Saturday, April 25, 2009

Not even the birds twitter in Maysan Province

While Embed with the 1st Calvary Division at Hunter in Maysan Province I got a taste of what it is like for those in the military who are roughing it. No “surf and turf” on Friday night (lobster tails and overcooked steak provided by KBR are served on the larger bases every Friday). An American presence was introduced to the Maysan Province to stop the flow of 
weapons and insurgent across the Iranian border through the marshland in 2008. The 1st Calvary out of Forthood TX. was tasked with building two bases from scratch, Hunter and Gary Owen and to train the Iraqi border police.

When they arrived in August they slept outside with sand flies and camel spiders. They have been battling the elements ever since. While consuming a less than nutritious diet
and coping with frustration caused by teaching lacksidasisical students instead of fighting an enemy in a combat situation as they were trained to do. The most dangerous bullets they have had to duck were those from an Iraqi officer who didn’t put his safety on. The IP sprayed the company commander’s legs with bullets when greeting him with a handshake. PAO/Medic Schenk referred to going to breakfast as getting "plate of disappointment,” illustrating that many have kept a sense of humor.

All at Hunter have found their own way to cope while accomplishing their mission. Everyone has a stash of rations tucked away. Including the medic who is a good source for hand sanitizer. Their deployment is almost up and their mission in many ways a success, home is on all of their minds. Numerous caches of weapons have been confiscated since they beefed up security in the area. While many bases are being turned over to the Iraqis early summer, Hunter and Owen are still growing.

Maysan Province is home of the Marshland Arabs, a nomadic people who live off the land. Their environment was practically destroyed by Saddam Hussein, when he drained the marshes after the uprising in 1991. The marshes began recovering in 2003 when many of the dams were broken, re-flooding the area; however there has been a drought the last two years and the area is becoming barren again. The troops patrol the villages and take note of the peoples needs. The PRT (provincial reconstruction team) working in the area is trying to provide people with basic needs, which are numerous here.

At the border forts built during British colonial rule, the troops give lessons ranging from how to search cars to how to give an IV. The daily visits include a lot of tea drinking and hanging around. Lacking is enthusiasm from the IPs to learn and fuel for the generators so the forts are often with out electricity. Water buffalo, donkey, dogs and cats add to the mix. The marshland and encroaching desert make for a picturesque background to document the action. (or lack there of).

The drought over the last two years and water control issues stemming from Iran and Turkey have once again made life for the Marshland Arabs difficult. Through a translator a family told us their children were sick and requested water. In larger villages, there was an outbreak of cholera that killed at least four children. Boats line the side of a dried up stream. It is hard to image this land was once thought of to be the Garden of Eden.

Returning to The rirbase at Tallil I read about a new initiative introducing Twitter to Iraq. The U.S. State Department is sponsoring a "New Media Technology" delegation to "explore new opportunities to support Iraqi government and non-government stakeholders in Iraq's emerging new media industry." Since the Provincial reconstruction teams have their hands full with projects dealing with clean water and electricity I don't see the implementation of Twitter before the 2011 pull out.

"Breakfast time ... Lots of helicopters ... Met the president of Iraq ... Amazing palace," wrote Jack Dorsey, Twitters cofounder. Even he had trouble finding a place to go online during his mission to introduce Twitter to Iraqi officials The people of Maysan Province are lucky if they will get to hear birds “tweeting” since the water is all drying up. Jack Dorsey and the others in his group wont be leaving the Green Zone, I bet. He won’t get a chance to see Iraqi’s pressing needs as he “ tweets” away at the presidential palace.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter In Iraq at Ur

Ur is the biblical birthplace of the Prophet Abraham. The remains of what is thought to be his home and the largest ziggurat in Iraq are there. Iraq in ancient times was known as Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. It has many archeological sites that have biblical references.

A group of Army chaplains decided to hold a sunrise Easter mass at the site of Abraham’s home. It is probably the last time such a mass will take place, since the site is being returned to the Iraqis on May 13th. The service began with a sing- along of Christian music lead by four chaplains playing acoustic instruments. Chaplain Lockett from North Dakota led the mass from on top of one of the remaining walls of Abraham’s home. He gave a brief history of the site and told the story of Abraham before talking about Jesus Christ and Easter. Soldiers listened intently and prayed with their M16s slung over their shoulders.

After the service a group of soldiers went over to the ziggurat where Dave, an Iraqi, whose family has looked after the site for generations, gave them a tour. He is not looking forward to the turn over of authority, as he fears the Iraqis wont respect the site as much as the Americans do.

At the defact (mess hall), there was an Easter meal of Cornish hens and prime rib. I ate jellybeans and chocolate kisses that were wrapped in pastel colored tinfoil. No peeps, but there was a cake shaped like a cross with buttercream frosting and big pink roses.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

British Forces Say Goodbye, Leaving Americans Authority in All of Iraq

British Major General Andy Salmon turned over his command to US Major General Michael Oates at a transition ceremony. They shook hands and then shared an unscripted embrace. 

The ceremony marked the end of the Multi-National Division South East as well as the handover of power. Now the entire southern region is under one division headed by General Oates of the 10 Mountain. General Odierno, General Austin and General Allen attended the ceremony along with Iraqi Major General Hawedi Mohamed and 250 guests. The ceremony took place at Basra's airport where the Americans landed for the event, and the Brits took off right after. 

The Brit’s flew in a marching band of the highest caliber. They played American and British traditional marches under the warm Basra sun. All of the speakers stressed what the British had accomplished by bringing stability to Basra, even though it is still far from safe. Compared to 2003, Basra is much safer; however, while  General Salmon was having  meeting his last meeting with his entire unit when an air raid siren went off and everyone had to hit the deck.  Although it was a false alarm the base was hit twice in the last couple weeks with  one fatality. Those involved in the ceremony spoke about Basra’s newfound peace but also acknowledged there is more work to be done. General Oates made light of the differences and some animosity that has been in the air pre-transition by saying “Although we not do agree when it comes to football, we agree on most of the rest” and General Austin talked of the bond that comes from spilling blood together for a common good. Chief Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup spoke about the British sacrifice, the number of British dead (179) and money spent- figures that pale in comparison to the cost in American and Iraqi lives. General Austin thanked General Salmon by saying the fact that the British are leaving is a sure sign of their success.” Thanks for being part of the core team”.

The Americans have no qualms about taking over and they are changing most everything overnight. Signs on the base are being replaced, as well as the menus in the mess halls--less curry and more fried food. Some British troops will remain on the base until the end of July but the power is now in American hands.Talk of the British commitment in building Iraq’s confidence and security were over shadowed by the fact American forces are bringing in troops to fill the void on the base. The American troops are yet to say, “Mission accomplished,” as Andy Salmon said in regard to his troops' role. The British did complete their stated objectives. The Americans are hunkering down in Basra for the long haul.