Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mardi Gras Parade in Baghdad -None Wounded vs. Seven shot in New Orleans


Seven were wounded by gunshot fire in New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day during a parade in the Garden District.
There was no violence on Camp Shield in Baghdad, where Phin and I documented the first Mardi Gras Parade in Iraq, put on by the LA National Guard. For some residents of the camp, it was their first taste of Mardi Gras, including all the private security guards from Uganda. For a moment one could forget they were in Iraq. 

Reading headlines on Yahoo last night brought the state of New Orleans back to mind.
 Task Force Gator is winding up their mission in a couple of days. Will New Orleans be able to  hold it toghether without the National Guard?

Monday, February 23, 2009

72 Hours

It is possible to sign out from the unit one is embedded with for 72 hours. A nifty rule I recently learned. Granted a 72 hour
 window to get something done in isn’t something you can coun
t on in Iraq. The 72 hours can be extended until ones’ mission is completed if you keep in touch and stick to the proposed plan. Sand storms, cancellations and inexplicable delays make it hard to predict how long something will take. Phin and I signed out from Camp Shield last Sunday and didn’t get back unit Saturday. What was meant to be an overnight trip to Basra in order to visit Rota Village in the Marshlands, turned into six days. 

Our first diversion wasn’t transportation relate. After completing the first leg of our journey to Camp Victory, I Checked my email at the airport. I found out, the pinning of the first African American general from Louisiana would take place on the Tuesday we were meant to return, an event we had planned to film. Making it back on time from Bassra seemed iffy so we cancelled our flight with the blessings of a PAO (public affair officer) and rebooked to leave for Basra after covering the ceremony. We spent the next two nights on Camp Victory at the JVB Hotel where we met the Buffalo Bill Cheerleaders. We interviewed Brigadier General Owen W. Monconduit after he was promoted and got the story off to the networks before departing for Basra. 

In Basra we were the guests of General Muhammad Jawad, the Basra operational
 commander. Cpt. Saad picked us up from the airport after some confusion. Our flight arrived late and we weren’t ready to role until after 5:30 AM. On the ride to the Shat Al Arab Hotel (a
 shell of what was once a first class hotel), now part of the BAOC (The Basra Operation Command Center) we stopped at the site of a bus crash. A story that made international news later that day. 
The bus was carrying pilgrims returning from Karbala when it smashed into a British tank that was stopped on the highway around midnight. Seven were killed on impact and another twenty-six were injured. While taking pictures we heard the Iraqi side of events. Once 
on the base, we heard the British side. The Brits blamed the speeding bus, while the Iraqi blamed the 35-ton tank sitting in the road that they claim had no lights on. The incident is still under investigation.Arriving a few days after we planned worked to our favor. A Coalition mission we had been trying to go on during out first visit had been cancelled twice and now was scheduled for the day after we arrived. The mission’s objective - choosing a site for an school/ community center in Rota Village. We went in a convoy with General Muhammad, General Azziz, Capt. Lansden(CMOC), Col Stanford (British Forces), and numerous Iraqi military.
 Iraqi soldiers with AK-47s were stationed every few feet along the entire hour-long route. Rota Village is still known as being in the marshlands, though it is more of a desert then a marsh now.
 Sadam Hussein drained the area starting during the Iran/Iraq war and did further damage after the gulf war.The population dwindled, and only 10% of the area remained a marsh. The indigenous people's way of life was destroyed by Hussein’s acts of echo terrorism. Shortly after Saddam’s regime fell many of the dams were broken, flooding the area, restoring part of the marsh haphazardly. The eco system and the people are still in danger of loosing an ancient culture and many species even though restorations efforts have began. The coalition forces and the IA are trying to raise the people’s standard of living and bring them in to the larger Iraqi community, by building schools, handing out essential goods and restoring the environment. Befriending the Marshland Arabs is one way the Iraqi Army and the coalition hopes to get them to stop smuggling weapons and letting insurgents into Iraq from Iran.
When we dismounted the vehicles all the villagers gathered around. A site for the school was chosen and goods were handed out before we drove on to Rash Al Emara Village. The elders of the village met with the generals in a Mudrif (a sheik’s meeting place). While the meeting was going on, Phin and I photographed the outdoor kitchen.
 Blood soaked the ground where the goats and sheep had been slaughtered not long before. Workers artfully laid out the food on numerous platters before carrying them around the block to the Mudrif. A feast was served in honor of one the elders who past away.
I thought twice about eating (visiting the kitchen 
isn’t always a good idea before a meal) but couldn’t refuse.After taking a few bites, the servers piled enough meat on my plate for at least five people and then plopped an animal’s head next to me.

 I got away with not eating much by moving the food around my plate with the ample bread supplied. I was more excited to shoot the feast then consuming it. After lunch everyone gather around for a funeral ceremony where locals started singing (almost rapping) about the deceased and then broke into a whirling free form dance called Aartha. We both had to take care not to get knocked over by flying dancers while shooting. Just in the nick of time, our group got back in to our motorcade and headed back to the base and then on to the airport. 

We were be delayed another day at Camp Victory due to a dust storm, Once again we got to stay at the VBC (Victory base complex), the best transient residence to get stuck in that you can find in Baghdad. The 39th MP’s picked us up at while out on a mission the following day and got us back to Camp Shield late night via MRAPs, the bumpiest ride in town. It felt good to get back and get into some clean clothes after a shower. Camp Shield is the closet thing to home for us now, till we move on to Ballad in a couple of days, joining the 244th airbrigade, also members of the Louisiana National Guard.

Monday, February 16, 2009

JVB Hotel, luxury in Baghdad

A change in travel plans made it possible for me and Phin to stay at the JVB Hotel at Camp Victory across from one of Saddam’s palaces.
 It was one of Saddam’s favorite places to hold meetings and the place his last interview on network TV was held before
 he was hanged. The chair he sat in for the interview remains and is used by guests. The luxury is eerie but welcome. It isn’t a five star hotel anymore as the stars above the grand entranceway claim. It has bunk beds in the roomsand serves food brought in from the main mess hall, but high ceilings, lush curtains, elegant furniture and marble floors offer unexpected elegance fitting of a five star hotel.

 Compared to some of the accommodations here, maybe the five star rating does still hold.Visiting dignitaries, VIPS,and special guests like us who end up stuck at Camp Victory use the hotel. A group in a think tank looking into an early withdrawal from Iraq mandated by congress (stared under Bush’s administration) is here. The Buffalo Bills cheerleaders, who are spending a week in Iraq performing stayed in the room across from me. A team of comics sent over by Lone Wolf Entertainment, who often perform for the troops were here too. WeI interviewed Olivian Arrington and Mo Amer about what it is like performing in Iraq.  The 1-124 CAV from Dallas TX is running the place during their time in Iraq.

image description-bottom up- Phin Percy outside hotel on veranda overlooking manmade lake and Palace, Olvia Arrington and Mo Amer ( comedians) , the rest Cheerleaders and me at the hotel

Friday, February 13, 2009

39th Louisiana National Guard MP Company in Baghdad

I’m at camp Shield, in Baghdad next to Sadr City, embedded with the 39th MP Louisiana National Guard. Many of the Guard here were members of Task Force Gator, including CPL Djernette, SGT. Cromwell, SGT. Lytel, SGT.Morel and CPL. Garner. I got to know then while riding along with them last year in New Orleans. Working with them is great. They are at ease with our cameras and let us do or thing.This unit, like the 2228 serves as PTTs (police transition team) for the IPs (Iraqi Police). They help secure checkpoints and police stations, monitor paperwork, and escort IPAs (international police advisers). Many of the Guard have a background in law enforcement and all were trained to teach the IP’s before deploying, however IPAs give the lessons. The IPAs work for Dynacorp, a company based in TX and Dubai. They are paid more than the guard with salaries upwards of $130K. Many of them have more expertise then Guard. Though many of the guard are qualified to give the classes IPA have been hired for the job. One Guard pointed out, if they had to teach, there would be less people to secure the police station while the IPA teach. The lessons usually last about ½ an hour. The lessons are geared to the attention span of the IPs. Most lessons are in the morning. Not much gets done after lunch. There is a warm exchange between the IPs and the MP’s. Countless rounds of chai (Iraqi tea) are served. The MP’s are updated on what the IP’s do, but do not accompany them on calls to monitor them in action which limits there ability to advise, but leaves crime fighting to the IPs. Their main role is to mentor and advise. Both of which are needed, as the IPs crime fighting techniques are very primitive.

I have visited four different stations and sat in on a few of the training classes. At the special investigations station, we stumbled upon some real bad guys who were handcuffed at the top of the stairs. They had videotaped brutal murders they committed and were more then likely members of JAM. Sgt. Cromwell and Sgt. Duncan watched the tape and were visibly shaken by it.

At another station I visited the jail located past a urine soaked hallway. Four prisoners were taken out of their cells briefly to have biometric images taken. The MP unit stationed here before the 39th, gave up on such pictures as they had many false positive matches. The room the prisoners are kept in had over one hundred people in it. There is not enough room for all of them to sleep at once. The MPs take notes on stuff like that and advise the IPs on improving conditions.

Untill after the holiday all classes are at a stand still. The last few days there have been suicide bombings against the Shia Pilgrims who are marching to Karbala. The Guard are now stationed at checkpoints beefing up a military presence around Baghdad to help quell the violence.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Eco-Terrorism- notes on Iraq’s Marshlands and a visit to Basra University

Saddam Hussein used eco terrorism against the Marshland Arabs and the people of Basra after the Gulf War, punishing them for helping coalition forces.He stopped the water flow to the marshes turning the land into a desert. The Marshland Arabs were subsistence dwellers. After their way of life was destroyed many moved to the cities: others languish in a state of poverty in destitute villages on what had been fertile ground. Basra’s average temperature has risen and crime has flourished.

The Marshland is in the process of being restored, though not in a scientific manner. Shortly after Saddam's fall, many of the dams were broken restoring water to the area. Wildlife returned and the landscape has begun getting green again. Whether the area can ever be fully restored or even maintain the status quo is in question. There is a constant battle for water rights. Dams in Iran are now blocking the flow of what came naturally to the Marshland.
Early in January, CMOC (Civil Military Operation Center) sponsored a Marshland Conference in Basra. In attendance were businesses leaders and scientists who have a stake in the Marsh. The keynote speaker,Dr. Mohammad Mossa Omran pointed out, “Birds don’t carry passports,” The loss of the Marshland is not only Iraq’s loss but also one for the global community.

CMOC is aiding some of the village in hope of influencing the population by giving out blankets and heaters and building a community center and school in Rota Village. The Marshland is on the border of Iraq and Iran and the Marshland Arabs have traditionally been smugglers. CMOC is trying stop the flow of weapons and insurgents from Iran by giving the citizens new possibilities and a stake in their community.

At the conference I met Kassem Hawal, an Iraqi filmmaker who has what might be the only film footage of what the Marshland was like before Saddam destroyed it. He also has footage of the bulldozers filling the waterways. Kassem’s work was destroyed by Saddam's regime, except one reel he recovered and restored. His camera work is stupendous: long steady shots of the marsh and its inhabitants including a wedding procession on the water. Kassem can be reached at

Also at the conference was director of Basra’s Natural History Museum, Prof. Dr. Khalat-Al- Rabaae, and Professor Sadek A. Hussein, an ichthyologist at Basra University and Dr. Mohammed Al-assadi, Dean of the Science College. The Natural History museum was bombed to the ground. One remaining specimen remains at the university. The director is hoping the coalition will help him build a new museum. The University has a small collection of natural history specimens left.

To visit the University took creative maneuvering. Military are not allowed on campus. A Sheik’s son, his translator and a bodyguard (nicknamed Pringles) escorted us. They joined in on a tour of the College of Agriculture, the home of the natural history collection. There is a room of fish with about twenty specimens, a room of instects and a room with a herborarium collection comprised of specimens collected by the schools dean. I met and inteviewed students and faculty. Some are studying invasive species, others, botany and molecular biology. They all do field work and shared images of the sites they have collected species in.

I plan to make it a trip to the Marshlands in the coming weeks and document the eco system and villages myself.

Images are all from Basra University's School of Agriculture

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Election Results read at Press Conference at the Al Rasheed Hotel

The winners names were read out province by province by members of the election committee during a press conference in the Al Rasheed Hotel. The biggest winner in the Iraqi elections was the Iraqi prime minster as his allies took most of the open positions. The fundamentalist party lost most all the ground they had won in 2005. Some are crying foul play.
The speakers could barely be seen over the mics. Wires ran all over the hotel. Great atmosphere in the hotel. If I pass through again I'll make sure to have a coffee there.The conference was packed, I slipped out early after taking some shots of the podium overloaded with microphones.

Back in Baghdad in transit to Sadar City at CPIC

I arrived at CPIC (Combined Press Information Center) at 5 AM on the 4th of February. Journalist passing through sleep here, and by day, the Iraqi journalists hang out here. General Austin gave a press conference on the elections, starting off by saying how proud he is of the Iraqis. With 51% of the population coming out to vote and great security, the Iraqi’s proved they are on their way to creating a sustainable democracy.

General Austin gave some statistic. Weekly there are less the 100 attacks throughout the country, a figure 10 % lower number than it was 18 months ago. During the elections there were 11 incidents while in the 2005 elections, there were 300.

He praised the Iraqi Army for their readiness. “The Iraqi police lag behind in readiness, a year to a year and half.” he said, but is confident with the training, they will be ready in time for the 2011 pullout. Next stop for Phin and I is Sadar City, where we will see this training first hand while embedded with the Louisiana National Guard MP’s once again.

The general gave an informative recap of the elections nationwide. The next concern is guarding against people who are unhappy with the outcome. Ambar province still has security problems and terrorist being trained in Iran are still slipping across the boarder.

Today I walked over to the Iraqi Parliament building, which is steps outside the Press Center and took pictures of Sheik Kalaf Al Ulaian who is hoping to run parliament. He is from a Sunni party. The results of the elections will be announced at the Rasheed Hotel, also close by. I’m headed over there shortly before the next leg of our journey.

left to right- General Austin/ Sheik Kalaf Al Ulaian ( follow up note- this Sheik lost)