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 22, 2004
|A reluctant goodbye
I awoke this morning to familiar sounds.
The pre-dawn crowing of roosters, then the minor, haunting notes of the 5 a.m. call to prayers. I packed my bags into a Nissan and headed south for Kuwait from this southern Iraq town of Al Kut. It is time to leave for home.
I know that for so many U.S. soldiers here, departure is a golden moment that they've dreamt of since they arrived. And for some an elusive one.
"90 days and counting" was the headline editors put on my second story from Iraq, as I wrote about Alpha Company, the Fort Lewis-based U.S. Army Reservists who fly Chinook helicopters.
The soldiers were counting down to a March departure date, a far later date than most had ever anticipated when they first left for the Persian Gulf.
Alpha Company recently found out that they will have to stay beyond March, while other reservists move into place and are trained. So they are going to have to keep counting.
As for myself, a journalist who has dropped into and now out of Iraq, the time has gone by too quickly. I would not mind at all if my editors asked me to stay for another few months.
A driver named Rajal
This, our last stop, is headquarters for Mercy Corps, a Pacific Northwest aid group that is funding school renovations, women centers, water improvements and other projects.
Al Kut has been relatively peaceful, and seems to be on the rebound. New stores are opening, and merchants who once shut down at sunset now keep their buisnesses open into the early evening.
We rode south from Al Kut with a Mercy Corps contract driver named Jafar K. Rajal whose budding engineering career had come to an end when he refused to join the Baath Party.
Jailed for several months, he was finally freed after his family came up with a $15,000 ransom. Then, he launched a career as a Baghdad merchant, and had sizeable business that he lost to looting and arson after the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein from power.
"I had one guard, but they (the looters) shot him in the shoulder," he recalls.
Rajal is now trying to rebuild a nest egg and hopes to eventually reopen his store. He likes to drive fast, and we were soon powering down the highways at speeds that topped 90 mph.
We were streaking down some of the same roadways that the U.S. military used to storm Iraq in the March invasion.
At Nasiriyah, where some of the toughest fighting took place, I could still see plenty of knocked out walls and other signs from the spring advance.
For us, it was a peaceful ride sprinting around trucks packed with sheep, tanker truck convoys, and several bus caravans full of Iraqis headed for the Mecca pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
This year Iraqis are able to drive to Mecca through Kuwait, which closed its borders to such travel during the regime of Saddam Hussein.
After Nasiriyah, we left the farm land and moved into the desert. We could see the flares from oil fields in the distance. And up close, along the shoulders of road , a rather remarkable sight. The best winter rain in years had brought a stubble of green to the chalky landscape, a hopeful sign.
|Posted by Hal Bernton at 12:47 PM
January 20, 2004
|Hope amid bloodshed
Through a month of travel, I have seen hopeful signs of a new Iraq:
-- In the town of Ad Dujayl, U.S. soldiers and Iraqis are working together to build a new town council.
-- In the same town, I watched the imam. who wanted America out of his country, reach out for the first time to shake the hand of an Army captain, proclaiming the soldier had a "good heart."
-- And two weeks ago, in Baghdad, I wrote of a spirited protest organized just outside the U.S. Green Zone, by poor people afraid that the police would kick them out of their homes. It was peaceful dissent in a land where such actions - in such a prominent place - would surely have brought imprisonment or death under the old regime.
On Sunday, the exact site of the protest was transformed into a death zone by a suicide bomber willing to claim his own life, killing more than 30 others and wounding more than 100.
All this to strike a blow against the U.S. occupation and any Iraqis who dared to venture anywhere near the gate that leads inside the Green Zone - to the U.S. seat of power.
For me, the bomb attack was a sobering reminder of the savagery that some are willing to unleash here in Iraq. And it appears likely that the New Year -- like the old - will be filled with more such bitter surprises as America struggles to shape the future of this nation.
It is in this task, despite the skill and sacrifices of our troops and the billions of dollars of taxpayer spending, that we risk running up against the limits of American power.
On Monday, there was a reminder of the political uncertainties still hanging over Iraq. A crowd of 100,000 Shiite Muslims marched peacefully through Baghdad streets to demand that the new government scheduled to take power in June be elected by the people, rather than through caucuses now planned by the Bush administration.
The Shiites have been some of the strongest backers of the U.S. invasion but as I traveled through their southern homeland, some cautioned that could change.
"The people are very tired now. Saddam treated us like animals and broke our spirit. Now we are one with the United States," said an Iraqi Shiite whose strong ties to the west include a brother in Europe. "But America needs to do more. Otherwise the people will fight. Even I will fight if my Sheik tells me so."
|Posted by Hal Bernton at 12:29 PM
January 17, 2004
Rory Stewart is a savvy young Englishman with an unruly head of hair.
In a bygone era, it would be easy to picture Stewart helping to keep the peace in New Delhi or some other far corner of the British Empire.
But this is the 21st century and Stewart is a member of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, the civilian side of the occupation government.
Stewart works here in Al Amarah, a Shiite city in southern Iraq, that spreads out amid a great flat expanse just to the west of marshes that straddle the border between Iraq and Iran.
Last night, I shared a rare glass of red wine with Stewart in an impressive villa complete with swimming pool that was once occupied by an Iraqi general, who was a nephew of Saddam Hussein. It is now is the local headquarters for the coalition authority that includes an U.S.-style mess hall.
As I mentioned in an earlier dispatch, this city last week saw more bloodshed. People took to the streets in protest over unemployment, and several were killed. Contrary to earlier news reports, Stewart says that British soldiers killed one protestor, who was about to throw his second grenade. It was local police who killed several others.
And apparently the violence was stirred by some outside agitators, and complicated by some power struggles between two local sheiks. Once again, the forces churning beneath the surface here are more complex than they first appear.
For the most part, Stewart says that the area around Al Amarah has proved to be a far friendlier place for coalition work than the tense melting pot of Baghdad, or the Sunni region that surrounds the capital.
"In terms of the sentiment here, I think people are pretty optimistic,'' Stewart said. "They suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein, and any improvements here are very much appreciated."
With the money approved by the U.S. Congress, Stewart and other coalition officials are overseeing the spending of some $300 million in reconstruction funding in Al Amarah and the surrounding region.
Additional funds also are being funneled through U.S. Agency for International Development, and through groups such as the Pacific Northwest-based Mercy Corps.
With a regional population of about 750,000, the spending in and around Al Amarah will reach more than $400 for every man, woman, and child, according to Stewart.
Stewart points to a computer printout posted on the wall that lists more than 300 projects now underway, involving the rehabilitation of schools, increasing electrical generation, developing clean water sources and other efforts to boost living standards. Much of the money is being funneled through private U.S. contractors, and then through Iraqi contractors.
Stewart says a lot of work is getting done. But he also wants to get a better handle on some of the spending, and will be launching a series of audits.
The nearby wetlands are home to the Marsh Arabs, who have lived among the reeds for centuries.
Many were uprooted and killed by Saddam's forces, who also built dams to rob the land of its water. While many fled, some residents are returning, and the aid group, Mercy Corps, has gotten involved, trying to restore some normalcy in their shattered lives.
|Posted by Hal Bernton at 01:57 PM
January 14, 2004
|A mortar sendoff
My last entry spoke of the Palestine Hotel as a sanctuary. It is, though a fragile one at that.
Near the war's end, the U.S. military took a pot shot at the hotel, killing one journalist. Today, it is surrounded by concrete barricades that stretch a block in all directions. We usually get frisked twice before arriving at the front door.
You feel secure enough from the small arms fire that crackle at night. But not from the bigger stuff. On our last night, just before we turned in, the hotel shook from several explosions. We thought maybe a bomb had detonated, and it sounded and felt close.
I ran to the lobby where a group of reporters from CNN and various news outlets had already arrived, with helmets and armored vests. They headed out to check on the damage. I tagged along. After a couple blocks, we were stopped by a middle-aged, blonde-haired American in civilian clothes who put up his hands and warned us to shut off the cameras.
He told us that the insurgents had lobbed several mortars at the Baghdad Hotel down the street. There had been no direct hits, and no casualties.
At least one shell had fallen into a garden; another splashed into the nearby Tigris River.
We could have stayed and badgered this guy for access. But he seemed truthful, and there were no helicopters hovering or ambulances rushing to the scene.
If it was just another off-target mortar attack, and no one wanted to stand around and risk another attack. So we trooped back to the hotel for an uneasy rest.
We woke early the next morning and met our translator at 7 a.m. for the ride out of Baghdad.
We had no problems with bandits or traffic accidents. Our only hassle along the way was getting stuck for about 45 minutes behind a large truck that just couldn't seem to make it up and over a ramp on a narrow bridge spanning the Tigris.
The driver had to make four separate runs at the ramp, with a huge snarl of traffic having to back up and give him room to get up a head of speed. Finally, he made it over.
After the traffic jams of Baghdad, this relatively lightly traveled route was a welcome change. But an evening rain had left much of the road coated in treacherous mud, which made for difficult driving. It was easy to fishtail out of control. We passed by more flat open land, with the few villages along the highway -- a sorry mix of mud and trash and rundown homes.
It took us about four hours to reach our next destination, the Shiite Muslim town of Qal'at Sukkar. This is a farming community of some 30,000 people that the Marines swept through in their spring drive to Baghdad. There were hardly any firefights in town, so it survived relatively intact except for a few chunks out of a minaret, where a sniper tried to fire on the troops.
A family is graciously hosting us. We sleep on comfortable mats in a room covered with Persian rugs, and our room also doubles as place for meals and long hours of conversation. After so much time at the military bases and the Palestine Hotel, this time has been a real privilege.
The town is like many -- the school is run down, the streets are filled with gray water from kitchens and even the soccer field is largely flooded and unusable.
After years of suffering under the rule of Saddam Hussein, the people here are certainly glad to be rid of him. That joy is tempered by the frustrations of insecurity and joblessness. And people here, like those we met elsewhere in our travels, are eager to see a functioning government and reconstruction.
In some places in the south, this frustration has boiled over. Within the past week, another southern town was the scene of several days of protests over the lack of jobs, with British troops killing a half dozen Iraqis.
This afternoon, I met Ya'arub Na'ama Al-Zaabi, who is secretary of the local chapter of the Iraq National Association for Human Rights. The group was set up last spring to try to gain compensation for the victims of Saddam Hussein's rule, and also those families who have suffered under the U.S. invasion due to detentions or wartime casualties.
He works out of a bare bones one-room office that opens up to a roundabout near the police station. It is a one of 14 such offices that Al-Zaabi says his association -- financed with donations from Iraqis -- scattered about the south. This group is financed from local donations, and has not formed any ties to international organizations, he said.
The Qal'at Sukkar local chapter has list of some 200 families who had relatives killed or imprisoned under Saddam Hussein's rule, and that probably is just a small fraction of the total number in this town.
He also has compiled a list of about 55 prisoners of war. Some fought on behalf of the Iraqi Army. Others were released after further investigation found no evidence to support their detention, according to U.S. military statements that Al-Zaabi showed to me.
The questions of when - or if - these people will receive compensation has yet to be resolved. Al-Zaabi says he hopes that the new Iraqi government, scheduled to be formed following June elections, will offer this compensation.
Perhaps there will be a legal process that moves through the courts. One possible source of cash could be the billions of dollars that Saddam Hussein is thought to have stashed abroad. Of course, investigators would first have to track it down, and secure this money.
"We hope something like this can happen," Al-Zaabi said. "All this money it belong to the Iraqi people."
|Posted by Hal Bernton at 01:30 PM
January 11, 2004
|Higher pay, but inflation chews into salaries
I'm learning about bureaucracy in post-war Iraq. People work but perhaps not as hard as they once did. At least not at the Ministry of Health.
|THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES
|Reporter Hal Bernton makes some notes the old-fashioned way recently in Baghdad.
Yesterday morning, I ventured over to the ministry to get permission to visit a state-run facility. The building sits on a boulevard directly across from what once was the Ministry of Defense -- a building that was bombed heavily during the U.S. invasion. But the Ministry of Health was spared, and on the first floor there were hundreds of people milling about the lobby.
My translator informed me that most people were looking for work, hoping to land a government salary -- about $120 a month. That may sound like an appreciable boost from the salaries under Saddam Hussein, which often hovered around a paltry $5 or less a month. But with inflation skyrocketing, some workers I talked to said their new salary buys even less today.
While we were cleared for our upcoming visit, an official I had hoped to interview was not available. So we returned about 2 o’clock that afternoon.
Too late, a guard at the gate told us. The whole building already had emptied out. My translator explained to me that many bureaucrats used to work from 8 to 3 p.m., with some staying later. But now, most clear out at 2, and some just show up once a week to ensure that they can still draw their salary.
Air that burns
The safest time to move about Baghdad is during the day, but, of course, that's when traffic is most severe.
With some roads blocked off due to security reasons, and a general increase in cars since the end of war, it can be bumper to bumper for miles on end.
And with so many aging cars and buses, some of which are avid consumers of oil as well as gas, the air pollution can be intense -- eye tearing and throat searing.
The Palestine Hotel
The hotel seems to be full of business people and security teams. The other day I rode up in the elevator with three muscle-bound guys wearing jogging shorts and T-shirts, with machine guns hanging from their side. Not sure just where they had been, or where they were from but a lot of security guys here come from Great Britain -- ex-military types who have plenty of experience in Northern Ireland. That resume seems to give them an edge in securing jobs here in Iraq.
The hotel has been a great spot to hang out at for a few days, with a complimentary breakfast buffet that offers a curious mixture of hot dogs, cheeses, sweet jams made from pumpkin, figs and apricots, and hard rolls of all sizes.
The hotel is a sanctuary, a great place to wake up in Baghdad. But we are about to head south now, to a new city, a new place of unknowns.
|Posted by Hal Bernton at 12:51 PM
January 09, 2004
|Freedom brings protests
Today, I got an unexpected glimpse of the New Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein. I came upon 50 men and women and children standing along a busy avenue near the entrance to the U.S.-controlled Green Zone.
They were protesting, something they were quick to confirm was unthinkable during Saddam's iron-fisted rule, but now they said it was necessary to draw attention to their plight.
They represented poor families who had moved into modest brick apartments that Saddam had kept as a kind of guest complex just outside the Green Zone. These apartments were now their homes, and they said they had gotten the approval of the U.S.-led coalition government to stay in them. And they were very angry when Baghdad's police began to try to roust them from their new home.
Some protestors said the apartments held many sick and elderly people who had had nowhere else to go. Yet the police appeared determined to throw them out.
"They, (the police) are looking for gunslingers by day but by night they are the gunslingers," said Sabba Yousif, a 25-year-old college student who lives in the complex with his family. The police were threatening to kick them out this weekend.
The families made a big banner that summarized their plight in English. It ended with a plea to Paul Bremer - the top American official here in Baghdad - to intercede on their behalf.
"You are kindly requested to consider our circumstances as soon as possible with due respect and appreciation," the banner read.
While we watched the protestors, there were no signs of Bremer. But we did see a bunch of police and Ministry of Interior cars roll by. The protestors fearlessly crowded around the vehicles and jeered. "If you do something like this, we will fight you," cried one man.
The police inside smiled sheepishly, and kept driving.
Life goes on
Elsewhere, our Baghdad driver and translator is a former government official who showed us the various bombed out buildings from the collapse of the old regime. There is still all sorts of rubble that has yet to be cleared away, and also major buildings that were burned by looters and now are just multi-story eyesores.
But there is plenty of commerce on the streets of Baghdad. All over town, we spotted sidewalk sales offering everything from bananas to the latest Panasonic videos. Our translator said it's another story at night, when the fear of crime is still a huge concern and drives Baghdad residents into their homes in far greater numbers than in pre-war days.
Despite the constant threats, dangers and deaths, Baghdad is a resilient big city. Life goes on, even during conflict.
The restaurants are busy. Baghad knows its kabobs and grilled chickens. We had some really savory fare over the last few days, along with fresh-baked flat breads served up in gigantic circles the size of extra-large dinner plates.
|Posted by Hal Bernton at 01:54 PM
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.
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 04:57 PM
January 05, 2004
|With the Stryker Brigade
NEAR DULUIYAH -- They do jumping jacks, push-pits and sit-ups every morning. Then there's the guys practicing Brazilian ju-jitsu.
This, for sure, is the active-duty Army. I am now with the Stryker brigade (3rd Brigade, 2nd Division) from Fort Lewis. In December, some 5,000 soldiers attached to the brigade made their way from Kuwait to a location that -- due to security concerns -- cannot be reported.
But you know you have arrived when you come upon row after row of big white tents and hundreds of eight-wheeled, green fighting vehicles lined up across a flat, treeless expanse of land.
The base was built from scratch in the past couple of months. Though
more austere then some of the older bases, it has some
This brigade is intended to be the first step in launching a new high-tech army, so the units are equipped with plenty of computers and impressive execessories including a large plasma, high-definition screen.
In the afternoon, at the "BUB' (Battle Update Briefing) the screen
displays all sorts of charts and graphics as the officers review the
latest plans. And in the evening, in a corner of the battalion nerve center
-- in an olive green tent known as the Tactical Operations Center -- the
plasma screen becomes movie screen.
Two nights ago, they featured Bad Boys II. Tonight, it was The Twin Towers of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. During the climactic battle screen, orcs and humans faced off with arrows, swords and battering ram.
Meanwhile, in the other corner of the TAC, duty officers used radar to try to pinpoint the origin of a mortar round lobbed in our general direction.
Generally, though, this camp has had only a few sporadic mortar attacks,
and no casualties resulting from those attacks. The brigade is very
aggressive about responding to attacks with outgoing mortar fire,
and squads of Stryker vehicles that head to the "point of origin," where the
mortars are thought to have been fired from.
So, when not trucking around the countryside in a Stryker vehicle, I've
been sleeping soundly here.
Other soldiers in this battalion want to say hello and send their love to their families. These are the guys on the Internet with me now: Pfc. Juan Trevino, Sgt. Daniel Hall, Staff. Sgt. Brian Gilmer, Spc. Brandon Adair, and Spc. Josh Wettlin.
|Posted by Hal Bernton at 03:36 PM
|| October 2005