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Hal Bernton & Thomas Hurst
Hal Bernton Thomas Hurst
Iraq dispatches

Reporter Hal Bernton and photographer Thomas James Hurst have returned from spending a month in Iraq, reporting on the U.S. military campaign as well as the lives of Iraqi civilians.

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January 08, 2004

Inside, outside the Green Zone

In the brave new world of Internet journalism, old-fashioned print guys who venture into blogging sometimes risk getting ahead of the reporting that appears in the newspaper.

That's the case with this entry.

We will be writing more on the Stryker Brigade. But in real time, we have left. We said goodbye this morning to our hosts, the soldiers of the 1/23 Battalion, 3rd brigade, 2nd Division.

We are Baghdad bound. The brigade, meanwhile, is preparing for a new mission in a new location, which Army officials have asked journalists not to name. We hope to catch back up with them.

A lot of soldiers are eager to move on: Forward Operating Base Pacesetter, a windswept tent camp on a stark stretch of land, is devoid of trees or even a patch of grass.

The camp was set up in late November and early December, when the brigade arrived in Iraq. And when compared to other bases, there are fewer amenities and far fewer Internet connections and phones to help the Fort Lewis-based soldiers keep in touch with families back in the states.

But the brigade does have Starbucks.

Employees of Starbucks corporate office donated more than 6,000 pounds of beans. How this came to be was explained by Cpl. Kevin Muncio, whose wife works at Starbucks and helped organize the gift.

Muncio said that one of the perks of working for Starbucks corporate office is free beans, and it was these rations that the employees gave up to stoke the brigade.

The coffee was brought along when the brigade left Tacoma for Kuwait in November, divided up equally among the different battalions, and greatly appreciated by the troops. They asked me to pass along a caffeinated thank you to Starbucks and its employees.

I also want to say a few thanks.

The Stryker Brigade has shown great interest in my work and a patience for the endless questions that rattle around my brain. I greatly appreciated the hospitality, as well as that shown earlier by the 14th and 4th Engineers battalions and Alpha Company, which flies Army Reserve Chinook helicopters out of the Balad Air Base.

Hot showers and a real bed

As we left the troops, we dared to dream that by evening we might soon be savoring a hotel room and hot bath.

Our journey to Baghdad began with a convoy organized by the Fort Lewis-based 49th Transportation group. Known as "LOGPAC," it is a daily southbound supply line that keeps the Stryker Brigade primed with water, mail and essentials.

Our convoy was a mix of trucks and Humvees. When we arrived at the Balad Air Base, we were unsure just how to navigate the final 40 miles to Baghdad. We ended up getting a ride aboard a Black Hawk helicopter, which carried us south in a brief low-altitude flight that offered a striking daylight view of the lands below.

Leaving the base, we passed over large farm fields that stretched for miles in every direction. These fields, were much bigger than those we had seen farther north. But there were very few farm houses, and I wondered who owns all this land and where do they live?

We flew over the Tigris, a grimy, chocolate-colored river swollen by rain. Then, we were hopscotching over a suburb of Baghdad, full of tightly-packed homes of plaster and brick. We peered down onto rooftops, which during the hottest months of the year, are a favored sleeping place for electricity-deprived Iraqis. Even now, they appeared to get plenty of use: I felt like we were peaking into people's living rooms.

The scenery changed again. We flew over water, a startling deep blue color. This was an artificial lake build by Saddam Hussein. We soon flew by his former palace, a huge concrete edifice that vaulted out of the lakeside.

We landed within the palace grounds. This place is now Camp Victory, claimed and named by the U.S. Army. Compared to some of bases up north, Camp Victory is a garden spot with a great mess hall and lots of greenery.

Camp Victory

But this is Iraq, and Camp Victory -- like all military bases here -- is a target for those opposed to the U.S. led occupation. Mortars are lobbed at it, and there is always the risk of suicide bombers and other attacks.

At Camp Victory, concertina wire, underground bunkers, and concrete barriers are as much a part of the palace grounds as the palm trees and grass. And there is a cottage industry in sandbag production, with local Iraqis hired to stuff bag after bag to protect the base.

The base reflects the kind of the siege mentality that pervades the U.S. military presence here in Iraq, where each week, and sometimes each day, is marked by the death of more soldiers.

The United States now rules Iraq, and its power is not seriously challenged. But that rule is vastly complicated by the fear of attack either against the bases, or U.S. military or government officials who venture out among the general populace.

From Camp Victory, we grabbed a ride to the Baghdad International Airport. There we caught a shuttle bus to downtown that would carry us to the fabled Green Zone, a walled-off area several miles across that includes a palace and other government building. It is now serves as a kind of city within a city for the U.S. government and contractors.

Our bus was full of Green Zone residents, who can only venture outside into the city with armed escorts. There was virtual silence as we sat on the bus for nearly an hour as an armed convoy formed to escort the bus on its half-hour run.

Our ride was without incident, the driver weaving around an obstacle course of concrete barriers and through numbered checkpoints.

As novices in Baghdad travel, we learned you cannot just walk out of the Green Zone, and head for a hotel. You need someone to pick you up, and that person has to have special permission to stop at the front gate, explained Spc. Lorente, a Coalition press officer. He ushered us into the Coalition Press Information Center on the second floor of a marble-floored convention hall.

There, we arranged for a driver from the Associated Press to take us to the Palestine Hotel a few kilometers from the Green Zone.

During the U.S. invasion of Iraq, this hotel was a hub for foreign correspondents who chronicled Baghdad during the final weeks of Saddam Hussein's rein.

A room with a view

After several weeks of tent life, we are thrilled to arrive.

A block away is a traffic circle, where back in April a statute of Saddam came tumbling down as U.S. troops first pushed into Baghdad.

But like everywhere else, security here, is a big concern. Concrete barriers, wire and sand bags separate us from the roundabout that circles the statute. And armor troop carriers guard the hotel, along with U.S. soldiers and hotel security.

Our room is on the 16th floor, where a hole in the hallway wall marks the spot where a rocket struck in November. But my balcony has a fine view of the Tigris River.

This night, the city appears deceptively peaceful. A few motorists honk their horns. And, somewhere in the distance, one of the most common of sounds; the crackle of gunfire.

"Welcome to Baghdad," said the lanky young U.S. soldier assigned to watch-duty outside the hotel.

Posted by Hal Bernton at January 8, 2004 04:57 PM

 January 2004
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4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31

January 2004
December 2003

A reluctant goodbye
Hope amid bloodshed
Rebuilding Iraq
A mortar sendoff
Higher pay, but inflation chews into salaries
Freedom brings protests
Inside, outside the Green Zone
With the Stryker Brigade
Mice and men
Next stop: Bravo Company


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