had found out the cause. "There's been an acid spill of some kind." Ho- boy.

Former flower-child that I am, however, I just couldn't resist. "I can just see the headlines in tomorrow's Stars and Stripes," I laughed. "MARINES DROP ACID IN WESTERN IRAQ!" All the Marines next to me laughed too. Then we all popped onto the C-130. And just before we landed at our destination, the plane gave a lurch, dive-bombed and started shaking and spinning back and forth. But much to my surprise, my reaction was not, "Good grief, we are all going to die!" but rather, "What an interesting way to end my life -- in western Iraq with a bunch of Marines."

Then the guy next to me patted my hand and yelled -- no one can talk on a C-130 in flight -- "We were just taking evasive action. Not to worry." Oh. No worries, mate. Then we landed in the middle of the desert in 102-degree heat in the middle of nowhere and that was the end of that adventure. More adventures to follow? Sure. Have I gotten any sort of handle on this "war" at all since I've been here? No. Has it been a grueling journey? Oh yeah. You have no idea what the US military goes through here day after day, year after year. Will anyone EVER find a way to end this money pit of a war? We will have to. When America goes bankrupt, we will have no choice -- no matter how good a job our Marines are doing in western Iraq.

PS: My little room here at Camp Al Asad is basically one of those freight boxes that you load on the back of 18-wheelers. but it is nice and cozy and quiet -- except for the guy next door who plays really loud music. I guess he got fooled by all the white powder dust around here into thinking he was still at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. The two places look the same. Only he is no Space Cowboy!

PPS: Today a very nice officer gave me a tour of the base. And on the base is a small oasis with a pool that, legend has it, the great patriarch Abraham himself used to hang at out at. Right there on the base! How inspiring is that!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Iraqi Book of the Dead

My friend Betsy just sent me an e-mail. “The news last night said that Iraqis are starting to turn against extremists and starting to fight this wishful thinking or are people really talking about this in Baghdad?“ Are they talking about it? Yes and no. Yes, they are talking about it, but, no, it is not the major topic of conversation.

What everyone here in Baghdad is really talking about is DEATH. Death is everywhere here. It permeates the very air we breathe. It seeps into our conversations and into our dreams -- which explains why, since I have arrived in this country, I almost never sleep.

A CBS camera crew just wandered into the press room. “Have you ever been to an Iraqi morgue?“ I asked one of the team.

“No, I have never been to a morgue. Morgues here are very dangerous places.“

I was surprised. Why would a morgue be so dangerous? “Because the Shia go there to pick off the Sunnis who go there to claim dead relatives and the Sunnis go there to pick off the Shia who have also gone there to claim their dead.“ So. Death, if you are still looking around for thy sting, I guess your best bet of finding it would be in an Iraqi morgue.

Whenever American soldiers say goodbye to each other over here, they always say, “Take care.“ For Americans in Iraq, Death rides in every vehicle, haunts every road, lives in every hooch. It's life on the edge. One never knows.

When I first came to Iraq, I thought I was here to write stories. But now I think that I'm just here to be a witness -- a witness to the power of death. Make no mistake, boys and girls. The Grim Reaper is the real governor of Iraq no matter who sits in parliament or how fortified the Green Zone is. And, knowing that, my next question should be, “Will I die here too?“ No, not me. I am immortal! I can't even imagine a world without out me. It's hard for any one to conceive of their own death.

But I know what the next question I should ask after that one should be. “How can the supposedly-idealistic United Nations, the supposedly-democratic United States, the supposedly-civilized European Union or even Russia or China allow a country to exist with Death as its commander-in-chief?“ They overthrew Saddam here. They should overthrow Death too. But they won't. Instead, Death has been given permanent membership on the UN Security Council. Death is now a member of the G-8.

People here in Iraq talk about death all the time. It has become a permanent part of their lives. Death never gets invited to dinner. But he comes. He never gets any votes here but year after year he is re-elected. In this country, he's the one you go to if you want to get anything done. In Iraq, Death is the ultimate problem-solver. Betsy, the only way in the world that there will be any kind of truce between Al Qaeda, the Shia, the Sunni, the Americans, the Iraqi mafia, the fundamentalists, etc. is if they all get together and vote Death out of office. But that just isn't happening here -- and won't be happening any time soon.

PS: In case you might be wondering how death came to be so prevalent in Iraq, read Naomi Klein's latest article in Harpers regarding the role of “Disaster Capitalism“ in world affairs. Read it from beginning to end. Print it out. Sleep with it under your pillow. And then get ready to welcome Death to your city or town too.

Disaster Capitalism: The new economy of catastrophe
http://www.harpers. org/archive/ 2007/09/00000000 010

PPS: I'm finally scheduled to fly out of the Green Zone tonight! Anbar province, here I come! That is if Death doesn't roll out the welcome mat between now and then.

Battle fatigue: Me and Oprah in the Green Zone

When I was in Iraq last April I got stuck in the Green Zone for three whole weeks. Other reporters came and went but I just stayed here and stayed here. But on THIS trip, however, I've been guaranteed tours of both Fallugah and Al Asad. "Just fly into the Green Zone long enough to get credentialed, Jane, and then we'll have you out to Anbar province the next day," they told me at the press information center. That was four days ago. History repeats itself. I'm stuck in the Green Zone again. De Ja Voo.

When I was in Iraq in April, I visited EVERYTHING in the Green Zone: The crossed swords monument, the current embassy at Saddam's old palace, the new embassy just being built that is huge, the combat support hospital, the DFac, the parliament, the El Racheed hotel and even the freaking PX. I've DONE the Green Zone. Please!

But even worse is that my brain has convinced itself that it is still on California time and so every night in my little cubby living quarters, I spend the entire night staring at the ceiling. Insomnia. No sleep for me. What to do? Drink lots of coffee to keep me awake during the day? Play lots of solitaire and read lots of books?

Then someone handed me a copy of "O" magazine. Oprah to the rescue! "For those times when your mind is addled, your heart feels turbulent, your center is shaky -- a little black bag full of cures, from experts who are devoted to keeping us all in beautiful balance." That's me! I wanna be in balance. If I can't be out in the Red Zone getting shot at and doing a fabulous job of reporting, a little mental health advice from Oprah is just what I need!

"Distract yourself. Put on music and dance, scrub the bathtub spotless, whatever engrosses you...." What engrosses me is writing up the news!

"Take action. Escaping the downward spiral is just the first step." Good advice. Just hand me my Kevlar and a flight out of LZ Washington and I will!

"Can you imagine...the space between your eyes? The space inside your nose as you inhale and exhale naturally? The space occupied by your jaw? The space inside your throat, expanding until your entire neck is filled with space? The space that your whole body occupies expanding out into the room?" Oprah, I'm doing it! It's 3 am and my space has filled this whole room and...I'm STILL wide awake. There's a WAR going on in Iraq and I'm visualizing the inside of my nose. Go me.

"Getting stuck in certain ways of thinking can hinder our ability to both enjoy and respond effectively to new situations." Maybe that means that I'm too stuck in my old ways of thinking to enjoy the Green Zone again? Or maybe it means that Congress needs to re-think this whole Iraq misadventure, respond effectively to the new situation (that the Iraq occupation is driving America financially and moral bankrupt), throw Bush and Cheney in jail, honor the good job the military is doing here despite fuzzy thinking by their Commander-in-Chief, and be "more or less receptive to new activities and ideas."

Thank you Oprah. Your "7 Ways to Restart a Day" has helped me figure out how to survive yet another day in the Green Zone -- and how to successfully wind up this freaking "war". All we need to do is to "be kind and thankful" and to be aware that "if you can figure out why you are upset, that's halfway to feeling better." I can do that. I'm upset because those idiots in the White House are getting our best troops killed so that they can become the world's first trillionaires. And also because I'm stuck in the Green Zone. Again. Thank you Oprah. I feel much better now.

And, Oprah, I would feel even better still if you would please tell your viewers to call their Congressional representatives and tell them to impeach Bush and Cheney for mis-using our military for their own ends. And also call the Pentagon and ask them to please get me some freaking transportation to Al Asad?

PS: Would you also consider having me on your show when I get back? And making my new book, Bring Your Own Flak Jacket: Helpful Tips for Touring Today's Middle East, an Oprah Book Club selection? And coming to visit me in the Green Zone if I get stuck here forever? And also running for president? The world could really use some of your "5 Ways to Derail Rage".

Bush leagues: How GWB lost the World Series to Iran

How would you feel if your favorite team didn't get to play in the World Series this year? And not because they didn't win enough games -- they did. Nope, your team got booted out of the series for one reason and one reason only -- because the MBL had declared another team the winner even though your team was ahead. "How can they DO that!" you scream. "Throw the bums out!" And there'd be mass rioting in Mudville that day.

But politics ain't baseball and when the Supreme Court ruled that Al Gore didn't win the presidency even though he won every game, the fans didn't roar, the fix stayed fixed and the series went on while the real winning team sat on the bench. And the crowds in the bleachers remained silent.

And this week Gore hit a home run anyway and won the Nobel Prize. You can't keep a good team in last place forever no matter what the Supreme Court says. But I digress.

Okay. The league managers ruled that Bush won the series in 2000. Gore was sent to the showers. But still the game goes on. And if Bush plays a good game, then we'll just sit back with our hot dogs and beer in hand and watch and cheer. But Bush plays a TERRIBLE game! You could see better action than this at the Little League playoffs in the municipal park next door.

"And the score is 6-zero. Bush comes to bat. And he strikes out!" He struck out on 9-11, he struck out in Afghanistan, he struck out in Iraq. But has this loser been sent to the benches? NO!

And now Bush is up to bat again. This time he's playing against Iran. Iran? You gotta be kidding! In 2000, before the Supreme Court threw the series to Bush, no one had even HEARD of Iran. And now this mere rookie from the Middle East is being tauted as a huge rival team, about to blow America out of the park. Iran? Our country has sunk so low that we are now facing IRAN in the bullpen? Give me a break. We used to play China and Russia and the big hitters but now with Bush on the mound we are playing Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran? And the fans are quiet on this one? Give me a break.

I'm over here in Iraq right now. Two nights ago I ran the blood-alley road from the Baghdad airport into the Green Zone. It was spooky. In the dead of night a herd of vehicles known as Rhinos pulled up in convoy, accompanied by a herd of Strykers and we put on our Kevlar and climbed aboard. Rhinos are big as a house. You wouldn't want to mess with an angry Rhino. We made the trip unscathed.

Once in the Green Zone, I went to the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) and bedded down. The next morning, I went to the press room. And talked with the reporters there all hunched over their laptops. And everyone there was talking about Iran. Iran did this. Iran did that. And then when I watched the Republican debates on TV, there it was again. IRAN. "We need to stop Iran. We need to bomb Iran." Screw Iran. We need to stop the Bush league loser in the White House who has corrupted America's second most popular national pastime -- politics -- and has struck out so many times that he couldn't get a job as a water boy in the National League and the American League would just laugh.

Yet this is the man who is batting for America.

"Throw the bum out."

PS: Here are some photos of two of my kids. Ashley was a catcher in the Berkeley Municipal League when she was in kindergarten and Joe played for the Little League Rockies for years. Either one of them would do a better job in the White House than Bush!
Final Jeapordy: And the correct answer is "What is Al-Qaeda in Iraq?"

Everyone over here in Iraq talks a lot about Al-Qaeda. Being confused as to exactly what Al-Qaeda actually is, I started researching that question. But where should I start? Wikipedia! Here's what they say: "Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is a term used by the media to describe a salafi terrorist group which is playing an active role in the Iraqi insurgency." Okay. But is this group connected with the REAL Al-Qaeda or is Al-Qaeda in Iraq just a blanket term for anyone wearing a ski mask over their head and carrying an AK-47? What definition would Alex Trebeck give to his contestants on Jeopardy? I started asking around.

The first person I asked was a reporter. He laughed at my question and said, "If you want a good answer to that one, just go ask any person working for Blackwater. Or for Triple Canopy." Yeah right. Like I'm gonna pop right over to Area 51 and chit-chat with those boys? What else have you got?

"The next approach I would take would be to ask, 'Does Al-Qaeda attack the West because they don't like Western values and who the West is or do they attack the West because of what the West does?' I think that Al-Qaeda is on the offensive because the West has done so many horrible things in the Middle East over the years. Terrorists don't attack somebody because of who they are." Sorry, guy, but I can't quite imagine Alex Trebeck asking all that.

I then talked with another reporter next -- hey, there are a lot of reporters staying here in the Green Zone and not that many Iraqis. I do what I can -- and asked him the same question.

"Al-Qaeda seems to be composed of foreign-led Iraqi Islamic fundamentalist insurgents with access to deep pockets who use threats to keep their areas under control. People here are afraid of them because they have power and money and if you disagree with them, they tend to steal your car, kidnap your children and chop off your head." Oh.

"Because of Al-Qaeda's violent behavior, Iraqis are starting to turn away from this group. One interesting result of Al-Qaeda's over-the-top behavior is that American troops are now actually being considered the lesser of two evils." That's good for the US military. George Bush is a totally corrupt fool who is ruining both Iraq and America but I would like to see American troops succeed in establishing the rule of law over here and this reporter's insight sounded hopeful. We're the lesser of two evils! That's progress!

Then I realized that I was in the Green Zone right now, staying right next door to the Iraqi Parliament and could go over there and interview some actual Iraqis. But that was not to be because the next day was Eid, a very sacred religious holiday for Muslims, and the Parliamentarians would not be in session. And I'd be sitting here all by my lonesome in the CPIC press room feeling all sorry for myself that I only had Alex Trebeck to keep me company on this holy day. "Religion for $500. A celebration following Ramadan." What is Eid?

But then I remembered what the Parliamentarians had said to me last time I interviewed them. "Everyone with guns and mortars and bombs here are shooting at everyone else with guns and mortars and bombs here -- and we innocent Iraqi civilians are all caught in the middle. It doesn't matter if they call themselves Al-Qaeda or the Army or terrorists or the Iraqi Mafia! We only just want ALL of them to stop shooting at us." Or words to that effect.

Then my friend Stewart threw in his own definition of Al-Qaeda. "In one way, Jane, Al-Qaeda is like the Boy Scouts. It takes just about anyone who wants to join. Well, except for gays."

One Army officer defined Al-Qaeda as a world-wide movement. Another defined Al-Qaeda as a fundamentalist terrorist organization working under bin Ladin. "But most of Al-Qaeda here are actually Iraqis." Hummm. There were NO Al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq before Bush worked his magic and now there are thousands of them all over Iraq, making money for Blackwater and Halliburton hand over fist.

But basically Al-Qaeda's one uniting characteristic appears to be that it uses punishment as a means of control. Geez Louise. These guys must have had violent, control-freak parents when they were growing up! I bet they got sent to the woodshed a lot. BTW, the three things to look out for when trying to identify adult psychopaths are histories of bed-wetting, arson and animal abuse when they were kids. I know that Bush started fires and blew up frogs when he was a kid, but did he wet the bed? We'll have to ask his nanny about that one. And the next time I meet a member of Al-Qaeda, I'll be SURE to ask him, "Did you ever wet the bed?"

So. Have I sucessfully answered the question, "What is Al-Qaeda?" Yes. But have I also successfully answered the question, "What are we going to DO about Al-Qaeda?" No.

What would a contestant on Final Jeopardy answer if Alex Trubeck had asked him or her, "For a priceless amount, see if you can tell me the right question to this answer: 'The use of diplomacy instead of force, the use of carrots instead of sticks and the use of other conflict resolution tools besides war.'"

Perhaps the best question to ask would be, "How can human beings finally begin to use their brains instead of brute force, stop killing each other and finally evolve?"

Here's a photo of my last big night out at the US military dining facility near the Baghdad airport before going to the Green Zone. And this is not one of their better dinners either. I had the poached salmon for lunch and BBQ chicken the night before. But note the clam chowder and the pumpkin pie. No whipped cream however. I'm on a diet!
Better than the Hilton?: US detention centers in Iraq

Today I went to a press conference held in Baghdad by US Marine Major General Douglas M. Stone. No refreshments were served.

General Stone gave such a rosy description of life in US detention centers here in Iraq that it made me wanna run out and become an insurgent just so I could get arrested and sent to one too. He made Camp Buca and Abu Ghraib sound like they were almost even better than the Hilton -- and certainly a lot better than the jails we got in California. San Quentin, take note.

I was writing so quickly at the press conference that I might have gotten some of the general's words wrong but here's what my notes say he said: "Our major goal here is to try to integrate detainees back into Iraqi society. We are also committed to broad transparency and public accountability. We work in cooperation with international laws and human rights regulations and we encourage visits and inspections to our facilities by the Red Cross and the press." Then Gen. Stone said the same thing in Arabic for the benefit of the Iraqi reporters present. Heck, I can hardly say "Salaam Aleikum" in Arabic. I was in awe

"We provide what the inmates need," continued the general, " including clothing, food, water for drinking and washing, medical care and education such as literacy programs and vocational training." Good on him. We could even use these types of programs in American jails. Would this man consider working at Sing Sing when he gets done with Iraq?

"The medical care for the prisoners is as good as the medical care that I receive myself," the general continued, "and the food is culturally appropriate. All meals meet or exceed international standards. And 7,000 of the detainees here have completed studies up to the fifth grade." Apparently there are approximately 25,000 detainees under US care. Many of them used to be illiterate but now they can read. Good job!

"Approximately 83% of the detainees are Sunni. 16% are Shi'a. We only have 280 third-country-nationals in detention." Each detainee's situation is considered individually and is released back into the community when he appears to be no longer a threat. "Before they are released, each detainee signs a pledge that they will no longer participate in violent insurgent activities and, so far, released detainees have honored their pledges 100%." Plus once they get out of jail, the detainees have developed new skills and stuff to allow them to support themselves economically as well.

"Our goal is to release all of the detainees under our care as soon as they become ready." Also, the general made the point again and again that the US is only in charge of the detention facilities here with the consent of the Iraqi government and if the Iraqis ever want to take over this little hotel-keeping operation themselves, then the US will immediately turn the detainees over to them.

Then the general called for a question-and-answer period from the press and I raised my hand. "General, this sounds like a very excellent program," I gushed, "and do you think, because it has been so successful here, that in the future our military is planning to apply these same standards of transparency and public accountability received by human rights groups and the press here to the Afghan detainees at Guantanamo Bay? And if the Afghan government requests to take over the detention program there as well, will detainees be allowed to return to Afghanistan?" And be released into their communities if they too take The Pledge? "Since this program is working so well in Iraq, let's try it in Guantanamo."

PS: I keep trying to add an attachment of a photograph of me in my "hotel room" at the airbase in Kuwait, but the computer keeps refusing to attach it. Why does this computer keep hatin' on my photograph? What, it's holding out for a photo of me at the Abu Ghraib Ritz?