Thursday, May 31, 2007

And how was your day?

It was easily the most cheerful moment of my time here so far. For a moment.

I was pecking away at the keyboard -- heaving lifting, this foreign correspondency -- and a face popped into my room.

"Scott, how are you?" (You'll have to imagine the accent, I don't do dialiects.)

Hamad had gone home to Fallujah for a week. Getting there was dangerous. Being there was dicey. People would ask what he was doing now? Who is he talking to on his cell phone. Being found out as a guy working for Westerners could be a death sentence.

Seeing his smile was a great relief.

How was he?

"Fine. Fine." Except there had been a bombing of a recruiting station just today that killed at least two dozen people. The roads had been shut down. And, it turned out, the cousin he had grown up with had been taken hostage. The kidnappers want $50,000, that the family didn't have.

"Yes, it's bad," he said. "But, you know, this is Iraq."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Change of pace ... or no pace at all.

For the three or so weeks I've been here, my routine has been basically this:

Meeting at 9 a.m. with half dozen or so Iraqi journalists who work for McClatchy. Read their blog.

They read aloud the top headlines from six to 10 newspapers. We talk about what they've been seeing in their neighborhoods, and then divvy up the day's assignments. Somebody tracking violence around the country. Somebody watching what parliament's up to, and so on.

Then I'm either trying to work sources by phone or making the short but laborious journey into the Green Zone for press conferences and interviews.

Often it's not until 6 p.m. we recognize what the story of the day will be. Luckily, Iraqis work late. It's possible to call people well into the evening. Our deadline is roughly 11 p.m. local time and talking things over with Washington editors can stretch until 2 a.m.

Sounds like more work than it is. And it's not as if there's much else to do.

I had set my first military embed of this trip set for Monday. That got bumped up to Sunday night.

I'd steeled myself for the hurry-up-and-wait routine. The waiting area by the parking lot where helicopters come and go was the usual Star Wars bar scene -- weary soldiers sleeping against their ruck sacks, private security guys wearing huge watches wrapped around Popeye forearms, contractors talking about fishing, cigarettes and iPods glowing in the night.

All of this was lit by the orange light of a Gatorade vending machine. I passed some time talking to an Aussie working for a North Carolina firm. It's his job to travel the country talking with provincial councils and studying their records to see how organzied they are.

Alas our flights got scrubbed by a dust storm and, since it isn't safe to go back to my hotel at night, I went to some bunks set aside for stranded journalists. I spent part of the night talking with the author of this blog, a free-lancer in the country doing troop-centric radio stories with the help of grants from conservative organizations.

In the morning, I was told there'd be no flights available to me for two days. Even though I was headed just to the outskirts of Baghdad, I was out of luck.

On Friday, the weather and the U.S. Army willing, I'll head to Kirkuk. I think I'll bring a book.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Where am I?

Took a chopper ride today from the Green Zone north to Camp Taji. In about 15 minutes each way I got a low altitude peek at Baghdad. It was strange the way it reminded me of home. Baghad almost looks like Kansas City from the sky, except grander and more forlorn.

A muddy river snakes through. Traffic clogs in spots. There's plenty of cranes looming over construction sites.

It's just that most of the cranes aren't doing anything. The bridges are mostly empty, and many are collapsed or shut by bombings to a lane or two. Indeed, craters are the most distinguishing landscape characteristic. It's a city of blast walls and blast damage.

Move out of town and you pass over fields not unlike those where soybeans and corn are shooting up now along the Missouri.

Went on the trip to talk with a Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the chief spokesman for the U.S. military. He's leaving the country in a few days and will soon be the commander at Fort Leavenworth (short profile coming soon to a quality newspaper near you).

I sat in on his briefing at the in-country counterinsurgency center (advocates of winning hearts and minds, of getting soldiers to get out of their humvees and talking to people, making friends and gathering intelligence).

Flying over the terrain you can get another sense of how tough the job is. There's square mile upon square mile groves that give cover to insurgents. The neighborhoods stretch on into a horizon smudged out by brown, dusty breezes.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

If the shoe fits

I've been called a lot of nasty things in my eons of reporting. Probably a good number of them deserved. The worst have come from editors, so consider the source.

But I don't usually apply the worst names to myself.

On past assignments overseas, I would identify myself as a reporter for Knight Ridder Newspapers, then have to explain how it was a huge outfit nobody recognized, but that fed stories to tons of readers.

But Knight Ridder is no more. Long live McClatchy, another huge company with a huge audience that's not much well known by the corporate name.
Here we remain Knight Ridder. McClatchy (actually the "clatchy" part) translates to devious or, as one Iraqi told me, "weasel." Accurate, perhaps, but inconvenient.

Circumstantial evidence.

It's been routine for a while for Iraqis to get visits from soldiers -- U.S., Iraqi Army, or militia.

This morning they came to the house of my new friend Hussein, a journalist/fixer/translator in our bureau. He had left for work, but his parents were there.

The U.S. troops are in the midst of the surge aimed at bringing security to Baghdad by ferreting out bad guys. That means going into homes where they might take refuge.

At Hussein's house the American troops found a number of things that could create suspicion. There was a bag of some kind of white mineral. There were all kinds of cables. There was body armor. There was an AK-47. There was ammunition. There was a wad of cash.

So they detained Hussein's father, the clincher being his hands tested positive for contact with gunpowder.

Hussein says the white substance was salt taken from a sacred shrine. The cables are from his brother's work in the air conditioning business. The body armor was Hussein's, something he's used as a journalist in dangerous areas. Guns are commonplace in Iraqi homes. Families are supposed to keep just only one magazine of ammunition. Hussein's family had one in the house and two more stashed outside -- hardly an intimidating cache. The cash was Hussein's. He makes decent money, by Baghdad standards, but like so many Iraqis he doesn't bother much with banks.

His dad's hands had traces of gunpowder, he said, because he always reaches out for his gun at night. The neighborhood's rough. He's frightened.

The soldiers said they were taking his dad to the Green Zone. Back, maybe, in a week. The guy is 65 and has high blood pressure.

Hussein is a gentle and generous guy. He was beside himself. Could our security guy help? (He made some calls)? Could I help? (I made some calls.)

But the reality is that this just sucks.

Most likely, soldiers doing their best to find bad guys found things in a house that looked bad. They took away the head of the house in hopes of getting to the bottom of things.

Just as likely a harmless old man was taken from his home by foreign soldiers and sits somewhere in a scary limbo.

Monday, May 21, 2007

They don't love us

It's hardly earth-shattering to be told that Iraqis aren't wild about having U.S. troops here. And, to be sure, they're conflicted. Depending on where someone lives and what tribe or sectarian group they hail from, different Iraqis would like us. Some just want us gone sooner than others. And they recognize things could get even bloodier when U.S. troops take off.

But Iraqis don't give Americans the benefit of the doubt. They see only the most calculating motives for our arrival, and they don't believe we want to leave. They believe we want to stay -- speaking very broadly here -- and often interpret events as machinations of the part of Americans to make excuses about why we have to be here.

American action that results in civilian casualties -- and their definition of civilian might differ from yours --is not seen as accidental. The conventional wisdom is that the U.S. would rather stir up sectarian violence than stop it.

They like you. They like me. Some might even say they like the United States (quite a few will say they'd like to live there, almost no one can get in). They sympathize with U.S. troops. But the common view is that the U.S. military is, at best, a clumsy outfit. Don't get them started on Bush.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Warning: idiot on board

I headed out with an interpreter to drive not far from our home/office in a neighborhood safe enough to work on a feature story that would require talking to boys playing sandlot soccer.

I took along my somewhat bulky camera, because pictures of the kids kicking the ball around would help the story.

As long as we were out seeing the real world, I shot a few pictures of scenes on the street -- it seemed mostly that people were fixing something, a cart, a car, a motor, a bombed out house -- on the hopes the shots might illustrate some future story.

The translator warned, or at least I thought, not to take pictures of the various security forces. I thought other pictures would be OK if I wasn't too conspicuous. (The consensus later was that is that you check with the cops in an area to photograph anything.)

As we passed one corner I took some shots of a corner market. There were men sitting around talking and the bananas and apples on display added a dash of color to the otherwise sepia landscape. No problem.

But as we passed the same place again on our return the shopkeeper yelled at some cops in the intersection to stop us. For all he knew, I was scouting a spot to bomb.

We spent an anxious half hour while my driver and translator talked with the cops, at high volume. Being hauled in would have been disastrous. An expensive hassle at the least, real danger at the worst. But our guys handled the cops and we were on our way.

Two days into town, this didn't endear me to the drivers. They feared their cars would now draw more attention. And they had reason to believe cluelessness would mean trouble some time in the future.

No more pictures, I promise. Absolutely no more. The staff was forgiving. Everybody goofs up here, they said. The cops were being jerks. It passed. Let it go.

It's Iraq, they said, everything's hard.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The (not so) Green Zone

So Jenan, an Iraqi staffer new to the McClatchy bureau, and I need military press IDs that will help us scoot by some U.S. military checkpoints and that I'll need to embed with troops during my time in Iraq.

That means a trip to the Green Zone, the fortress jury-rigged from Saddam's palaces in central Baghdad that's home to military headquarters and all the key government buildings.

Let's see, first we went through an Iraqi Army checkpoint. Next we zigged our way through barricades and past a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (think tank, but smaller) at a checkpoint armed by U.S. troops in wrap-around sunglasses. After crossing the 14th of July Bridge over the Tigris, we navigate another maze of blast walls and get looked over at a checkpoint staffed by Triple Canopy. (It's a private firm formed by former U.S. special forces who use Peruvians in battle fatigues for jobs like this.) Dogs sniff our car. We move on. A little farther and a squad of Georgian soldiers check us out. We park. We get patted down by more Triple Canopy Peruvians. Then it's Iraqi police. Then a second pat down by Iraqi cops overseen by the Peruvians.

For me this is easy. The ID is in my hand in 20 minutes (granted, it says Hedderson Canon because my middle name got subbed for my first somehow).

Not so easy for Jenan. Because she is not an American, she must be screened for a series of biometrics (fingerprints and more) and needs to make an appointment to return another day.

This strikes her, understandably, as frustratingly ironic. An Iraqi in the center of the capital of her own country must jump through more hoops to get around than some foreigner not 24 hours off the plane.

In fact, the entire Green Zone visit is disappointing for her. She hadn't been here since the war started. Now she finds it not just unwelcoming, but bleak.

Before the war, it was a favorite place for families to take a drive to look at monuments like one for unknown soldiers or tributes to the martyrs of the war with Iraq. There were fountains and gardens and reflecting pools. They're mostly dry now. Weeds creep through the sidewalks. The grass is all but dead. Trash blows around. Graffiti-splattered blast walls make for the unifying design element.

"Why is it so dry?" Jenan wonders. "We have the Tigris and the Euphrates. We have plenty of water. Why?"

So this is Baghdad

After planning this trip for about three weeks and cooling my heels in Jordan for three days waiting on an Iraqi visa (who thought it would be so hard to get into a country so many people are trying to get out of) I braced for what I'd been told would be a landing that would test my stomach. I'd avoided breakfast for just this reason.

Because there is a danger of planes getting shot at -- curse Kansas City International, if you must, but I'll take the long ride to economy parking over the threat of mid-air immolation any day -- planes come in relatively high and then circle down quickly over the Baghdad airport. The landing disappointed. We banked a little more coming down, but I could have stood up through the whole thing.

I ducked out of the Royal Jordian Airlines flight and inhaled a bit of hot Baghdad air. (It's true what they say. It's hot, but it's a dry heat -- like a pizza oven.)

We seemed to be about the only flight coming in this morning, a collection mostly of Westerners -- a few journalists and government contractors. Nearly all men.

The customs officer had some questions about my hard-earned visa that I could neither undertand nor help him solve. In the end, it didn't matter and I was waved toward the nearly vacant baggage claim where I found my two duffels unmolested.

There a McClatchy body guard and driver waited for me, all smiles and warmth.

I'd learned before that the drive from the airport to downtown Baghdad was one of the dicier routines I'd encounter here. This, too, blissfully was more mild than I'd expected. Traffic was light (the looming worry is getting stuck in one place, and thus a target for bombers or snipers) and we passed through the few half-hearted checkpoints quickly.

Some things were what I'd expected. Miles of blast walls and razor wire. People sitting in half-mile long lines for gasoline. Regular sightings of damage from car bombs. More guns than an NRA convention.

But the city was greener than I'd imagined. Los Angeles could learn something about palm trees from these folks. And people were walking the streets, shopping, working construction. I saw more than a few families battling the mid-day heat by going out together for ice cream.
(That might be because they can only run their air conditioners an hour or so a day. To get a good idea of what it's like for even the middle class here, look at the Inside Iraq blog to read some of the stories of the Iraqis I work with here.)

A few blocks from our destination traffic clogged. About three cars ahead of us a police patrol was moving slowly while two officers on the back of vehicle, one of them manning a mounted machine gun, were waving angrily. There had been rumors of a car bomb attack in the neighborhood this week -- one had killed several people nearby a week earlier --and the cops were panicked to see parked cars on the opposite side of the thoroughfare. But again, it passed without incident.

And soon, I was sitting down for lunch.