Friday, April 30, 2004

Dispatches from Iraq, Part 1

Posted by Keith

Christian is an aquaintance of my friend, Jenny. He's in Iraq working as a contractor (an actual contractor, not one of those ìcontractorsî who rape inmates and start firefights). Heís sending dispatches back to let everyone know what itís like living and working over there.

Kuwait - April 23, 2004

This is Christian writing from Kuwait. This is my first dispatch from the Middle East. By now, I think I've included all those who expressed an interested in the newsletter. If you should wish to stop receiving these e-mails, let me know and I will remove you.

As most of you already know, I am working with Louis Berger (the US contractor responsible for many development infrastructure projects) on rebuilding the various Iraqi ministries needed for a successful government - transportation, communications, health, and justice. I have a year contract and will be living and working in the Green Zone. My role is to manage payroll and perfrom various admin task. I may even participate in the hiring process for recruiting Iraqis.

I don't yet know how often I will write these. It totally depends on the situation on the ground in Baghdad. I will write as often as experience dictates. That is, as I experience things that I feel are important I will write them down and report them (This is also depends on my internet access).

Many of you expressed an interest in this newsletter since you wanted to get an inside perspective. I must admit, that is one of the many reasons I signed up for this. I really want to know what is going on and why.

I don't yet know what things I can or cannot write about so don't be suprised if there are any voids of info that I don't touch upon.

I also don't yet know how much internet access or time I will have so don't be alarmed or surprised if I don't write you back immediately regarding any individual e-mails or questions.

I guess that about covers it.

Just a few days into my stint and it has alread been an adventure!

Flew business class into Kuwait yesterday morning via British Airways - best airline food I've ever had. Plenty of wine on the flight too. In theory, alcohol is non-existent in Kuwait. Air pollution seems to be a problem. A dismal haze seems to hang around the horizon and some longer term residents have complained of respiratory problems or new allergies. Despite the enormous wealth of the country, shepherds, their flocks, and camels roam beside the first rate highways making for a bizarre contrast.

My hotel is on the coast and includes beaches with great views of massive oil tankers filling nearby or floating lazily out along the hazy horizon. Upon arriving at the hotel, our airport bus was searched for a bomb under the carriage. For this, the guards use a mirror stuck at an angle off of the end of a pole - kind of like a dentist's mirror. This allows them to see the underside of the vehicle.

There is a massively overpriced Starbuck's at the hotel which is quite the hangout in the evening when tens of Arab men (usually dressed in long white robes complete with headgear) and women sip from Starbuck's labeled mugs. I guess that's globalization for you. The coffee tastes exactly the same as at home.

I quickly made a friend when I went downtown with an Indonesian employee of the hotel. He was a young guy with a wife and kid back home which he is helping to support via his comparitively substantial wages. Kuwait has an extremely large immigrant population. Mostly Indians but there are also significant numbers of Philippinos, Indonesians, and various Eastern Europeans.

He took me to a few shops where I purchased an Arabic phrase book, Arabic music CD's, and Marlboro Reds (very cheap - about $15 a carton) - not that I'm a heavy smoker but they might be a good bargaining currency and I don't know how available or expensive they will be in Baghdad. Later, we ate at an Indonesian restaurant and he insisted on paying the majority of the check!

After dinner, we went to a Catholic church and I found an Indian priest during an Indian wedding celebration (maybe they are originally from the Goa region?). He blessed my St. Christopher medal which I promised my mother I would wear for my protection.

Today, I was issued my PPE or Personal Protective Equipment. This included a gas mask, hood, duffel bag, pistol belt, canteen, kevlar vest, and helmet. All US army standard issue. The vest and helmet are needed for the 20 minute ride from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone. All the various zones are labeled either Green, Amber, or Red. The airport is apparently Amber. I was also instructed as to how to put on my mask and shown how to inject Nerve Gas antidote into my leg. This of course occurred after I was shown grizzly photos of what Small Pox and Mustard Gas victims look like after exposure. This was probably the freakiest experience to date.

Most of the people running these briefings are ex-US military. In fact, most of the civilian contractors seem to be ex-military. Although I have nothing but respect for the service men and women, I am glad there are also people like myself with a very different perspective. To date, I have not met too many people who are as interested as I am in the cultural, historical, and political aspects of this entire venture. That is one area where I feel I will make a strong contribution since I am extremely interested in understanding as much about the history and cultures of Iraq as much as possible. I have recently been reading a biography of Saddam Hussein so that I may familiarize myself with the last 50 years of Iraqi history.

The mood of most people seems to be very upbeat and most are very excited to be part of someting so vital to the well being of the globe. Granted, there are also those who are here to make a quick buck via the substantial salaries. Some people have reinvested their earnings in the Iraqi currency. I gues you could call it a bet on the success of the entire project.

Met some Brits who are also doing their part. Most of the British civilians work in the South - especially in Basra. Of course these are the areas where the British exercise control. Everyone is disappointed about the Spanish pullout which was also followed by Portugal and Honduras. Everyone recognizes that the UN will be playing a role when things settle down. What that role will be is still up in the air. There is also tremendous ambiguity as to what Iraqi sovereignty on July 1st will look like. Everyting is always changing.

I must say that the majority of the people I've met are sincere in their efforts and feel they are contributing to the freedom of the Iraqi people. Freedom is not a phrase just thrown around but sincerely uttered and meant. Although there of course is tremendous debate about the intentions of the US administration regarding Iraq, have no doubt that there are those who are here because they want to do the right thing.

I guess that's about it for now. I leave for Baghdad on a C-130 tomorrow morning and will write again as soon as I have the opportunity.



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