Thursday, January 29, 2009

Update from Basra: Iraqi elections begin

Elections started on Jan 28th in Iraq, It is the day the military votes. The general election is on the 31st. I didn’t manage to get myself in a position to cover the first part of the voting as getting around in Basra is not an easy affair; hence no images of the news. Instead I am posting portraits of some of Basra’s leading businessmen who have made the transition from heading state run companies to private ones. They are some of the leaders CMOC (Civil Military Operations Center) are working with in and around the city.

The city is shut down to any coalition military activity unless it is to back up Iraqi forces. I was out of luck since I didn’t have a pre-organized trip planed to cover this part of the election, but we will cover the general election. The hard-earned bloody victory from “The Charge Of the Knights” that restored the city to a state of relative stability has made the voting possible.
What does stability and safety translate to here? Getting off the base requires travel by convoy - the smallest convoy requires four vehicles, and if a VIP comes, that numbers more then doubles. Convoys are mixture of humvees, MRAPs and armored security vehicles, though the latter two are too big for some of the streets and do the opposite of keeping a military presence low key, a new policy being phased into practice. Movement regulation policies are in transition too, as are many other rules, since the Americans will take over from the Brits by the summer and have different approaches on many fronts. A tremendous amount of paperwork is required for every trip. Doing anything spontaneously is highly improbable but times and days of travel, change without notice.

Up until a few months ago, any trips off base were risky. Now they transpire without incident, enabling branches of the military such as CMOC to get projects up and running, supplementing what the British started. CMOC and the British are working together – though there is undeniable rivalry from within. Each country has different priorities. Despite that, things are getting accomplished. Both the American and the British are getting parts of there agenda pushed through: all of which benefits the Iraqis. The focus of the military is on rebuilding society and stabilizing it, so the new government can run efficiently and keep control of Iraq.

With the Brits planning to pull out, they’re thinking about their legacy, according to Captain Robert Lansden, USNR . Basra is the place where most of the British forces have been stationed. Many Brits who I have spoken to are pleased with the degree of progress here. Colonel Dickie Winchester of the British Army only sees only good coming to Basra, as he trusts the foundation the coalition has built is strong enough to ensure a successful transfer of power. He believes the last step is to help build the police force and that the Americans have the know how - to train the civil police force, the job now of the National Guard. Lt. Colonel Sharky Ward too is proud of his work in Basra, especially about a monument that will be erected in the Al Hyyaniyah honoring victims of “Chemical Ali” who were forced by Saddam’s army to drink gasoline and then shot and left to die. The site their bodies were exhumed will have a new memorial.
Despite the fact Basra is relatively safe not all are convinced it will last. Some Iraqis have hope, yet others like Capt. Nazar of the Iraqi oil tanker Tiger, don’t. He has seen strife since the Irian Iraq war up till now. The port he uses, Khor Az Zubar, hasn’t seen any improvements for 30 years.

The more hopeful citizens are the ones that have received funds. After many broken promises money has swayed them, as does the kind of follow up CMOC is providing.
Abuld Altalid, who manages Ib Nmajid, Iraq's largest steel fabrication company received a contract to build a new bridge. It will replace the pontoon bridges Sadam Hussein built to purposely cripple the ports and is a source of pride to Basra. The new bridge, a source of pride in Basra, will open the way for a recovery of the economy of the region. Alulb’s factory sat dormant until Navy Captain Lansden who runs CMOC, met with his staff. Lansden understands the importance of rebuilding the local economy. He broke with the coalition’s policy of using foreign firms to rebuild Iraq by hiring Abuld’s company to build Basra’s new bridge.

Mr. Hussein Mohmud Abdullah, who is running for governor, runs the five ports. He too has hope in his country’s future. Money is flowing in his direction. The British put all of the funds into Un Qusar, Iraqi largest port. CMOC in currently trying to invigorate the other four smaller ports. Money is being made available at Al Makal Port (the first step fixing the cranes) and Khor Az Zubar where they currently they can only handle 14 ships a day.

Rebuilding and invigorating the economy, winning the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq, seems possible in Basra, as long as the money keeps flowing.

How many will come out to vote? About 10% of the population, I’ve heard. Safety isn’t the factor according to the Iraqi’s I have spoken with. They don’t believe their vote has any value so they wont participate. However, there are hundreds of positions open in Basra alone, and thousands of candidates running nationwide; evidently some Iraqis are vested in the process. A working democracy doesn’t come overnight (America, the torchbearers of democracy have some cleaning up to do in its’ own), nor does security, but Iraq is that much closer to both.

It is hard to see an end in sight for the need of coalition intervention to maintain stability in Iraq. From what I have heard and seen, safety is still relative, not reality.

images - top left to right- Ships at Um Quaser / Navy Captain Lansden at machine repair shop, part of Ib Nmajid factory in Basra/ Abuld Altalid manager of Ib Nmajib bottem- left to right Navy Captian Lansden at port Um Quaser/ Mr Hussien Mohmud Abdallh the assitnace for the director for all the ports/Navy Captian Lansden/ Capt. Nazar Iskander /Lt. Colonel Sharky Ward /Colonel (Dickie) Winchester / Cranes at Al Makal Port

Friday, January 23, 2009

Xavier Pick draws Basra with pen and ink

I met Xavier Pick at Camp Allenby. He is an artist of the finest sort. He works from his heart in a very immediate fashion- pen and ink. Xavier was a guest of the British military. He came to Basra, much like I did, to check out the situation for himself and create a body of work about what he finds. He shared his work as he went on the base and in the streets, and will go on sharing the work as he turns his sketches into larger art pieces in the form of paintings and videos. At Division Headquarters he put on an exhibition of printed out blowups of pages from sketchbooks that include text and image. I took pictures of him as he interviewed British General Salmon as they did a walk through of the show. Xavier works in the tradition of the war sketch artist, an English tradition. He got to join in on and draw one mission that made national news. The Iraqi military repossessed ancient artifacts from smugglers in a sting operation conducted fully by the Iraqis. He was on site while the Iraqi military inspected the goods before they were packed up to be returned to the museum in Baghdad. Over the course of a month he documented a large swatch of life in Basra besides all things military.
Xavier’s work is full of his exuberance for life. His sketchbooks are real treasures full of his personal observations. During my interview with him, he commented on the difference between himself and photojournalists,
"The big story of destruction does sell. I'm looking for the opposite." When asked about the worst case scenario for Basra, he spoke instead about the best, saying, " The best case scenario: the Iranian and Iraqi border opens up and everyone accepts everyone. The Shias accept the Sunni, accept the Buddhists, accept the Christians, and we have one big party and we all sit down at the same table to eat."

images top to bottom left to right- Xavier's journal/ Phin Percy filming Xavier in his room/studio at Camp Allenby,open page in sketch book, General Salmon and Xavier walking through exhibition of Xavier's work/portrait of General Salmon/ Portrait of Xavier. To contact Xavier or see more of his work visit his website at

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Schools being aided by CMOC in Basra

I visited two school schools in Basra that are being helped by CMOC (Civil Military Operations Office) and passed by the site of a third where a 3 million dollar school is being built, overseen by Mott Macdonald, an engineering and development consultancy firm based in the UK.

One school in the Al Hyyaniyah (the projects of Basra) is extremely run down. The school has broken windows, no electricity, primitive bathrooms and garbage strewn in the stairwells.
Members of the insurgency are present in that part of town, along with abject poverty. Visiting the school is a security issue, but visiting the school in person is how CMOC assess the schools needs,and establishes an American hands-on presence visible in the neihborhood. Many unkept promises have been made in the recent past so people are skeptical when promised help anew, yet they are seeing first hand what CMOC is doing and are now very receptive.
The other school is a convent school run by the Dominican Sisters of Presentation in an area near Basra’s riverside. The convent school was recently renovated with American funds .I attended a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating the completion of the project. There are plenty of improvements the school would still like to make, but CMOC an only contributes to each recipient of its funds once. Part of the projects success was due to Sister Susanna who runs the school. She initiated the project by showing up at Camp Basra asking to meet with Mott Macdonald- and made sure things were done to her specifications once she got them to sign on to renovate the school. The school is colorful and clean, with a new tiled roof, bright murals and meeting rooms as well as giant TV’s.

Education is critical for all societies, especially one bombed almost to the ground.
In this instance some of American dollars are being spent wisely. I can't help but think about the schools in New Orleans, some that are still standing, but closed up and moldy. Why is there no money forthcoming for them?

images - from left to right- Convent school renovated, School stairway in Al Hyyaniyah, classroom in Al Hyyaniyah, Detail of teaching aid at convent school, Girl at school in Al Hyyaniyah, Girl at convent school, Boy at convent school, Classroom at convent school, Ribbon cutting ceremony at convent school, Boy at convent

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CMOC- Civil Military Operations Center

I moved from Camp Charlie to Camp Allenby (both part of Camp Basra in Basra,Iraq) where the UK forces camp reside along with a few American officers. For the next two weeks Phin and I, are embedded with Navy Captain Robert Lansden who is the head of the civil military operations center, a bastion of optimism equipped with an American can do attitude. Lansden who heads the operation made the decision to come to Iraq not long after Katrina and has been here ever since using his knowledge of all
things maritime, from law to the environment, to help make a difference. During Katrina's aftermath, as Captain of the Pollux, Lansden acted heroically by turning the ship into a comfort and aid station, housing first responders, providing fuel to hospitals and doing what ever he could to assist those most in need. There are numerous parallels to the greater New Orleans region and Basrah province, including issues involving the wetlands, saltwater intrusion, the seafood industry, an active port and high levels of crime that breed in housing projects. Lansden believes working with Iraqis, helping them get on their feet from the ground up, is not merely
protocol, but the only way to give democracy a fighting chance in Iraq.

After five months of training an Iraqi team- Lansden's team rolls of the base each time with an Iraqi unit. All future coalition civil projects have Iraqi involvement, with the Iraqi's in the forefront whenever possible. One example is The Shatt Al Arab Bridge, which is the largest civil engineering project to date in Iraq, being built with Iraqi money is under the guidance of Capt. Lansden's team. Lansden believes this approach will prepare the Iraqis to continue after the Americans pull out.

Lansden team is very hands on. His team deals with civil projects as immediate need arises. If his team drives by a backed-up sewer, that is contaminating the city, they write up a report and propose a solution. VP elects Biden stopped first at Camp Basra on Jan 12 during his mission and met with Lansdsen. Programs like Lansden's illustrate the new stage the war is in- reconstruction and stabilization of Iraqi society . Utilizing Iraqi money due the current ecumenic crisis,is crucial to the
war effort now. To maintain Iraqis' newly formed democracy, the civic works are essential.

I will be going out with his team to photograph many of their current projects, including visiting the Arab Marshland people in the wetlands, the slums in Basra ( Al-Hyyaniyah- a project built on marsh land destroyed by Sadam Hussein to punish the Shiites), a water lock system needed for keeping salt water intrusion at bay, good will programs for Iraqi military ( set up by the American), to go to remote villages to hand out toys and blankets. I'll also be photographing are the site of The largest civil engineering project since the war began to be paid for with Iraqi funds, The Shatt Al Arab Bridge, and the Marsh Land conference (first of its' kind) on the Jan 18th .

The work of the National Guard are doing is one of the many factorsin the effort to stabilize Iraq now. The need for security continues. The National Guard provides it.

images- left me in front of my new room, 
right-Captian Landsen, Father Imad and LT1 Foud Younas looking at a rendering of the Shatt Al Arab Bridge after VP elect Biden's fact finding mission to Basra

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Missions into Basra

Basra sits on the largest reserve of untapped oil in Iraq, yet most of the city is in a state of abject poverty. Sadam Hussein was particularly harsh on Basra- a region of the country he never liked much. During the Gulf War the Shiite majority, supported the Americans and were punished after the war.

The British were deployed to this area first. That is changing now as the Brits pull out and the Americans take over. The 2228th MP Company is helping set up PTT stations (police transition teams)s to train the local Iraqi police. The British were working with the Iraqi army. The Iraqi police (IP) and the Iraqi army (IA) coincide with each other but not peacefully. There are violent acts perpetuated against each group by the other, as well as the threat of insurgents and Hezbollah, who cross the boarder from neighboring Iran. Adding to the problem are citizens living in the projects created by Sadam Hussein, on land he destroyed by draining the areas marshland destroying the eco-system and hindering the economy in the region before the war. These housing units are slums and are a hotbed of criminal activity.

Both missions I went on served doubled as reconnaissance missions. There are no street signs, so the troops plot their course from maps and hi-tech navigation systems. Those tools don’t address medians that cant be crossed and places where the roads are impassible due to the overflow of people at the markets places. The only way to learn the streets seems to be to hit them.

The convoys drew attention since an American presence here is new. Kids come close by to check out the passing vehicles. The forces throw candy at them, a practice meant to prevent them from throwing rocks. Only one kid threw rocks at the convoy that I noted.

The homes, and remnants of the homes are made of concrete block. The cityscape is gray, except for the colorful banners with images of political figures and Mullahs on them,black,red and green Iraqi flags and the occasional fruit stand. Litter is strewn everywhere. The dust and sand blowing around adds to the drabness by blanketing everything.

Basra is pretty calm/safe at the moment. A lot of money has been used for public works and other funds have been spread around to stop the violence - paying for peace and saving lives. The civil military programs have made it clear to the citizens of Basra, that the coalition is trying to do good for the people; this and the fact money is being spread around, have made conditions safer in the region. The squad I was out with was highly alert all the same, at the ready to defend themselves once we left the wire.

We found ourselves taking a route that now has been determined to be not the best way to go. It was like being on the set of “Mad Max”. Once through the junkyard, we got stuck in traffic by the market place. Shoppers weaved in and out of our convoy, for the most part just checking out the soldiers with curiosity. There was one citing of a kid with a toy gun, something we were warned about- kids being given toy guns to taunt the soldiers with. The market area was bustling, a good indicator that signs or life and prosperity are returning to Basra.

The next few weeks I’ll learn more about Basra. Phin and I will be working with Navy Captain Robert Lansden, from Louisiana who is responsible for a lot of the civil military projects in the area.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Outside the Wire

We went outside of the wire for the first time the other day. Leaving the wire means leaving the relative safety of the base, and venturing into unsecured territory. It was also our unit's first time off Camp Basra since moving here from the North- their first mission in Basra.
There were days of preparation for the trip and talk of the new rules of engagement. Many things have changed since January 1st when more power was turned over the Iraqis.
The night before the mission, there was a palpable tension. Everything was checked and rechecked. Some roughhousing erupted in the hallway resulting in a pile up causing one bloody nose and a lot of laughter.In the morning we gathered in the freezing cold for a briefing before hitting the road. Phin and I rode in an MRAP (Mine resistant armored plated vehicle) instead of the armored security vehicle, so we could get a better view out of the windows.

The view was of an endless horizon of sand. This part of Iraq is a vast desert. We passed a couple of camels, some Iraqi checkpoints, and few roadside stops.
Some Iraqi drivers made risky driving maneuvers while passing us and one driver veered dangerously close, but overall it was an uneventful ride.

After the business at hand was taken care when we got to Tallil, we made our way to an oasis of American fast food restaurants set up in trailers. Dinning choices were Taco Bell, Burger King and Pizza Hut served out of trailers. One could also buy an Iraqi carpet, get a haircut or shot in a large PX. Specialist Taylor scored over $200 worth of Monsters (an energy drink more potent then Rebull) while others loaded up on cigarettes, cookies and chips.
The ride back to Basra was more of the same,
We listened to the troops cover the earphones. They identify all of the approaching vehicles on the road and watched for suspicious activity and objects along side the road. Their voices mixed with music, made for a great sound track. The military has its own dialect full of expletives, slang and acronyms.

The ride was bumpy to say the least and with the extra 25-lbs. Kevlar vest on my back, and 5-lbs.Kevlar helmet on my head, the ride was uncomfortable. It was one of the more memorable road trips I have taken to date.

I got to go behind the wire for a trip to Taco Bell in the Iraqi Desert and made it back, with more dust on me than when I left. All in a day's shooting.

Friday, January 02, 2009

armored security vehicle

Back to the motor pool today for redundant check of the vehicles, making sure they are mission ready. I got a lesson in what makes the armored security vehicles special. Phin and I created a dispatch for Fox 8 (New Orleans affiliate of Fox) today after finding out the vehicles are made in Slidell Louisiana by Textron-who recently got a 300 million plus dollar contract to build a new batch. They have a 50-caliber machine gun and a grenade launcher with a turret that spins 360 degrees. These vehicles assistant troops as they patrol in search of IEDs (improvised explosive devises), operate traffic control points to escort dignitaries and go on security high speed conveys. Their thick armored shell and intimidating presence make them a vehicle of choice. I climbed in one of them. Pretty tight fit. No one with a twinge of claustrophobia could get in one of them with their Kevlar gear on without freaking out.