Monday, March 23, 2009

A Day Out With the 39th MP Company in Sadr City

I’m back on Camp Shield with the 39th Louisiana National Guard MP Company. There are new T-walls (concrete barriers) and bunkers made of sandbags. The threat has increased here since our last visit. There were a few rocket attacks nearby and one since we have been back. Other than that, it is business as usual, MP’s going to mentor the IPs (Iraqi Police) and PSD teams (personal security detachment) conducting investigative missions with Iraqi judges. There are slews of private contractors too, doing all manner of jobs, from teaching Iraqis the art of public relations to picking up garbage around the base. KBR mans the fire department and most everything else, except the security, which is contracted to EODT. EODT employs Ugandans and KBR subcontracts menial labor to a variety of third world countries creating a multicultural envirornment on the base.
The base is small. Everyone has gotten used to seeing a couple of reporters (Phin and myself) walking around and most are happy to talk to us, including the head of the cafeteria (a KBR employee) who let us know he could be fired if seen talking to us. This morning we just wanted breakfast, no interviews, but let him speak his mind all the same. Having a press badge must be similar to what it is like to be a priest sitting in a confessional.

On our first mission out, we returned to an Iraqi police station made up of three stations in one, know as the Tri Station. On the way there we stopped at a police checkpoint and checked out the sheep in the meat market across the street that get slaughtered on site when purchased. After the station visit we went on a foot patrol along what is know as the Golden Wall- a barrier made up T-walls encircling the southern part of Sadr City. It was put up a year ago to stop the flow of insurgents and weapons. The walled off part of Sadr City is home to some members of JAM (Jaysh al-Mahdi Militia) and Al Qaeda. The MP’s and most IP’s don’t venture inside, keeping their patrols to the perimeter only.

In the station, we went to check on three new prisoners from Iran who were drawing a lot of interest from different parties including internal affairs officers and fashionably dressed humanitarian representatives. Some of the prisoners put on a show for our cameras, making animal noises and laughing with the National Guard while the Iranian prisons biometric information was taken. The situation was bordering mayhem as prisoners were taken out one by one to visit a doctor in a tight corridor. The IP’s opened one cell door long enough for me to take a few pictures after warning me the prisoners were dangerous. The cells are overcrowed. Many of the prisons have yet to be charged despite being incarcerated for lengthy periods of time. The Iraqi justice system like the police system is in early stages of being revamped by Americans hired to mentor and advise them, helping the Iraqis to transform their justice system to emanate a western one. Lt. Owsley told me the MPs have advised the Iraqis to address the overcrowding situation before the Red Cross comes and closes the place down. Prisons all over the country are overcrowded. Bucca, an American-run prison in southern Iraq, is in the process of being closed despite fact many inmates are still thought to be insurgents. The Iraqi courts lack evidence to prosecute them so many are being set free.

From the station we went to a checkpoint at the Golden Wall. The MP’s met up with a group of IP’s, to train them to conduct community oriented policing practices. This entails walking around the neighborhood showing their presence while at the same time being friendly, letting the citizens get used to having IPs on the job since policing has been done by the IA (Iraqi Army) up until now. The police are not trusted and it is part of the MP s mission to help the IP build trust with the people. The IPs were a little awkward at first, but became more gregarious as we walked along the wall, saying hello and shaking hands with all the shop owners along the way.

The wall’s security value seems to have paid off. JAM stopped shelling the Green Zone shortly after the wall went up and more businesses have reopened. The wall also is a giant canvas. It is covered with murals as far as the eye can see that were financed with $100,000 from MNFI (Multi National Forces Iraq) — the US lead coalition.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Baghdad's Flintstone Village

The Al Faw Palace Complex in Baghdad is located within the boundaries of Victory Base. It is a sprawling compound Saddam began building during the Iran Iraq War. Building went on until 2003 when American bombs began to fall. Man-made lakes surround all the palaces and villas, adding a tranquil, surreal feeling to the artificial landscape. The Al Faw Palace is used as division headquarters. It is across from the JVB (Joint Visitors Bureau Hotel) where I am staying once again. Visitors hit golf balls from the veranda out toward the palace, occasionally hitting the bulletproof windows. I have yet to go on a tour of the Al Faw Palace but did make an unscheduled visit and got to see the massive chandelier in the foyer. I went on the weekly Sunday of the Victory Over America Palace (left unfinished) and the Batthe Party house and got a welcome history lesson on the palace complex.
My favorite part of the complex is Flintstone Village, which is across the lake from the Victory Over America Palace. Saddam Hussein was a big fan of the Flintstones and had the complex modeled after the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, for his grandchildren to play in equipped with miniature golf coarse and elevators. Saddam commissioned the life-sized playground was after having his daughter’s husbands killed.. The sons in law, made the mistake of criticizing his regime and then returning to Baghdad after being in exile, accepting an invite from Saddam who asurred them all was forgiven. Flintstone Village was meant to be a gift meant to take thier minds off thier murdered fathers
Today, the Village's remains are another spot where the military leaves their mark in the way of graffiti. There are still patches of astro turf and a great view of the ruins of the Victoy Over America Palace, that I will post pictures of in my next entry.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Suicide Bombings And A Fishing Tournament In Baghdad

Things are heating up in Iraq. When the first of two recent bombing incidents took place, I was covering a quirky lifestyle story. “Operation Catch Fish,” the second annual fishing competition in Iraq. That afternoon, in eastern Baghdad a suicide bomber killed 26 at the Police Academy practically in the backyard of FOB Shield, the base I was staying on a couple weeks back. Then today (Tuesday 3/10/09) another attacker struck a Peace a Reconciliation Conference in the western part of the city killing 33. I got the news via Yahoo. The odds of being on the scene of an incident aren’t very high and getting to the scene of a bombing isn’t easy to orchestrate. Covering a story like that would be the luck of the draw - being at the right/ wrong place depending on your viewpoint.

Decorations for the fishing competition were provided by KBR, a few pink flamingos staked into the ground across from Flintstone Village. Saddam Hussein built Flinstone Village, a playground for his grandkids modeled after Bedrock, straight from the cartoon-more on that in my next entry about the Al Faw palace complex. There were non-alcoholic beers on hand and Operation Catch fish T-shirts. Joe Mercurion and Eric Mannino came up with the concept and made it a reality by getting a handful of sponsors including one who donated the poles.
Corporal Jason Spakman caught the winning fish, a 13-pound carp in front of the unfinished "Victory Over America Palace." A Palace Sadam Hussein was not able to finish. It was bombed in 2003 along with many other sites that make up the Al Faw Palace Complex, which was used by the Bathe Party big shots. Now it is headquarters to American military. The man made lakes around the complex are stocked with bass and carp. Soldiers fish at various spots along the banks. Jason recieved a 26 inch flat screen TV as his prize. This year 450 troops participated in the event, up from 250 the first year. The organizers plan to bring another 250 poles next year despite talk of a draw down of troops.

images all shot during competition. Top bottom right is an image of the winner with winning fish in from of the Victory Over America Palace

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Bone Yard in Balad Iraq

The airbase in Balad is enormous and drab. It is a landscape of T-walls and motor resistant protected buildings. Grey is the predominate color highlighted only by Iraq’s spectacular sunrises and sunsets. I asked Sargent Hoke, the Public Affairs office that was assigned to escort Phin and I during out stay there, if there was something quirky on the base. The Bone Yard, an aircraft graveyard is what she came up with. Off we went in a jumbo SUV to find the site. Hoke led the way into an area marked, "Do not enter". The Bone Yard has dozens of broken Russian made Iraqi Migs and a few destroyed tanks and armored vehicles covered in graffiti.
Graffiti can only be found in this isolated spot on the base. There is plenty of it to make some good photos and infuse the war with some color.

What was once the pride and joy of Saddam's military might is now nothing more than a backdrop for soldiers (and journalists) to take a souvenir portrait.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Iraq by Blackhawk

In Balad I’m staying in the transient housing comprised of dusty two story buildings with broken down heaters and dilapidated appliances down the road from the MWR (moral welfare and recreation building), walking distance to the mess hall all run by KBR. There is hot water and it is quiet at night. Factors that make up for anything the rooms lack. For a war zone, I’m still staying pretty well.

We are now embedded with the Task Force 34 - a mixture of different units that include members of the Louisiana National Guard. The brigade is broken down into battalions and the battalions into companies. We are working with, Task Force Voodoo, the 244th battalion code name. The companies within it have picked superheroes to identify themselves. Patches on their uniforms and painted logos on the flight line add character to the drab surroundings.

The Battalions tasks include supporting other battalions from the skies in Blackhawks, moving troops, civilian and contractors around (air taxi service) and conducting air assault missions which involves moving troops into sensitive areas to carry out offensive maneuvers. The battalion also does humanitarian missions when need arises. Assault missions are top secret, so we have only been able to accompany the Guard on Baghdad taxi runs. The Blackhawks aren’t like the taxis I’m used to, so it has been exhilerating to see and photograph Baghdad from the skies while making a ring run around the bases.

Most of the 244th have served in Iraq before. Many were deployed in New Orleans during Katrina. The Guard speak of the improvements they have seen since the early part of the war and the missions they were on after Katrina. Colonel Bosetta reminds his troops to stay vigilant as their deployment is almost over but it is still dangerous territory to fly over. He pointed out that the Louisiana Army National Guard air crews were unsung heroes during the rescue operations after Katrina. They rescued over 10,000 people off rooftops using blackhawks that were able to hold up to thirty people at a time.

Movement by helicopter is the most efficient and safest way to get around Iraq. It costs $6000 an hour to operate the Blackhawk so it's safe to say, it isn’t the cheapest. There are hundreds of blackhawks in the air, weather permitting. For them to fly by day the standard is 2 miles visibility, at night less so. Captain T. Slayton of the Minnesota National Guard is a financial advisor by trade, and a weatherman for the 34th Brigade. He chuckled when asked about the difficulty of his job predicating weather here. From the time he makes a call until the time a pilot looks out across the runway, the dust conditions can change.

Seeing Baghdad from above reveals how large and full of life the city is. Like most capital cities, it is sprawling. Moving around in armored vehicles limits ones visibility, as do the protective T-walls along main streets. From the sky one can see much movement, active markets and lots of traffic. The scars of the city are also visible; whole swatches of land are still devastated from the war. The pilots made sure to point out some of Baghdad’s landmarks and get us in close so we could shoot. SGT. Derusk stressed how much better the city looks to him now then did during his first tour. To me, it looks pretty bleak, though full of life.

General McKinley (chief of the National Guard bureau) visited the base to check in with the troops and make a first hand assessment of where things stand in Iraq. During an unscheduled interview he granted us, he gave us a brief history of the guard and talked about their importance to America. Since 9/11 almost every member of the Guard has been called up to serve on foreign ground and in the next years he doesn’t see their role abroad lessening. He gave us both a coin (a momentum with his name and signature on it), a military tradition to show appreciation. These coins come in handy at any bars near military bases. Especially one from a four star general as the person with a coin from the highest ranking soldier never pays for drinks. I am not one to hold on to souvenirs, but I’ll keep this one.

When I asked here if there was anything quirky on the base, Sgt. Hoke, a public affairs representative, took us to a graveyard of broken planes and tanks . Graffiti covered broken Migs and totaled armored vehicles added literary context to Iraq. It is all about who you are, who your family is, who love and where you are from.

to read more about the the Louisiana Army National
Guard air crews click this link-